Everything to Know About Visiting Thailand Right Now
This destination is so Thai-spicy hot right now.
Thailand is back on the bucket list. The country reopened to vaccinated visitors on November 1st, and travelers who are quick to the punch can go see a rare, quieter side of this heavily-touristed country, as well as the relief in the eyes of a tuk-tuk driver who can finally make a transaction. Masks may be covering up the famous “Thai smile,” but a friendly crinkle around the eye still communicates the kindness there.
What hasn’t changed are the shocking cliffs jutting vertically out of the ocean, giant flowers floating on turquoise waters, and temples nestled in jungles on top of mountains, glittering with gold and spires. Here, street food is just as incredible as the Michelin-starred, with spices cooled by coconut milk and tinged with a sour, acidic hit of lemon grass. Vendors ladle food from steaming vats on wooden boats in floating markets. Festivals range from lantern lightings to full moon raves to water gun soakings. Baby langur monkeys climb branches right up to your face, peering at you with a cocked head. Intense massages relieve tension from jungle treks and sore neck muscles from so much gratuitous bowing. And millions of buddhas watch over it all.
With quick, under-24-hour turnaround times for Covid test results, Thailand is set up to be this winter’s best getaway. Here’s everything to know about how to get there and where to go once you’ve landed, for those who are willing to be safe travelers and want to see the jeweled yaksha guardian statues up close, some of them wearing masks, at work to protect its people.
How to get into Thailand right now
Like much of the world these days, there are a few steps to get into Thailand. But thanks to all the pre-boarding preparation, arriving in the country feels secure and mutually respectful.
In order to skip a seven day quarantine, you must meet a few requirements to get a Thailand Pass. You must have stayed in an approved country—which includes the US—for 21 days before departure. You’ll also need to buy pandemic medical insurance (which starts at around $20). In addition to being fully vaccinated, you’ll need to get a PCR test 72 hours before departure and get another PCR test upon arrival in Thailand.
The Thailand PCR test can only be arranged by an approved SHA Extra Plus hotel, where you must book a stay for at least one night to wait for your test results (which usually come back in under 12 hours). Some hotels offer a “1 Night Test and Go package” that includes a Covid test and airport pickup (and often room-delivered meals) along with your room booking. If you don’t buy a package, the test and transfer from the airport comes out to around $100 per person, plus the price of the room.
Now you’re ready to apply for the Thailand Pass. The pass takes around 7-15 days to be approved, so make sure to apply well before your scheduled take off. You’ll need to upload images of your vaccine card, passport, pandemic insurance, hotel booking, and proof of payment for your Thailand Covid test. Step by step instructions are broken down by the Thailand Tourism Board.
Once you have your Thai pass and first negative covid test (and printed documents), you can board your flight to Thailand. Upon landing, your hotel transport will be waiting to whisk you off for that second fun, up-the-nose test. Sleep off the jetlag, get your negative test results, then you’re free to go! Roam the city, ride trains, and take domestic flights within Thailand as normal.
You’re ready to hit the best places to visit in Thailand. Just remember if you’re heading back to the US, you’ll need to arrange another Covid test the day before departure, which usually comes back in less than 24 hours and hotels can help arrange.
Ease your wide-awake-at-3am jetlag in a buzzing city where the nightlife is just as lively as the daytime jaunts. With night markets, the expansive Sunday Chatuchak market, floating markets, and trippy wonderland-like malls like Iconsiam, you have to buy something in Bangkok, whether that’s a deep-fried scorpion, a mini singing bowl, or extremely affordable fashion. Though you’ll see temples squished between skyscrapers on just about every other block, do a temple run along the river to see the big-hitters like the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun, Wat Pho, and the Grand Palace.
The street food is incredible pretty much anywhere that has a local crowd, but you may want to risk the line at Jay Fai for her spectacularly cheap, Michelin-star level dishes like the crab omelette. Another casual Michelin-recognized joint is Somtum Der, serving northern style Isaan cuisine, with chicken so crispy the skin is almost like a hard, candied-apple shell and some of the spiciest papaya salad to clear your tear ducts.
For a beautiful sitdown restaurant next to the temples, Supanniga Eating Room serves the owner’s grandmother’s recipes, giving impressive presentations to local Thai dishes. The shaved coconut, shredded orange, dried pork, and peanuts wrapped in a betel leaf fills your mouth with an unexpected, sweet and tangy juice balanced by the crunchy ingredients. And the house blend blue tea with mint and butterfly pea (from the anchan plant) has no caffeine, meaning you can drink jugs of it to combat the Bangkok heat without getting jittery.
If your first destination in Thailand is the capital, there’s no better place to spend your first night quarantine—and really, every subsequent night—than Capella Bangkok. Being locked up for half a day isn’t so bad when you have floor to ceiling windows and a balcony (some with their own jacuzzi) overlooking the Chao Phraya River. Considered one of the top five hotels in the world, this boutique resort offers an incredible onsite spa, a tasting menu at Cote, and sunset cocktails and cultural classes in its living room lounge every evening, such as lotus petal folding, fruit carving, basic Thai phrases, and massage herb making classes. You could hostel it up along touristy Khaosan Road or try sleeping outside at the Bangkok Tree House, but if you have the chance to splurge even one night, Capella is worth it.
If you came to Thailand for temples in jungles, Chiang Mai is what you’re looking for. Essentially the capital of Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is a haven for arts, boutiques, cooking classes, hill tribes, and mountain treks. The closest and most stunning temples are Doi Suthep and Wat Pha Lat, accessible by taxi or via a 30- to 45-minute hike on the Monk’s Trail (which, yes, monks use). Doi Inthanon is also not far and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountainscape. Many excursions lay just beyond the city, such as jungle river kayaking and a deep, dark, lantern-lit cave tour with Chiang Mai Mountain Biking and Kayaks.
Check off most of your must-dos at Thai Akha Cooking School, where a chef from the Akha hill tribe shows you 11 traditional Thai and Akha dishes, including a curry of your choosing and mango sticky rice. If you want to taste a sample of four different Thai regions at one restaurant, head to Ging Grai, where standout dishes include the spicy popcorn, the frothy blended tea mocktails, and the owner’s father’s rice vermicelli recipe with pineapple, lemongrass shavings, dried shrimp, and drizzled coconut milk on top. Or go more casual and chase down the late Anthony Bourdain’s favorited street food from the cowboy hat lady at Khao Kha Moo Chang Phueak.
Stay at 137 Pillars House, where guests reside in individual houses made of teak wood, done in northern Lanna style, with wood lattice ceilings, balcony railings, and window shutters. The son of Anna Leonowens, the famous tutor to King Mongkut’s 82 children, had the building made and lived here for a time while working for a teak wood company, which used up to 20 elephants to haul the goods. The hotel is now Thai-owned, partners with an ethical elephant rescue sanctuary that guests can visit or donate to, and has some of the most sustainable initiatives in the city. The hotel restaurant offers the most succulent Khao Soi—chicken in a coconut broth topped with crispy noodles—and meats that fall apart with a spoon, as well as cashew and condensed milk ice cream served directly in a coconut so you can eat the flesh lining the inside of the shell. The hotel also makes its own natural insect repellent for when you want to hang out on your private patio, which either works wonders or there are no mosquitos in Thailand.
Do yourself a favor: rather than tourist-strewn Phuket, go a quick island-hop away to Krabi. With hot spring waterfalls, jungle-topped cliffs in the ocean, and island beaches, Krabi is what Hollywood aspires towards when going for “paradise.” Boats take you from pretty much any pier on kayaking excursions in mangroves, cave expeditions, snorkeling, or to Koh Phi Phi beach and other nearby islands. You can also do land treks to the Emerald Pools and hot springs or climb 1,260 steep steps to the enormous sitting Buddha on top of a mountain at Tiger Cave Temple, which takes about 30 minutes and a lot of sweat, but is worth the incredible views.
Railay Beach and Phra Nang Beach are considered some of the most beautiful in the world (with cliffs famous for rock climbing or, you know, gazing at), so you might as well stay at Rayavadee, smack dab in the middle of both. A boat is required to get there, which the resort arranges along with an airport pickup. Guests stay in their own individual huts, many of which have a private infinity pool within its bamboo gates. Otherwise, the warm ocean is right there, along with free kayaking and standup paddle boards from the resort, plus a spa, tennis courts, wild macaques and langur monkeys roaming the property, as well as lizards bigger than cats. Of the many on-beach restaurants, The Grotto is the most striking, since you can dine in a cave next to the waves. While eating the banana-leaf-wrapped sea bass or wagyu beef strips with truffle aioli or saffron cream, you can watch a stupid-pretty sunset while burrying your toes in the sand beneath your table.
Before you get templed-out, you really oughta take a trip back in time to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya, which was once the royal capital of Siam. The capital changed to Bangkok in 1782, and the country’s name changed from Siam to Thailand—meaning “land of the free,” as it was never colonized by Europe—in 1939. But Ayutthaya retains all the ruins, the colorful Bang Pa-in Palace, and around a dozen wats. Some of the most famous temples include Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, and Wat Mahathat, which dates back to the 1300s and has a famous stone Buddha head nestled in a banyan tree.
Ayutthaya is located about an hour from Bangkok. To get there, you can take a scenic train ride looking out at rural fields, a winding river, and country houses, with fresh pineapple and other refreshments on board. Or go via a bit slower but cheaper route via public minivan. Some tour guides also offer private day trips from Bangkok, with transportation to and from your hotel and meals included. You could also take a leisurely boat tour between the two cities. Surrounded by a river, Ayutthaya hosts a floating market, many long tail boats, and the Thai boat museum. Plus, with colorful foreign quarters and a busy night market, you may want to stick around longer than just one day trip.
Waterfalls, floating houses, and a WWII railroad are the main draws in Kanchanaburi, located just two hours from Bangkok. You can find the falls and caves in Erawan National Park, Srinagarindra National Park, and Sai Yok Yai National Park. The highlight may be Erawan, where the waterfall has seven tiers and is stretched out long like a cascading river, with turquoise pools between the levels. You can hike to each tier, surrounded by monkeys. If the animal part of that last sentence excites you, check out Elephant’sWorld, an ethical nonprofit that helps rescued elephants, rather than ride or use them for entertainment.
Within the town of Kanchanaburi, the River Kwai is lovely, with restaurants and hotels lining the banks. But many people go straight to the bridge above the river, to walk or ride across on the famous “Death Railway.” The train tracks are a kind of memorial for WWII, since thousands of locals and foreign prisoners of war died to construct it, as part of Japanese battle plans in nearby Burma. You can pay your respects to the fallen at the nearby Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and hear more history about the nighttime torch-lit labor at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum. You could also ride the train itself, which teeters above jungles and along cliffs.
For more delving back in time, you could visit the ruins at Prasat Muang Singh. You can also see dragons at Wat Ban Tham, or go up to Wat Tham Sua, then down and back up again on another nearby summit to Wat Tham Khao Noi. Or visit Mallika City, which is a recreated town from the early 1900s, when slavery was abolished in the country. The colorful, open-air museum has floating houses and markets, where you can use old satang coins for your purchases. Speaking of floating, don’t miss out on staying in a floating raft house while in Kanchanaburi, as there are many in this region, including the Float House River Kwai. You’ll be so pleased you’ll find yourself saying “Sawadeeka!” to all strangers more times than you can count.