It’s easy to knock Thailand and Bangkok for not being perfect, but there’s no doubt that compared to many countries, Thailand is leaps and bounds ahead.
Although Bangkok is notorious for its traffic, having traveled extensively throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas, I can confidently say Thailand does transportation better than anywhere else.
While it might sometimes take a little longer to get from Point A to B than it seemingly should, barring a road accident (which, regrettably, Thailand is also notorious for), you always get there, and for generally very cheap.
One of my favorite things about Thailand travel is the number of different modes of transportation on offer.
In Bangkok, in a given day, you can take a river boat, the BTS, the MRT, the airport link, a taxi, a bus, a motortaxi, a tuk tuk, a songthaew, or a minivan, and often you take some combination of the above.
Beyond the variety, two other aspects that separate it from transportation elsewhere are cost and reliability. As anyone who’s been to Bangkok knows, the price of taxis are criminally low. A one hour ride from one end of the city to the other is never more than 300-400 baht ($8-11), compared to the West where a similar ride would cost $50-100.
In fact, if you have two or more people in your group, it’s almost always cheaper (though not necessarily faster) to take a taxi over public transportation.
Equally remarkable, you can take a bus from Bangkok to either the North or the South of Thailand for as little as 400 baht ($11), or a minivan from one province to the next for just a few dollars.
As for the reliability aspect, unlike other countries where I’ve had to walk several miles or wait several hours to find my desired mode of transportation, in Thailand you never seem to wait more than several minutes.
Everyone knows Thailand is famous for its food. In fact, many visitors come here just for the food.
But what separates Thailand in this category is the sheer variety and abundance. When I first came to Thailand several years ago, I, like many others, was only aware of the Thai “staples” like pad thai, penang curry, pad see ew, etc., but over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate the vast variety of Thai cuisine.
From the salads, to the vegetables, to the soups, to the rice dishes, to the curries, to my personal favorite Thai cuisine, Issan –comprised mostly of grilled meats and fish and various spicy meat “salads” like laab moo, laab pla duk, laab bpet, nam tok moo — even after years of living here, I never get sick of Thai food because I never feel like I’m eating the same meal.
To the contrary, if I take more than a day or two off of it, I go into Thai food withdrawal.
Moreover, one of my favorite things about living in Thailand is exploring new provinces and their regional cuisines. In fact, my wife and I just got back from a week in Northern Thailand (Phayao, Phrae, Lampang) and tried several new delicious dishes (khanom jeen nam ngiaw aka “Thai spaghetti,” gaeng hang lay, gaeng ho).
The abundance of food here also never ceases to amaze me. It’s a wonder how the Thais (generally) stay so thin. They always seem to be eating, and wherever you turn, there always seems to be an often over-abundance of food.
And while you may think this is typical throughout Asia, I assure you it’s not.
In fact, last summer my wife and I visited Taiwan for 2 weeks, which had just been voted the # 1 food country in the world by a CNN poll.
While the food was generally good, there were several days in our trip where we literally couldn’t find anything local to eat for lunch or dinner, including one day when we were motorbiking up and down the East Coast covering hundreds of kilometers in a day.
My wife and I said to each other that this would NEVER happen in Thailand.
And of course, I haven’t even touched upon the cost aspect. As everyone knows, you can typically get a great Thai meal for as little as 30 – 100 baht (80¢-$3), or a good Western meal for about a third of the price of what it costs in the West.
3. Sanook (aka Fun)
Simply put, Thailand does “fun” better than anywhere else in the world.
While you may not always agree with the principle (for instance, the questionable “practices” in Pattaya, the wasting water for Songkran), you can’t deny the fun.
As a Westerner, I was always taught to work hard first, and if there’s time left over, maybe have some fun. In Thailand, it seems the inverse is true.
Though I do believe the Thais, when they want to be, can be incredibly hard workers (have you ever seen a building, shop or business built or knocked down as quickly as in Thailand?), generally speaking, they tend to put sanook above all else.
As a teacher, I find this frustrating at times, as schoolwork often takes a back seat to things like family celebrations, family businesses and even fitness, but in a way I’m envious as well. The Thais have different priorities than other cultures, and having fun is always at the top of their list.
Just last week my wife and I were in Phayao for, among other things, my birthday. It was a Monday night so we weren’t expecting much, but surprise surprise, there was a carnival smack dab in the center of town.
If I didn’t know any better I would have thought perhaps my wife arranged a party for me, but alas, it was just another [Mon]day in the Land of Smiles/Sanook.
4. Escaping the Heat
Thailand is hot. Make no mistake about it.
But despite the heat, you never seem to be more than a stone’s throw away from reprieve.
Be it in the form of a life-saving 7-11, a shopping mall or even just a taxi, you’re never really at risk of too much heat exposure in Thailand.
Compare that to a place like Vietnam where for several weeks my wife and I didn’t see a single 7-11 (even in a major city like Hanoi), and it’s easy to take for granted how well Thailand has managed to create escapes from its notorious heat.
I can’t tell you the number of times my students have told me, “Teacher, there’s no class next week; it’s a[nother]holiday.”
As an American, prior to moving to Thailand, I was accustomed to about 8-9 holiday days a year. In Thailand, there are typically 16 public holidays a year, trailing only India (21), Columbia and the Philippines (18) and China and Hong Kong (17).
Combined with my four months’ vacation per year as a teacher here (compared to the two weeks I typically took as a lawyer in the U.S.), my wife likes to joke that it often feels like we’re on holiday more than we’re working.
Joking aside, this all ties back to Thailand’s prioritizing other things over work.
And when the Thais celebrate a holiday, they celebrate in style. Although legally alcohol cannot be sold on Buddhist holidays (which only account for roughly a quarter of the national holidays), as any good local knows, there’s always a mom and pop shop right around the corner to quench your thirst.
From the food to the music to the granddaddy of them all, Songkran, the Thais sure know how to celebrate.
I often like to joke that in my country people celebrate holidays by shooting each other with real guns (homicides literally go up on holidays in Chicago, where I’m from). In Thailand, they use water guns.
6. Ice Coffee
Rarely a day goes by when I don’t get an iced coffee from a local street cart vendor.
Putting aside the unholy amounts of sugar and condensed milk they typically use (nit noi!!!), you can’t beat the taste or price (typically 20-30 baht). In fact, I’m shocked how popular the expensive coffee chains are in Thailand given how cheap and good the local coffee stands are here.
But that brings me to my next point…
7. Following Trends
The Thais may not be the best at inventing new trends, but they sure are at following them.
In the few years we’ve been here, we’ve seen everything from craft burgers, beer and cocktails, food trucks, dessert cafes, trampoline parks, “escape” rooms, and dozens of other trends come and go.
If it’s popular elsewhere, Thailand will adopt it.
In fact, several things native to my hometown that I thought I’d never see here have popped up in recent years — like deep dish pizza at Bangkok Betty’s and Garrett’s Popcorn.
If you need any more evidence of how, Bangkokians in particular, are obsessed with the latest trends, check out BK Magazine’s almost laughable “What’s Hot, What’s Not” segment. I’ve literally seen things go from “hot” to “not” (or vice versa) in the span of a week.
8. Varying Price Points
Perhaps my favorite thing about Thailand is how it offers incredible (and often very similar) experiences at significantly varying price points. It’s the most juxtaposing country I’ve ever been to.
From shopping at Siam Paragon to buying knock offs or local versions of the same products directly across the street for a fraction of the price, to eating at a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant or a mom and pop eatery right around the corner, to staying at a 5-star resort or a cute guesthouse right down the block, Thailand has something for everyone.
By way of example, my friends who often come here for their once-in-a-lifetime, two week honeymoon, typically spend in two weeks what my wife and I would spend in 3 months traveling through Thailand.
Though I’m sure they’ll have some more extravagant experiences than us, we’ll all leave fully satisfied.
Personally, I’m not into them.
But if they’re your thing, I can’t imagine there’s a better way to spend your 120 baht for 30 minutes.
Granted, this is obvious. But a few points worth mentioning.
Geographically, Thailand is the ultimate travel destination. You have Chiang Mai in the North with its temples, night markets, elephant camps, jungle treks, cooking schools, and all other sorts of adventure; you have the islands in the South which can compete with any islands in the world; and then you have Bangkok smack dab in the middle.
Combined with the cheap prices, great food, culture, weather (particularly during the high tourist season), and general friendliness of the locals (it’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing), Thailand is the ultimate vacation paradise.
But what separates Thailand from other equally attractive tourist destinations is how they’ve mastered the art of tourism. For a combination of all the foregoing reasons, Thailand is without a doubt the best tourism country I’ve ever visited.
Whether it’s the famous Chatuchak, the notorious Patpong Night Market, or more local offerings like Talad Rot Fai (my personal favorite), JJ Green, or even Wang Lang in Thonburi, nobody does markets like Thailand.
My favorite part about them is that they’re just as much about food, drinking, and people watching as they are about shopping.
And they’re free.
12. Shopping Malls
For anyone who read my last post, you may recall how I heralded the shopping malls of Bangkok.
Despite the backlash I received from some commentators, I feel compelled to stick to my guns here. To clarify, I NEVER shop at the malls (unless you count the occasional Gourmet Market grocery run or grabbing a quick and cheap lunch in the – yes – world-class food courts), but Bangkok’s shopping malls are so much more than shopping.
They’re experiences where you can spend all day, not spend a single baht (sans the occasional compulsory Dairy Queen or other cold beverage/dessert), and never get bored.
They’re over-the-top spectacles and constant reminders that, while Thailand may be a 2nd world country, Bangkok is a 1st world city.
Whenever my friends and family back home think I’m in need or want of something, I suggest they visit Siam Paragon, Emquartier, or Central Embassy. These pinnacles of opulence could easily charge a small cover charge and people would still line up to visit them, and deservedly so.
Bangkok does malls better than anywhere else in the world, and it’s not even close. I dare you to find somewhere doing it better (with the caveat that I haven’t been to Dubai yet).
What would you add to the list?
Featured image is by M M and used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence
All images via David Rosenfield unless otherwise indicated