I’ve been my family’s resident travel guide since I was thirteen years old. I’ve planned trips to Europe, Latin America, and different destinations within the US. Some trips I planned weeks in advance – with laminated pages neatly clipped in white binders – while for others I booked the hotel on the plane, train, or car ride on my way the new destination.
But never have I planned any trip in four days– and especially not to a country so different from anywhere I’d been to before. When my family and I decided to go to Thailand, we had a two-week window of availability before I had to start my summer internship… and I had a four-day timeline to plan it all.
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DAY 1: How do we get there and where do we go?
Flights to Thailand in May are easy to find and surprisingly cheap. I scoured Priceline, Kayak, and airline websites where my family has miles, but eventually, I found a $530/person round trip flight from San Francisco to Bangkok on Cheap-O-Air. A useful tip for finding affordable trips is to look for flights leaving on Tuesday or Wednesday, as that’s the “low point” of the week for many airline companies. I’d also suggest being flexible with the dates if possible, as I was able to save hundreds of dollars when I changed my departure and arrival date by just two days.
Planning the Itinerary:
After a call to Anna, a family friend whose in-laws live in Bangkok, I came up with a list of places I wanted to go to within Thailand. I narrowed that list down to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui after looking at weather reports in each area. Phuket is rainy in May, but Koh Samui, which is on the Gulf of Thailand, is in its dry season. I also knew I wanted to go to an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai, and after hours of googling, reading reviews, and scouring travel blogs I settled on Patara and Elephant Nature Camp. Patara was my first choice because the package includes riding the elephants bareback. I emailed Patara to make a reservation and in the meantime, I researched the availability of Elephant Nature Camp in case Patara was not available when we were in Chiang Mai. While riding is prohibited at Elephant Nature Camp, it still has wonderful reviews and endless options to customize the experience.
DAY 2: How do we get around once we’re there?
After looking through TripAdvisor and some popular travel blogs, I realized there are only two feasible options for long distance travel in Thailand: night train and airplane. The night train has great reviews on TripAdvisor and some reviewers even recommended taking on the journey in second class for a more authentic Thai experience. While this option was enticing and low cost (around $35 for a first class ticket), the six to eight-hour train ride felt too strenuous for my family, especially since my four-year-old brother was along for the ride. I decided to explore flights to see if that option was price-effective. I remembered that Anna mentioned a low-cost airline, AirAsia, so I went on their website to check out domestic flights. In that moment, I struck gold. On Kayak or Google, domestic flights range from $100-$200, but directly on AirAsia’s website, flights range from $30-$50. I called my parents and asked them to start deciding how much time they wanted to spend in each location and promptly fell asleep.
Day 3: How do we book it all?
Booking the Flights:
I spoke with my mom to figure out how many days we wanted to stay in each place. Once we figured out a distribution that everyone could agree with– 3 days in Bangkok, 3 days in Chiang Mai, and 4 days in Koh Samui– I began booking the flights on AirAsia.
After some more research, I learned that to get to Koh Samui with AirAsia I had to fly to Surat Thani province and from there take a boat and ferry to the island. I booked the boat and ferry trip, an almost three-hour journey, online and timed it as efficiently as possible. The bus would leave from the airport about an hour and a half after we landed. To maximize our time, I booked a flight from Koh Samui airport back to Bangkok through Bangkok Airways. It was a bit pricier (around $120/person) but it would cut out at least 4 hours of travel time by taking us directly from the small Koh Samui airport to Bangkok. Our flight back to San Francisco would depart three hours after we landed at the airport in Bangkok.
Day 4: Where do we stay? And what should we do?
Finding the hotels:
I woke up early the next morning to finish planning the trip. The most important thing I had left to book was the hotels. This time, I went on Priceline, Hotels.com, Hotwire, Expedia, and Orbitz to begin my hotel search. I spent the entire morning and well into the afternoon researching hotels, reading TripAdvisor reviews, budgeting, and using Google Maps to check the hotel’s distance from major attractions. By two o’clock I booked the Pullman King Power Hotel in Bangkok, DusitD2 Hotel in Chiang Mai, and the Sarann Villa Suites in Koh Samui. The Pullman and the Sarann were luxury five star hotels and yet neither cost over $90/night – my self-imposed Thai hotel budget. Dusit was a 4.5 star hotel, but its location was its selling point. Hotels in Thailand are incredibly cheap and it’s possible to spend less than $20 a night if you’re really on a budget and willing to go without some luxuries. You can also check out my hotel reviews on TripAdvisor!
Picking the activities:
I already knew most of what I wanted to do in Bangkok thanks to Anna and Nerd Nomad (a travel blog I follow). I had a day planned for the temples on the river including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, a day planned to visit Erawan National Park, and finally, on Saturday I wanted to visit Bangkok’s biggest market– Chatuchak Weekend Market.
I also finally heard back from Patara telling me that they had an availability the second day we were in Chiang Mai. I quickly confirmed the booking and for the first time, I was able to relax and feel truly excited for the trip. Working off that momentum, I booked an island hopping excursion from Koh Samui on Viator and began to print out all the hotel, flight, and activity information to place in my travel folder. It was five o’clock and our flight to Bangkok would take off in less than 24 hours. In order to prepare for that, I was in bed by seven.
My trip to Thailand was an amazing–and in some ways a life-changing–experience. The people are friendly, the country is beautiful, and there is an endless number of places to explore. While over there, however, I learned that there are important details you should know ahead of time to make the trip run smoothly:
- Make sure you install Uber and GrabTaxi. Both apps can be lifesavers, especially in Bangkok where it’s almost impossible to get a taxi driver to turn his meter on and in Chiang Mai where taxis don’t use meters. A driver may try to charge $40 for a short ride, despite the fact that it should be less than $4. With Uber and GrabTaxi you can avoid being majorly ripped off. The exception is when you request a taxi from your hotel. There, the driver will turn on his meter as the repercussions of not doing so are severe.
- Book your island excursions when you get there. When you book your excursions through your hotel you are able to negotiate discounts. We booked a day-long sea fishing trip for less than $50 a person through our hotel.
- The best food is in Chiang Mai. While we thought the best culinary experiences would be in Bangkok, Chiang Mai ended up being our favorite food spot. I’d especially recommend Dash, a traditional style Teak House with unforgettable dishes.
- Don’t plan on “Thai prices” on the islands. The islands are a tourist-only zone and the food and taxi prices reflect that. That being said, Koh Samui may have been my favorite place in Thailand with its bath-water warm beaches and powder soft sand.
- Don’t get enticed by the cheap “elephant experiences” offered in Chiang Mai. You get what you pay for and at those places, the experience is rushed and the animals are abused. Spending the day at Patara was the most amazing part of my trip. Bonding with the elephants and witnessing their loving relationship with their trainers is an experience I will never forget. Every member of our small group had his or her own elephant and trainer and the humane treatment of the elephants made the heftier price tag worth it.