A little piece of my heart will always remain in Thailand. Not only does it house many incredible ecosystems all in one, but also is home to one of most majestic animal species in the world. For those who do not know, I have had a love for elephants as long as I can remember. Seeing a family of elephants, really in the wild, was absolutely incredible. Yes, it takes an entire day to get to Thailand and flights are expensive, but it is worth it in everyway. Thailand still remains in the top 3 for my favorite vacations to date. It is very unique in that you have a crazy city like Bangkok, nestled in between unreal national parks, huge lakes that you would think were oceans, and some of most tranquil beaches you can imagine.
You need two weeks holiday to do Thailand properly, if not longer. Reminder, it takes 2 full days of travel time (there and back) and due to its distance, you may only visit once in a lifetime. Make it count!
I obviously wanted to come to Thailand with the number one priority of visiting an elephant sanctuary and engaging with my spirit animal. This experience remains as one of my most joyful and 'heart is full' moments of my life. Please do your research about elephant sanctuaries! Some are only tourist traps and truly do not care about the animals. Sadly, some are run as businesses and do not have the ethical standards of true sanctuaries. If the location allows elephant riding, it is also not abiding by Thai sanctuary ethical standards. The most famous sanctuary is in Chiang Mai, which unfortunately was out of the way of our travel path. Friends who have visited this sanctuary loved their experience as well. There are a few others throughout the country as well, such as Phuket, which may be closer for logistical purposes.
Thailand has an astronomical amount of national parks that you can explore within the country. All are unique and breathtaking in their own ways. Again, if you have endless vacation time, extend your vacation! You could easily spend 3 weeks or more. Unfortunately, most of us have a limit before we have to head back to the 'real world'. You will have to pick and choose where you go throughout the country and on the islands. I spent a good bit of time researching different parks and tours that I wanted to do, that would work within our timeframe. It really all depends on your personal preferences. The two that we decided to spend most of our time were within were Khao Yai and Khao Sok. It was very easy to book your own hotels surrounding the Nature Reserves and then book tours accordingly. Another good thing about booking tours, is that they can also arrange transportation for you; pickups from the airport, hotel transports and tour pickups/drop offs. Just ask!
I don't know about you, but I really like Thai food. The flavors and spices are so so good. A mix of sweet and spicy. Be forewarned, if something on the menu is stated that it is spicy, they mean spicy! Not like at home when spicy really isn't that bad. Real Thai does not lie. We ordered something that was 'spicy' and I seriously couldn't eat it. Steve was determined and had sweat beads rolling down his face. What I also discovered more in Thailand than at home, was how delicious their soups are. Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai are still my favorites to this day. Tom Yum has a little sweet, sour, spicy combo going on. Most of the time it comes with shrimp, chicken, tofu or plain. Tom Kha has a little spice but based in coconut milk, which makes it creamy but not thick. Gai translates to chicken. Goong means prawns/shrimp.
The currency in Thailand is the Thai Bhat. You will need to carry a lot of cash and probably stop at some ATMs throughout your journey. When you request cash from your bank, it may take a few days to receive. Most banks do not carry the currency in house. A good thing about traveling around Thailand, once you get over the plane ticket 'sticker shock', things are very cheap once you get there. It really evens out in the end. Most places do not take credit card, unless you are at a resort. Cash is king.
Taxis, TukTuks and Grab (like Uber) all exist within Thailand. There are also obviously busses and airports depending on your desired destination. If you are grabbing a Taxi or a TukTuk, agree upon a price prior to getting into the car. There is no meter per say in most of the Taxis or they don't use it. That or they will drive you around to get it to go higher. You will need to work on your negotiation skills! Remain firm with what you are willing to pay, most of the time they will come around to your price if it is reasonable. If not say, 'no thank you' and grab the next one that comes along. Drivers will try to swindle you into paying way too much, especially as Americans. And remember, cash only unless you are using the app.
Tourism is a large portion of the country's GDP. Many young locals actually go to university for a career in tourism, which requires a fluency in English. Yes, the local language is Thai, but many speak a little bit of English in the main tourist locations. You will, however, also meet locals who do not. Regardless, everyone we came across, both local and tourist alike, were all very nice. Even if communication isn't possible, friendly smiles always occur. It seems that the Thai people are very happy to share their beautiful country with the world. Engage with the locals. Learn about their culture and ask them about themselves. You'll get a much better understanding of what is it really like to live in Thailand. Expand your horizons.
As always, follow the signs. Thailand is yet another place where TP cannot go in the toilet. The sign may not be in English, but the picture explains it all. Don't believe me? You will see... Many hotels actually have bathroom bidets for this very reason.
Everyone knows the outrageous tales of Bangkok from movies like The Hangover II and The Beach. Seriously, if a wild time is what you are looking for, it's no joke. Bangkok can be out of control at nighttime for sure. But, there are also many things to see and do during the day that are much more calm and reserved. You must visit The Grand Palace and marvel in its intricate beauty, go to the Chatuchak Market or the Floating Markets, tour the Jim Thompson House, wonder through the shopping district, stroll through the park and more. At night, have a drink on one of the various roof decks and enjoy a great restaurant. We felt perfectly safe walking around and had no issues. Just be smart and make sure your wallets are secured.
If you are looking for that 'Hangover' night, there is an entire district for non PG 13 activities that I'm sure you've all heard of... one involving a ping pong ball... Not my style, but if that's what you are looking for, you do you. Personally, I couldn't wait to leave Bangkok, but then again, some people love it. That city is just not my style. What you don't hear is that it was very dirty, smelly and confined. I understand now why there are foot basins in your hotel rooms and at restaurants. More than just for religious purposes. We also happened to be there during Chinese New Year which was cool with all the colors, parades and fireworks, but also very overwhelming with the amount of additional people in the city. I would suggest only 2-3 days max in Bangkok (inclusive of your arrival date). Honestly, you came to Thailand to see the beauty, not a city. Don't waist precious time here. Fly to your next destination.
The extravagance of The Grand Palace is a site to behold. It was home to the Thai Kings for quite a long time. The intricate details of gems, stones and gold in this Buddhist Temple is incredible. It is also much larger than I expected with many different rooms and halls that you can explore. Please be considerate and respect the culture. Be a traveler not a tourist. Ladies, you must have your knees, shoulders and cleavage covered. It is a sacred temple. Leave your flashy outfits for later in your trip. I'd suggest a maxi dress with something covering your arms or linen pants. You will be toasty in the sun. Also, no flip flops or sandals are allowed. Your feet must be covered. Wear sneakers, you'll be walking a lot anyway. Men, you must wear pants and shirts with sleeves of some sort. If you aren't wearing the acceptable items, there are vendors right out front where you can buy things to cover up. You will also need to take a taxi or a TukTuk from your hotel to the temple.
VISIT THE TEMPLE AT THE GRAND PALACE
Very sneakily tucked away in the heart of Bangkok is the Jim Thompson House. Thankfully, this tranquil place was preserved as a museum as the city developed around it. Jim Thompson was an American business man who fell in love with the Thai culture and found tremendous wealth in Thai silks. During his travels, Jim Thompson became an Asian art collector and created this home as if it was his own personal art gallery. No one knows what happened to Jim Thompson. He disappeared on a trip in Asia. It truly is nice to spend some time here learn the history of the silks and artwork. You also have a moment to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy the ambiance. We actually chose to walk to the house from our hotel in the city. It was a way to explore as you went and stop into small markets and shops. Your hotel will provide maps with this location denoted.
TOUR THE JIM THOMPSON HOUSE
When in Bangkok, there is endless amount of shopping you can do. If you are looking for high end luxury stores, you can go to Siam Paragon or Icon Siam shopping malls. There are many many more as well, but these are the big ones that you will probably pass while you are walking around the city and can pop in, if you want. Everywhere you go, there will be street vendors and small alleyway shops that you can go parooze. Literally, anything you want, you can find. The most authentic experience however, is going into the small markets. Anything from trinkets, to tapestries, to statues, to clothing, to food, fish and other animals can be found within these markets. You never know what you will find! Again, all cash obviously and negotiation is the name of the game. Don't be offensive, but if you think the price stated is too much, make another offer.
EXPLORE THE MARKETS AND SHOPS
Khao Yai National Park is the 3rd largest national park in Thailand. It is filled with lush jungles, plains and mountains as far as the eye can see. The ecosystem within the park is very diverse. You will see an abundance of animals and plant species that flourish within. Most exciting, this park is home to wild Asian elephants, leopards, tigers, bears, monkeys and many other mammals. You most likely will not see the leopards, tigers and bears. They have plenty of jungle to hide away from people. But, if you're lucky, you may see an elephant family. Wildlife is everywhere you turn, so if you love animals like me, this beautiful place is for you! Also, bird watching is very big in this area with many unique species. Not exactly my thing, but to each their own!
With the expansiveness of the park, the best way to explore it all and have a fantastic experience, is by doing a Jungle Safari. When I say Safari, I'm talking similar vehicles like what you'd see in Africa. Seating areas in the back with roll bars just incase. We decided to do a private tour, which was totally worth it. If you don't do a private, make sure your tour is a small group (6 people max). We enjoyed the private tour because our guide modified the tour to really suit what we liked to see and do. Just speak up! The guides are also trained to have a keen eye and see things that you wouldn't have even noticed without them pointing it out. Obviously, there is no guarantee that you will see wild elephants. But if you do the 2 day safari, your chances are greater. We luckily saw our elephant family on the 2nd day, with little youngsters as well!! During this tour, you also go on a few smaller jungle treks and hikes. We saw areas that were completely flattened by a herd of elephants who just decided to make their own path. You will visit beautiful waterfalls including the one from The Beach with young Leo. Also, you will join in on a night safari to see the nocturnal animals, which is pretty cool. If your guide offers to show you the bat cave at dusk, do it. We were like "ehhhh, do I really want to see a bat cave? I don't even like bats." But, seriously, it is unreal. You don't actually go in the cave because it is protected, phew, but you will see all the bats leave the cave from a distance. It's insane.
2 DAY JUNGLE SAFARI
You can choose to rent a car/van and explore the park on your own, or you can do a guided Jungle Safari. As I said, I would highly suggest the tour. First, they pick you up and drop you off from your hotel everyday and deal with all park fees, which is very convenient. They also know the lay of the land like the back of their hand. The guide will take you all over the park and you can do everything at your pace, no rush. They also have walky-talkies and communicate with other guides within the park. Why is this important? The park is huge! One guide may have discovered a herd of elephants or something else rare and will communicate the location to their partners. It just increases your chances to see these amazing animals. You will then zoom, and I literally mean hold on tight zoom, to their location. It was a fantastic experience across the board. Our guide was young, energetic and eager to teach.
AT A LOCAL RESTAURANT
The best food we had in Thailand was within Khao Yai National Park! Our guide took us to a local restaurant deep within the park, which was his favorite. This location reminded me of a campsite style cafeteria. A little grandmother was cooking all the meals and her family was running the restaurant. Our guide asked us if we had any dietary restrictions and let us know the kind of meat options on the menu; mostly chicken and beef. He also asked if we wanted to try something spicy. We told our guide that we were open to try anything and let me tell you, that was the best decision! Our guide went up and ordered our meals, which were also included in our tour. We had no idea what they were and probably wouldn't have known to order them ourselves via a menu. This food was absolutely incredible. Our best meal by far. Truly authentic. Be open to try new things. And remember, locals know best!
HIKE WITHIN KHAO YAI
Again, if you do the Jungle Safari tour, it is focused around your interests. There are numerous hikes throughout the park, but your guide will recommend the best options. These have the prettiest views, most tremendous waterfalls and may have animal encounters. Let your guide know if hiking is your thing! He will take you to locations that may be a little more difficult or remote and less known as tourist hikes. These are the best ones! And honestly, it's nice to stretch your legs after driving around the park. I found the hiking in Thailand to not be very difficult by any means. You will be fine wearing trail sneakers to grip to the damp ground. Wear comfy gym clothes for the whole excursion. You'll be hot and sweaty. Don't forget a light packable rain jacket! You are in the jungle and little rain showers are very common.
As I was researching places I wanted to go on our trip, I knew Khao Sok had to be on my list. Not only does it have lush jungles, but also incredible lakes with dynamic rock islands throughout. While researching, I came across a place called Elephant Hills. I had to go! Elephant Hills was a splurge financially, but remember, you only live once and Thailand is a place you may never go again. Always have that rainy day travel fund! Elephant Hills is an all inclusive 3 day experience including both the Jungle and Lake environments. You begin by jungle glamping, safari canoeing and experience their elephant sanctuary. Elephant Hills has won many awards for its sanctuary, which focuses on elephants that were sadly used for logging. You learn about their well being and the disheartening history. It is important to acknowledge the wrongs of past, to then see the brightness of the future. Then you get to experience the fun things like feeding them, bathing them, strolling through their fields etc. The following day, you take a traditional Thai long boat deep into the Cheow Larn Lake where you can swim, kayak, hike, and unwind. I really loved the entire experience and honestly wish it was longer.
Don't worry, if this is a little out of your price range, that's totally okay! There are many other tour companies that can take you to all of these places as well. You can then arrange your own lodging and meals to save some money. You will still have a fantastic time!
ELEPHANT SANCTUARY EXPERIENCE
I honestly can't even explain the joy I felt being among these amazing animals. This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. To see these elephants cared for in such a loving manner was incredible. Yes, these elephants can never be released into the wild, because they were raised in captivity. But, their sanctuary home is so expansive and truly depicts the wild. If I could, I would go back to Thailand again in a heart beat just do experience this again. The elephants are each unique and have their own personalities. It is awesome just to see them interact with each other and their human companions. Again, make sure the sanctuary is legit. You need to support those that are doing good. They depend on your visit and donations to remain in operation and to provide the best care.
KAYAK OR CANOE THE RIVERS
Traveling within the jungle via river is a really cool experience. You'll pass tiny villages who depend on the water source as its lifeline. You'll truly see how many Thai locals live. You will have that humbling realization that Thailand isn't really resorts and beaches. This façade is only how we, as tourists, experience it. When you stop ashore, interact with the locals. They may want to show you their crops or the children might just want to say hello or touch your hair. Remember, you are foreign to them. Also during your journey, you will see lots of wildlife and untouched flora and fauna. Paddle into the hidden nooks, you never know what you may find. Embrace the beauty.
ENJOY THE AMBIANCE
OF THE LAKE
The Cheow Larn Lake is truly stunning. It is an emerald green color and has massive rock cliffs jetting out of the water. In the mornings and evenings when the water is calm from boat traffic, you can see a perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains. It is beautiful. You can swim, kayak, fish and hike all around the lake. There are also a few locations where the floating lake hotels exist. You 100% have to stay at one! Choew Larn Lake is actually an artificial lake that is used today to generate electricity and provide water for not only its residents, but the abundant amount of animals who live in the park. Sadly, when the jungle was originally flooded many years ago, they were not able to save all the animals who had lost their homes.
From there, we traveled to Phuket and stayed at a beautiful beach resort on the west side of the island for 3 days. Enjoy a day relaxing on the beach and lounge the pool. You've been so busy doing activities at this point, that it is nice to just take a break. The water is so warm and crystal blue, enjoy it! Have some fun cocktails and eat as much delicious fruit as you can get your hands on. Most resorts in Phuket have multiple restaurants on the property. Feel free though to walk or taxi into town and explore as well. You'll find other great restaurants and other amazing beaches and resorts. Again, your hotel will provide you with a map of what is in the vicinity.
Phuket also has a lot of small islands to discover within the Phang Nga Bay. Book a day boat tour to explore! You'll head to Emerald Cove, James Bond Island and take canoes into water caverns. You'll also stop off on some remote islands where you can swim and layout on the beach.
BEACH DAY AND LOUNGE BY THE POOL
Eat, drink and relax! You will most likely be staying at a really nice resort in Phuket, so take some time to enjoy it! It honestly is nice to just take day to chill and soak up the views. Treat yourself to endless fruity cocktails. Yes, the prices will be a bit more than if you traveled into town, but sometimes it is nice to splurge a little bit. We really found great deals online for our resort. Just take the time to search around. You'll end up saving so much money just by putting in a little leg work.
BOAT TOUR TO THE ISLANDS AND COVES
We really had a lot of fun on the boat tour to Emerald Cove, James Bond Island and more. It was nice to explore around and see new things. I felt that the tour we chose gave us ample time at each location. Make sure to wear your bathing suit under your clothes! You will be getting wet even when it isn't a swimming location. Emerald Cove is crazy cool. You actually have to wade through water up to your knees and go into a rock cave to get there. But once inside, it's incredible. The water levels do rise with the tides. The water got so high while we were inside that we had to almost swim out. The James Bond Island is obviously famous from the movies. The rock formation itself is, whatever. You'll see cooler ones throughout your Thailand experience. But, what I really liked was exploring around the island itself. We then went to a tiny island that had some of the prettiest white sand beaches.
EXPLORE TOWN AND GET A THAI MASSAGE
I always like heading into towns where we are staying to explore around. You never know what you are going to stumble upon and what may catch your eye. You'll always find great shops to pick up some little things to take home with you. Restaurants and bars are also much more affordable than if you do all your eating and drinking at your hotel or resort. Usually the food tastes better as well. What you also need to make sure you do before you leave Thailand, is have a real Thai Massage. Again, this is something you can do at your resort, but you'll also see numerous shops within town. It really just depends on your comfort level. The resort might be more expensive, but may be more relaxing as well if you want to make it a full spa experience.
Phi Phi Islands
From Phuket, we took a ferry over to the Phi Phi Islands. Again, super easy logistically! Your hotel reception can assist with transport if desired and they truly are glad to help. Just try to arrange ahead of time if possible. This beautiful place was the conclusion of our trip. The heart of Phi Phi Island is a lively little town with lots of shops, restaurants, bars and beaches. There are also landmark sites on the island which you can visit as well. As your final days in Thailand wind to a close, you can decided if you want to have excitement or just relax at your beachfront hotel. We chose a hotel a little further from town that required a longboat from the harbor to get there. It was the best of both worlds! Having the downtown vibe when we wanted it, but then the tranquility when we woke and went to bed at night. This part of the island also had amazing sunsets, which in my opinion, is always important when selecting your hotel's location. Again, take that moment to pause and embrace the beauty. You're on island time! There's no rush.
Phi Phi Island also has a lot of underwater wreaths where tons of vibrantly colored fish gather. You can see so many species as you swim in the crystal clear water. You can also choose to go on a snorkeling tour to see more. Other water activities in this area are endless.
RELAX AND UNWIND ON THE BEACH
The peaceful ambiance of the ocean with a jungle right behind you is just incredible. Enjoy it. Your hotel away from town will have everything you could possibly need, so don't worry. Most have their own restaurants and bars. You really do not need to leave unless you want to. It is much quieter and more relaxing here than at the beaches right in the heart of town.
VENTURE THROUGH TOWN
Take a longboat back into town and enjoy a day wondering around. It is full of little twisty side streets with all sorts of things that may pique your interests. Your hotel will provide you with a map with all the streets and different main attractions. Anything from shops, markets, restaurants, bars and beaches all exist here. There is also a path with quite a lot of stairs that takes you high above town to a lookout point. This walk does have a small cash entrance fee per person.
GET LOST IN THE PERFECT SUNSETS
Phi Phi Island has the most incredible sunsets each night. The colors change from cotton candy pinks and blues to deep hues of orange and reds. It is totally worth staying on the side of the island that has the sunsets. Sitting off on your ocean view patio or right on the beach gazing at the sky is truly the most calming feeling in the world. You'll never want to leave.