I’m never sure whether readers of our blog are interested in hearing about travels we do off the sailboat – like Mexico last year. But since Thailand is a pretty major cruiser destination, I figure it might be of interest.
We flew to Thailand the day after Christmas for a two week vacation, visiting Bangkok for 5 days, Patong Beach in Phuket for 3 days, Phi Phi island for 3 days, and Naiyang Beach, Phuket for the final day. 2 full days were consumed by the plane travel from Seattle (22-24 hours travel time).
Of course, I viewed much of Thailand thru the perspective of sailing and other cruisers’ experiences there. Delos has been to the Phi Phi islands that we visited on our trip (Delos in Southern Thailand and Phi Phi Islands). The prior-prior owner of our boat actually bought it to sail to Thailand, and after a year of prep work decided it’d be easier to fly there and charter. I’m inclined to agree.
We rewatched the Delos episode. It was really interesting seeing our different perspective on it this time. It still looked awesome and fun, but we could see all the things they had omitted. They avoided the most touristy bay, briefly mentioned the party beach’s loud music keeping them up at night while at anchor (a 5-second clip that would be easy to miss), and snuck into a park that charges a high tourism fee (I think they said 300 baht, but it’s 400 baht now).
I don’t blame them – they’re catering to their audience, most of whom are not going to sail to Thailand, or necessarily anywhere else. Those people only want to see the fun times, and discussing practicalities won’t get you a quarter million followers on YouTube.
But lately I’ve been thinking about how my expectations are often misled by the books and YouTube channels I read / watch. When you’re rearranging your life to pursue a dream, it’s really important to have accurate expectations – otherwise you can end up spending years preparing for something that it turns out you don’t actually want to do (“When Dreams Don’t Match Reality“). When we watch exciting YouTube channels it’s easy to be sucked in by the fun times they show, not realizing they’re leaving out the majority of their day and just clipping the best parts.
I don’t think anyone is trying to be intentionally misleading. But when you’re selling a product, or lifestyle, or ads (the top YouTube channels make $200-500k/year), you do what’s necessary to get the clicks / views. I don’t begrudge anyone making money to support their dreams, but it means they usually present a one-sided view. Since we lose money on this blog, I’m okay covering some of the boring / practical parts that won’t get the clicks. 🙂
Costs for 2 Weeks in Thailand
We did detailed cost tracking / budgeting on this trip because we wanted to see how inexpensive it could be to travel in Thailand. I had heard things like it was possible to travel on $30 or $50 a day (presumably per person? So about $60-100/day?). At $60/day that’s only $1800/month ($21.6k/year), which is less than the cost of living in Seattle for a good percentage of people.
A big influence on my expectations was from a blog I follow, Go Curry Cracker. They stayed in Chiang Mai for 2 months at a cost of only $74/day for 2 people + a baby. Their daily lodging cost was only $16.50.
We quickly found this to be somewhat unrealistic, due to many differing factors. They stayed in long-term apartment housing rather than a hotel, getting more the rate of a local than of a tourist. Their trip was 2 years ago (exchange rate may have changed, and tourism-related inflation in Thailand may have changed), and to a slightly cheaper city (Chiang Mai is less touristy than Bangkok and Phuket).
Although Thailand is cheap, it doesn’t remove the need to budget. Touristy areas are 50-100% more expensive than non-touristy areas – and as a tourist, you’ll probably spend a lot of your time in touristy areas. All of the beach areas of Thailand have substantial tourism. Everything adds up, and nicer lodging can easily double or triple your daily cost. It’s not an order of magnitude cheaper than the US (10x), it’s more like 2x cheaper (which is still very nice!).
Another thing people often don’t realize is the difference in cost of living (COL) within the United States can be almost as large as the difference between the US and foreign countries. The difference between Seattle, NYC or San Francisco vs Nebraska or Kansas is nearly as large as the difference between Seattle and Thailand.
Our costs are for 2 people, and are what I’d consider mid-range for food, alcohol, lodging and entertainment on a vacation. Living there not on a vacation (like GoCurryCracker did) would be cheaper because of fewer places visited. We saw people spending less (backpackers staying in hostels) and people spending much more.
Costs for 2 people, 2 weeks in high season, exchange rate 33 baht : 1 USD. Dec 27 2017 – Jan 9 2018.
|Budget hotels, 10 nights||$344||$34|
|4-star hotel, 3 nights||$450||$150||PP Blue Sky Resort|
|Ferry to Phi Phi, round-trip||$50|
|Airport taxi on Phuket, round-trip||$45||45-60 minutes each way. 600-800 baht|
|Groceries||$150||$11||Food for 10 breakfasts, snacks + bottled water for 14 days, and alcohol|
|Dining out and misc transportation||$712||$51||Includes lunch+dinner dining out,
and a small amount of transportation
(taxi, tuk tuk, water taxi)
|Private 3-hour long boat tour and snorkeling around Phi Phi Leh||$67||1400 + 800 baht park fee|
|Flights||$1815||SEA->BKK, BKK->PHK, PHK->SEA.
However we used saved up Chase Sapphire rewards points
for all of this except the 2 tickets to PHK ($121). Chase Sapphire
has a rewards multiplier for flights, so actual cash cost would’ve been $2541.
Cost of typical items:
|Beer in bar (Singha / Budweiser)||$2-3||$3-4?|
|Craft beer in bar||$7-9
|Pad Thai, in restaurant||$2-3
|Lunch for 2 with a drink each, including tax and tip||$12||$50|
|6-pack beer in grocery store (Budweiser equivalent)|| $5-6
|Low quality red wine in grocery store||$9 (300 baht)||$6-8|
|Liquor – Johnnie Walker Red (most available / best value in Thailand)||$18
(600 baht), 700ml
|Taxi, 45 minutes||$24||$50-60|
Interestingly beer + wine prices are relatively expensive in Thailand, for what you’re getting. In Seattle, our cheapest wines are cheaper and better than the wines in Thailand. And our worst craft beer is cheaper and better than their craft beer (which is mostly imported, although a few Thai breweries are starting to make craft beer). Also ATM fees were higher than the US – we had to use two accounts to avoid going over our ATM fee refund max.
Other things are incredibly cheap compared to the US. That 3-hour private boat tour with snorkeling for $67? In Hawaii something like that would cost $300-500.
In terms of food, our cost experience was pretty similar to Go Curry Cracker’s experience – except that we never found the “budget meal” they found at a Chiang Mai market – the market in Phuket was more than 2x those prices (120 baht for tom yum instead of 45).
The Food in Thailand
The food in Thailand is amazing. So flavorful, and literally everywhere we went matched or exceeded Seattle Thai restaurants (and we have a lot of those!) – even the places that cost only $3 per entree.
The ironic thing is whenever we went to more touristy places, the price got higher and the food got worse! Higher price for food that isn’t as good? It makes no sense. As far as I can tell the more touristy places “dumbed down” their food for the tourists – less spicy, less flavorful. The pad thai at one fancy beach bar on Phi Phi was more like American Thai places make pad thai (sweet, saucy).
It was hard to fight our US instincts of occasionally seeking restaurants with better atmosphere, better views or the higher prices that would typically mean better food in the US. I was happy when our new rule became “the cheaper, the better.” (within reason – we didn’t want to get sick and didn’t try to seek out the cheapest street cart possible)
Perhaps the best thing about eating in Thailand is it stretched us to try new Thai dishes that we hadn’t had as much at US thai places – where we often order a noodle dish (pad thai or pad see ew). Green curry, tom yum soup and tom ka gai were awesome (and just as common as pad thai), and we also had fried rice baked in a pineapple shell, Thai pancakes, Thai omelettes, mango with sticky rice, and baked local fish.
Beaches of Phuket and Phi Phi
Tropical beaches are often very touristy. In Phuket you get a sales pitch every 5 minutes to buy something. It often feels like a scene from the classic movie Office Space, where Milton is sitting on the beach drinking a cocktail, yet in a disgruntled moment quips “I’ll take my traveller’s checks to a competing resort.” The shallow consumerism of touristy beaches makes me uncomfortable.
Long Beach, on Phi Phi island was much more chill. The main town of Phi Phi had a lot of drunken college students – think Cancun on spring break with three cruise ships in port. But Long Beach was a good call. It was a reminder of what we like about sailing – getting away from the selfie-taking crowds on their phones all the time, and an atmosphere of being constantly pressured to buy things.
Admittedly we’re not beach people as much as some people are. We like seeing nature and doing things, and for that our longtail boat tour to Phi Phi Leh was perfect. For just $42 / 1400 baht we had a longtail boat take us around for 3 hours – to Maya Beach, Monkey beach, and snorkeling in two spots.
Getting out of vacation mode
When people travel for a week or so they’re usually in vacation mode – filling the days with lots of touristy activities or lots of eating and drinking. This isn’t sustainable for longer durations though. Sitting on a beach all day quickly gets old, at least if you’re a goal oriented / purpose driven person. I was struggling to find some purposeful activity other than eating, drinking, reading and walking.
I think two weeks is too short to get out of vacation mode in a new country – we never really made it out. But that’s one great thing about sailing – we’re able to slip into a rhythm more quickly. And it automatically provides tons of purposeful activities every day (navigation, sail trim, provisioning, projects, etc) plus a good mix of relaxation and fun time. For land travel I still need to find an outlet for purposeful work (blogging + photography helps a bit for this).
Hot, Hot, Hot
We saw fewer sailboats than I expected. A few charter cats and a handful of cruising sailboats. Thailand is all about motor powered everything. It surprised me actually. Tons of motorbikes, motor tuk tuks and taxis in the streets. On the water, 95% of the boats seen are motorboats. There are no beach sailing dinghies for rent (that we saw), few kayaks, no paddleboards, no windsurfing. Few people bicycle, not even the locals. Perhaps this is because it’s too hot + humid for that. And you’d have to be crazy to bike through some of the busy, narrow streets that have motorbikes flying through them.
Another thing we realized is our PNW conditioned bodies that have no problem climbing Mount Si or skiing down snow covered slopes, were not equipped for Thailand heat. 90-95 F in the afternoon with 80-90% humidity. Cruisers say you adapt, but after two weeks our bodies hadn’t adapted. We came close to heat exhaustion a couple times, despite drinking plenty of water. Adapting consisted just of changing our habits to do a lot less than we would do in a day in the PNW or other temperate climate. In the afternoons we’d have to head back to our air conditioned hotel room to “refrigerate” as we called it.
In the snow of Seattle when we left, we thought we were ready for heat – but I fear we’re not cut out for this kind of tropical heat. A temperate climate of 60-70 F started to sound really good by the end.
We had an awesome time in Thailand. Would we want to spend 3 months here? Probably not. There just didn’t seem that many places to go where you could avoid the tourist crowds for 2-3 months. As a place to live temporarily it wouldn’t be bad, but we’d prefer Mexico first – because there’s less of a language barrier (we know a little Spanish, but Thai felt downright impossible) and when we’ve been in Mexico it hasn’t felt as hot or humid.
Our land travels through Thailand also pointed out one of the advantages of cruising – you may be able to avoid the most touristy spots, and you have many ways to fill your time with purposeful activities.
Oftentimes our travels to foreign cruising destinations simply remind us how good we have it in the Pacific Northwest.