Thailand’s flavorful food, picturesque beaches, unique culture and friendly locals make it an increasingly popular destination. While backpacking in Thailand myself, I was impressed by how tightly their tourism business was run. It seemed like a really easy place to fall into “tourist traps,” spending unnecessary amounts of money on unexceptional experiences. I was broke and determined to travel for as long as possible, so I had to be creative.
Don’t be another boring, overspending tourist in Thailand. You’re better than that. Here are four typical tourist traps in Thailand and my suggestions for alternative experiences to each:
- Phuket or other island beach resorts – The islands of Southern Thailand are beautiful and should not be missed. Sometimes it’s hard to think of what to do on an island other than sunbathe and drink fresh coconut, so we book ourselves a week-long stay at a five-star resort that somehow costs less than one night in a Best Western. These places may seem like a great deal but the reality is often mediocre food, too much alcohol and a small beach. The result is drunken boredom.
ALTERNATIVE– While Phuket is the most famous island in Thailand, there are literally hundreds of others to explore. I suggest sampling one from each side of the mainland. Consider exchanging work for accommodation at a farm or eco-village through organizations like HelpX or WWOOF Asia-Pacific. I spent a week helping out at an eco-village in Koh Lanta. I met locals, ate homemade Thai food, and enjoyed the beach in my free time.
2. Quick Visit to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party – I didn’t make it to the famous Full Moon Party because I fell off a motorbike and broke my arm the day before. Therefore, I can’t argue from experience that it’s overrated. However, because of my accident I ended up spending two weeks in Koh Phangan and saw a lot of the island, so I can tell you what many travelers probably miss out on there, thinking the party is all there is.
ALTERNATIVE– Stay a while! Koh Phangan has a unique culture of its own. Predictably, much of it is party culture; even when the moon’s not full there’s always something going on. There’s many great Reggae Bars like BeBob on Haad Saalad or Three Monkeys Bar on Sritanu Beach. Jam sessions and open mic nights offer chill alternatives to the big rave parties. What Koh Phangan is less recognized for is its huge Yoga/Meditation/Detox scene. If you drive around the island you can hardly count the centers for these activities, and if you talk to a few people in a day, at least half of them are either students or teachers at one of them. If you’re looking to get involved in something like this while in Thailand, I can’t think of a better place to do it than Koh Phangan.
3. Bangkok- Shopping on Khao San Road
Khao San Road in Bangkok might be the biggest tourist trap I’ve ever seen. It’s where much of the budget accommodation is located, which is how they first reel you in. When you get there, you’ve probably just arrived in Thailand off the plane. You’re hungry, confused, and your wallet is stocked. You haven’t had time to get your head around the value of the currency yet, so it might as well be Monopoly cash and you might as well be the Bill Gates of Monopoly.
The market on Khao San might fool you into thinking you’ve struck gold. Everything is so cheap and so seemingly Thai; buddhas and elephants galore. The reality is that this is some of the most overpriced, sweatshop mass-produced junk you can find. It’s all made in China and the vendors are Burmese refugees who don’t even speak Thai. They are likely to pressure you into buying something you don’t really want. There’s all sorts of scam artists along the road who will chase after you offering Tuk Tuk rides and bus services. It’s very chaotic and frankly annoying.
ALTERNATIVE – Avoid Khao San Rd. entirely if you can. There’s other cheap accommodation away from it, some even cheaper. I enjoyed my stay at Sinad Guesthouse on Samsen Rd. If you’re planning to visit Chiang Mai (which I strongly urge), save all your spending money for the Sunday Walking Street. There you’ll find stunning, unique handmade crafts, all made by local Thai artists. This market is massive; live music, a huge selection of great food and generally good vibes ensure you’ll enjoy it for hours.
4. “VIP” Buses
These bus services are offered all over the country to transport tourists long distances such as Bangkok to Chiang Mai or Surrat Thani. These are privately run buses marketed exclusively to tourists as a quick, comfortable way to travel. The reality is that they are overpriced, overcrowded, and infamous for unsafe driving and scams.
ALTERNATIVE – Use the Thai government-run trains. The train is one of my favorite experiences in Thailand. Not only is it cheaper and safer than the tourist buses, but it’s a very enjoyable, cultural experience. This is how real Thai people travel, and you’ll know it when the person sitting across from you is an old Thai woman who doesn’t speak a word of English. Don’t be intimidated by this; there’s usually a handful of backpackers on the train, too. It’s much easier to socialize with them as you can get up, walk around and visit the restaurant car. A few hundred Baht will get you a regular seat with a fan and for just a little extra you can get a seat that converts to a cozy bed at night.
As with all semi-obscure information, my suggestions are quickly becoming the new norms. It’s most important to always think for yourself outside the tourist box, be creative and do whatever seems the most fun and adventurous!
Have you traveled to Thailand and know of more tourist traps to avoid? Can you offer a groovy alternative?
OR can you think of some cliche, overrated tourist attractions in other countries, and something unique you’d like to do there instead?