Thailand is a country which is generally known for its famous beaches, incredible marine life and crystal clear waters. Yet in the capital of the country, Bangkok you won’t find any of this. Instead, you’ll find a smog-filled, concrete jungle with temples and night markets on the majority of street corners.
Meanwhile, a 1-hour flight south takes you to Phuket (the name of both the city and the province) which is home to luxury 5-star beach resorts and some of the clearest waters you’ll ever see. This is picture-postcard Thailand in my opinion, yet it’s not what everyone is looking for when visiting the country.
Therefore, if you’ve only got three days or so in Thailand then you’ll likely find yourself having to choose between visiting Phuket or Bangkok.
Phuket is perfect for relaxation, snorkeling, island hopping, and boat trips. Alternatively, if you’re looking to visit some of the most well-known Thai landmarks, and love city life then Bangkok is going to be right for you.
If you do have more than 3 days then consider taking a one hour flight between Bangkok and Phuket (there are around 20 flights between the two cities each day) to experience the best of what both regions have to offer.
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Should You Visit Bangkok?
Bangkok is the capital of Thailand is a bustling mix of traditional and modern life, colliding the 21st century with centuries-old history.
Amidst the bumper to bumper traffic, highrise skyscrapers protrude from the skyline whilst the grandiose temples provide poignant remnants of a historic past.
This bustling metropolitan city offers everything from sightseeing to shopping, mesmerising markets to bustling boat trips.
Whatever you are looking for from a city, I can assure you Bangkok has it.
The beauty of Bangkok’s diversity also reflects the budget which you can approach it with. If you are a skimping backpacker looking to explore Thailand or looking for a more luxurious annual vacation, the Thai capital offers options for both.
The metro system, Skytrain (BTS) or boats are all very quick, cheap and reliable options with single trips costing ranging from 50 cents to $2.
If you prefer to travel in comfort around the city then consider taking a taxi instead. While the journeys are longer (due to traffic) the comfort, direct journies and still relatively affordable costs are favoured by some.
The classic yellow cabs can be hailed from any corner of the city and Grab (Asia’s answer to Uber are also available).
However, a more quintessential Thailand experience, you could look at getting a trip on a tuk-tuk for around the same price as a taxi.
Bare in mind scammers are prominent when it comes to the taxi and tuk-tuk industry and the drivers are notorious for charging you 400% more than what the journey should actually cost so be prepared to haggle.
For places to stay, the area around Khao San Road is a favourite for backpacker types with hostels ranging between $5 and $20 per bed, per night.
Bangkok’s most popular hostel is Once Again Hostel which boasts a cheap yet sleek experience in the centre of the city.
Alternatively, Bangkok is one of the cheapest places in the world for luxury hotels. Offering 5-star experiences for as little as $125 a night. Make sure to avoid the high-season from November to February and you are sure to bag yourself a luxury experience for next to nothing!
In terms of food the city of contrast offers much the same story. For cheap and authentic experiences you can try local street vendors for a taste of proper Thailand which will blow the budget at around $1-$4 dollars for a meal.
If you’re more conservative about your eating habits then there are numerous options for Western and International food (Subway, Starbucks, McDonalds etc) however, this will come with a price tag reminiscent of prices in the UK or USA.
The majority of attractions and temples in Bangkok require a small amount of money to enter. However, this is insignificant compared to the cost of visiting such establishments in Europe, US and Canada. In fact, we’ve found that the majority of attractions and activities cost less in Bangkok when compared to Phuket due to the nature of the activities.
In Bangkok, it’s more about the culinary experiences and seeing historical monuments. Meanwhile, in Phuket, activities are often centred around the water and therefore cost more (i.e. snorkelling, boat trips and island hopping)
Unsurprisingly Bangkok is the most popular route into the country for tourists. The main airport – Suvarnabhumi Airport – offers extensive links to Europe plus the USA and is a large international hub.
Bangkok is also close to other Thailand hotspots such as Pattaya and Chiang Rai, mainly through sheer geographical positioning in the centre of the country. Which makes it the ideal location for those looking to venture off to other regions of Thailand quickly and affordably.
The majority of people arrive in Bangkok either by bus or plane. We’ve opted for overnight buses to travel domestically within Thailand before as they are significantly cheaper than last minute flights and mean you don’t have to pay for a nights accommodation.
However, these journeys are by no means luxurious and often mean 12 or more hours on an uncomfortable bus which is often filled with passengers.
If you do book far enough in advance then domestic flights to and from Bangkok can be relatively affordable thanks to the two airports in the city.
Indeed, there are a number of temples around the city that draw huge crowds including the Emerald Buddha, Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha, and Wat Arun, which reflects a large number of Buddhists in the country.
Once you have gotten your temple to fill you may want to mix things up slightly. The floating markets are a unique experience, and one not to be missed, and Khao San Road offers endless bars, street food and shops which can be a lovely transition from daytime tourism to the start of some night-time antics. A real must for any visitor.
The night markets in Bangkok are synonymous with anyone living or visiting here, you thought the day was crazy? Just wait till the sun goes down…
The night markets in Bangkok are quintessential to this capital. Offering some of the best street food in the world, counterfeit vendors, cheap beers, smiling locals and a very good time for everyone.
Things To Do
Chatuchak Market is a shopper’s paradise and sells almost everything you would ever need. Open Saturdays and Sundays, this market attracts 200,000 shoppers a day and sells products at ‘locals price’ instead of at the dreaded ‘tourist prices’.
For a more relaxing time, many choose to take a riverboat ride up the Chai Phraya. Known as the ‘Venice of the East’, the riverboat allows you to see Bangkok from a different perspective.
You can also shop till you drop at Siam Paragon which hosts high-end brands, independent stores, a range of mainstream and independent Asian and Western restaurants as well as an aquarium (of all things?).
Much like all great cities, Bangkok also has a place where you can get away from it all and in this city, it’s Lumpini Park. Over half a million square feet in size, the park is ideal for walks, picnics and meeting friends. Founded in 1920, the park has a small artificial lake where visitors can rent pedal boats.
Love it or hate it Bangkok knows how to party. From audacious street pubs to outrageous rooftop bars you can try it all here.
These bars are aptly named as the designers have made these buildings so you can grasp a true 360 of the city’s skyline, not for those scared of heights. As you come down to ground level the previously mentioned Khao San Road is popular in the party scene and amongst a younger crowd.
Cheap drink and quirky bars, this place offers bright lights, noise and acts as a hub for many travelling to Bangkok. A great place to mix and have a laugh with locals and other tourists alike.
The growth of the Bangkok nightlife scene has become synonymous with its tourism boom, but one thing that has always been central in both is the infamously renowned adult-themed party districts.
If you’re looking to experience this I suggest heading to either Soi Cowboy or Patpong. Both of these areas are incredibly popular districts filled with gogo bars and showgirls looking to tempt locals and tourists alike.
Sidenote: Scams are more prevalent here, so if you do plan to head to this district be sure to keep your belongings safe and your wits about you.
Should You Visit Phuket?
In direct contrast to the hustle and bustle of Thailand’s capital city is the island of Phuket. Known for its extraordinary natural beauty from the mountainous landscape to the crystal clear blue waters of the Andaman Sea.
Phuket is very much centred around relaxing and the water. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do (in fact, far from it), however, the vibe is completely different and much more closely aligned with the likes of Bali.
Phuket combined a range of travellers from different backgrounds all searching for the same thing and the region has worked hard over the past two or three decades to be able to cater to that with an ever-extending range of five-star luxury hotels with incredible private swimming pools as well as beach hut hostels.
Due to the nature of the place not only being an island but also looking to cater for a higher end of the market, Phuket can be quite pricey when compared with its metropolitan capital.
In fact, it’s actually considered one of the most expensive places in Thailand. You can expect to pay anything from $5 for a hostel bed per night right up to $400 per night for a luxury villa.
However, don’t let the costs put you off there are some great ways to travel any part of Thailand on a budget and much like Bangkok, there’s always plenty of availability so you shouldn’t struggle to be able to find something to fit your requirements.
I mentioned earlier that Phuket is known to be one of the most expensive places to visit in Thailand. However, this is only marginally applied to purchases such as drinks, food, taxis and souvenirs.
Instead, you’ll find the largest increases on activities and excursions. While this is in the nature of the activities it’s significantly disproportionate to any other activity or cost during your visit to Thailand outside of the Phuket region.
I’ve found the key is to shop around and get the best prices from a number of the different shops over a couple of days. You’ll then know a good deal (and more importantly a bad deal) when you see one.
Phuket Airport is the third busiest airport in Thailand and offers travellers seeking the beaches and islands in the South of the country a gateway. The airport hosts international flights and would spare travellers the hassle of getting a connecting flight from Bangkok, of which there are plenty.
While I have flown directly from England to Phuket Airport generally speaking the flights from Europe direct to Phuket without a stopover or change in Bangkok are rare or significantly higher in price.
The airport itself is 33km away from the city so a taxi or bus is needed upon arrival. We often use a taxi as the prices are reasonable and upon arrival we just want to get to our hotel rather than mess around. Be sure that.
If you decide to get a taxi the driver uses a metre as this is regulated and fixed so the driver can’t inflate the price.
Alternatively, for the seasoned backpacker, a gruelling (and I speak from experience) 15-hour bus from Bangkok to Phuket is more than possible and very cheap (around $10 one-way per person).
There aren’t as many cultural attractions in Phuket when compared to Bangkok however, you’ll certainly not be short of temples to visit or Buddhas to photograph.
We found the best spot for culture to be in the heart of Phuket Old Town. Here you can go on a free self-guided or paid walking tour to see modern day street art alongside 100 year old buildings with an incredible amount of history behind them.
Things To Do
Despite being known for its relaxing beaches and slow pace of living there are actually lots of things to do in Phuket. Perhaps the thing that brings in the most tourists apart from the beach to Phuket, is the diving.
It has excellent coral reefs and Phuket is also a short boat trip away to the Similan Islands which are amongst the best diving spots in the world.
If diving isn’t your thing consider stopping by one of the many national parks surrounding the beaches during your visit, our personal favourite is Sirinat National Park which is located around 3km from Phuket Airport.
Then, of course, there are the beaches. Amongst the most popular are Surin beach, Bang Pae Waterfall and Karon beach.
Each of these beaches is different in size, and offerings (some are busier and therefore have more traders offering ice-creams and massages which is a luxury for some and a pain for others) so be sure to do your research prior to your visit.
There’s always arguments as to which city does nightlife better and in my opinion, it’s Bangkok. The nightlife here in Phuket is fun, but never memorable – or certainly not as memorable as I’ve found nights out in Bangkok to be.
Bangla Road is the strip that everyone heads to for a good night out in Phuket. Here you will be faced with touts, people haggling you and the more illicit ladies of the night. Helen and I once walked the strip just after sunset and was offered to see a ping-pong show more than 15 times!
Despite this, it is easy to have a good time and there are some massive clubs with relatively affordable drinks and in some cases sports on TV (and in other cases dancing girls).
Much like Bangkok, there are some slightly more upscale nightlife establishments that focus more on outdoor lounge beds and cocktails. These tend not to be on Bangala road and instead are along the strip adjacent to the beach.