Noisy, smelly, dirty, busy and chaotic – Bangkok is the kind of place you either love or hate…and many travellers love to hate it. I, on the other hand, rate it as one of the most exciting cities in the world. True, if you head to Thailand’s capital expecting nothing but sun, smiles and nice smells then you are in for a shock. Instead, head there with an open mind and embrace the madness.
I once read that Bangkok is the world’s hottest city, with stifling temperatures and 90% humidity making March to May a particularly sticky time of year to visit. January on the other hand is lovely, with warm, sunny days, cool evenings and very little rain. The pleasant temperatures make this the best time of year to visit the capital and its sights.
Bangkok is huge, but getting around is a synch with brightly decorated tuk tuks whizzing in between traffic to get you to your destination quickly and all for ludicrously cheap prices. Water taxis also run up and down the Chao Praya river, so if you happen to be staying close by you could hop on a boat and travel to sites situated along the river, such as the Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn.
Bangkok has plenty to keep you busy, but for those visiting for the first time I would recommend the following:
Grand Palace – Formerly the official residence of the King of Siam, this spectacular complex is still used for important ceremonial occasions. Allow a good few hours to explore the ornate and exquisitely colourful buildings – palaces don’t get much better than this! Directly adjacent to the Grand Palace is Wat Pho, home to the reclining Buddha and the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School.
Jim Thompson’s house – Thompson was an American silk merchant, antique collector and former architect. Following the Second World War, he moved to Bangkok and later set about building himself an authentic Thai mansion in which to show case his art and antique collections. In 1967 Thompson went missing whilst in the Malaysian Highlands and to this day his disappearance remains a mystery. The Thai home that he designed and built is now a museum open to the public. It is made up of 6 wooden homes set amidst a jungle-style garden and is well worth a visit.
Floating markets – Bangkok’s floating markets are vibrant, colourful and great fun. Most of the popular markets are about an hour’s drive from the city centre so you might want to consider joining a tour. It’s best to hit the market in the early morning, before the heat and the onslaught of tourists. My advice would be to visit on an empty stomach as the market offers everything from tropical fruit and fresh coconut water to satay sticks and sticky rice – truly delicious.
February: Trekking around Chiang Mai
The hot days, cool evenings and lack of rain make February a great time of year to embark on a trekking adventure in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is a good base from which to set off, but it’s worth doing your research and making sure you choose a good tour operator. There is nothing worse than heading off into the jungle, only to discover you’re walking a well-trodden path and staying in a remote hill tribe village with more tourists than villagers.
If you can spare the time, it’s definitely worth doing a trek of 3 days or longer. 2 days just isn’t long enough, especially given that the trek usually starts and finishes with a 3-4 hour songthaew ride deep into the hills.
I went trekking with my family and we were lucky enough to have a private trip with two fantastic local guides, both of whom spoke limited English. They took us deep into the forest where we never encountered another soul.
At around mid-day they would prepare a little fire, and steam vegetables and rice within the hollow of a bamboo stalk. This jungle curry was served on banana leaves meaning all left-overs could be discarded on the forest floor.
Evenings were spent in a hill tribe village, sleeping on the floor in a small bamboo hut. Blankets are usually provided but it is worth checking in advance as temperatures can get chilly at night.
Unless you really go out of your way, don’t expect too much interaction with the hill tribes themselves. You may be staying in their village, but the treks do not usually include a home stay – you usually have the bamboo hut to yourself or shared with the others in your group. You can, however, expect to find an army of female villagers camped out in front of your hut in the morning, ready to sell you their wares.
My jungle trek included an elephant ride which, in hind sight, I would not do again. You can read my blog post
Elephant Rides: What I wish I’d known to find out more.
This aside, jungle trekking in the hills around Chiang Mai is probably the best thing I have done in Thailand and I would recommend it to anyone
Image courtesy of Flickr, Dave_B
The former capital of Thailand lies approximately 85km north of Bangkok, making it a popular day trip. Alternatively, Ayutthaya lies on the train line running between Bangkok and Chiang Mai so can easily be included as a stop-over on your way between the two cities.
Ayutthaya’s historic temples and ruins were made a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991 and are best visited during the week to avoid the weekend crowds.
Temperatures can get very hot in March so try and time your sightseeing for the mornings and afternoons. If you can get a hostel or hotel with a pool, then do so as this is a great way to escape the mid-day heat.
Ayutthaya’s temples are scattered around the city and, whilst the central ruins can easily be explored on foot, another option is to rent a bicycle for the day.
Wat Phra Mahathat is a large temple that was badly damaged during the Burmese invasion, leaving rows and rows of headless Buddha statues. It is here that a stone Buddha head became entwined in the roots of a tree, becoming one of the most photographed sites in Ayutthaya.
The site is considered holy by Thais, so you should kneel out of respect when taking photographs of this tree.
April: Songkran festival in Chiang Mai
Image courtesy of Flickr, Madeleine_H
Thailand is blisteringly hot in April – almost unbearably so. It is therefore of some relief to learn that this is the month in which the Thai’s choose to drench each other as part of an annual water fight.
Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year’s festival, during which everybody takes to the streets armed with water balloons, buckets and super-soakers.
Whilst getting soaked provides much-needed relief from the oppressive heat, it also acts as a symbol of cleansing as you welcome in the New Year.
The festival lasts between 2-3 days, during which you must be prepared to endure a soaking. If it’s not your kind of thing, then you’d best sit it out in your hotel room.
Whilst Songkran is observed country-wide, Chiang Mai is probably the most popular place in which to celebrate it. It is therefore worth booking accommodation in advance to ensure you have a room with air-conditioning!
May marks the beginning of the rainy season on southern Thailand’s west coast and as such you are likely to find some very good hotel deals.
Don’t let the weather put you off. Yes you should go expecting rain, but more often than not this comes in the form of heavy downpours for an hour or two, with scorching sunshine either side.
Krabi province, on Thailand’s Andaman coast, has plenty to offer the adventurous traveller. Tourists the world over flock to the region’s islands and beaches, the majority of which are dotted amongst dramatic, limestone karsts.
Our Marine Conservation project is based in Ao Nang, a beach town from which boats to neighbouring islands, such as Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta, are launched. From Ao Nang, you can also catch a boat to hippy Railay Bay. Beach bums will be hard-pressed to find much better.
If you prefer to keep busy, or if the rain starts to pour, then head to the mainland national parks of Khao Phenom Bencha and Than Bok Khorani to discover spectacular waterfalls and hidden caves.
Other activities include snorkelling, diving, kayaking, bird watching and even rock climbing – with the cliff faces at Railay Bay drawing climbers from all over the world.
June: Hua Hin
Cosmopolitan Hua Hin has long been the beach resort of choice for wealthy Thais. The construction of the railway line, linking the resort to Bangkok, made Hua Hin the perfect weekend getaway for locals looking to escape the capital.
It’s not just the Thais who have come to love the place though; foreign tourists have also cottoned on to the city’s charms. It’s a fabulous mix of seaside and city, with cheap public transport and world-class golf courses.
You can soak up the sun in the morning, hit the shops in the afternoon and finish your day off in one of the sublime seafood restaurants perched over the sea on stilts.
If that’s not enough, there are numerous parks and temples to explore, lively markets to tempt you with tasty treats, and plenty of opportunities to try your hand at traditional Thai cooking.
Whilst most of Thailand gets a soaking in June, Hua Hin receives considerably less rain than the rest of the country, making it a great option for this time of year. There’s also plenty to keep you entertained should you catch a few drops.
July: Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival
This festival is usually celebrated in mid-July (depending on the lunar cycle), which marks the beginning of the rainy season retreat for Buddhist monks.
In earlier days, before electricity, the monks relied on candles to light their quarters within the monastery. It therefore became tradition for locals to donate candles to the monks in preparation for the rainy season.
Nowhere in Thailand is this festival more elaborately celebrated than in Ubon Ratchathani where artists carve huge sculptures out of plaster or wood, before coating them with wax. On Asanha Bucha day these sculptures are decorated and then displayed to the public in the evening.
The evening of Asanha Bucha also sees small processions take place at several temples, during which locals gather with lighted candles.
On the morning of Wan Khao Phansa, the sculptures are paraded on floats through the streets of the city centre, accompanied by musicians and dancers in traditional dress.
The candle festival in Ubon Ratchathani is revered by locals and tourists alike, and those who appreciate art will find it particularly inspiring.
August: Ko Pha Ngan & Ko Tao
August is a wet month for Thailand, but those desperate for some beach time can still find a considerable amount of sun on the East coast islands of Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao.
Ko Tao is famous for its dive sites, and scuba diving remains the island’s biggest draw with the opportunity to see barracudas, sting rays, reef sharks, turtles and many smaller species of fish. There are plenty of diving centres dotted around the island, making it a great place in which to complete a PADI course.
Ko Pha Ngan is famous (or infamous) worldwide for hosting the monthly full moon parties, which take place on the beaches of Haad Rin. Party animals will find heaven here with neon paint, barely-there outfits, trance, dance and buckets of buckets! Accommodation fills up quickly so make sure you book in advance.
For those who prefer a tropical island paradise to a tropical island party, then you are in luck. One of the best things about Ko Pha Ngan is that the party-goers tend to stick to Haad Rin. Head to the other side of the island and you will find your paradise in the form of palm-fringed crescents of sand, calm, turquoise water and lots of peace and quiet.
September: Khao Sok and Khao Yai National Park
For some parts of Thailand, September brings more rain than any other month, but that drenching often results in lush landscapes and impressive waterfalls, nowhere more so than the national parks.
Southern Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park is a breath-taking mix of towering limestone karst mountains, lush rainforest, stunning lakes and deep valleys.
There are numerous trails to explore, some by mountain bike, others on foot and many leading to a thundering waterfall. Other activities on offer include tubing, kayaking, zip-lining and caving.
In terms of location, an overnight stay in one of the simple, floating raft houses on Cheow Larn Lake is hard to beat.
If it’s wildlife you are after then head to Khao Yai, a national park just 175km from Bangkok. The park boasts bears, tigers, porcupines, gibbons, macaques, parrots and wild Asian elephants.
Humidity is often quite high during the rainy season, but this is also the time when the flora is at its best and the waterfalls at their most spectacular.
A three hour drive northwest of Chiang Mai, close to the Myanmar border, sits the small town of Pai. Its location, nestled in a quaint valley surrounded by forest-clad mountains, provides a great base from which the adventurous can go trekking, whilst its bohemian vibe makes it popular among backpackers.
The town’s main drag offers the usual souvenir shops, restaurants, internet cafes and late-night bars you come to expect in most of Thailand’s popular tourist towns. You will also find a handful of temples down the quieter streets and, on Wednesdays, a fantastic market attracts tribes and villagers from all over the Pai valley.
Head a little further out of town and you will find waterfalls, natural hot springs and even a forest canopy zipline. In short, there is plenty to keep you occupied.
The rainy season in Pai runs from May to October and can see the town experience sudden downpours throughout the day. This is also the time when Pai is at its most beautiful, with the surrounding forest lush and green following the rain. At this time of year, white water rafting down the Pai River is at its most thrilling!
October tends to mark the beginning of the end of the rainy season in Pai. However, the town still receives considerably fewer tourists than it does during the busy months of Dec-Feb making this a very pleasant time of year to visit.
November: Celebrate Loi Krathong in Chiang Mai
Loi Krathong, Thailand’s Festival of Lights, falls in November and is also celebrated in neighbouring Laos and Myanmar.
The name Loi Krathong translates as ‘floating decoration’ and is commemorated by releasing floating ornaments onto the surface of a body of water. Traditionally these ornaments are made up of banana bark or loaves of bread and decorated with intricately folded banana leaves, flowers, incense sticks and a candle.
In Chiang Mai, Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna festival, Yi Peng. This festival sees locals releasing lighted lanterns into the air. As such, this is a spectacularly beautiful time of year to visit Chiang Mai with fireworks and lanterns lighting up the night sky and the rivers aglow with floating decorations.
December: River Kwai and Erawan falls
December is probably the best time to visit Thailand’s central region, with temperatures averaging around the mid-20s. For a truly unforgettable experience, head to the Kanchanaburi region and take a boat to the River Kwai jungle rafts. This floating hotel is made up of a number of buoyant wooden bungalows, all connected to each other by little bridges and all tethered to the river bank.
The bungalows themselves are small and basic, but come complete with bed, mosquito net, toilet, shower, hammock and even a little deck with sunbeds. There is no electricity, so light is provided by candles and gas lamps in the evenings.
There is a rustic bar/restaurant serving cold(ish) Singha and Chang and even a little bungalow for those in need of an authentic Thai massage.
Alternatively, you can spend endless hours hurling yourself into the river and floating down to the far end of the rafts. The current is very fast and incredibly strong so pulling yourself back on to the rafts is quite a mission. There is a danger of floating off down river so this is only really for the confident swimmers.
Not too far from the jungle rafts, the fairy-tale Erawan falls are tucked away in amongst lush forests. It takes approximately 45 minutes to walk to the top, but each of the seven tiers has a natural plunge pool – perfect for cooling off on your way to the top.