I just got back from Thailand and for now anyway, the country is still a terrific travel bargain. I was there to speak at the first Travel Bloggers Exchange (TBEX) in Asia, held in Bangkok, so I wasn’t out and about constantly. I had a couple free days in Bangkok, however, and then headed down south to the Satun and Trang provinces for some island hopping.
Thailand always generates a lot of debate among backpackers about whether it’s a deal or not. That can partly depend on your perspective, since the country is certainly more prosperous than it was 20 years ago, and can partly depend on the current exchange rate, which has swung from 29 to 35 Thai baht to the dollar in the past few years.
Right now the dollar is at a high, fetching 35 baht at an exchange booth or ATM, 33 at the worst from some stores and hotels. You get 39 to the euro, which is not so historically great just because the euro is down internationally.
The only thing I noticed to be really out of whack was the price of beer. Ever-increasing sin taxes have meant a crappy 12-ounce Chang beer in a bar or restaurant will range from 60 (happy hour) to 100 baht. If you want something better it will be more. This means you’ll routinely pay three times as much as you would in Cambodia or Vietnam. Save your heavy-duty beer swigging for one of those!
Hotels continue to be a terrific deal here, especially when you take a step up from the cheapest backpacker level. (You can get a decent cheapie room with shared bath for as little as 250 baht—under $7.) Here’s what I paid for my airport hotel the night before I left. That’s for a spacious room with its own nice bathroom that had toiletries included, free Wi-Fi, and a TV.
We stayed at the best hotel in Trang when we were down south, a place that came with turndown service and bathrobes in each room, and it lists for $69 per night including buffet breakfast.
You’ll be happily surprised if you’re pulling up prices for hotels in Bangkok. It’s incredibly competitive there at every level. Take a look:
That screen shot is from Trivago, which will work fine for Bangkok, but for the best selection throughout the country the best one-stop shop for selection is usually Agoda.com.
Food & Drink Prices in Thailand
You can spend a fortune on dinner in Thailand if you want, and it’ll be great, but you can also spend less than $2 and it’ll be great. This is a country where the premium is usually buying you atmosphere and prettier carved garnishes. Naturally the foreign cuisine is going to cost you more, especially something like sushi, but if you stick with Thai food you’ll eat very well here without breaking your budget. I didn’t eat as much street food this trip as I had hoped but every time I did it was either 40 or 50 baht—barely over a buck to less than $1.50. Add another 10 or 15 baht for a soda.
Thais love markets and food courts, so it’s very easy to find an inexpensive and tasty place to eat, whether you’re walking the streets or in an air-conditioned shopping mall escaping the heat. If you spend more than $10 for two you’ll be stuffed.
Restaurants run the gamut from simple places where it’s all about the food to opulent showpieces run by a celebrity chef. Unless it’s a place catering to tourists or Japanese businessmen, however, expect to pay half or less what you would for something comparable in your own country. If you have a group you’ll try more things and probably spend less by eating Thai style and sharing multiple things.
As for beverages, as I mentioned before, only beer prices seem unusually high. It can be cheaper to drink cocktails with local Thai rum than to drink beer or wine. Coffee is reasonable though you might get stuck with instant for the former if you’re not at a real coffee shop. Fresh seasonal juice prices are terrific, at a buck or two for orange, pineapple, mango, or pomegranate juice.
Transportation Prices in Thailand
In Bangkok you want to take the metro or BTS sky train whenever possible as the traffic is brutal. Prices range from 16 to 50 baht depending on the length of trip. Both are modern systems with electronic touch cards you can load up. You can take the sky train all the way to the international airport. Other routes are served by buses charging 40 to 60 cents. If you do need to take a taxi, they should use a meter and it won’t cost too much: we went from the riverfront at the end of Silom to Sukumvit a few miles away for less than $3. My next driver wouldn’t use the meter and wanted 200 baht for a shorter trip than that. We eventually settled on 60. Prices are similar in Chiang Mai and other cities, though they can be higher on islands where there’s less competition.
Inter-city transportation in Thailand is a bargain by train or bus. A few examples:
Shared five-hour van from Satun to Krabi: $6
Train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya (1.5 hours): 50 cents 3rd class, $8 air-con 2nd class.
Bus from Bangkok to Cambodian border: $10
Train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (overnight): $18 in seat, $25 in sleeper
Bus from Bangkok to Phuket: $20 express to $29 VIP
Train + ferry to Ko Tao from Bangkok (overnight): $36 in 2nd class
Train from Bangkok to Penang, Malaysia (overnight): $34 in 2nd class sleeper
Note that flights can be ridiculously cheap on the many domestic and regional airlines, especially if you book ahead.
There are lots of things to see and do in the different regions of Thailand, with prices (and choices) that vary a lot depending on where you are. As in most countries, activities in rural areas that aren’t tourist hotspots tend to be more reasonable than in places filled with those on a one-week or less Thai holiday.
A legit Thai massage will cost you $7 to $10 for a whole hour of kneading and pulling.
A first-run movie (English with Thai subtitles) in a theater that will put your home ones to shame runs $4 to $6.
Admission prices rarely top $3 for sites and museums throughout Thailand. The Grand Palace (pictured at the top) is the main exception, topping $14.
You can get a custom-tailored suit made in Bangkok for $150 to $350 depending on quality and fabric, with most of the shops run by Punjabis who speak four or five languages.
Disclosure: As a speaker at TBEX Asia, my flight and initial hotel (the extra-swanky Sofitel So) were supplied by Thailand Tourism.