For the simplest double room, prices start at a bargain B150 in the outlying regions, B200 in Bangkok, and B400 in the pricier resorts. Tourist centres invariably offer a tempting range of more upmarket choices but in these areas rates fluctuate according to demand, plummeting during the off-season, peaking over the Christmas fortnight and, in some places, rising at weekends throughout the year.
Most of Thailand’s budget accommodation is in guesthouses and bungalows. These are small, traveller-friendly hotels whose services nearly always include an inexpensive restaurant and safe storage for valuables and left luggage, and often also run to internet access (sometimes even in-room wi-fi) and a tour desk. The difference between guesthouses and bungalows is mostly in their design, with “bungalows” – which are generally found on the beach and in rural areas – mostly comprising detached or semi-detached rooms in huts, villas, chalets or indeed bungalows, and “guesthouses” being either a purpose-built mini-hotel or a converted home. En-suite showers and flush toilets are common in both, but at the cheapest places you might be showering with a bowl dipped into a large water jar, and using squat toilets.
Many guesthouses and bungalows offer a spread of options to cater for all budgets: their cheapest rooms will often be furnished with nothing more than a double bed, a blanket and a fan (window optional, private bathroom extra) and might cost anything from B150–300 for two people, depending on the location and the competition. A similar room with en-suite bathroom, and possibly more stylish furnishings, generally comes in at B200–600, while for a room with air-conditioner, and perhaps a TV and fridge as well, you’re looking at B350–1500. In the north of Thailand in the cool season, air conditioning is more or less redundant, but you might want to check that your room has a hot shower.
In the most popular tourist centres at the busiest times of year, the best-known guesthouses are often full night after night. Some will take bookings and advance payment via their websites, but for those that don’t it’s usually a question of turning up and waiting for a vacancy. At most guesthouses checkout time is either 11am or noon.
Generally you should be wary of taking accommodation advice from a tout or tuk-tuk driver, as they demand commission from guesthouse owners, which, if not passed directly on to you via a higher room price, can have a crippling effect on the smaller guesthouses. If a tout claims your intended accommodation is “full” or “no good” or has “burnt down”, it’s always worth phoning to check yourself. Touts can come into their own, however, on islands such as Ko Lanta where it can be a long and expensive ride to your chosen beach, and frustrating if you then discover your bungalow is full; island touts usually sweet-talk you on the boat and then transport you for free to view their accommodation, ideally with no obligation to stay.
With only a dozen or so registered youth hostels in the country, bookable via wtyha.org, it’s not worth becoming a Hostelling International member just for your trip to Thailand, especially as card-holders get only a small discount and room rates work out the same as or more expensive than guesthouse equivalents. In addition, there are a small but growing number of smart, modern, non-affiliated hostels, especially in Bangkok. They usually work out more expensive than budget guesthouses but are good places to meet other travellers.
Thai sales reps and other people travelling for business rather than pleasure rarely use guesthouses, opting instead for budget hotels, which offer rooms for around B150–600. Usually run by Chinese-Thais, these functional three- or four-storey places are found in every sizeable town, often near the bus station or central market. Beds are large enough for a couple, so it’s quite acceptable for two people to ask and pay for a “single” room (hawng thiang diaw, literally a “one-bedded room”). Though the rooms are generally clean, en suite and furnished with either a fan or air-con, there’s rarely an on-site restaurant and the atmosphere is generally less convivial than at guesthouses. A number of budget hotels also double as brothels, though as a farang you’re unlikely to be offered this sideline, and you might not even notice the goings-on.
Advance reservations are accepted over the phone, but this is rarely necessary, as such hotels rarely fill up. The only time you may have difficulty finding a budget hotel room is during Chinese New Year (a moveable three-day period in late Jan or Feb), when many Chinese-run hotels close and others get booked up fast.
The rest of the accommodation picture is all about tourist hotels which, like anywhere in the world, come in all sizes and qualities and are often best booked via online discount accommodation booking services such as wsawadee.com. One way or another, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead in popular tourist areas during peak season.
Rates for middle-ranking hotels fall between B600 and B2000. For this you can expect many of the trimmings of a top-end hotel – air-con, TV and mini-bar in the room, plus an on-site pool, restaurant and perhaps nightclub – but with dated and possibly faded furnishings and little of the style of the famous big names; they’re often the kind of places that once stood at the top of the range, but were outclassed when the multinational luxury hotels muscled in.
Many of Thailand’s expensive hotels belong to the big international chains: Sheraton, Marriott and Sofitel all have a strong presence in the country and are closely followed by upmarket home-grown groups such as Amari, Dusit and Centara. Between them they maintain premium standards in Bangkok and major resorts at prices of B3000 (£60/US$100) and upward for a double – far less than you’d pay for equivalent accommodation in the West.
Thailand also boasts an increasing number of deliciously stylish luxury hotels, many of them designed as intimate, small-scale boutique hotels, with chic, minimalist decor, exceptional service and excellent facilities that often include private plunge pools and a spa. A night in one of these places will rarely cost you less than B6000 (£120/US$200), and may set you back more than twice as much, though they’re still often outstanding value for the honeymoon-style indulgence that they offer; see accommodation listings for Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ko Samui, Khao Lak and Phuket for some suggestions. As in the West, however, the term “boutique” is overused, and a “boutique” guesthouse or hotel may in practice be little more than “small”. Some luxury hotels quote rates in US dollars, though you can always pay in baht.
As guesthouses have become increasingly hotel-like and commercial in their facilities and approach, many tourists looking for old-style local hospitality are choosing homestay accommodation instead. Homestay facilities are nearly always simple, and cheap at around B150 per person per night, with guests staying in a shared spare room and eating with the family. Homestays give an unparalleled insight into typical Thai (usually rural) life and can often be incorporated into a programme that includes experiencing village activities such as rice farming, squid fishing, rubber tapping or silk weaving. They are also a positive way of supporting small communities, as all your money will feed right back into the village. As well as listed homestays in Amphawa, Doi Inthanon, Mae Sariang, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Ban Prasat, Mukdahan, Ban Khiriwong, Khuraburi and Krabi, there are many others bookable through tour operators or via, for example, whomestaybooking.com/homestay-thailand.
Nearly all the national parks have accommodation facilities, usually comprising a series of simple concrete bungalows that cost at least B600 for two or more beds plus a basic bathroom. Because most of their custom comes from Thai families and student groups, park officials are sometimes loath to discount them for lone travellers, though a few parks do offer dorm-style accommodation at around B100 a bed. In most parks, advance booking is unnecessary except at weekends and national holidays.
If you do want to pre-book, you can do so up to sixty days ahead of your stay at wdnp.go.th. As credit-card payment is not possible on this website, you need to pay in cash or via bank draft within two days of booking, most conveniently at any branch of Krung Thai bank, at designated international banks, or at the National Park headquarters in question; see the website given above for comprehensive details. Affiliated with the National Parks department, a new website, wthaiforestbooking.com, in theory allows booking with a credit card (up to 65 days in advance), though it doesn’t work very well. If you turn up without booking, check in at the park headquarters, which is usually adjacent to the visitor centre.
In a few parks, private operators have set up low-cost guesthouses on the outskirts, and these generally make more attractive and economical places to stay.
You can usually camp in a national park for a nominal fee of B60 per two-person tent, and some national parks also rent out fully equipped tents from B150 (bookable through a separate section on wdnp.go.th). Unless you’re planning an extensive tour of national parks, though, there’s little point in lugging a tent around Thailand: accommodation everywhere else is very inexpensive, and there are no campsites inside town perimeters, though camping is allowed on nearly all islands and beaches, many of which are national parks in their own right.
Although modern, Western-style bathrooms are commonplace throughout Thailand, it’s as well to be forewarned about local bathroom etiquette.
Sit-down toilets are the norm but public amenities, especially at bus and train stations, and in some homes and old-style guesthouses and hotels, tend to be squat toilets. Thais traditionally don’t use paper but wash rather than wipe themselves after going to the toilet. Modern bathrooms are fitted with a special hose for this purpose, while more primitive bathrooms just provide a bucket of water and a dipper. Thais always use their left hand for washing – and their right hand for eating. As Thai plumbing is notoriously sluggish, where toilet paper is provided, it’s normal to throw it in the waste basket and not down the U-bend. If a toilet is not plumbed in, you flush it yourself with water from the bucket. In really basic hotel bathrooms with no shower facilities, you also use the bucket and dipper for scoop-and-slosh bathing.