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Remember that time we spent a month in Asia? We got home like 12 weeks ago and although I actively worked on this blog post throughout the month, actually finishing and publishing it when we got home totally got away from me. Having 4 weeks of work to catch up on amid the already busy holiday season + all the crazy of the election meant that the couple months since we got home from Japan and Thailand totally flew by and the next thing I knew we were boarding a plane for our ski trip to Germany and Austria. Well, I promised myself that I wouldn’t publish a trip post about Europe until I finally took the time to finish this post. So, without further ado here are our travel tips for Northern and Southern Thailand!
This past fall we spent a month traveling in Asia. We started our trip with 4 days in Tokyo, Japan, but quickly made our way over to Thailand. Although we had originally planned to mix one or maybe even two more countries into our trip, we really enjoyed Thailand and ended up spending the duration of our trip traveling the country.
Our flight itinerary had us going through Tokyo, so we decided to cut the 20 hour flight up into 14 and 6 hour legs by spending a few days in Tokyo. This was a great way to see another country and also break up a long international flight, and it didn’t really change our ticket prices. I talked more about this in my post about Tokyo, so pop over there if you want to hear more.
Below is our itinerary for Thailand, along with tips, lodging and activity suggestions for each city. I hope it will help you plan your dream escape!
Day 1-4 – Tokyo, Japan
Day 5 – Bangkok, Thailand
Day 6 – Bangkok and overnight train to Chiang Mai, Thailand
Day 7-9 Chiang Mai, Thailand
Day 10-21 – Two weeks in Pai, Thailand
Day 22 – Bus from Pai to Chiang Mai, flight to Krabi, Thailand
Day 23-24 Boat to Tonsai Beach, Thailand
Day 25-26 – Northern Phi Phi Island
Day 27-28 – Longboat to Phi Phi, Thailand
Day 29 – Ferry to Phuket Thailand
Day 30 – Flight home
Day 1-4 – We landed in Tokyo, Japan and spent 3 nights at an Airbnb in Shinjuku. We of course spent a lot of time hunting down great Ramen and Sushi, but also enjoyed walking around town, visiting the beautiful parks and gardens, and going to the Golden Gai District at night. You can read more about our time in Tokyo in this post.
Lodging: Bangkok Bed and Bike ($15-70 USD per night depending on room type)
This is a hip hostel, where you can choose from communal or private rooms. The location is great, the vibe is awesome, and the lobby is a great place to meet fellow travelers.
Activities: Bangkok at Night—by Bike! ($50 USD per person)
We were only in Bangkok for one night, so although we were tired from a day of travel we wanted to make the most of it. We signed up for the Bangkok by Bike Night Tour through our hotel. A private English-speaking guide met us in the hotel lobby around sunset, and the 3 of us set out on bikes to tour Bangkok. From what I could tell, they’d let you go on this tour no matter what your skill level, and had we not been pretty avid cyclists perhaps our guide would have babied us a bit more, but I would recommend that you not only be comfortable on a bike, but that you be pretty acquainted with urban biking. We’ve biked all over the US (NYC, Boston, Chicago), and in cities across Europe (Brugges, Denmark, Antwerp, Amsterdam), and nothing quite compared to biking in Bangkok, at night.
There are no bike lanes, not a lot of street lights, and the tuk tuks and taxis zoom around. Our guide was pretty fearless with his riding, and he expected us to keep up. We thought it was a riot and had a great time! We were also pretty surprised when we made it through the night without a single incident. I have a vivid memory of flying down a dark street in Bangkok late at night and feeling 100% alive, it was a rush. It also gives you the opportunity to see areas of town that you wouldn’t see on your own. We ended up biking over 10 miles and it was a great way to see a lot of the city quickly and with a guide. He took us out for dinner to his favorite pad thai restaurant, and took photos for us at some of the popular stops. This activity is probably not for everyone, but if you’re up for a real adventure this is a great way to spend a night in Bangkok.
Pro tips: If you do the bike tour you’ll want to make sure you have on comfortable shoes. There were times where we were biking through about a foot of water (in the dark). Fortunately we didn’t have to put our feet down, but having Keens or Teva sandals might be a good footwear choice over sneakers, depending on the time of year.
Lodging: Overnight Train
We stored our backpacks at Bangkok Bed & Bike for the day, and set out on foot to see some of Bangkok in the daylight. The train departed Bangkok around 6PM and arrived in Chiang Mai around 8AM, so we got tickets for a private sleeper car on the train. 1st class was sold out, so we had 2nd class, but it was very comfortable and the food on the train was surprisngly really good.
Activities: Khao San Road
Khao San Road is an area of Bangkok that is frequented by backpackers. The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, street vendors and shops. There are also plenty of places to get a cheap foot or back massage. We had lunch in this area, and then settled into comfortable chairs for a long foot/leg massage before we had to trek across town to the train station.
Pro tips: Buy your train tickets well in advance, if you can. We bought ours about a month before. If you don’t, you could get stuck without a bed to sleep in, which would make for a long ride. They don’t serve alcohol on the train, but we brought our own. This is frowned upon but as long as you aren’t obnoxious about it, no one is likely to say anything. If you can, get up in the morning (around 6) and catch the sunrise as you pass through Doi Khun Tan National Park just before arriving in Chiang Mai. I remember getting up, glancing out the window, and realizing we were crossing a bridge about 100 feet in the air, surrounded by rainforest and mountains. It’s a view I won’t forget!
Sammy’s Organic Cooking School in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and rafting down the Mae Taeng River.
Lodging: Baitong Homestay ($23 US per night, included breakfast)
We really enjoyed our time at Baitong Homestay. It’s owned by a husband and wife (he’s German, she’s Thai), and has a location that is quiet but within walking distance of coffee shops, restaurants, laundry services and the bustling area of Old City. The prices were hard to beat, included (an immaculate) breakfast, and we were forever grateful for all the assistance of their English-speaking manager, who always stopped by our breakfast table to see what our plans were for the day and help any way she could. She helped us arrange our mini-bus to Pai and also helped us avoid spending two days at a lake that was dried up to due to low rainfall (that woulda been a bummer).
Activities: Old City, Sammy’s Organic Cooking School, Whitewater Rafting
Old City is the original area of Chiang Mai, and there is still an old brick wall surrounding it. You’ll find this area full of shops, bars, restaurants and vendors. It will feel quite similar to Khao San Road in Bangkok. It’s busy and it can be a bit overwhelming but it is worth spending at least half a day there.
We’d heard from many friends that Chiang Mai was the best place in Thailand to take cooking classes. Sammy’s Organic Cooking School came highly recommended and we certainly suggest you fit it into your itinerary. I haven’t been able to find an easy way to book or contact them online, but anyone at your hotel or local travel shops in Chiang Mai will be able to make a reservation for you. Sammy will pick you up from your hotel and take you grocery shopping at the local Thai market. He’ll give you a tour, tell you about interesting Thai fruits, vegetables and traditions and then you’ll spend the entire day at his organic farm outside of Chiang Mai.
You’ll make more food than you can eat, and half-way through the day you’ll get a long break to take naps in his hammocks or wander around his farm. You’ll leave with a cookbook and a new appreciation for how much time and effort is involved in authentic Thai cooking. Since returning home we have been cooking a lot of Thai food, and are very glad that we spent a day of our trip with Sammy.
8Adventures offers ATV riding, trekking and whitewater rafting trips down the Mae Taeng River. They’ll pick you up in Chiang Mai and drive you about 1 hour outside of the city. During the drive you’ll pass through elephant camps and tiny villages. We saw elephants bathing in rivers. Elephants working in fields. Oxcarts going down the side of the road. The views were incredible but it was also interesting to see life in rural Thailand. Once you arrive at their facility they’ll treat you to a light lunch and then take you up river to start your adventure down stream. We have whitewater rafted before but this was definitely much more intense. It was just the two of us + a guide (along with their team of rescuers who escort you down the river from the shore, ready, if necessary, to save you with ropes.) and we had a great time! The views were gorgeous and there were several opportunities to stop and jump out of the raft for a quick swim or float. We saw elephants enjoying the day along the river and floated past several tiny communities and farms.
Pro tips: Bring a waterproof case if you have one, if not they have dry bags you can borrow. They’ll take plenty of photos for you during the trip, but having your own camera or Go Pro is fun, too
Motorbiking the mountains and rice fields of Pai and enjoying all of the waterfall hikes and scenic viewpoints.
I’ll preface this section by saying that I left a little piece of my heart in Pai. Pai is a small city (population 2,200) in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It’s funny, because I wasn’t that enthusiastic about spending time in the north. Yes, I wanted to see the mountains and I’d heard good things, but when we were in the planning phase of the trip I was always trying to minimize our time up north and maximize the time we’d spend in the south (beaches and sunshine, m’dear!). I’m so glad that Josh held his ground and made sure we set aside at least a week of our itinerary for Pai, because one hour after we arrived I begged him to adjust our plans and extend our 6 night stay in Pai to 11 nights. We have no regrets and can’t wait to get back to this city in the mountains. (moral: listen to my husband more).
Lodging: Glamorous Moroccan House on Airbnb ($103 per night, with discounts for extended stays)
Our Airbnb Rental in Pai, Thailand! Was a great escape during our two weeks in Pai, with all the necessities and a great neighborhood.
If you’re going to Pai, Jikko’s place on Airbnb is an amazing option. It is a two-story house, with a full kitchen, two bathrooms, a lower-level room with 3 twin beds, and a upper master suite. It was more house than we needed for two people, but our goal with spending time in Pai was to immerse ourselves, and have time to work, write, and relax. It was a beautiful house, but Jikko was also an incredible host who helped make our time in Pai authentic and memorable. The house has an amazing location, it’s less than a 10 minute walk to the main areas of Pai, but you also have incredible restaurants and coffee shops (literally) next door to you, plus decks and great spaces for entertaining (you’re going to make friends, I promise!). It’s a great place if you’re a creative who is looking for an escape to write, work or brainstorm.
If it’s booked, I’d check out Reverie Siam Resort. Note: Jikko is opening a hotel soon, hopefully open by Summer 2017.
Activities: Waterfalls, hot springs, Winding rides through the mountains on motorbikes, river tubing, yoga, Lod Cave, afternoons at Liquid Pool
There is so much to do and see in Pai that I am planning a separate post focused on our time there! Pai is full of great restaurants, bars, a wonderful night market and adorable coffee shops. You aren’t on the ocean, but you have a long list of waterfalls, hot springs, the Pai River, and Fluid Pool where you can soak up the sun and the cocktails for a flat fee! My advice is to cozy up to the bar at Jikko Beer on your first night there and get acquainted with other travelers as well as locals. Ask for suggestions on the best waterfalls and hot springs to visit. The list of activities to do in Pai is so endless, you’ll want to tailor it to your timeline and interests. We did several waterfall hikes (our favorite was called Elephant Head), did a lot of driving around on the motorbike, tubed down the river, spent time writing in local coffee shops, rode to several of the national parks for incredible views of the mountains and of course, enjoyed the nightlife! If you’re interested in hearing more about Pai stay tuned for a more detailed post.
On day 22 we took a mini bus from Pai back to Chiang Mai, then flew south to Krabi, Thailand.
Lodging: Aonang Fiore Resort
This turned out to be a dry resort. There is a large population of Thai Muslims in the south of Thailand, so along with far fewer pork dishes, you’ll also find Muslim-owned resorts that do not serve alcohol. You’ll wanna double check on this when booking hotels in Southern Thailand (it’s not always obvious on the listing so you might have to ask directly). We were a little surprised and glad to only be spending one night, but since we checked in late and out early, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience for us. The resort is beautiful and our bungalow was amazing, so it was a great way to spend our night in Krabi, even if we had to forego a cocktail with our dinner.
Activities: we actually arrived at our resort around 8PM. We just had dinner and relaxed in our bungalow, which was beautiful. In the morning we checked out and headed to the pier to arrange transportation to Tonsai Beach.
Just down the coast from the city of Krabi are two beaches that are only accessible by boat, due to the high cliffs surrounding them. The first, and more obscure one, is called Tonsai Beach. The second, and more famous one, is called Railay. To get there just go to the Pier in Krabi and take a longboat to either one (it’s a 15 minute ride). We opted to stay on Tonsai Beach, since the small crowds and rock climbing scene appealed to us. Tonsai Beach Resort will provide you with a bungalow that has all the necessities, but the resort is pretty basic. The area is small and you won’t get lost. There is literally a 200 foot expanse of beach, bordered on both sides by extremely high cliffs. A small bar and the resort are in the middle, and if you walk down the coast and then inland, you’ll encounter a small village called Tonsai. There you’ll find several tiny restaurants and bars that will easily keep you entertained for a couple nights. Our favorite activity here was lying on the decks surrounding the beach bar, and watching the rock climbers on the cliffs above, but there’s plenty of fun to be had in the tiny village of Tonsai, as well. You can also get to Railay Beach either via a quick 10 minute hike along the beach, or popping into a long boat for a quick ride over.
Lodging: Tonsai Bay Resort ($50-100 per night depending on season and room type)
Activities: Rock climbing (or rock climbing lessons), watching the rock climbers, visit Railay Beach (monkeys!), visit the village of Tonsai
Rock Climbing + Lessons
If you have any rock climbing experience, even if it’s just in a climbing gym, you’d likely enjoy a 1/2 or full day climbing trip with The Rock Shop (located next to Tonsai Bay Resort). They’ll set you up with all the equipment, and provide you with a guide who will take you out climbing. There are plenty of routes around Tonsai and Railay, so they’ll find ones that are appropriate for your skill level. They will also do lessons, although I think I’d be hesitant to have this be my first rock climbing experience.
Visit Railay Beach
Railay Beach is one of the more recognizable names and once you’re there you’ll likely recognize the iconic cliffs from photos you’ve seen on Pinterest. It is located right next to Tonsai Beach, but is more popular and busier. We opted not to stay here, but you can make your way there via rocky paths along the beach. It’s not the easiest trek but it’s doable and a fun adventure. Railay has a pretty active group of monkeys inhabiting the island, so this is a fun place to see them, it also has many more restaurants and bars than Tonsai. We much preferred the relaxed atmosphere on Tonsai, but this was fun to see, too, and its nice to have another option within walking distance.
Village of Tonsai
There is a small village tucked back towards the cliffs in Tonsai. When I say small, I really mean it, for the most part it’s just one road and probably a dozen or so small businesses. But, it comes to life at night and there are a lot of cool little bars full of hammocks, and plenty of little places to eat.
Watching Rock Climbers
The little bar down on the beach has platforms with pillows and mats. Order a beer, relax, and watch world-class climbers ascend the cliffs overhead. We were surprised that these cliff faces are even lit up at night with climbers attempting the steep routes. Super fun to watch!
Pro tips: For the love of all that is holy, do NOT miss Mama’s Chicken in Tonsai Village. I’m still thinking about the chicken sandwich. If you hike over to Railay Beach, I recommend having appropriate shoes and limiting how much you are carrying. You’ll probably pass through water, so I don’t recommend tennis shoes, but you’ll also be walking on wet rock, so I don’t recommend flip-flops, either. You’ll be going up and down and some spots are tricky, so the less you’re carrying, the better. The day we left we had to traverse this with our full packs on our backs and it was pretty tricky.
View of Railay from Tonsai, our resort in northern Phi Phi, rock climbing in Railay Beach, Thailand.
Lodging: Phi Phi Island Village Beach Resort ($200-500 per night depending on type of room or bungalow)
This was definitely the “luxury” part of our vacation. The resort was kind enough to offer us one of their ocean view condos (literally a few feet from the water) at a reduced rate, so we were able to get a bungalow that is normally more than $500 per night for something that was more reasonable. However, given that the entire trip had been really affordable we didn’t feel guilty about ending it with a little splurge! The bungalow had an enormous bathtub with views of the ocean, and two beautiful decks that we loved sitting on in the evenings. This resort won’t be in everyone’s budget, but it is definitely the Thai luxury that you hear about!
Activities: Local village, beaches, drinking at the pool all day, boat trips to local islands
Walk to the local village upon arrival and buy a bottle of rum or whiskey for your bungalow. The bungalows have beautiful decks with incredible views and you’ll be glad to have ingredients to whip up cocktails to enjoy while you watch the sunset.
Beaches + Pool + Boat Trips
The beaches around the resort are expansive when the tide is low, so you’ll have no trouble finding spot to stretch out and soak up the sun. When the tide comes in it is really shallow for hundreds of yards out into the ocean, which is a great time to play frisbee or float around. Both of the pools have great swim up bars, too, so if you tire of the ocean you can always go hang out there.There are also several small islands with beautiful beaches that are within 30-60 minute boat rides from the resort. We didn’t do one of these, but you can easily have the resort pack you a cooler of food/drinks, then walk to the beach and flag down a longboat for the ride.
The view from Koh Phi Phi Viewpoint, the “secret beach” on the north side of Phi Phi, enjoying Bob’s Booze Cruise.
Lodging: JJ Residence ($77/ night)
Since we were only going to be in Phi Phi for two nights, and we knew we’d be spending most of the time out on a booze cruise (see below) we figured we might go with pretty reasonable lodging and not worry too much about amenities. This hotel had everything we needed and had a great location to restaurants and one of our favorite beaches of the trip!
Bob’s Booze Cruise
Our experience with Bob’s Booze Cruise was both positive and negative. On one hand you’re being carted beach to beach on a boat and there’s booze involved. Definitely fun. On the other, the drinks were pretty underwhelming (they just had a cooler with soda and a few bottles of rum/vodka) and I ended up feeling really guilty about the “monkey feeding”. I decided not to partake so I just watched, but found it incredibly sad the way they unloaded all of these tourists on this tiny stretch of beach, everyone frantically trying to feed the monkeys pieces of fruit. There were only a couple monkeys, obviously being fed an enormous amount of fruit. That said, this tour does give you access to a lot of scenic spots (although all of them are busy so just plan to be overwhelmed by other tourists) and was a fun and fast way to see some of the popular spots around Phi Phi.
Set aside about 90 minutes before sunset to hike to Koh Phi Phi Viewpoint! It will be busy up there, so don’t plan on a romantic sunset all to yourselves! Despite the big crowds and the steep climb, it is definitely worth it and I guarantee you’ll get some of the best photos of your entire trip!
This stretch of beach along the north side of Phi Phi Island is hidden gem! Massive at low tide and typically no that busy, when most tourists leave the island for day tours.
Phi Phi is so busy that I wasn’t that thrilled to be spending an entire day there, and kind of doubted we’d find a beach in town that wasn’t totally overcrowded. Well…I think the majority of people on Phi Phi tend to leave the island for day tours, so to our surprise the beach on the north side of town was not only gorgeous, it was also very empty the entire day! When the tide is down the beac is massive! We had plenty of space to flay frisbee and enjoy the day. There are plenty of restaurants and bars along the shore to keep you well fed and happy!
Beautiful Portuguese architecture in Phuket, Thailand.
On our last day in Thailand took to the ferry from Phi Phi Island and crossed the Andaman Sea to Phuket. We didn’t need to be at the aiport until 11PM, so we paid to store our bags at a local hotel and then spent the day walking around. Old Town Phuket was one of my favorite areas! It is full of portugese architcture and colorful buildings! Phuket also has a very up and coming foodie scene, so it’s a great place to check out restaurants, coffee shops and cocktail bars! One that we particularly loved was Club 43, they really make cocktails into art!