Saturday, 13 August 2011

Thailand: The SE Asia ‘Can’t Leave Your Self Behind’ Guide

From A to B – Getting Around

Getting around in Thailand is so simple even I managed it.  Travel agents are everywhere, more often than not in guesthouses.  Pick a destination, wander down from your room, have a nice chat, pay a ludicrously small commission in some (but not all) instances, let them arrange it for you, pick up ticket, go.  Simple.  The following may just make it even easier. 


Our primary long distance travel method.  Thai trains are clean, well-staffed and exceptional value.  We took sleeper trains to and from the south-west coast and also up to Chiang Mai.

  • This is a brilliant website, lovingly created and meticulously maintained, about worldwide train travel, including SE Asia: The Man in Seat 61
  • We travelled second class, air con.  It was fine, although I was hot during the night, but then I’m always hot.  The fan option seemed OK too, and marginally cheaper.  First class cabins sleep two, and are private.  They were fully booked on our dates.  Book a few days in advance if possible, especially in high season or during festivals.  Virtually all guest houses will help you book tickets for a small commission or you can buy direct from the station if you happen to be in the area.
  • Lower berths are better than upper berths due to their increased width, and proximity to the ground meaning less clambering.  They are a fraction more expensive as a result.  Sadly we could only find upper berth availability on our trips.
  • The configuration of the second class carriages is two armchair style seats facing each other on one side of the aisle, and the same on the opposite side of the aisle.  These seats are then made into the lower bunk.  The top bunk is pulled from the ceiling.  If travelling as a couple a good idea is to get a matching lower and an upper bunk so you can sit opposite each other before the beds are prepared and after they are put away.  The train staff do this for you with practiced efficiency.  We had one who looked and acted like she’d just changed careers from being a prison guard; all bulk and no nonsense.  Lights out animals! Boy she was quick.  She never found the hole behind my Raquel Welch poster though, sucker! Clean bedding is provided.
  • Food and drink are available on sleeper trains.  The train stewards come to you.  They work on commission so don’t worry, they’ll find you.  The food is OK for train standards, but a bit overpriced so we tended to stock up on provisions before we boarded.
  • There is a restaurant that serves surprisingly good food at Bangkok station.  It’s on the upper balcony level on the right hand side as you face the platforms.  The restaurant furthest from the platforms.
  • There is luggage storage at Bangkok station in the far left rear corner (i.e. behind you) as you face the platforms.  Fairly expensive but very useful if you have a day to spend in Bangkok before catching a night train.
  • The trains seemed fairly secure but we padlocked our rucksacks to the racks when we slept, and took our small bags with valuables into the bunks. On this subject, a pacsafe has been a fantastically useful addition to our travelling clobber and has been used in planes, trains and automobiles and as a mobile safe when hooked around relatively immovable objects in guesthouse rooms.
  • The buffet car is fun but can be seriously damaging to a relationship
L: Helen in the 2nd class corridor. R: me clambering off the top bunk


We only took a couple, and these were minibuses.  They were OK, newer and better maintained than the rest of SE Asia.  Again, guest houses and travel agencies abound and will help you book pretty much any travel request.

There are horror stories about buses in SE Asia, and they truly are horrific.  We ourselves were involved in a bus crash in Laos, but walked away unscathed.  I’m not sure what advice to give on this; there is simply no way to completely mitigate the risk, other than staying at home.  If you feel unsafe ask the driver to slow down.  When he doesn’t, ask again.  Try to avoid the suicide seat on minibuses, next to the driver in the front.  If the bus has seatbelts, which it probably won’t, wear them.

Other than that there’s not much you can do about safety.  Get a good book, put on some tunes, and zone out. 


Cheap, in good nick, air conditioned.  Always get a meter one.  If they refuse to turn the meter on, or say it is broken, then get out.  Most taxi drivers are happy for a fair fare so use them instead. 

Guesthouses often provide business cards printed with their address – take one and show it to the driver on your return trip to mitigate against detours, and your own memory failure.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve got into a cab, been asked ‘where to’, and gone completely blank before mumbling something about a hotel near some trees next to a road.  Then wetting myself.  Not really – that’s where the trees come in handy.

Where the Magic Probably Won’t Happen - Sleeping

I will only mention noteworthy places when it comes to sleeping, in this post and the ones that follow.  We stayed in plenty of OK but relatively non-descript places, and there is no point mentioning these when Trip Advisor can be far more useful (providing you have your crazy internet troll filter activated to mentally weed out the blatantly unreliable reviews).  Generally I’d advise against going for the Lonely Planet’s ‘our pick’ when it comes to accommodation – when we looked at these places they were overpriced and gave off the impression that their new found seal of approval and subsequent upturn in business had been accompanied by the laziness that a steady stream of guests can often engender.

A couple of good websites include Hostelbookers and HostelWorld

Having said all this, what we normally did was just rock up somewhere, have a little look around, and sooner rather than later found somewhere decent.  Nonetheless, when we did receive accommodation tips they were normally good ones, and helpful, so I’ll plough on…


Sivalai Place has big rooms, a pool, Wi-Fi, and incredibly helpful staff.  It’s a bit out of the way though, and this began to annoy us; it’s not located where you can easily pop in and out during the day.  We didn’t find it a terribly sociable place either, lacking a bar as the prime example.  However, it’s a good place if you want to get out of the hustle and bustle of central Bangkok, and it bears repeating that the staff were tip-top.

We preferred Smile Society Hostel in Silom.  Silom is an exciting and vibrant area of Bangkok, vice and commerce rubbing shoulders.  The rooms were small but perfectly formed, with very comfortable beds and high quality linens, a good shower, decent smellies, Wi-Fi and an OK breakfast included.  On a tangent, it has a massage parlour over the road that offers the intriguing prospect of a testicle massage for 800 baht, meaning that every time I popped out to the nearby 7-11 I could return to the room with a slight limp and inform Helen that I’d just had my testicles abused.  She had the good grace to laugh at this lame (limp?) joke every single time.  N.B. This is not that type of blog, I can’t actually comment on the abuse or otherwise such services offer.

Ko Lanta

The most difficult decision we had to make was which beach to stay on when planning our trip to this island on the west coast of Thailand, near Krabi.  It seemed that the further south you went on the island the better the beach and the less development there was.  We went south.  Our final decision on which beach to stay on was eventually made easy by serendipity dealing us a great hand when we discovered our friends Tom and Jodie had just, unbeknownst to us, holed up for a month on Kantiang Beach with their mate Dave.  Much fun ensued with some of the nicest people you could ever spend time with; not least of which was a riotous night out on Ko Phi Phi that culminated in Jodie involuntarily exiting the water-taxi back first, scuba style, giving a literal punctuation to an evening that could not in any way be described as dry.

Kantiang is a beautiful beach set in a long bay, with good swimming.  Most of the hillside is dominated by the uber-luxury Pimalai resort, but their presence is subtle, and they have a vested interest in keeping the beach clean, to the benefit of not just their own guests, but also to everyone else. 

Kantiang Beach in the background.  An oversized jockey in the foreground.

We stayed at the Lanta Marine Park View Resort.  I can only assume that the name of the hotel was created by a malfunctioning Hotel Name Generator.  We got a good low season rate (c.£12 per night over five nights), a spacious air-con room with a balcony and an amazing view of the bay.  They also have a ‘Shroom Bar’ perched perilously on the cliffs which is a great place for a drink.  But not so great if you try the speciality Shroom Shake and turn all R-Kelly (the ‘I believe I can fly’ bit, rather than the ‘I might just pull out the video camera’ bit).  

Nmm nmm nmm – Eating and Drinking

Eating in Thailand is a joy.  Street stalls are dirt-cheap and will fill you up with great tasting chow.  There are plenty of places serving basic western fare should you want a change from the lemongrass and chilli loveliness of Thai cuisine.  Here are some of our favourites:

Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok: There’s a Vietnamese kitchen located in the boutique clothing section of the market, with perhaps 20 tables, and an open kitchen showcasing the chefs at work.  They are overseen by a big Momma who tasted every meal before it went out – maybe because she was hungry, but more likely for quality control.  It was to be the best meal we had in SE Asia, and we had it on our first day.  Peaking early perhaps but boy it was good. 

Kantiang Restaurant, Kantiang Beach, Ko Lanta: The eating options on Kantiang Beach were a bit disappointing generally but this small local place served fantastic Thai food, and was charmingly welcoming.  It’s about 200 metres from the ‘centre’ of Kantiang – turn right as you exit the 7-11, walk up the gentle hill, and it’s a few metres up a side street on your left.  If you get to the entrance to the Pimalai resort you’ve gone way, way too far.  Look for the scooters parked outside; a sure sign that the locals eat there meaning two things: (1) it’s good, (2) it’s affordable. 

Mo Rooms Hotel, Chiang Mai: A trendy little boutique hotel that serves Thai-fusion food.  Sounds wanky I know.  But we had some fantastic pasta done with Thai ingredients.  Slightly more expensive than other places but still ludicrously good value, and they have lots of cool modern artwork scattered around the place.

Drinking: watch out for the national beer, Chang.  The changover it generates is rough, and the deceptive strength can affect your judgement, as I have written about previously.  Similarly, ‘buckets’ have been known to claim several victims – the child-size plastic containers filled with a bewildering mix of grog that take you from sober to drunk quicker than a roundhouse kick from Jean Claude Van Damme.  But listen to me.  What a puritan.  If you’re old enough to drink you’re old enough to take responsibility for your own actions. 

Tangentially related to this I’ve just remembered a funny character the aforementioned Tom and I met whilst we were buying our own buckets from an off-license slash gift shop slash convenience store.  He can’t have been any older than 22, clearly on his gap year, with a face that was betraying the discombobulating effects of one too many buckets of his own.  He looked at us, grimaced, and in the drawl of a war veteran said ‘I gotta get out of Thailand man’, ruining his enigmatic style somewhat when he appended it a couple of seconds later with ‘I miss my Mum’.  I miss my Mum too, nothing wrong with loving and missing your parents no matter how uncool the big kids might think it is, so sympathetically I asked how long he’d been in Thailand for.  ‘Three weeks, man, I gotta get out’.  Giggling, Tom and I checked he’d be OK getting home that night which he waved off with a look that said ‘leave me here, save yourselves’ so we stumbled off to do something that I’d probably have been talked out of had my Mum been there – namely getting another tattoo around my ankle that reads This Too Will Pass.  The sentiment is mine, the artwork was not.  I hope this bloke got out of Thailand, and I hope he had a lovely reunion with his Mum.  I see mine in Canada in a few days, for the first time in six months, and I’m giddy with excitement – take that cool kids!  

Other stuff

Avoid ping-pong shows in Bangkok, read more here.

Renting scooters is a great way to get around, particularly on the bigger islands such as Ko Lanta.  Take it easy, wear your helmet, don’t be another statistic.

Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok is amazing.  Thousands of stalls selling mostly decent stuff from clothes to art to homeware to puppies to books to luggage.  We loved it.

Mountain biking in Chiang Mai is great fun.  I did the entry level course and it was just challenging enough.  I only came off once, and had a lovely scab to prove it.

Cookery schools are a great way to learn a bit and meet people. Helen did one in Chiang Mai with a company called Basil whilst I was mountain biking, and returned not with any scabs but with some delightful dishes and a conviction to cook more Thai food when we get home.  We both win, yay!

<Comments, additions, and corrections are most welcome.  Leave them in the field below, even if you need to leave them as ‘anonymous’.  Feel free to share this blog with your friends and indeed enemies.>


  1. Great article, and I wrote down Kantiang beach as a tip when I will be going to Ko Lanta, thanks!
    Enjoyed reading it - except for one thing. The font is really small. Maybe you can change the theme to make the font bigger, this font reads like the users manual of a calculator... ;-)

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Bangkok Sightseeing - enjoy Ko Lanta.
    I've not read a user's manual for a calculator recently but will trust you in regards to the font size. I can't retrospectively change the size for published posts unfortunately but may I suggest you use your browser options to apply a zoom to the page - you can then pick a zoom percentage that provides comfortable reading for you.

  3. Hello.
    Truly great information. I am planning a family trip to Thailand in Feb 2013. We are four in family. Initially I was looking to stay in Koh Phi Phi but after reading your blog I am thinking of staying in Koh Lanta instead. Anyway its nice to read it.

  4. Thanks for reading Shabbir - hope you and your family have a great trip. Ko Phi Phi is more typically beautiful, the picture postcard view of a Thai island, but is also smaller, meaning the accommodation is often squashed together. The two islands are relatively close so you could always visit both - the ferry between the two islands only takes approx 90 minutes.

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