I want to go to Thailand on vacation and avoid throngs of Japanese tourists. What are some good places?
April 9, 2004 12:16 AM   Subscribe

Thailand: Whats good? [keep a'lookin-->]

I have been living in Tokyo for the past couple years and after much duress, I have managed to rig a trip out to Thailand for golden week. Here's the thing, I will be with a friend of mine who is mostly interested in SCUBA diving, of which I am neither certified nor experienced. He is totally hell bent on going to Phuket, which as I understand is quite the tourist destination, particularly for Japanese people. Having not been out of Tokyo for a year and a half, the last thing i am interested in is being in throngs of japanese people, or being in a heavily populated area. I am mostly just looking for a little peace, quiet, and good weather. I have many friends here who all have their own recommendations, for one reason or another, but I am wondering if anyone has any info on nice locations that might accommodate both of us, or if going to Phuket is the best bet.

FYI: I am not interested in tourist traps, tour packages, big cities, or the sex industry. Beaches are a plus, serenity is a must. I am definitely more concerned with sanity preservation than sight-seeing, Tokyo has taken its toll on me.
posted by lkc to Travel & Transportation around Thailand (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
After an amazing but exhausting trip through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, I spent a glorious week on Koh Tao at Ban's Diving doing my Rescue Diving and Medic Diver Certification. Ban's is one of the many SCUBA places on Koh Tao, but everyone I met there was incredibly impressed with their instructors, safety record, clean equipment, fast boats and on-site pool for initial open-water certification. Ban's has the highest rating -- five star PADI certification. (PADI is one of the certification organizations, and in my experience, more well-known than NAUI.) I decided on Koh Tao because it was a happy medium between relaxing serenity and a well-run, safe and worthwhile diving location. Koh Pha-Ngan is known for it's full-moon parties; while I wanted some nightlife options, I also didn't want to deal with that crowd for my last week in the sun. I also had some of the best food on Koh Tao -- the lady, Plah, that cooked at Ban's was absolutely, positively, sweet beyond all words. She would whip up a fantastic curry, smoothie, grilled fish...mmm...take me with you! The islands have the benefit of a great boatride on either end of your trip - it doesn't really add that much time, but it certainly contributes to the feeling of a big exhalation and the start of a nice, warm, relaxing vacation after a long plane ride.

I didn't get to Phuket, but from what I've heard, it's incredibly touristy (not that any beach in Thailand isn't, but it's a matter of degree and type of touristy surroundings). I know some friends that had a great time at Krabi and Phi Phi (on the same side as Phuket, I believe; just further south on the peninsula). From what I could tell, it seemed less upscale than Phuket and thus less touristy. Also, look at the weather patterns for your visit. When I was there, the Phuket side was due for some monsoon rain type patterns, and I wanted clear diving water, so I headed to the other side.

You could easily do an open-water certification in a week, if that interests you, with enough time to relax on your days off as well. Your friend could do another certification level or just join the many fun dives that go out every few hours and most nights (definitely do a night dive if the phosphorescence is active while you're there). However, if diving isn't your thing, Koh Tao/Samui/Pha-Ngan probably won't have much else in terms of activities, and I don't think the beaches are quite as nice as the Krabi/Phuket side.

I didn't use them, but Sea Canoe is very well known for holding eco-friendly paddling tours with varying durations and packages (lasting from a few hours to several days). I just looked at their site, and they're offering trips out of Phuket, Koh Samui and Krabi right now. I did a similar kayaking trip for a week in northern Vietnam, and I can't recommend the experience enough - you get way off the beaten path, into caves and deserted islands, and onto floating villages, tiny huts for dinner, and fantastic nights under the stars.

Having said all of that, if someone gave me a ticket to Bangkok, I'd take it in a second --- and get on the first flight/bus to Cambodia. Thailand is still phenomenal, but it's becoming overrun by the day; there are still places you can get away from it all, but Cambodia's about 30 years behind, and you're not subject to rip-off schemes on every corner.

My email address is in my profile if you want any more ideas or suggestions for Bangkok and the trip down to the coast!
posted by fionab at 1:34 AM on April 9, 2004

You are 100% correct about Phuket, although if you get stuck there you may relish the ability to get a pizza more than 2 millimeters thick for less than 3000 yen, and to see a movie for less than 1800 yen. You'll probably have to go through there or Bangkok though, due to airplane things. Just north or south of there, off the mainland, are many tiny, tiny islands, so search some of them out somehow. I managed to find some islands with less than 20 people on them, all of whom worked for the one giant hut they called a hotel. Pretty much anywhere except Phuket should be relatively okay. Koh Samui, on the other side of the mainland, is also pretty busy in terms of diving, but isn't as much of a tourist trap as Phuket, so you may be able to strike a compromise with your friend that way.
posted by donkeymon at 1:39 AM on April 9, 2004

PS: I didn't mean for it to sound like Thailand is chock-full of rip-off schemes. The touristy areas of Bangkok itself are the most startling, but once you're out of the city, it should be clear sailing!
posted by fionab at 1:44 AM on April 9, 2004

No beaches, but Chang Mai up in the north is wonderful.
posted by konolia at 4:38 AM on April 9, 2004

" Cambodia's about 30 years behind, and you're not subject to rip-off schemes on every corner."

I undertand we all find our own reality when travelling, but Cambodia, like every other SE Asian country, has MORE than its fair share of gougers.

At least a Thai wouldn't charge $1 for an out-of-date can of coke (like they do at Siem Riep)!
posted by the cuban at 5:28 AM on April 9, 2004

We used to go for weekends in Kanchanaburi (where the bridge over the river Kwai was). The Sugar Cane guest house on Soi Pakistan has lovely rooms, built on a raft moored to the shore, with a shady wooden verandah over the river, at 400baht a night. Koh Simillian is the best place for unspoiled diving where you're not going to be avoiding fuckwit backpackers.
posted by Pericles at 5:38 AM on April 9, 2004

When is Golden Week? The Australian news broadcasts have been screaming about our newest travel advisory all day. Apparently they're warning Aussies (and pretty much everybody else) to be careful in Thailand next week, as they suspect an attack is imminent. Phuket was specifically mentioned as a target. Just something to take into consideration...
posted by web-goddess at 6:22 AM on April 9, 2004

Koh Samui.
posted by stringbean at 10:28 AM on April 9, 2004

I was in Phuket all of last December and am heading back there in June for a couple of months. As already mentioned above, parts of Phuket are very touristy, and it's the most expensive place in Thailand......having said that, it's still dirt cheap compared to Tokyo (have spent a few years there myself). Phuket is large enough (largest island in Thailand) that you can certainly find quiet beaches far away from the noise. (for example, Mai Kao or Bang Tao beaches). Not far from Phuket you have many small islands like Phi Phi Don, Phi Phi Ley (where The Beach was filmed), and the Similian islands (never been there, but heard theres excellent diving there.....only open 6 months of the year, should be open in Golden Week time though).

Having said all that, god knows what it will be like in Golden Week (Phuket) - you might hear a lot of Japanese spoken......

Alternatives: Ko Chang, Ko Samet (islands to the north).
posted by SpaceCadet at 10:45 AM on April 9, 2004

I would second fionab's advice about Cambodia -- I was in that part of the world in November/December, and I really enjoyed my time in Cambodia. It's not nearly as over-touristed as Thailand (or even Vietnam), even in the most touristy areas (Siem Reap).
posted by m-bandy at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2004

I was just in Thailand for 2 weeks. We did Bangkok and / Rai Leh beach (near Krabi/Karabi) and various Islands nearby. Krabi is the town where busses go. There's also an airport. We flew from BKK for $65. GO STRAIGHT TO THE BEACH and STRAIGHT TO RAI LEH BEACH (east or west, it doesn't matter). Krabi is a resort town so there are lots of tourists. There's not much of interest here.

Once you get to Rai Leh, there are tourists (many europeans and english, a few americans and asians), but they're not everywhere along the beach. The small islands, like Koh Phi-Phi Leh and Koh Phi-Phi Don (these are the two biggest ones) are even quieter. The scene is pretty good -- enough cafes to have some variety, but not so much as to look like Times Square. I totally recommend it. The rock climbing in Krabi is also world class. Prices are kinda expensive, since the beach is not accessible by auto -- but we did fine on $10-12 US per day. That's a private room, with bathroom (no AC), and food and drink. Climbing with a guide is about $10 per half day. All day snorkeling trip to four islands was $10 as well.

You can get charters (usually live aboards) to the Similan Islands which are a chain of 9 islands, pretty far out from the mainland. Nobody is around. It's where some friends got certified in 4 days a year ago. However, if your friend will scuba and you're not going to, then it's probably not a good idea -- there's nothing else to do in the Similians. I heard that this costs about $400 for the 4 days, but all meals, drinks, and of course lodging are included (along with gear, instruction, and certification dives).

If you hung around Rai Leh / Ao Nang / Krabi town, your friend could get scuba charters every day and you guys could hang out in afternoons and evengings. There's good kayaking and other water stuff, as mentioned above as well. But do try the climbing.
posted by zpousman at 12:33 PM on April 9, 2004

I spent about 6 months in SE Asia last year, most of that time in Thailand. The Gulf Islands, all of them, tend to be overcrowded party scenes. The islands on the Andaman Coast are simply amazing. Phuket is most definitely not the place for you if you want to leave the crowds behind.

(warning: self links to follow)

My favorite island for pure isolation and chill factor was Koh Chang, but not the Koh Chang near the Cambodian border, the one near Ranong & the Burmese border. From here, your friend can hire a boat to go to Koh Samui--which has great diving by my understanding--rather easily. But quite honestly, it's more about secluded beaches than diving. The water is murky and Koh Chang isn't near anything else. But if you go, Sunset bungalows are the closest thing to heaven I know. No electricity or roads on the island, except for generator power for a few hours at night.

Koh Jum is a fantastic island, and it's very close to Koh Lanta, Krabi, Phuket, Koh Phi Phi , Ao Nang/Rai Leh (avoid, avoid, avoid--hordes of tourists and McDonald's hell, I have to STRONGLY disagree with zpousman.... these are two of the more touristed beaches in Thailand, along with Phuket, Pattaya, and Koh Phi Phi).

To get there, you catch the ferry from Krabi to Koh Lanta. On the way to Lanta, the ferry will stop, and some longtail boats will come to meet it. Hop off the ferry and onto a longtail--it doesn't matter which one, you won't be obligated to stay at that bungalow. You can organize diving trips from here, & it's well off the beaten path, but with limited electricity. Koh Lanta is also nice, and you can take great diving trips from there, too.

Both Lanta and Jum are very chill, with Lanta being slightly more touristed, but also better set up for diving. You can spend a few days at each. Very nice. Joy Bungalows are kind of the "scene" as much as there is one there, while New Bungalows are little more chill. Both are first rate and obscenely cheap. If you want nicer digs, there's a place down on the other end of the beach from those with A/C and more deluxe accommodations.

The Koh Turatao islands (national marine park) have the best water in Thailand. The best water of anywhere I've been in the world in fact. You can't stay in the park, except in a very primitive longhouse. But you can stay in Koh Lipe, which is actually in the park's waters, but open to tourism. It's in the very far south of Thailand, almost in Malaysia. It's mainly populated by Chao Leh (sea gypsies). The nicest digs on the island are across from the main beach. Once you cross the island, head all the way to your left until you reach the NW shore, I don't remember the name, but they were the nicest bungalows on the island. It's next to a bungalow complex (Chao Leh bungalows, I think) that have a dive shop and tours. You can also arrange for some of the local villagers to take you out on their longtails to go snorkeling in the coral. Crystal water, very much off the beaten path. This is probably your best bet to satisfy both of your needs, but on the other hand, if you only have a week, it's rather remote, and I think it will take you two days to get there and back. Your best bet is probably to take the train to Hat Yai, a bus to Satun and then the ferry to Lipe.

Also: as a general rule of thumb, avoid "VIP" busses. The hotels and guesthouses will try to steer you towards them because they get a cut. But the more time we spent in thailand, the more horror stories we heard about VIP services, we even had one of our own. Our bus broke down somewhere outside of Hua Hin, on the way to Bangkok from Krabi, and we and the rest of the passengers were put out on the side of the road and made to fend for ourselves. The blue and white government busses (1st class) are much more reliable, cheaper, and not crammed full of drunken college-age Farang on holiday. Particularly notorious are the PP Family busses (although their ferries are okay).

Also: earplugs. Bring earplugs. Email me if you want more recs or have other questions.
posted by emptyage at 6:51 PM on April 9, 2004

Response by poster: Thank you all for the advice. MY friend was just in Cambodia, his parents moved there recently. I am planning a larger excursion later, but like I said, for now, I just want to take it easy.
posted by lkc at 9:09 PM on April 11, 2004

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