Thailand on a Shoestring
It’s been almost four decades since Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler published their groundbreaking guide “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.” Back then, Thailand was a remote and undiscovered paradise, with islands like Koh Samui virtually inaccessible to tourists, and frequent access to ATMs unheard of. The Wheeler’s guidebook paved the way for intrepid travellers seeking paradise and adventure in far-flung places where roads barely existed. An ironic outcome of this success was the rise of the infamous ‘banana pancake trail’ whereby a mere mention in Lonely Planet virtually guaranteed a stream of western travellers to a locality, but often to its detriment. Alex Garland sealed the deal, irrevocably, when he wrote “The Beach,” and Thailand was crowned the unofficial, spiritual home of backpackers everywhere.
Progress or Paradise Lost?
Fast forward to today and it’s not hard to see which direction this Thailand trail has taken: package tourism is big business, luxe resorts have replaced many of the beachfront bungalow operations, and Koh Samui has not one, but two branches of Starbucks. The Thai Baht has strengthened to the point where it’s no longer dirt cheap, and budget backpackers are increasingly being replaced by ‘flashpackers’ who may be down with the idea of street food, but can’t live without wifi, ipod docks and room service. It’s good news, of course, for the Thai economy, but much lamented by backpacking veterans who claim the tourist ghettos have taken over and that it is no longer possible to find the Real Thailand; certainly not on a shoestring.
Whilst this is may be the case for many of the larger islands and more popular parts of the mainland, there are still huge tracts of this beautiful kingdom that are pristine; where life goes by at a surprisingly slow pace and, crucially, package tourists are in the minority. The north and west are largely mountainous regions and incredibly varied, with borders to Laos, Burma and Cambodia. It’s still possible to visit remote hill tribe villages or trek to ancient temples, caves, waterfalls and lakes without a hint of either a girly bar or a tailor.
If beaches are more your thing, head for one of the myriad smaller islands and national parks such as the Surin Islands or Tarutao National Marine Park, both to the west in the Andaman Sea. Ko Chang on the gulf side is also a good choice. It’s still entirely possible to find deserted beaches and low-key bungalow operations in these areas, and many offer camping opportunities too.
Thailand still affords many chances to get off the beaten path; it just requires a more determined effort. But, for the budget-minded traveller, that’s often a large part of the appeal. The upside is that with adventurous planning, it’s also possible to make your Baht stretch a lot further, particularly if following some of our other tips for getting by on a shoestring in Thailand:
Go camping – it’s possible to rent tents and camping equipment in national parks and on beaches, so check with the local tourism office. Do keep in mind that national holidays and peak times can get very busy.
Hostels and dorms – a great budget-friendly option, if you are prepared to share a room or bathroom. Try www.hostelbookers.com for user reviewed and rated accommodations across Thailand.
Fan Bungalows – basic, but private, and often located directly on the beach or a scenic spot. Don’t be afraid to negotiate on price if you plan on staying longer than a couple of days.
Couchsurfing – find a free crib to crash through this peer-reviewed service that allows travelers to connect with hosts willing to give up a bed or sofa completely gratis. www.couchsurfing.org.
Eating and Drinking
Eat local – almost all seasoned travellers will agree, street food in Thailand is one of the most delicious, and cheapest, ways to eat in the world. From simple Pad Thai to delicious snacks and freshly squeezed juices, hawker stands and simple roadside restaurants represent incredible value and are often far superior to fancy joints charging quadruple the price. Night markets are also a fantastic way to sample a host of appetizing treats for very little money. There’s really no need to worry about hygiene at any of these places either; standards are high, turnover is fast and ingredients usually tip top and super fresh.
BYO – alcohol can get pricey, so buying beer from local supermarkets and convenience stores can help to keep costs down.
Happy hours – if you’re in the mood to party but want to stay on budget, look out for promotions, coupons and happy hours offering BOGOF or 2 for 1 type specials.
Songthaews can be found in main tourist spots and are hop-on, hop-off, open backed pick-up trucks that run circuits of the main tourist areas. They’re great fun, cheap, and can be flagged down easily with a wave of the hand. They also make for a great way to meet fellow travelers.
Tuk-tuks are a cheap if sometimes hair-raising way to get around, although much less common these days in the more developed tourist areas in the south. Get a feel for what constitutes the going rate and be prepared to haggle a little, but always agree the price up front.
Taxis can be notoriously expensive. If you do get a taxi, agree on the price before you set off. If you are happy with the driver and fare, and you plan on using a taxi later on, ask for his business card: then, you will be able to call him directly to arrange a pick-up. Motorbike taxis are another alternative and much cheaper, and sometimes the best way to cut through heavy traffic. Again, agree on the price up front, and please, wear a helmet.
Ride the train – Thailand’s trains are excellent and a safe way to get around the country, through stunning countryside. Clean, comfortable and cheap, with several classes to suit all budgets, consider taking an overnight sleeper on long journeys to save on costs of a hotel room. Bunks are comfortable and contain fresh, clean white linen and curtains for privacy. http://www.railway.co.th.
Take the bus – Thailand has an extensive bus network run by a variety of operators, to varying degrees of comfort. For shorter distances of an hour or two it might be worth considering a second-class bus, and tickets can often be purchased at the time you wish to travel. For long journeys it would probably be prudent to consider an air-conditioned, VIP bus, and these will need to be booked ahead of time. The government subsidized Baw Khaw Saw (BKS) blue and white buses offer a reliable and extensive network throughout the country; these 24 or 32 seat sleeper buses offer the budget-conscious traveler a great way to cover long distances in relative comfort while saving on the costs of a hotel room. The BKS buses offer comfortable, reclining seats which are pre-allocated, with leg rests and pillows and blankets. You will be woken if you are in danger of missing your stop. It’s best to buy all bus tickets in person, directly from the bus station, and not through touts or agents.
Things to Do and See
Travel writer Steve Bramucci suggests you time your trip to take advantage of Thailand’s many festivals for some great, low cost entertainment and to get a taste of real Thai culture “Try to set your trip for Loy Krathong, held on the full moon in November, and make your way to Chang Mai. There you will witness the waterways filled with floating Krathong (banana leaf rafts lit with candles) and the night-sky speckled with flying lanterns. It’s truly a stunning sight.” www.bootsnall.com.
Temple time – many of the Buddhist temples in Bangkok and around the Kingdom are free (but a small donation doesn’t go amiss) and absolutely worth a visit, but please remember to dress appropriately and show respect.
Night markets – they are found everywhere, and offer up some of the best sights and smells, as well as great opportunities for people watching. Though it can be hard to resist spending, it’s always possible to haggle and come away with some great bargains. Chatuchak’s vast market in Bangkok is legendary and runs over an entire weekend starting at nine o’clock in the morning.
Khao San Road – no trip to Thailand is complete without a visit to this crazy, buzzing hub; the epicenter of the backpacker’s world. It’s a great place to hook up with other travelers, swap stories and share tips. You don’t need to visit a bar to soak up the atmosphere; just grab a beer from a convenience store and take a stroll.
Museums – many museums around the Kingdom are free, or charge a very small entrance fee, particularly the smaller, provincial ones. These can be well worth visiting for a better insight into local history and culture.
National parks – Thailand’s national parks offer some truly breathtaking scenery in which to hike, picnic, swim and snorkel, allowing you to get far away from the crowds. Grab a map, pack a few supplies and enjoy nature’s paradise.
Get connected – if your accommodation doesn’t provide free wifi, many bars, restaurants and cafes will do so, and all for the price of a coffee.
Don’t scrimp on travel insurance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small, upfront cost that provides peace of mind, and ensures that you are covered for medical emergencies, theft and unforeseen circumstances.
Check with your country’s consular or government website for advice on which areas are considered safe for travel. The U.S. government website advises that travellers sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP allows travelers to enter information about an upcoming trip abroad so that the Department of State can better assist them in an emergency. Subscribe to receive updates on Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts and other information for a particular country. step.state.gov/step.
One final piece of advice for those on a budget is to not get so caught up with saving money that you don’t get out and see anything of the real Thailand. Make concessions where it counts but learn to allocate funds appropriately so that you can enjoy a breadth of experience when you do have the opportunity.