The Staples of Thailand

Planning your first trip to Thailand can be overwhelming.  If you're an anal travel planner like me, you'll spend hours pouring over blog posts, lonely planet pages and travel magazines only to find yourself more overwhelmed than before....I mean there a bajilion Thai Islands. 

Monks chanting in Chiang Mai 

So I started with the basics, I knew we wanted to do something in a city so there's Bangkok (plus we were flying into it).  Then we probably want to do something jungley/adventurous with elephants so Chiang Mai was the natural choice given most of us haven't been.  And then last but not least was the beach.  After some back and forth, we opted not to go to the Full Moon Party for New Years and instead decided on Phuket since we thought it would still be a bit of a party for New Years but not as hectic (we were wrong on that).  Alas we had decided on Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket; arguably three of the most popular destinations to go in Thailand.

Statue at the Grand Palace 

First there is Bangkok, I already wrote my review on this bustling Asian metropolis.  It's loud, there's traffic, but it also has a lot of character.  For your first trip to Thailand, I wouldn't skip over it but again, no more than a day or two.  While it is hectic, it wasn't built for tourists.  There are a ton of us there but you can still get a first hand glimpse into every day Thai life.

Grand Palace in Bangkok 

When I head back to Thailand, I won't feel an urge to go back to Bangkok yet I still feel like I didn't experience everything the city had to offer. That said, I imagine I'll be back to Thailand multiple times throughout my life so I'll be sure to hit it again on one of those trips (or maybe 24 hours each time).  But you can't go to Thailand without seeing the Grand Palace so fit it in somehow.  Plus, chances are you will have to fly in or out of Bangkok so just make it the first or last day of your trip.  My recommendation is the first to get the craziness over with.

Temple in Chiang Mai 

Now for Chiang Mai.  This is a must for your first trip to Thailand.  There's food, culture, diverse terrain - everything you look for in a foreign destination.  I first contemplated on whether I wanted to go to Chiang Rai which is a little more north and a little more remote but we decided on Chiang Mai as everyone raved about it.  In reality, you can easily do both on your first trip as they are only a two to three hour drive apart. It all depends on how much traveling you want to do as well as how much time you have.  We spent three and a half days in Chiang Mai alone and I still felt like I could have spent another day.  Part of it was we also spent some time relaxing so I'm sure you could pack it all in in two to three days (which would include a day in an Elephant Park) but if you want to take your time to enjoy the city and it's surrounding areas, you want a full three to four days. Either way, Chiang Mai is a must on your first trip to Thailand and will certainly be on the list for future trips as well.

Feeding elephants at Patara Elephant Farm

Lastly, there's Phuket.  Of the three, Phuket was easily the most disappointing.  I've known countless people who have gone to Phuket and never did I hear anything negative.  And as I was reading any recommendations, nothing seemed to point to the fact that tourism had more than taken over the island.  Turns out that wasn't the case.  Outside of a little Thai influence, Phuket may as well have been any other beautiful beach resort.

Night market in Chiang Mai

As I mentioned in my post on Kata Beach, we luckily found a little slice on the island that wasn't seething with drunk Russian tourists.  Yah, apparently Russia made a deal with Thailand to have three non-stop flights to Phuket every day from Moscow a few years back and this instantly changed the island.  It's rather unfortunate because Phuket's miles of white sandy beaches are now over run with what seemed to be Putin's closest relatives.  So the roads are now clogged with Tuk Tuk and Vans shepherding tourists around from one beach town to the next which takes away from that remote feeling you get on an island.  With all of that said, we still had a great time here.  After all, it was 85 degrees and we were drinking beers on a beautiful beach, not much to complain about. 

Sunset in Phuket
So if you didn't pick up on the hints, you can skip Phuket.  The only reason I would look to go there would be if it was a means to get to another island because that could be a possibility.  Next time around, I am going to look to go to some of the other places I had read/heard about - Krabi, Ko Tao, Ko Lipe and that's what I would recommend for a first trip. And if you can, try to get to two beach destinations as each may be known for something different (Ko Tao for scuba diving and apparently Ko Lipe is the Maldives of Thailand).   If you do end up in Phuket for New Years, I would also avoid Bangala Road in Pataong.  Unless of course you like 100,000 people cramped onto one street shooting silly string everywhere.

Statue in the jungle in Chiang Mai

Thailand is a fantastic place. The food is unreal, the people are as friendly as they come and you can create a diverse trip full of culture, history, beaches and jungle.  But the secret is out; hoards of people have been coming here from around the world making it one of the most visited countries in the world. To put it into perspective, I knew five other people on Bangala Road on New Years from four different walks of life - that's a lot.  You should go to Thailand, you should go multiple times, but you won't be alone so don't be afraid to forgo some of the more popular spots and look for something a little off the beaten track. 

At one point in the mountains I took a snapshot of the GPS,
we were a long way from home


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