Thailand is a vast country. If all you know of it is from what the tourism media throws at you, you may be surprised when you have a look at it on a map. Thailand has ancient rainforests, modern cities and beautiful islands. So when you are planning to visit, you should check the map first before you plan your itinerary.
Getting the Visa:
Indians have the visa on arrival option but if you are planning to catch a connecting flight to your final destination, you should look into getting a Visa while in India. The Thai consulate removes the visa fee during the off season months so planning to apply ahead can save you some money. Remember that 1 Baht is equivalent to Rs 2.
Long weekend getaways to Bangkok/Phuket are doable though I would recommend spending atleast 1 week if you want to treat it as a vacation. We were going in Mid-September and this was towards the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the tourist season. After lot of discussion and researching weather patterns, we decided that going to the Gulf Islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao would fit perfectly within our 7 day itinerary. r/ThailandTourism helped me to figure things out.
Forex: Get your baht in India or at the airport(Visa on arrival requires you to show that you have at least 10,000 baht on your person and 20,000 baht incase your family is with you). The ATMs charge you a fixed 220 baht per withdrawal(apart from the other charges) so you could also consider just doing that once you have informed your bank. Credit cards work well in the cities but you would want cash if you want to visit the lesser known places.
Transport: Air Asia flight to Bangkok has the cheapest fares but mind you the seats are cramped and the premium seats are not much of an upgrade. We opted for premium just so we could sit next to each other. In the end, the cost came up to the same as opting for another airline.
But there are benefits to selecting Air Asia. Air Asia has a flight+ferry combo from Bangkok to the Islands(Koh Samui or Koh Phangan). You can either flight via Surathani airport or Nakhon Si Thammarat airport. You will not find this option if you select an Indian city of origin, so you will need to book a separate leg of the flight from Bangkok to your destination.
The ferry is operated by the Raja ferry company. These ferries are the slowest among the operators and take about 2 hours to reach Koh Samui. We booked the ferry combo to Koh Samui just because we could not have to worry about the transit to the mainland on our way back. My research showed that Lomphyrah ferry was the fastest and I intended to take that to Koh Phangan once we landed at Surathani. This option would be faster even though it would cost us 600 baht more. This combo also works out cheaper than taking a direct flight from Bangkok to Samui. While planning to transit with ferries you should be aware that different ferries have different piers and these piers are generally isolated. So buy your ferry tickets at the airport once you land. Couple of us travelled from the Nakhon Si Thammarat airport and their ferry pier was different. In the end, they took about half an hour more than us to reach Koh Phangan even though they landed ahead of us.
The ride from the airport to the pier is part of the ferry fare and you are taken along in these rhinoceros-like vehicles through the rural countryside. The roads are amazing and the ride comfortable.
True to the research, the Lomphyrah ferry was fast. The panoramic views of the calm gulf are not to be missed. The ferry also has ‘AC’ seats if you are willing to pay extra for it.
Koh Phangan is a tiny island known for its parties. The Full Moon party draws a lot of partiers from the nearby islands. It has spanned a set of other parties like the half moon and the black moon. If you are the party type, this is definitely something you should consider.
Stay: Since we were planning a trip on a tight budget, hostels/airbnbs are what we were looking at. Koh Phangan also has ‘party’ hostels which are notorious for having parties throughout the week and pre-parties to supplement the moon parties. That said, there are other hostels which are pretty good. We choose to stay at Rung Arun Resort. This beach resort had a villa option which fit the 6 of us. You can also go looking for deals on foot but given that you have already travelled nearly 10 hours, you may want to just sink into a bed asap.
The roads are great so rent a 2-wheeler and the whole island is yours to explore atleast the motorable parts. The streets get deserted quite early during the non-tourist season. A 2-wheeler costs around 400 baht per day.
Food: Night Markets are food courts that spring up during the late evening and offer different kinds of local food items. Phantip Night Market in the central market of Koh Phangan has lot of Chicken, Pork and Seafood food options on offer. You can even find the famous Mango Sticky rice and Banana Pancakes. A dish will costs around 60-80 baht here. The food courts shut around 9:30-10pm, so if you get late then you will have to make do with the food in the 7-11s. We were obsessed with the 7-11s during our stay there. There were so many of them and each was stocked with so many new things.
This was our favourite island of the trip and wished in the end that we could have stayed here longer. There’s a lot of things we could not do like visit the Phaeng Waterfall and walking to the viewpoint in the jungle. We did not do Snorkeling or cliff jumping or any other water sports. We did have some amazing food and discovered High Tide and Two Rocks. Vacations are not about having a checklist to do but rather to make things up as you go along.
Koh Tao is the smallest island in this trio of islands and is famous for its scuba diving certification courses. We took the Songserm ferry from Koh Phangan and it took us little over an hour to get to Koh Tao. The island is known for the cheap PADI certified scuba schools and multiple snorkeling spots and that’s what draws the tourists to it.
Koh Tao has very narrow streets and its roads are not as good as those on Koh Phangan. They are steep and tourists often seem to have accidents on these. We did hire bikes, but we barely used them during our stay, so if you are around for 2 days, you need not opt for them. Bikes are more expensive(about 600baht) on this tiny island and you are asked to purchase insurance as many a tourist is known to have taken a tumble down these mountain roads.
Stay: We choose to stay at the Indie Hostel , a good clean place with a great cafe that I would highly recommend. It was a long walk from the port to the hostel and next time, we would want to opt for a ride (50baht per person).
Food: Koh Tao is typical tourist location and has lot to offer but we were looking for local foods. We loved 995 Roasted Duck for its duck delicacies and this tiny street restaurant outside a 7-11, where I got to try Stir fry pork with Kale and Morning Glory. A simple dish that I have since tried to replicate for its wholesomeness.
995 Roasted Duck
Stir Fry Pork and Kale
Street food in Koh Tao
We took a day trip to Koh Nang Yuan, this tiny islet just off the coast of Koh Tao which doubles up as a plastic-free eco-resort. The islet is a boat ride away and is one of the locations around Koh Tao where you can snorkel. On our way back, we got caught in a storm and even though it was scary to see the large waves splashing into our small boat, I quite enjoyed it. Our boatman maneuvered deftly through those waves and we got to experience something I will not forget.
Now with only 4 of us left on the trip(the other two had to head back), we started the return leg of our journey. We took a ferry to Koh Samui. I think it cost us around 500 baht per person on a Songserm. Koh Samui is accessible from Bangkok by flight if you are willing to pay for it and is groomed as a typical Thai tourist destination. It was our least favorite island of the lot.
Stay: We stayed at the Liquid Lounge hostel which is managed by a polish old-timer who has been around for a while on this island. The rooms are clean and the owner very helpful. Your rooms are also just above the Liquid Lounge bar which is an added benefit.
Food: Since we were only going to be here for a single night, we did not get to explore a lot of food options. We visited one food market, but we found it overpriced and not as tasty as our earlier dinners.
Early next morning, I realized that the flight Aswin and I were supposed to travel on had already left 2 days ago. Luckily we were able to book a ticket and then we had to buy a ferry ticket and convince an operator at the pier to get us transport to the airport. We somehow made it to the airport.
Once we landed in Bangkok, getting a cab proved to be difficult. We booked an Uber but the cops stopped him and asked us to join the Airport taxi line which had a long wait line. So we skipped out and found a taxi who charged us a lot but we did not really have options and our time was running out. He charged us for the amount that is usually inclusive of the tolls but asked us to pay for each toll. We realised this with our return trip to the airport.
Stay: We stayed at the Once Again hostel. I chose it because it was close to the tourist spots if we chose to visit them.
Food: I do not remember much about the food we ate here but I had a piece of scorpion at Khao San Road. Crunchy.
I reckon another visit is required to do justice to this city. So until then..
Update: I returned to Bangkok in December 2019. Read about it here.