Thailand.  It’s a place most people believe they will only be able to experience in photos.  A country that seems out of reach for so many.  A country known for spicy food, Thai Massage, beautiful beaches and incredible rainforests.  A country full of amazing people where everyone feels like they belong.  A country where you can party until the early hours of the morning or relax at a spa the entire day.

My Thailand experience was unlike anything I would have ever dreamed of.  I gained so much respect for the people and the culture during my short stay and did my best to do a little bit of everything during my stay.  At the same time this was what I call a ‘budget trip’ so the goal was to enjoy the sites and sounds, but don’t break the bank.

The Mission:  Roundtrip from the U.S. and back including Airfare, accommodations, food and entertainment for $1,000USD or less.

The Flight: Round Trip in Delta One (Business Class) for $70

The planning for this trip began a little over a month ago while I was sitting home researching different international locations.  I knew right off the bat that I had a photography job in California in the middle of May so I decided to tag an international trip onto this to save some money.  LAX is a HUGE international hub so being able to search for flights from LA instead of the midwest was a huge perk.  Using Google Flights I was able to put in the travel dates and Airline preference and search an entire continent in one click!  Bangkok was the first destination that popped up and round trip coach class fare from LAX to Bangkok showed up on Delta for $670USD.  With one seat left on this itinerary I quickly purchased the seat and by using some frequent flyer miles (10,000 = $100) I was able to bring the price down to $70 + 60,000miles.  By doing the pay with miles option I was unable to accrue any regular miles for my flight, but I did receive the MQM’s (Medallion Qualifying Miles) which are very important when trying to reach status tiers with the airline.

After the flight was purchased I quickly called the airline to see if I could use 2 of my 4 Global Upgrade Certificates, a perk given to Delta Diamond Medallion Flyers once they achieve status each year.  My LAX to Tokyo, Bangkok to Tokyo and Tokyo back to LAX flights were immediately upgraded to Business Class, while my  Tokyo to Bangkok flight was upgraded 36 hours before departure.

The Accommodations:  Hostel Life! $7USD to $13USD per night.

When planning a international budget friendly trip one of the things that can blow a budget faster than you can imagine is finding reasonable accommodations for an inexpensive price.  This is where Hostel World comes in.  Hostel World is an app you can download that allows you to search for hostels world wide.  The hostels rely heavily on guests reviewing their hostel and the guest reviews are an extremely accurate portrayal of what to experience.

Hostels are often extremely inexpensive due to the way they are set up.  Instead of booking a private room, you book a bunk in a shared room with between 4-12 people depending on the hostel.  The hostels I booked had anywhere between 6-10 bunks each along with lockers provided to keep your valuables safe.  It’s definitely a unique way to travel, but many of the other guests are from all around the world and are there for an adventure.  It’s extremely easy to make friends quickly and visit the sites in groups due to so many people wanting to do the same thing.

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Thailand Transportation: Travel like a local.  

Thailand transportation is extremely unique compared to other places I’ve visited around the world.  Of course there is always the option to hire a taxi, but whenever available my preferred mode of transportation was a Tuk Tuk or Red Truck.

Tuk Tuk! Tuk Tuk’s are EVERYWHERE and the drivers are licensed separately from taxi drivers.  They are much less expensive, but definitely more of a fun way of transportation.  The best way to explain them is by saying its a motor bike with a bench seat attached to the back, complete with a roof.  Many of the drivers take great pride in their Tuk Tuk and completely retrofit them with lights and sound systems to make it quite the experience.  I felt very safe each time I road in one of these and really enjoyed them, plus its a nice way to cool down in the extremely hot climate.

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I do have to say it is important to make sure to tell the driver exactly where you want to go.     I made the mistake of telling one of my drivers that I wanted to go to a place to drink and he definitely found some places for me to go.  The first place he attempted to drop me off at was a bar with 20 women sitting on chairs as you enter and a menu that included drinks and the number of women you wanted for an hour.  I believe the goal was more of companionship instead of them being prostitutes, but from what I was informed, it is customary to buy the ladies drinks while they are with you and the drinks are set at a very PREMIUM price so costumers unaware of what they are getting into could spend hundreds of dollars unknowingly in exchange for a couple hours of companionship.  The second place was even more sketchy, a massage parlor which included a “shower massage”…  I didn’t even ask what that was and made him fully aware if he did not take me to a bar full of paying customers he would not be receiving his fare.  After this we quickly found a fun location and on my way I went.

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Red Truck! In Chiang Mai there was another option which was a Red Truck.  Also known as a pick up truck with two bench seats and roof capable of carrying anywhere between 10-15 people.  These were also extremely inexpensive and a little bit more professional.  For example I took a 2 hour excursion where it was a 30 minute trip each way and the driver waited for me in the lot.  The total cost: 300 Baht or the equivalent of $8.50USD.  Even though its not customary to tip I gave him 50 Baht extra ($1.50USD) and he thanked me over and over with the namaste greeting and thank you thank you.

Motor bikes! The main way of transportation for a large chunk of the population is Motor Bike so pulling up to a stop light and being surrounded by 50-100 motor bikes became common place after the first day.  I was even able to catch a few rides from the locals from place to place.  My favorite massage therapist found me walking around town one afternoon and offered to take me to where I needed to go.  My Thai Friend, Ann, took me around town for a day on her motor bike.  One of the bars in Phuket even had a motor bike that took you from the bar to the restroom!  Quite the experience.

Hire a Private Driver!  During one of my days in Bangkok I was given a great tip to higher a driver for the day.  His name was Witoon and for the price of 2,000Baht he was available from 8 in the morning to 4:30 in the evening to take me to different places around Bangkok and beyond.  He knew English fairly well, but we often times found ourselves stuck as to what we were trying to say.  We were able to visit many different temples during the day and he explained what the different statues stood for and how long each of the temples was around.

Domestic Flights! Flights in and around the country are very inexpensive.  With one way flights ranging from $24 – $100 each way to destinations around the country I was able to arrive at the airport, look at flight costs on different airlines and purchase right then and there.  There was even a flight to Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam for $74 round trip, but due to my short stay I figured it would be best to stay in the country.  The small airlines in Thailand were quite different from the flights we are used to in the states.  They were half empty, and meal service was provided on every flight.  During my 45 minute flight from Phuket back to Bangkok they served a small fruit plate, toasted bread with cheese and sausage on top, a snack, water, juice and tea throughout the short 45 minute flight.  Quite impressive!

Activities: Budget Friendly to VIP LYFE!

There a little bit of everything in Thailand and thats the great thing about it!  Animal tourism is a huge market in Thailand, but at the same time it is very controversial. Many animal rights groups find the way the animals treated to be inhumane so before I dived in to these activities I did my research.  There is everything from elephant rides to playing with tigers, king cobra shows to primate photo ops.  I’ve never been huge into activities with animals so I decided to do my research and find a good Tiger exhibit to visit.

Play with a Tiger!  There is a place in Chiang Mai called Tiger Kingdom that allows you to get into a cage with tigers of all sizes, baby to full size adult.  I opted for the full size adult and 2-3 year old tiger.  For 1200 baht ($34USD)  I was able to hop into a cage with a full sized tiger, a trainer and a photographer for 10 minutes to be photographed with the tiger and see him chase around some toys.  After this we moved over to another cage that had 4 or 5 playful 2-3 year old tigers which seemed to be full of life.  It was an incredible experience that I would highly recommend to anyone.  After my visit I chatted with a couple that was staying at the same hostel that went and had the same experience.  They were both animal rights activists and were extremely impressed with how the animals were cared for and treated so I feel if they were okay with it, I wasn’t supporting anything bad.

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Temple Visits! Another incredible experience was taking a Red Truck to the top of a mountain to a Temple that overlooked all of Chiang Mai.  The trip took about 30 minutes each way and we were given an hour and a half to adventure around the temple and surrounding areas. Overall the ride was 500 baht per person ($14USD)  and depending on the number of people riding could have ranged from 300 baht to 1,000 baht.

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Rent a Bike!  While I was in Bangkok I decided to rent a bicycle for an early morning ride.  Although not the safest activity to do in the big city I felt that an early morning ride would be quite harmless and at a rental price of 20 baht for an hour, very inexpensive as well.  I was able to adventure around a couple markets that were getting set up, ride past a couple temples and get a bit lost in a couple sketchy areas of town.  What I really should have done was set a home destination so I knew where I needed to get back to, but that would have been far too simple.  Overall instead of a quick 5km ride I ended up riding 25km around Bangkok, and enjoyed a quick ride on the busy highway, being laughed at by an old lady who tried to help direct me to where I needed to go and giggled at by a bunch of school children.

Visit a Park!  There are many parks all over Thailand that are absolutely gorgeous.  On one of the days I went with a few of the amazing locals that I met to a beautiful lake off the beaten path.  The park was 50baht to enter, but was full of little huts along the water that you could relax in and there was a restaurant that would bring excellent local food to you.

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Long Boat through the Floating Market!  Thailand is known world wide for it’s famous floating markets.  They are in different places around Thailand, but only accessible by long boat.  Vendors from all over the area fill their boats with the goods they are trying to sell and barter with you as much as they can trying to make you buy their products.  You can buy everything in these markets from handmade goods to all different types of food and produce.  Renting a boat with a skilled driver ranges from 2,000baht to 3,000baht ($55-$83)  for a 1-2 hour trip through the market.  Price stays the same whether its 1 person renting the boat (like myself) or a group of 6.

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Club Life!  Bangkok is known for its world famous rooftop bars and I have to admit, they were quite impressive.  Unlike many of the other places I’ve visited, these rooftop bars were absolutely free to get into, but the drinks were rather expensive for Thailand.  I ended up at a rooftop bar called ‘Above 11’ a multi story roof top club situated at the top of one of the nicer hotels in Bangkok.  For a double jack and coke I ended up paying around 560 baht which was extremely expensive compared to the other drinks I was used to, but when you look at the price compared to many american clubs it was still pretty inexpensive. (For example, years ago I visited a roof top bar in NYC and spent $40-$50 per drink for a Jack and Coke)  Would I recommend these places?  ABSOLUTELY!  The views were incredible and although it was a pretty slow night, it was a nice way to relax.

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Thai Massage Heaven!  I quickly discovered one of my favorite activities was Thai massage.  No, I did not visit any of the happy ending massage parlors, no need for that.  Instead I visited a few massage centers in Chiang Mai that were ran by the local women’s prison.  The women that worked as massage therapists were nonviolent offenders who were trained in massage and currently incarcerated at the jail.  The money they made from the massages was saved for them for once they were released and the job experience helped them gain confidence to be put back into the work place after they were released.  Pretty smart idea if you ask me.  Do I know why they were in jail?  No, but I do know that you can be thrown in jail for speaking negatively of the King and for other very random things so I did not feel the least bit nervous about these women.  The massages were INCREDIBLE!  My body was practically turned into a human pretzel and pushed around and my back was walked on and pushed into different positions.  I ended up spending between 3-4 hours per day getting massages and enjoying other services they provided like facials (Hey, why not!) Thai Massage in Chiang Mai: 200baht per hour.  Thai Massage in Phuket: 300baht per hour.

Custom Suit?  Why not!  This is where my budget was blown..  I visited a custom tailor just to check out what he had available and ended up loving the experience!  There were hundreds of fabrics to choose from and everything was completely custom.  There was no trying on a pre made suit and having it altered, only a whole lot of measurements being taken and a cut of the fabric infront of my eyes.  We had about 6 fittings over the next day and a half to check and recheck how the suits were fitting and they turned out incredible!  I started with one suit and one dress shirt and walked away a day later with 2 suits and 5 dress shirts.  All made by hand that day.  Total cost for 2 suits, 5 dress shirts and belt: 16,000baht or $450USD.  This is where my budget was blown…

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Food: Holy SPICY!!!!!

The Thai food was absolutely incredible and widely available.  There seemed to be restaurants everywhere you looked with people screaming at you to come eat.  I tried to stick with the small restaurants that seemed to be small mom and pop shops and they did not disappoint.  Just remember, when they ask if you want it spicy they mean do you want it to be Thailand Spicy…  By Thailand Spicy I mean mouth burning, eyes watering, face sweating, lip burning spicy.  Of course most of the time I said yes, fearing the locals would laugh that I could not handle their spicy food.  Instead they laughed when I found myself ordering ice cream after each meal to help cure the burn.  But hey, it’s Thailand.  You have to have the spicy thai food!  American food is readily available as well so if you prefer your McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and Starbucks there  is no need to worry.  That is everywhere as well, unfortunately..

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Overall experience: I LOVE THAILAND!  

Thailand was an incredible place. The people were phenomenal.  So inviting, accepting of everyone and enjoyable to be around.  The activities were plentiful.  The scenery was beautiful and the prices were fantastic.  I do have to say that one week in Thailand was definitely not enough, but if thats all you have available it’s still very well worth it.  Will I be back?  Absolutely.  I’m already looking into flights!  I have a feeling that Thailand will be one of those international locations that I continue going back to over and over again.

How much did I spend?  

My goal was to spend no more than $1,000USD.  In one way I pulled that off, in another I did not.  If it was not for the 2 custom suit and 5 custom shirt spending spree I would have definitely met my goal, but due to the extra’s I purchased I blew my budget by around $300.

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