Despite bouts of civil unrest, 2010 was a banner year for Thailand in terms of tourism: nearly 16 million travelers visited the country, the most on record. That trend has continued in 2011, with another 5.3 million visitors reported from January to March. If you're going to be one of the millions heading there, make the most of your time by avoiding these three common Thailand traps.
Mistake #1: Heading to Ko Phuket for your first beach experience
Over-developed and teeming with package tourists, the country's largest island is unlikely to leave a positive first impression of what beach vacations are like in Thailand. Money can always buy privacy and exclusivity, of course: the five properties that comprise the Laguna Resort Complex on Ao Bang Thao, for example, offer five-star luxury and a reprieve from the masses gathered along the crowded beaches. Unless you're willing to seriously splurge, however, Phuket can be overwhelmingly unpleasant.
Where to go instead: It'll take more effort and planning to get to beach destinations Ko Chang and Ko Lipe (neither of these islands have their own airport) but Bangkok-based travel writer Suzanne Nam argues they easily make up for the extra transit time with fewer crowds, less development and better value.
'Koh Chang is still relatively undeveloped, but has impressive white-sand beaches and inexpensive bungalows,' she says. 'The beaches are gorgeous at Ko Lipe, which is just north of Malaysia's Lankawi island. The vibe is relaxed and unpretentious, and it's small enough that you can walk through the interior jungle to get from one beach to another.'
Mistake #2: Making Khao San Road your focus in Bangkok
Long favoured by budget travellers seeking cheap accommodation, infamous Khao San Road, located in Banglamphu, is the place many visitors go for their first taste of shopping, dining, and nightlife in Thailand's capital. Walk by and satisfy your curiosity but keep going, knowing that you've bypassed one of the shabbiest, most overrated parts of the city and one that's least-representative of the real Bangkok. This area is also not serviced by the BTS Skytrain or the MRT subway system, which makes it a somewhat inconvenient base for everything but old town.
What to do instead: For an affordable place to sleep, consider the string of clean, affordable hotels and guesthouses on Soi Kasem San 1, ideally located near the National Stadium Skytrain station. From here, it's a short walk to Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok's hyper-modern commercial heart in Siam Square and Central World Plaza, the largest lifestyle complex in Southeast Asia. On Wedneday nights, free muy thai boxing matches are held across the street, in front of MBK Center.
For plenty of great dining and nightlife options, head to the areas around the Ari and Thong Lor Skytrain stations. Pla Dib (1/1 Soi Ari Samphan 7), serving excellent Japanese-Thai fusion cuisine, is a favorite at Ari; at Thong Lor, fantastical Iron Fairies (394 Thonglor Rd., Sukhumvit Soi 55) feels like a speakeasy bar designed by Guillermo del Toro while In the Mood for Love (9/9 Sukhumvit Soi 36) offers inventive sushi rolls in a romantic setting inspired by the Wong Kar Wai film of the same name.
Mistake #3: Trying to do too much in Thailand's north
Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand, is on many itineraries and is a common base for treks, elephant rides, and other outdoor adventures. Travel writer and former Chiang Mai resident Jodi Ettenberg cautions against squeezing all of it into one day, however. 'Travellers want an all-in-one solution for seeing the hill tribes, as well as riding elephants and rafting,' she says. 'This sounds fun, but there are more responsible ways to experience Thailand's north. An all-in-one trip doesn't afford any true exposure to the hill tribe culture, either.'
What to do instead: Ettenberg suggests tackling these activities separately to maximise the experience, provided you have enough time. 'Split your time between the Elephant Nature Park and an expedition in the Mae Taeng Valley,' she says. 'Crank Adventures offers mountain biking or rafting trips in the valley. The Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for abused and mistreated Asian elephants, as well as for endangered species. Day trips allow for feeding, bathing, and learning about elephants and their tumultuous history in Southeast Asia.'
Further reading: Short break Bangkok - 3 tailored itineraries