If you are planning a trip to Thailand, there is nothing you really need to know before you go. Throwing yourself headfirst into a new country and culture with little to no prior research or planning is my preferred method of travel and usually yields the most interesting memories and valuable lessons. If this is not your preferred method, then there are hundreds of things that would have been helpful to know before my 30-day, solo backpacking trip to Thailand nearly a year ago. For example: Don’t get into a “tuk-tuk” that propositions you from the street. The big, red, open-air trucks are much more reliable, much less sketchy, and usually cheaper to boot. Here’s another: Never rely on a public restroom to stock toilet paper. Carry some with you at all times.
This list could go on and on, but I’m not here today to talk to you about the joy of 24/7 diarrhea or the thrill of wondering whether or not that tuk-tuk just kidnapped you on your first day in Bangkok. I’m here to talk about my three favorite things and where the best of them can be found in Thailand.
In a land that lacks a Starbucks around every other corner, coffee, namely good coffee, can be somewhat hard to come by, especially in the smaller cities. I personally ended up drinking cans of Nescafé until I found this gem of a cafe in one of my favorite cities in Thailand: Chiang Mai. If you’ve already bought the Lonely Planet guidebook and wondered about visiting Libernard Cafe, then read this and wonder no more. Do it. Not only is it some of the best espresso I found in the Land of Smiles, it has a unique setting and ambiance that lets you forget you’re in one of the biggest cities in the country. Also, the owner is extremely charming, accommodating, and friendly. Each time I visited the cafe I brought new friends with me, and by the third or fourth visit the owner was so grateful for the business (we were the only customers there every time we went), she gave me several espressos on the house. One day, my friends and I sat around and chatted so long that she even brought us an off-the-menu, traditional, Thai chicken and rice dish that she cooked just for us, free of charge. This is the kind of personal touch that makes this place more than just a cafe and kept me coming back.
This one is simple, and its a conclusion that anyone will come to the morning after a night of pounding Chang beer. If you’re going to drink beer in Thailand, there is only one: Singha beer. I say ‘Singha beer’ because that’s how Thais say it. If you order a ‘Singha,’ they will give you a strange look and then reply ‘Singha beer?’ The answer is: “Yes.” I’ve heard rumors that Chang beer has no regulations on its alcohol content and thus ranges anywhere from 2% to 20%. I have also heard that the manufacturers add formaldehyde to the brew to increase its intoxicating effects. I don’t know whether either of these accusations are true, but I do know that my state of mind never quite equated to the volume of Chang I’d drank and the mornings after were always unpleasant regardless.
So avoid the infamous “Changover” and stick with Singha beer. Besides, its what the locals drink.
Specifically, street food. Okay, this one is harder because you can find just about anything you want at a street food stand, especially in Bangkok, and its almost all pretty good. Let me emphasize ‘almost’ because unless you’re really hankering for a scorpion on a stick or the flame-kissed entrails of an animal you couldn’t even begin to identify, its not all pretty good.
*Quick side note: If you’re wondering why I’m only considering street food here instead of all food it is because I rarely ate in restaurants during my time in Thailand. Street food is cheaper than and just as tasty, if not more so, as the same dish served in a restaurant. I also prefer alley cuisine because I can see it being cooked right in front of me, which is of some comfort in the ultimately futile fight to avoid indigestion in this country.
So, as far as street food goes, things like Pad Thai, Massaman curry, or chicken-on-a-stick are always tasty, relatively safe, and fairly ubiquitous in the regions commonly visited by tourists. But my favorite, hands-down most delicious and affordable street dish I found in Thailand was found in only one city. And it wasn’t even Thai. It was the Japanese pancakes in the small, quiet, but increasingly popular city of Pai in the Mae Hong Son province in northern Thailand, near the Myanmar border. This crispy, yet soft and flaky pancake topped with meat, sweet mayonnaise, and a handful of other toppings and spices had my friends and I coming back literally every night for the week or so we were in Pai. Best of all it will cost you less than a buck. Look for it along with all the other street vendors on the main drag of the city once the sun goes down.
Its a small city, you’ll find it.
Of course, these are all strictly my opinions and should be regarded as such, but I would truly be doing the world a disservice if I didn’t spread the word about Libernard Cafe and Japanese pancakes. With a few parting words, I’ll share one more tip that actually could save you hundreds of dollars. I learned this one the hard way:
Avoid the “Tourist Information” buildings. If you disregarded my tip at the beginning of this post, you’ll have a hard time disregarding this one as most of the tuk-tuk drivers, at least in Bangkok, are given commissions on trips that are sold to tourists that they bring to the businesses. This means that you might find yourself being shooed into the Tourist Information building by your tuk-tuk driver before he or she takes you where you thought you were going. The TI agents do a pretty good job of arranging trips for tourists, but they typically charge three to four times as much for the same activities you could have just as easily booked yourself on the web. That extra two or three hundred dollars you save by booking yourself goes a very long way in a country where the U.S. dollar is roughly 30 times as powerful as the local currency. Instead of wasting it on packaged tours, use that extra money to extend your trip or, better yet, buy some Japanese pancakes.