Discovering the Best of Thailand on a Tight Budget

Photography Carolyn Enting

Good editor Carolyn Enting takes a tour in Thailand on a tight budget.

Budget-friendly, beautiful and the land of smiles, Thailand tops the list as a holiday destination that blends beach time with ancient history and water blessings.

Ancient Ayutthaya

A UNESCO World Heritage site, Ayutthaya is about an hour and a half by train from Bangkok. It was the second capital of Siam and once home to 400 glittering temples. Its golden era ended when the Burmese sacked the city in 1767. Today you can visit the remaining ruins which can be found within the heart of the city and reimagine its former splendour. Entry to most wats (temples) is $2.50 and some are free.

Top wats to visit:

Wat Mahathat – Best-known for the head of a Buddha statue entwined in the roots of a tree, Wat Mahathat was built in 1374 and is one of the most photographed and picturesque wats still standing.

Wat Ratchaburana – Built in 1424, it has been well restored. You can climb the tower (pictured left) and view some great examples of the original stucco.

Wat Lokayasutharam – It’s free to go and view this particularly beautiful and large (42m x 8m) reclining Buddha whose head rests on a lotus, also carved from stone. Devotees come here to make offerings and you can make one too by buying a lotus flower from a nearby vendor.

Wat Chaiwatthanaram – One of the most spectacular of all Ayutthaya temples, a good time to visit is just before sunset. This wat is also extremely popular with tourists who hire traditional Thai costumes from across the road and pose for pictures amongst the ruins.

Wat Phra Ram – Has the least well-preserved stucco so gets the least number of visitors which makes it lovely to visit as you can sit in peace amongst the ruins and imagine what it was like all those years ago.

Wat Ratchaburana

Eating in Ayutthaya

The night market on Bang Ian Rd is popular with locals and visitors alike and you’ll be full before you’ve tried everything you want to eat and barely spent $5.

For a midday break between visiting temples, head to riverside restaurant Baan Kun Pra. A historic home built around 100 years ago at a time when Western ideas influenced Siamese society, it “marks a meeting point for history lovers” and you can dine outside with a view of the river.

Bangkok highlight

Jim Thompson House & Museum is Bangkok’s equivalent of Dunedin’s Olveston or New York’s Frick Collection.

The home is a superb example of traditional Thai architecture and filled with Thompson’s personal belongings, including his outstanding art collection of ancient artefacts from Thailand and Myanmar.

The celebrated Thai silk merchant disappeared mysteriously in 1967 while visiting friends in Malaysia and his whereabouts still a mystery to this day.

The home is surrounded by beautiful tropical gardens which are free to wander through. Guided tours of the house must be booked.

The most exciting, picturesque and cheap way to get there is by canal boat. jimthompsonhouse.org

Chiang Mai blessings

Hug an elephant and celebrate Songkran (the Thai New Year) in northern Thailand’s historic city Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is renowned as the city that best celebrates the multi-day festival in April with a friendly water fight as well as by sprinkling water over people’s heads or Buddha statues.

Be prepared to be soaked multiple times a day, though with temperatures averaging 37-39 degrees Celsius, drying out is not a problem and getting wet rather welcome.

Four fabulous things to do in Chiang Mai:

Elephant experience – Due to pressure from tourists and animal action groups, many elephant operators no longer allow you to ride elephants in Chiang Mai, – which is a win for the elephants! Reputable organisations include Hug Elephant Sanctuary where you can trek alongside elephants in the mountains on foot and swim in waterfalls.

Go to the “beach” – For an authentic Thai experience, head to Huay Tueng Thao Lake which is a popular day out for Thai families for swimming and water play. Like us, you may well be the only tourists here. Grab one of the waterfront huts that ring the lake and order drinks and food from on-site waiters between swims. During peak season lifeguards patrol the area, too. $2.50 entry.

Doi Suthep – The 300+ stair climb to this sacred site is a must! Marvel at the golden chedi, temple, shrines and pagodas. Aspects of the wat draw from both Buddism and Hinduism, and the tiers represent the level of heavens that one must ascend in order to achieve Nirvana as well as the hierarchy associated with a monarchy. On a rare clear day, you’ll also get a great view of downtown Chiang Mai.

Have a Thai massage or three – There are plenty of excellent establishments in Chiang Mai offering traditional Thai massage or oil massage for feet, head and shoulders, or full body. Typically, one hour is 250 baht ($12.50). Supattra Blind Massage & Reflexology on Sri Poom Rd is excellent for traditional Thai massage.

Huay Tueng Thao Lake

Island escape

Trat (a four-hour bus ride from Bangkok) is the gateway to islands Koh Kood, Koh Mak and Koh Chang as well as many smaller islands with tropical white sand beaches.

Koh Kood is universally acknowledged as the most beautiful island in Thailand, with many palm-fringed swimming beaches to explore. Most beaches are accessed via resorts but you don’t need to be a guest at these resorts to access and enjoy these beautiful beaches.

Top spots on Koh Kood:

Bang Bao Beach – Access via Bang Bao Resort, this beautiful white sand beach has a pier and picturesque swing for the obligatory Instagram shot.

Tinkerbell Beach – Public access from the road or Tinkerbell Resort, this beach has the most beautiful powder-soft white sand and picturesque twin palms.

Ao Noi Beach – Great for swimming and snorkelling, this beautiful crescent- shaped beach is framed with palm trees and aesthetically pleasing giant rocks. It also has a very pretty Asian-style pier. Access is via Noi Resort.

Ao Phrao Beach – The most remote beach on Koh Kood with public access, though you need to walk quite a distance to get to the beach from the sealed road. It’s wildly beautiful with lots of palm trees, and where coconuts (and sadly, plastic waste) wash up.

Klong Chao Waterfall – A short walk through the jungle will bring you to the waterfall and a huge pool for swimming. Even if there hasn’t been much rain it is worth a visit as you can still swim in the pool.

Go for a paddle – Kayak upriver and around the estuary where the river meets the sea. Paddle to the end of the river past mangrove trees with magnificent root systems and along the way you’re also likely to spot herons and monkeys. Finish up at the beach by pulling your kayak up onto the sand and go for a swim.

Sunset spots – Neighbouring View Point Café or Sunset Bar are the best places to watch the sunset and people paddle boarding and kayaking around the estuary.

Fishing Village – Dine on fresh seafood at stilt house Chonthicha Seafood restaurant at Ao Yai Pier. Crayfish, the most expensive thing on the menu, is $17.50. You’ll pass a scenic lookout of the fishing village on the way here, too.

Best cocktails – Never Bar & Café at Peter Pan Resort serves fantastic cocktails. Located on the sandspit that straddles the beach and river, it can be accessed via the resort, by walking along the beach, or by kayak.

Kayak upriver and around the estuary where the river meets the sea. Paddle to the end of the river past mangrove trees with magnificent root systems and along the way you’re also likely to spot herons and monkeys

Where to stay

Choosing “travel sustainable” approved accommodation through booking.com softens your travel footprint.

Here are five budget-friendly escapes that we tried and loved.

Sweets Escape, Bangkok, approx. $63 per night

This really is a sweet escape in busy Bangkok city. Boutique in size and character, it’s tucked down a quiet side street yet a convenient 2-minute walk to the BTS Skytrain and MRT rail and multi-storey Terminal 21 shopping centre with an outstanding foodcourt. Beds super-comfortable. AC.

Hippy Hut, Koh Chang, approx. $15 per night

Choose a budget-friendly yurt-style bungalow with fan, mosquito net and basic ensuite or a room in the main building. Set in a picturesque jungle-like location, enjoy waking with the birds. Breakfast is extra but you won’t be able to go past the Earl Grey banana pancakes. A 10-minute walk from Bang Bao fishing village, shops and seafood restaurants, or short scooter ride to Khong Koi Beach, the nicest swimming beach on Koh Chang. BYO soap and shampoo.

Harley Moon Hideaway, Koh Chang, approx. $70 per night

It’s easy to relax at this gorgeous boutique escape with a unique red-tiled pool! Enjoy a welcome drink on arrival and relax in your comfortable private villa equipped with everything you could possibly need. Located opposite Good Thai Massage, good restaurants and a short walk to beach. Fan and AC. Peddle bikes available.

Hello Hostel Ayutthaya, Ayutthaya, approx. $31 per night

For price and location this clean, friendly hostel is hard to beat.

We booked the private family room with ensuite. Basic continental breakfast is included. You can hire scooters or pushbikes from here. Walkable to night market and Wats Mahathat and Ratchaburana. AC.

Yi’s Garden Villa, Chiang Mai approx. $54 per night

A quiet haven located in the old city area with comfortable beds and a swimming pool. A lovely place to retreat to after a busy day of sightseeing with great restaurants, bars and Thai massage close by. AC.


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