Thailand has become increasingly touristy over the last decade, but there are still a lot of reasons why this backpacker mecca is still one of the ultimate first time destinations for backpackers on their first gap year.
In the interests of full disclosure I have to open this article with the admission that I absolutely love Thailand. It was the first country that I visited at the start of my own backpacking adventures over fifteen years ago and it completely changed my life. Since then I have never quite been able to pull myself away completely from the land of smiles and have been back on more than one occasion, so okay, I’m a little bit biased!
But once you have been, you will be too!
What’s not to love about Thailand? Even the name conjures up images of an exotic paradise filled with celebrated pristine beaches and islands, ancient Buddhist temples, mind blowing food and hedonistic fun filled nights. Thailand is one of the major travel hubs of South East Asia with millions of visitors, backpackers and tourists through its borders every year and is the epicenter of the famous banana pancake trail, a popular and well worn backpacker destination for decades.
This enduring appeal has helped this amazing country cement it’s legendary status in the collective backpacker consciousness long ago, and has only recently opened up to the mass tourism market as package tourists have begun to cotton onto its endless charms which means that there is still plenty of room for the independent traveller to have the time of their lives.
” Thailand is quite simply backpacking 101, an easy introduction to a way of travelling through a popular yet still exotic region.”
Because of this, for many people dreaming of or planning a gap year or backpacking trip Thailand is the first country many of them think of, and with very good reason. Thailand is quite simply the ultimate first time backpackers destination, and that reputation becomes reality once you arrive and you realise that yes, it is worth the hype!
In many ways it is almost like it is a destination tailor made for inexperienced, first time backpackers. Amazing cultural sites, beautiful beaches, fun filled hedonistic nights and some of the best food on the planet. It has a very safe, well worn backpacker trail, with plenty of sleeping, eating and transport options to choose from that make it absolutely no effort to travel through at all.
Thailand is quite simply backpacking 101, an easy introduction to a way of travelling through a popular yet still exotic region. Eastern mystique plus a dash of adventure and mild culture shock with all the comforts of home to soften the blow.
Yet despite this many inexperienced backpackers are still apprehensive about heading to this amazing country for the first time. Part of this is simple nerves about independent travel, understandable to an extent, everyone gets them the first time out, but this is simply a nervousness that Thailand itself will dispel simply by embracing you and allowing you to discover the country on your own terms. But another part of the problem is that Thailand still unfortunately suffers from an unsavoury yet mostly undeserved reputation, both for sex tourism and lack of safety. Unfortunately these are two things that people who have never been to the country latch onto as reasons not to go. A lot of this apprehension is based on unfounded stereotypes and a lack of knowledge of what lies beyond the thin touristy facade of touts, bars and sex tourism, but this is very easily countered simply by being open minded enough to see the rich tapestry of cultural heritage that Thailand has to offer.
Thailand is safe, and yes there is a seedy underbelly – just as there is in any city or country in the world – but you can spend months discovering the country without seeing it unless you go looking. There really is nothing to worry about when you visit Thailand. It is quite simply a backpacker paradise, with a number of benefits that make it an ideal first time destination for backpackers. So if you were in the slightest bit nervous about choosing Thailand as a destination on your very first backpacking trip, then here are just a few reasons why you should think again.
Thailand is second to none in terms of backpacker infrastructure, from an extensive public and private bus, train, plane and ferry system and the infamous backpacker network on Khao San Road to accommodation options ranging from the most basic hostel dorms to the most celebrated of luxurious spa hotels, first time backpackers will not have to worry about too much when they first arrive in the country. Thai’s are experts at making you feel welcome and Thailand is so used to tourists and backpackers in particular that the country is just so easy to travel around independently. It almost holds your hand as you discover it’s secrets, allowing you to gain your independent spirit and confidence in your own time and preparing you softly for the often daunting world of independent travel.
If you are still doubtful at how easy it is to visit Thailand independently, just look at the thousands of first time, often solo backpackers who visit every single year and ease themselves into the backpacking lifestyle with a mixture of hostel beds on Khao San Road and beach huts on the islands, and then go on to discover the rest of south east Asia and beyond with a burgeoning sense of adventure and a brand new level of self confidence, and there is absolutely no reason why you can’t do the same.
Getting around is an absolute breeze with an absolute variety of cheap public and private transport options available. Bartering fares with tuk tuk drivers is an experience in and of itself (just avoid all the taxi and tuk tuk scams) and taxi’s are easily available on any budget when used in moderation. Long distance overnight coaches ply the countries highways alongside an extensive rail network, and you don’t need an extensive grasp of the public transport system or the language to simply turn up at the station and buy a ticket to where you want to go. The prevalence of budget airlines even means you can get pretty much anywhere within the country or beyond for less than the cost of a meal back home.
Finding accommodation is no problem either, and there is certainly no need to pre book. Simply finding a place you like, from a beach hut to a spa resort, is so easy. Walking in and getting a room there and then is the absolute norm, so you will never have trouble finding a bed that suits your tastes, comfort levels and budget. Hostels are common, but private rooms are so cheap in guesthouses and beach huts that a little privacy is easily within your grasp if you feel like it from time to time. The point is you have choice, and plenty of it.
Activities as varied as jungle trekking, Muay Thai training, Thai cookery classes and even courses in Thai massage are all readily available for anyone wanting to make their trip even more memorable, and just to make things a little more easier for the independent traveller than they already are, there are more tour agencies dotted around the country than there are touts trying to get you to watch a ping pong show, and that is saying a lot! So if you do fancy taking a class, joining in with a trek or activity or doing anything you wish, and you don’t want or don’t know how to organise it for yourself, then until you feel confident enough to do it yourself there are more than enough people who will sort it all out for you for a very reasonable fee.
If all of this isn’t easy enough for you, there are even countless other backpackers – some solo, some in groups – who will be more than happy to point you in the right direction or offer assistance. I may be a little biased in my opinion but I think backpackers are among the best people in the world, and are great sources of advice, information and even assistance if necessary!
Thailand is a backpacker Mecca, and they are generally a pretty decent bunch! So don’t be afraid to say hello and ask questions!
Of course Thailand is no longer the bargain destination it once was, and the exchange rate nowhere near as favourable, but Thailand is still a pretty cheap destination by Western standards, especially if you are smart with your money and avoid a lot of the tourist traps. Prices may have shot up in the last decade or so, but you are still guaranteed an absolute bargain, and unless you go a bit mental on the whisky buckets, first time backpackers wanting to stick to a tight budget will find that they can make their money stretch really well here, especially once they get outside of Bangkok and the main touristy islands.
Pad Thai, Tom Yum, Thai yellow curry, spring rolls with chilli sauce from a KSR street stall, do I really need to say more? My belly is rumbling just thinking about it! Thai food is famous around the world, but you haven’t experienced a fraction of the flavour until you have arrived here and tasted it for yourself! There is something for almost every palette in Thailand, from vegetarians and gourmands to fast food fiends and even fussy eaters, you will be assured of finding something you like here. It is also very accessible to first time backpackers too, you don’t have to j ump straight in to tasting fried crickets from a vendor in Chiang Mai! If you are perhaps one of the few people who aren’t wholly used to the spices, flavours and exotic ingredients of Asian food, Thailand offers a nice, easy introduction to the regions cuisine with a lot of things that Westerners will find familiar alongside plenty that they will not. Simply find a street stall or an eatery with some outside tables, point to something that looks good and try it! If on the rare occasion you find you don’t like the meal (yeah right!) then just order something else! You will have at least tried something new and it would have cost you less than a bottle of water back home!
There are so many layers to the Thai culture that it is impossible to see it all in just one visit, but that is part of what makes it such an easy and accessible destination for the first time backpacker. On the surface there is the nice, easy, laid back aspect to the Thai culture where everything and everyone is accepted with a smile. This is what independent travellers generally see at first as they ease themselves into the backpacker lifestyle of lazy hammock days, island hopping, diving and partying. There is a thin veneer of Westernised culture in the backpacker ghettos of Khao San Road and Sukhumvit that makes many first time backpackers feel at home when they first arrive, but once you are comfortable you can start to scratch beneath the surface and discover a rich and intensely vibrant culture that draws you in slowly. There is no rush or pressure for you to do this, you can take your time. Thailand will wait patiently and allow you to discover her in your own time. Thailand holds a primarily Buddhist belief system that is based heavily on ancient ancestral worship, with deep connections to family and patriotism. With deep influences from surrounding states as far as China and India, Thailand is very welcoming of other cultures and makes no demands of you. That is the beauty of Thailand and part of the reason why it is so accessible to backpackers, it allows you to discover the wonder of its culture at your own pace, it allows you to find out more when you are ready, not before, and will open your eyes to new cultures and belief systems without you even realising it. The longer you spend in Thailand, the more effort you will want to put into discovering just how amazing this country is.
There are few places where the people make more of an effort to make you – as a traveller – feel at home. It is always said that the Thai people are amongst the friendliest in the world, and that is absolutely true! You just have to experience the famous Thai hospitality for yourself to realise it.
Of course there are always exceptions to that rule, and every country in the world has its fair share of miserable downers. Thailand is no exception to that fact and of course there are mercenary tuk tuk drivers and scam artists who will test your patience as they chase you down the road with ping pong show brochures, but they are in the minority. If you take the time to travel slowly and meet the Thai people beyond those that tourists would normally come across, you will discover a warm, welcoming, uber friendly people that will welcome you to their country with open arms and make you feel right at home! Spending any amount of time in the country will make you feel as if it is your new home, that is how welcoming it is! I once got severe sunburn after foolishly forgetting to apply suncream to my back when snorkelling, and I was taken into the home of a local who applied aloe vera wraps to my slowly boiling skin and refused to accept any payment or anything in return! Where else would the cooks come out of a restaurant kitchen to hug you? (It had nothing to do with the fact I was being indecisive and having a fat day so I ordered 90% of the menu! Honest!)You may be in a strange, new exotic country and you may even technically be on your own if you travel solo, but it will not feel like that for long and that is wholly down to the warmth and openness of the Thai people.
Just look at it. This was the view from my beach hut. It cost a few pounds a night. I walked up without a reservation, liked the room, bartered a price, dumped my kit and I was in the water 5 minutes later! If you still need convincing after this, then there is no hope for you!
These are just a few of the reasons why Thailand holds a legendary status amongst backpackers and why so many package tourists are now flocking to it’s warm, fragrant shores. They are certainly just a small part of the reason Thailand will always have a special place in my own heart. You will of course find your own individual reasons for loving Thailand once you arrive, but it is absolutely certain that this amazing country will work its way into your heart and soul just like it has for thousands of backpackers before you.
So what are you waiting for? Go and book that ticket! If you have any reservations about travelling the world independently – or even any worries about culture shock in Asia – then Thailand is your perfect jumping off point. Your perfect travel decompression chamber that will make you eager to discover the rest of what south east Asia has to offer and give you the self confidence and the ability to travel independently anywhere.
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