The Extra Mile
First timers to Thailand: do South Africans need a visa to visit and what should they do?
Travel editor Paul Ash has the answers
Q. My wife and I are flying to Phuket in August. We will stay seven days before flying to Bangkok for three days. Please inform us about currency charges and whether we need visas, as well as about places of interest. This is our first trip out of the country.
- Morgan Naidoo
A. You have picked a good time to visit Thailand as it is the country's off-peak season and prices can be as much as 30% lower than during the December-January peak season. I wouldn't worry too much about costs, however, as Thailand is still regarded as a relatively cheap destination for South Africans and you are likely to find it very good value indeed.
The exchange rate at the time of writing was 2.42 Thai baht to the rand. According to travel website Budget Your Trip, the average daily cost of travelling in the Land of Smiles is about 2143 baht (about R886) per day, of which about 480 baht will be spent on food.
If you have booked a package, these costs are mostly irrelevant, though you are still likely to spend money every day on food and entertainment not included in your tour package.
August is also in the middle of the country's monsoon season, so do expect daily rain showers. These don't last long but do keep a lightweight waterproof with you if you're out exploring.
South Africans do not require visas for Thailand but make sure that your passport is valid for at least six months beyond your travel dates.
Phuket is one of Thailand's most popular destinations and deservedly so - its setting and beaches are fantastic and it offers some of the best attractions and excursions in the country.
Do not be alarmed if Patong is your first sight of Phuket. Patong is the commercial - and crazy - centre of Phuket, where the beach is separated from the hotels by a road infested with speeding tuk-tuks, scooters, taxis and touts. It's worth seeing just to say you've been there - but beware of the touts and the many offers for Thai massages in which you might get more than you were expecting.
Beware of the touts and the many offers for Thai massages in which you might get more than you were expecting
Instead, you could sign up for a Thai cooking course. The Blue Elephant Cooking School, based in a wonderful old mansion in Phuket Old Town, offers a half-day course (15,000 baht) which begins at the morning market to buy ingredients for the lunch you'll make - lemon grass, spices and seafood - after which you head back to the house to learn to make such delights as pad thai, mango sticky rice and papaya salad.
To work off any sloth from overeating, take a day trip to Phang Nga National Park and its glorious karst islands. Lots of operators offer trips in longtail boats, narrow craft powered by old car engines powering a long propshaft. The longtails are part of the Thai scene but the best way to see the park is from a kayak, which will get you closer as you paddle through the mangroves and drift into caves. John Gray's Sea Canoe company offers a trip that explores sea caves and the hidden lagoons found in the middle of the karst islands. From 3,950 baht.
Bangkok's chaos and rapid pace is likely to come as something of a surprise after your Phuket idyll so start gently with a visit to the beautiful temples at Wat Pho and Wat Arun. The traffic is something to behold but with most of the city's best attractions located close to the Chao Praya river, you can use a boat to reach many of them.
The ferries across the Chao Praya river are the easiest way to get to the temples. Later, hop on a longtail boat and take a fast voyage around the klongs (canals) in Thonburi with its wooden houses on stilts and scenes of Thai life. After sunset, take a boat to the vibrant Asiatique night market, a former port transformed into a shopping and eating complex with 1,500 boutiques and 40 restaurants. It's mall, sure, but with soul.
One of my favourite Bangkok attractions is the house that once belonged to silk trader - and OSS operative - Jim Thompson. The traditional house is now a living museum full of some of the most beautiful artefacts that Thompson collected in his travels across Southeast Asia.
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