Thailand: Budget-friendly escapes for South Africans

2016-05-15 19:15 - Selene Brophy
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South Africans love Thailand.

So much so that it is our second most popular outbound holiday destination. 2015 saw an overall increase of 3.95% in South African travellers to the exotic destination.

Some 75 825 South Africans decided it was worth their time and money in 2015, especially their money - as its currency the baht is far more forgiving against the rand than the dollar or the euro for instance – and year to date, the number of SA holidaymakers to Thailand is up by 30%, compared the same time last year.

Turns out, ALL South Africans LOVE Thailand for different reasons, whether it is shopping, exploring, the amazing Thai culture & hospitality, its delectable food or just the adventurous allure of island hopping. Phuket & Bangkok continue to be popular choices – mostly due to easy accessibility, especially as most airlines have direct flights from their hubs into these cities - but many of us are realising there is so much more to see and do across this diverse nation of islands.

Lesley Simpson, Manager of Tourism Authority of Thailand's South Africa office says, there has been a marked change in South African travellers’ behaviour. 

“Phuket continues to be popular, however there is a definite increase in demand of higher-income tourists who are looking for new experiences other than Phuket, with ‘Off the Beaten track’ itineraries growing in popularity.”

Added to this, multiple-destination itineraries are also increasing, says Simpson, with tourists looking for "more cultural immersion" when it comes to Bangkok and Chiang Mai for instance.

Inter-active and adventure itineraries are the new firm favourites, as are requests for "interesting day trips – sometimes with less lead-in times" hinting at more last-minute travel, according to Simpson.

But as a seasoned Thailand traveller, Simpson says she firmly believes in the idea of Thailand being the destination that continues to draw travellers back, time after time - 5 times in a lifetime, no less.

“First as a student – with friends to have an absolute blast of a time! Next is when you get married and looking for an exotic honeymoon destination. Then once the kids come along, take them to Thailand as it is really a fabulous family destination – Thai people just love children,” says Simpson.

“As one gets older, so interests change and often couples look for interactive holidays around something of special interest such as food tours, golf or Buddhism.  And then last but not least, a family meeting holiday where mom & dad would invite all their kids from all around the world to meet them in Thailand and rent self-catering villas to have a combined family holiday of a lifetime.”

After visiting Southern Thailand and getting a bite-size look, we certainly can say that one visit alone does not do it justice.  

A place diverse enough to satisfy wanderlust cravings for a tropical jungle escape, a frenetic-paced urban adventure or some blissed-out beach Zen - Thailand for South Africans is certainly one of the easier long-haul destinations. 

Here's what you need to know when planning your budget-friendly break: 

Visa: South Africans qualify for a 30-day visa free stay on arrival.

Currency: The baht is rather friendly with our rand (R1/Bh2.3)

A good benchmark of average costs is also wi-fi and its accessibility.  Upon arrival you can opt to sign-up for a free local sim card – you just need to present your passport. While the details of TrueMove connectivity implies that you will have unlimited access for a week if you purchase 200Baht (about R86 @ 2.3Baht/R) in data, things are somehow lost in translation. But between logging on to different free wi-fi zones, the 200Baht data should last about a week - but it is not unlimited.  

Getting there:  Connectivity to Thailand from South Africa is quite good. Cathay Pacific flies to Hong Kong, with Dragon Air as an efficient code-share partner connecting to Phuket. SAA, Qatar and Emirates also offer one-stop connections, click here to search flight prices according to your dates.

ALSO SEE: Etihad's Experience Majestic Thailand limited offer

Where to Stay:

Thailand features not only some of the finest hotels and resorts in the world but also a wide variety of accommodation to choose from.  Thailand accommodation options range from rural home stays to luxurious five-star spa-resorts and nearly everything in between - Click here for more options.

Average cost of high-end resort accommodation per person per night compared to a budget stay: 

This depends on where you choose to stay, but an estimate range would be budget guesthouse from 400–1 000B (about R173 to R434 at R1 / 2.3B, compared to a boutique hotel room of about 3 000B (about R1 300)

Average cost of meal:

While Expatistan estimates that the cost of living in the Thailand's hotspot of Phuket for example is 27% more expensive than Cape Town based on estimates related to food (about 53% more expensive), here is an idea of what you can expect to work into your daily budget for a meal:

- Basic lunchtime menu, including a drink will cost about 255B or R109

- Combo meal in fast food restaurant will cost about 209B or R89.

Time zone: Thailand is 6-hours ahead of South Africa.  

Climate: The Thailand climate is generally hot and humid across most of the country throughout most of the year. While Thailand’s seasons are generally divided into the hot season, cool season, and rainy season, in reality it’s relatively hot most of the year. The weather in central, northern, and north-eastern Thailand (the landlocked provinces) is determined by three seasons, whereas the southern, coastal regions of Thailand feature only two, making the weather in Thailand quite easy to understand and plan a trip around.

Thailand is all tropical showers and intense humidity between May and November, during which time rainfall in most of Thailand is at its heaviest. While this can mean daily showers of a couple of hours or more, your stay will be peppered with clear skies and its always warm at an average of 25 °C to 28°C and sometimes the rain is an actual blessing against the heat.  

Best time to go: 

In Thailand’s inland provinces the seasons are clearly defined: Between November and May the weather is mostly dry and the cool season and hot season occur from November to February and March to May respectively. 

The other inland season, the rainy season, lasts from May to November and is dominated by the southwest monsoon, during which time rainfall in most of Thailand is at its heaviest.   The southern, coastal region of Thailand really has only two seasons – rainy season and dry season. Fortunately, for those planning a beach holiday, Thailand’s two coasts have slightly different rainy seasons, allowing visitors to find sunny beaches nearly year round. On the Andaman or west coast, where Phuket, Krabi, and the Phi Phi Islands lie, the southwest monsoon brings heavy storms from April to October, while on the Gulf of Thailand or east coast, where Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao lie, the most rain falls between September and December.  

Food to try:  

A visit to Thailand is a foodie’s dream come true.  It doesn't matter whether you like things spicy, are more inclined to seafood or simply enjoy the simple pleasures of a vegetarian lifestyle. You must sample confirmed favourites such as Phad Thai and Tom Yum Soup.

Thai food is prepared from fresh ingredients daily, so much so that each town or village has its own fresh goods market. Spices add the authenticity and flavour magic. Over-indulging will never feel this healthy and even the odd deep-fried tempura sides are delicious.  

Useful phrases:  English is widely spoken despite the official Thai language. Useful phrases to know:

- Sa-wat-dee-ka meaning blessing or good fortune is the standard hello and the polite bowing with your hands folded in a prayerful manner really is humbling to the spirit.

- Khob Khun Kha means thank you. 

5 New up-and-coming Thailand itinerary inclusions:

- Koh Samui and Koh Lak are new up & coming holiday destination, said to be far less commercialised than Phuket. While Samui is small enough to be circumnavigated in just a couple of hours by motorbike or car, the island features such a variety of beaches such as Chaweng.  Lamai is also a bustling beach town with fabulous beach resorts, internationally acclaimed restaurants, and world-class nightclubs. Activities around Ko Samui include cooking courses, yoga instruction, Muay Thai training, scuba diving, and even golf.  

- Koh Tao, in an area called Chumphon, and known as Tiny “turtle island” has become especially popular for diving.  It is 45km north of Koh Phangan, is one of the top scuba diving destinations in Thailand, if not the world as only Cairns, Australia issues more PADI certifications than Koh Tao. What’s more, the island, which is the site of important breeding grounds for Hawksbill and Green turtles, is now a center for environmentally friendly diving practices, including the reintroduction of hundreds of juvenile turtles to the island's ecosystem and efforts to preserve and grow coral reefs.

- Koh Lanta, part of the Krabi province, has earned itself the reputation of having the best beaches in Thailand.  Located 70 km south of Krabi, Koh Lanta features a pair of large islands so close to the Thai mainland that it not inconceivable that bridges will someday be built to connect them to each other and to the mainland.  The west coast of Koh Lanta features nine beaches along its 25 km shore, most which are great for swimming and ideal for long, romantic walks and sunset views. It’s a great place for a family vacation or a romantic escape.  

- Koh Chang is also featuring more on SA traveller's itineraries, as is Chiang Rai, partnered with a visit to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.  Ko Chang, also known as Elephant Island, is the primary destination for those visiting Ko Chang Marine National Park, which includes dozens of unspoiled islands. Now serviced by an airport just 15 minutes from the ferry terminal in Trat, Ko Chang is more easily accessible than ever before. Drawn to Ko Chang’s pristine beaches and sparkling water, more well-to-do Thai and international travellers have been discovering Ko Chang and numerous luxury spas and resorts have sprung up to cater to them. Nonetheless, the island is still a dream destination for budget travelers and families, with a wide variety of affordable accommodation options and numerous gorgeous and tranquil beaches surrounded by crystal clear water…

- Kanchanaburi to see the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai. It is about +/- 2 ½ hours train ride from Bangkok and as the capital of Kanchanaburi Province, this popular resort town is coupled with loads of fascinating World War II history. Located at the confluence of the Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai Rivers, Kanchanaburi lies at the source of the Mae Klong River and these majestic bodies of water also form defining characteristics of the town.  

Five Thailand must-dos:

1. Snorkelling off Phi Phi island and a visit to Maya Bay

Thailand is a beach holiday paradise, but then you knew this already thanks to THAT  beach movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.   Walking to the famous Beach scene and movie set that now doubles as a tourist attraction has a slightly eerie feel, since the place pretty much resembles an abandoned castaway camp. And the view? Just superb.

It is interesting to note that with specific marine protected areas, the focus is not about motorised water sport but more around enhancing the natural appeal and attractions - however at times, it did feel very commercialised as a number of boats crowded around the snorkelling hotspots. 

2. An elephant experience in Khao Sok National Park

This jungle adventure blows the conventional Thailand beach escape out of the water.  Here you'll find the concept of the African glamping tent incorporated with the mangrove swamps and legendary jungle lakes of the Khao Sok National Park. 

Elephant Hills gives that Out of Africa moment with 30 luxurious tents similar to those you’ll find at any reputable Kruger or Madikwe safari lodges, all set amidst the largest area of rainforest in Southern Thailand.   The tents are comfortable, spacious and suites an adventurous eco-traveller looking for a little bit more than just the basics. The communal dining area not only showcased the exceptional food of the area with daily cooking experiences but also culture and community initiatives run through the camp.

While I'm not one for interactions with wild animal, since I see petting a feral beast much like trying to mix oil and water  – you can’t help but reconcile yourself with the good intentions of the folks over at Elephant Hills when it come to their elephant experience on offer.

Thailand's infamous logging industry, which ended towards the end of the 1980s has left a legacy of elephants that are neither wild nor tame. While Elephant Hills has chosen to abandon any form of elephant riding, it instead offers an intimate feeding and washing experience. Not a bad way for these elephants to spend the rest of their days after being liberated. There is no denying, elephants are old souls. 

3. Take a luxury lake safari on Cheow Larn Lake

Sometimes  you just need to take a different view on life to refresh your perspective – like floating belly-up, star-fish like in a man-made lake surrounded by the jungle and towering limestone rock cascades of the Khao Sok National Park.

Water can therapeutic and healing in both the literal and spiritual sense and I certainly felt it that day in this beautiful lake of jade and emerald waters.

While I didn't get to stay at Rainforest Camp, said to be one of the only floating tented camps in the world, we had a sublime day-trip here complete with a water safari boat trip and a lot of swimming in this rather special rainforest lake. 

Rainforest Camp is far from commercial with its 10 Luxury Safari Tents, run in the most responsible manner as it is powered solely by both Solar and Wind energy and uses unique waste management systems - a rather unusual and intimate base from which to explore, at the same time allowing you to feel at one with nature.   

4. Visit a fresh goods market

Each village in Southern Thailand has a fresh market selling everything from vegetables, fish and all sorts of Thai delicacies. Some of it may be a little bit too fresh if you know what I mean, expect the market places to be alive with smells of all sort but it’s an interesting mix that must be experienced and tasted.

5. Explore the old places to get a deeper sense of Thai life…

We visited Takua Pa Old Town in the Phangnga district where traditional Thai culture is slow and deliberate - and life has apparently remained unchanged for more than a hundred years. As you walk down the main street, intrigued by the old buildings that hint of a former ‘Portuguese’ architectural period, you'll discover a Chinese shrine and a rather kitsch-looking  teahouse. It is not against custom to enter and light a candle in remembrance - leaving a monetary token of thanks or a donation is also welcome.

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Disclaimer: Traveller24 Editor Selene Brophy was hosted by Tourism Authority Thailand and Cathay Pacific Airlines as part of a Southern Thailand media trip. The trip included all flights, accommodation, meals and activities.

For further information contact; Facebook: amazingthailandinsouthafrica; Twitter: @thailandsa or #thailandsa