Thailand has to be one of the world's best backpacking destinations, and it's only really its popularity that threatens to change that. Despite being a mecca for young, party-loving travellers, the country offers excellent value; gorgeous islands and varied landscapes; exciting cities; cheap yet delicious food; and (for those willing to make the effort) authentic cultural experiences.
Here are our top backpacking tips for Thailand:
1. Get peace of mind before you leave
First things first: decide which travel insurance to take out. A shocking number of backpackers travel without insurance because they want to 'save money', and don't believe they are likely to need it or make a claim. Yet even the most careful backpacker can experience a medical emergency, or have possessions stolen, lost, or damaged – at which point that decision to without insurance becomes a very expensive one. Most comprehensive backpacker's insurance covers you for these eventualities, and much more - don't leave home without it.
2. Manage your expectations
Prepare yourself for an adventure full of golden temples, white sandy beaches, long-tail boat rides, flower-strewn shrines, lush jungle, and aromatic curries. On the flip side, expect to encounter squat toilets, cockroaches, mangy street dogs, delayed transport, power cuts, and people giving you the wrong directions.
3. Relax into the Thai 'Mai pen rai' way of life
If you're organised and like things done according to schedule, Thailand probably isn't the ideal destination for you. If, on the other hand, you're laid-back and willing to take the Thai 'Mai pen rai' ('never mind') approach to life, then you'll be well on your way to a fantastic trip.
4. Don't just follow the crowds
There are countless travel guides out there covering the best places to visit in Thailand, but many point you straight to the obvious destinations such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and islands such as Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi. When you get talking to fellow travellers, familiar route patterns will emerge – and while the destinations on these routes should remain on your list, don't miss out on some of Thailand's less obvious but equally beautiful places if you want to enjoy some more authentic experiences. Explore the backstreet khlongs (canals) of Bangkok to get a unique perspective on the city, or head to the weird Forensic Science Museum. Go trekking in Khao Sok National Park, a steamy jungle area of incredible natural beauty, full of colourful birds and butterflies. Visit the historic city of Sukhothai, which was the 13th and 14th century capital of the Kingdom of Siam, and Ayutthaya, the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai. There are too many worthwhile options to list here, but if you do some serious research you'll soon be wondering if you can fit it all in to the time you've set aside.
5. Get talking to some ExPats
Thailand is home to a healthy (or not so healthy, in some cases!) ExPat population. These people have a deeper understanding of the country than transient travellers can hope for, and if you can get chatting to them you'll learn a lot. They'll also know the best places to eat, drink and party. Watch out, though – you might just find yourself staying longer than you intended.