Petrol's just gone up. Again.

But we still want to be able to travel.

In the world of value-for-money travel experiences, it’s not just about the destination you choose for your next holiday. It’s how you choose to navigate it. When you’re staring R17 to one euro in the eye, avoiding expensive rookie travel mistakes or saving R1000 on the cost of a visa become all the more important.

This is one of the reasons visa-free destinations like Thailand are becoming even more appealing for South African travellers when the rand is in free-fall. But even these can be unnecessarily expensive if you don’t have the local know-how to get the best “Bangkok” for your buck.

We spoke to three Thailand experts to get their first-hand insider tips to travelling to Thailand:

Go beyond the beach

Of course, Thailand’s tropical beaches will always be the main attraction, from party paradise in Phuket in the west, to the more peaceful surrounds of Koh Samui in the east.

But for an all-round Thailand experience, consider spending more than a stopover in Bangkok, or head north for an immersive cultural experience with the Northern Hill Tribes.  

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Delve into the history of ancient Thai kingdoms at Sukothai and Ayutthaya, go kayaking among the karsts that rise up from the Andaman Sea just off Krabi, or take a cooking class in Chiang Mai to learn about the ‘Five Flavours of Thai’, suggests Contiki marketing executive, Kele Scheppers.

Kele’s hidden gems in Thailand:

  • We feature Khao Yai National Park in one of our Thailand trips because it’s located near Bangkok and has an impressive array of hiking trails for travellers to encounter epic nature.
  • Divers will adore a visit to Koh Tao, otherwise known as Turtle Island. And there’s nothing better than sitting on its pristine beaches after a day of underwater discovery with a cold Singha.
  • If you love Thai food, don an apron and learn to make some of its favourites like Pad Thai and sticky rice, mango and coconut at a cooking course in Chiang Mai.

Bangkok or bust, baby

Many South Africans choose to top or tail their Thai beach visit with a night or two in Bangkok, but you should consider extending that to at least four days.

Frequent Bangkok traveller Natalia Rosa, suggests staying in the Sukhumvit, Siam or Old City areas because of the hectic traffic in the city. “While Bangkok’s public transport system is excellent – tuk-tuks, taxis, BTS Skytrain and even water taxis – traffic can be a nightmare. So, even if you’re staying just 10km outside the city centre, you could sit in traffic for over an hour, and be warned that tuk-tuks are often more expensive than taxis.”

The areas around Khao San Road and Si Lom BTS station are more characteristic of what travellers perceive Bangkok to be, and heave no matter what time of the day or night you’re visiting.

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If you’re a keen shopper, there’s no better place to visit than the Sukhumvit district, with MBK Shopping Centre being a firm favourite among bargain hunters.

You’ll also bump into street food vendors around every turn who seem to sell everything in a little plastic bag, even soup or iced coffee. Make sure you try some of their tasty treats – they are cheap and delicious, says Natalia.

“My favourite all-time Bangkok experiences include a cycling tour amidst the traditional Thai stilt houses in Bangkok’s suburbs, walking or running around Lumphini Park to see the Thais in their daily Tai Chi practice, or enjoying sundowners across the river from Wat Arun, one of Bangkok’s most beautiful temples.”

Natalia’s hidden gems in Bangkok:

  • My favourite bar, Cheap Charlie’s, has been reincarnated at 7 2/7 Soi Sukhumvit 1/1 – it’s a quirky dive that serves great drinks and has a great crowd.
  • I love shopping at Jim Thompsons’ factory shop on Soi Sukhumvit 93 for the finest silk gifts and clothes at a budget price.
  • My recommended restaurant in Bangkok is a favourite with the locals, which means it must be good. Head to Khrua Nai Baan near the corner of Soi Langsuan and Soi Sarasin, near Lumphini Park.

East or west, which is best?

Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, remains the main destination for South Africans. While it offers the quintessential experience travellers expect from a Thailand holiday, there’s something special about visiting the eastern islands of Koh Samui, Kao Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao, in the Gulf of Thailand. Kele says these three islands have been selected for Contiki’s Thai Island Hopper East because it’s as close as you can get to paradise as far as she’s concerned.

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“All three islands are very different even though they’re within an hour or so from each other. Koh Samui offers beautiful beaches, but also the vibrant shopping area of Chaweng Beach and a beautiful forest-clad interior clad with hidden waterfalls. Koh Pha-Ngan is perhaps most famous for its Full Moon Party, but it’s also a pristine haven with stunning beaches. Koh Tao is a great option for divers and snorkellers, but it also offers a laid-back beach vibe which you’ll never want to leave behind.”

Kele’s hidden gems in the three islands:

  • For great shopping and nightlife on Koh Samui, you have to visit Chaweng Beach. Located on the island’s east coast, Chaweng is a busy village by day, but at night it’s a busy hotspot. There’s also a lively night market.
  • Time your visit to coincide with the full moon so you can join Koh Pha-Ngan’s famous Full Moon Party, but if you want to skip the party, head to Thola Sala Night Market for great Thai street food, or embark on a hike in search of one of its seven waterfalls.
  • Nothing is more heavenly than a massage on one of the beaches of Koh Tao. This island expects nothing from you but relaxation, and you need never leave the comfort of your resort unless of course, you want to experience its underwater wonderland for which is renowned.

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Finally, tried-and-tested advice from Chelsey Hale, a former South African expat who relocated to Thailand, is to pack appropriately. “Don’t make the same mistake I did by arriving there with a massive trolley bag,” says Hale. “You’ll be knocking into nearly everyone, riding over their toes and when you end up near the beach, good luck getting it across the sand!

“Wherever you go in Thailand, a backpack will be your best friend. And always arrive in a new place with it half full. Trust me, you will find so many things you’ll want to buy as a memento of your trip, you’ll probably end up with more than a few souvenirs to take back home... if you don’t end up staying for good, as I did,” she concludes.

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