A Backpacker’s Guide To Exploring The Rice Terraces Of Batad & Banaue, Luzon

The rice terraces of Batad is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Located in the mountainous region of central Luzon, the ancient rice terraces of Banaue and Batad is just 10 hours away from Manila by bus. With some terraces dating back to 2,000 years ago, these man-made marvels are among the elite group of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Amazingly, these rice fields are still used for agriculture today. The local Ifugao people, who have inhabited these lands for the past two millennia, continue a tradition of farming in this remote and hilly terrain.

This guide will explain how to get to Banaue, and then on to the picturesque landscape terraces of Batad.

The rice terraces of Batad is a UNESCO World Heritage site
The rice terraces of Batad is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Getting to Banaue

For most travellers, an overnight bus is the easiest way to get from Manila to Banaue. Ohayami runs a daily long-distance service between Manila and Banaue, starting at 10pm and reaching Banaue at around 7-8am. Tickets cost 490 Pesos each way, and you can make reservations online.

Alternatively, you can board a bus from Baguio City to Banaue. The Ohayami bus does pass through Baguio City, but there’s no option to book it online. Instead, drop the company a message to arrange for it.

What to see and do in Banaue

Banaue is relatively easy to get around on foot, although it is built on slopes that are pretty steep at some stretches. Located near the centre of town, the Tourist Information Centre should be your first stop to pay for the 20 Pesos environmental fee. While you’re there, you can hire local guides to tour around the area, get information on sightseeing spots, or arrange for transportation onwards to Batad.

Generally speaking, the main attraction in Banaue are the massive rice terraces located along the slopes. You can easily see them from any vantage point in town, although you can get the best views from scenic lookout spots nearby.

Banaue is also a staging point for further exploration into smaller and more remote rice growing villages. The most popular ones are Batad and Bangaan.

The town of Banaue is the hub for travel in this region
The town of Banaue is the hub for travel in this region

Where to stay in Banaue

There are many guesthouses in Banaue, all centrally located near the Tourist Information Centre. For a comfortable stay, book a room at Rice Homestay right in the middle of town. The rooms are clean and affordable, and the staff are really friendly. Check the latest rates and available rooms here.

Booking.com has more options for accommodation. Check here for the latest deals on rooms and beds.



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Getting to Batad

While getting to Banaue is relatively easy by direct bus, Batad is a small village that takes a bit more effort to reach.

Step 1a – Take a tricycle to the end of the road

You’ll first need to arrange for a tricycle at the Tourist Office, which will cost 700 Pesos each way. Enjoy the 45 minute ride along a winding and occasionally very steep road. At certain stretches, you may need to exit the tricycle and walk some distance on foot, ostensibly for your safety. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the road (quite literally). From this point, it’s a 20-minute walk downhill to the village proper.

Taking a tricycle from Banaue to Batad
Taking a tricycle from Banaue to Batad

Step 1b – Take a jeepney to the saddle and walk in for 30 minutes

Alternatively, a jeepney leaves for Batad in the morning and up till around 2+pm in the afternoon. Tourists need to pay 150 Pesos per person for the ride there. You may be dropped off midway at a location called the saddle. It’s a 15 minute walk from here to the end of the road. For unlucky tourists, the jeepney may drop you off even earlier at a location called the junction. This is 3km away from the saddle, and will add on an additional 30 minutes to the journey.

Step 2 – Walk in for the last 15 minutes

The last bit of walking downhill may be tricky, as Batad is built across the face of a hill. Double check with locals on the way down to make sure you’re on the right track towards your guesthouse. Also, try to reserve a place higher up, since it’s a pain to make the journey back up on your return journey.

The entrance to Batad village
The entrance to Batad village

What to see and do in Batad

You’d think that after visiting the manicured rice terraces of Bali and Vietnam, it’s going to be the same everywhere else. Well, Batad will very likely astound you nevertheless.

Over two millennia, the local Ifugao people have carved rice terraces across the face of a hillside 1500 above sea level. From the gentle valley floor to the steep slopes in the middle of the hill, the resulting landscape is absolutely astounding in beauty and scale.

Most tourists will hike along the terraces, climbing up or down the terraces to get around. You’ll be better off engaging a guide to lead the way, as the maze of terraces are deceptively complex. It’s easy to get lost and find yourself facing a mound of soil at a dead end, while you gingerly avoid fragile banks and rice samplings. A guide will also help explain more about the unique Ifugao culture and the traditional process of rice growing.

Most visitors will take a circuit that leads first to the lookout point near the end of the terraces. This offers a sweeping view of the valley below, while mountains part in the distance to reveal rugged mountainous terrain stretching outwards.

The lookout hut on at the end of the terraces
The lookout hut on at the end of the terraces

If you’re up for a bit of exercise, you can then carefully climb down steep and narrow stone steps to the floor of the valley. At some parts the steps do not have any railings to hold on to, so you may want to carry along a trekking stick for balance. At the bottom, the Tappiya waterfalls thunders down into a river, and brave (or foolish) visitors can take a refreshing dip into the waters after the strenuous hike.

The last bit will be to head back to your guesthouse, walking a different route across the valley floor. Here, rice terraces are wider and you’ll get a different feel as the surrounding mountains loom over you. For most hikers, the round trip will take 3 hours, which is more than enough to make your thighs feel the strain for the next few days.

The Tappiya Waterfalls is a great place to relax after the hike down
The Tappiya Waterfalls is a great place to relax after the strenuous hike down

How do I engage a guide in Batad, and how much is it?

English-speaking Ifugao farmers supplement their income by guiding visitors. Many station themselves at the start of the walk into town, so they have a 15-minute head start to follow you and pitch their services. If you rather not engage a guide, or prefer to have one recommended by your guesthouse, just tell them firmly that you are not going to hire them. Some can get pretty persistent though, as they have all day to wait for a client.

A guide can cost 1,000 Pesos for the standard 3-hour trek, but you can bargain for a cheaper price if you’re serious about engaging them. But considering that this money goes directly to the community, sometimes the extra dollar goes a long way to encourage the Ifugao to keep their traditions alive.

Hiking around the rice terraces of Batad
Hiking around the rice terraces of Batad with a guide

Unfortunately, mobile reception is almost non-existent in Batad, so you can’t call ahead or arrange for a local guide. That also means you don’t have internet or cell phone service while chilling in your guesthouse – which can be a good thing, as you take in the view and just take a break from the chaos of the urban world for a day.

What to eat in Batad

Food and drinks are generally more expensive in Batad, as everything has to be carried in on foot. Most guesthouses and restaurants cater to tourists, so ingredients for western dishes like pizzas need to be purchased elsewhere.

It’s not too exorbitant though. 300 Pesos can get you a full meal with beverage, and then some change to spare.

Of course, do try the rice dishes. Most of the harvest in Batad is meant for local consumption, so you probably can’t get it anywhere else in the Philippines.

Where to stay in Batad

If you’re looking for a unique experience, head to the Batad View Inn and stay in one of the unique Ifugao huts. Built on stilts and accessible only by a ladder, this is one of the more interesting places to spend the night. There’s no electricity, so illumination is provided by a candle. You’ll need to walk out to use the bathroom in the main guest house compound, so make sure you clear your bladder and bowels before turning in for the night. It may sound tedious, but this is definitely a memorable experience, and a change from bland dormitories and generic hotel rooms everywhere else.

The Batad View Inn also has private rooms, if you prefer the convenience of electricity and a nearby bathroom. Check here for the latest prices and available rooms.

The Batad View Inn
The Batad View Inn
The Ifugao huts are built on an elevated platform
The Ifugao huts are built on an elevated platform

Visit Booking.com for more accommodation options. These are some of the latest deals:



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Tips to staying in Batad

Note that the Batad View Inn is located higher up the village, so you walk less to get in and out. That’s a good thing. If you end up choosing a place lower down the hill, prepare to trek up steep slopes with your backpacks when you arrive and depart. And yes – it’s best to bring a backpack, unless you feel strong enough to lug a trolley luggage up and down narrow stone steps.

Also, book your accommodation in advance. As there’s no internet in the village, the guesthouses need to send someone to Banaue every other day to receive new reservation requests online. If you book a place at the last minute, there’s a high chance your reservation may not be received.

Otherwise, you can also take the chance and find a place to stay when you’re in Batad. Just be prepared to deal with the local touts urging you to their aunt’s / uncle’s / cousin’s guesthouse, while you trudge down the village enquiring about available rooms.

One of the easier walking trails in Batad
One of the easier walking trails in Batad

Getting out of Batad

From Batad village, it’s at least a 20 minute climb uphill back to the road. There’s no bus terminal or frequent service, except a regular morning jeepney every morning at 9am. If you’re planning to leave at any other time, make sure to arrange with your tricycle driver to pick you up at the same place he drops you off. Otherwise, there really is nothing but a few hours of walking on steep slopes to get back to Banaue – just this one time, the ubiquitous Uber and Grab apps can’t save you, even if you’re willing to pay 100x for surge pricing!

For an exciting budget backpacking trip in Philippines, check out our 10-day adventure-packed itinerary.

Panorama of Batad
Panorama of the Batad rice terraces

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Quick Links

The tropical paradise of Philippines is often associated with amazing beach resorts, lush sweltering rainforests and secluded islands. With friendly locals and a wide range of travel options catering to all budgets, this is one place that appeals to everyone.

In this itinerary, you’ll learn what to see and do in Luzon, a huge island in the north of the Philippines. Home to ancient rice terraces, colonial towns and the chaotic sprawl of Metro Manila, you’ll visit the main highlights of the island in an ambitious 10-day trip.

Day 1: Touchdown in Manila

For most travellers, Manila is often the first stop when arriving by plane. The Ninoy Aquino International Airport (known locally as NINA) is made up of 4 terminals serving both international and domestic airlines.

Getting out of NINA, there’s enough places to see in Manila for at least a day. Intramuros is a small preserved section of town that retains its Spanish architecture, albeit crumbling at some parts. You’ll find respite from the madness of downtown Manila, as you explore the small alleys and local businesses serving this small community. Walk on to the end of the town and explore Fort Santiago, which was first built by the Spanish to guard the newly established walled city of Manila.

A tricycle leaves the walled city of Intramuros
A tricycle leaves the walled city of Intramuros
Fort Santiago in Manila
Fort Santiago in Manila

After a few hours of walking the streets and peeking into churches, head out and visit the SM Mall of Asia. Touted as one of Asia’s largest malls, this is where you can do a spot of shopping in case you forgot to bring something, or grab a bite from one of the restaurants there. Once done, take a walk along the Roxas Boulevard, a 7.6km-long seaside promenade running along the Manila Bay. On Fridays and weekend evenings, the promenade is filled with locals chilling and digging into street food from the many vendors lining the path.

As you head back towards Intramuros, take a right at the end of the Roxas Boulevard and visit Rizal Park. As the day winds down, locals gather in force at this expansive park to picnic and people watch. Grab some food and settle down on the grass patch as well, or see if there’s a concert happening in the nearby open-air auditorium. Filipinos love their music, and regular performances happen in this venue.

Picnic-goers in Rizal Park, Manila
Picnic-goers in Rizal Park, Manila

End the night with excellent local cuisine and cheap beers at Hott Asia Bazaar. Popular with locals with a party atmosphere to boot, this is not on most tourist itineraries, so come prepared to make friends with Filipinos. But this is just your first day, so take stock of your alcohol intake and get ready to fly out the next day – you’ll be in the northern side of Luzon in less than 12 hours time!

Additional information

If you have more than just a hurried day, check out Girl, Unspotted for some ideas on how to spend 3 days in Manila.

Where to stay in Manila?

Makati Junction Hostel offers clean and cheap dormitory beds for budget travellers. There’s also a nice common area that doubles up as a cafe, so you can chill there with fellow travellers. Check the latest rates and available rooms here.

For a nicer place to stay, the Picasso Boutique Serviced Residences offers a comfortable stay at affordable rates. Check out the latest rates and available rooms here.

Manila is a big city, and there’s many more options all over town. These are the latest deals on Booking.com:



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Day 2-3: From Laoag To Vigan

Getting around Laoag

Situated in the northwest corner of Luzon, the province of Ilocos is subdivided into the north (Ilocos Norte) and south (Ilocos Sur). The capital of Ilocos Norte is Laoag, a relatively small city that’s big enough to get by as a transportation hub.

Most travellers come in by plane. From the airport, take a 15 minute tricycle to the city centre. Alternatively, overnight buses from the Cubao Bus Terminal in Manila start from 800 Pesos, and take between 10 to 13 hours for the trip. Check out Farinas, Florida and Partas for the latest schedules and fares.

Laoag is a relatively small city with a decent local market and colonial architecture. The main highlight of Ilocos Norte is outside Laoag, though. From anywhere in town, you can hail a tricycle (literally on the street) and immediately embark on a half-day tour around the region. Of course, you can also DIY it with buses, which is a lot more painful to arrange.

The streets of Laoag retains some of its colonial architecture
The streets of Laoag retains some of its colonial architecture
Laoag, the capital of Ilocos North
Laoag, the capital of Ilocos North

If you’re planning to head out to sightsee, check out:

  • Pagudpud, a beach with fine white sand comparable to the more famous Boracay beach
  • Bangui Windmills, which are modern ones (not the quaint Dutch type)
  • Paoay, a small town famed for its church
  • The Patapat Viaduct, which hugs the northern coastline

Most tricycle drivers will take you on a planned route if you can’t decide. For 600 Pesos, you can choose to travel to:

  • The South Tour – Cape Bojeador Lighthouse, Kapurpurawan Rock Formation & Bangui Windmills
  • The North Tour – Kabigan Falls, Bantay Abot Cave, Patapat Viaduct, Blue Lagoon Beach

Generally tricycles in the Philippines allow for 2 passengers in the carriage, although it can get a bit squeezy. A third passenger can ride as a pillion on the motorcycle. Sharing costs will bring down the price per passenger, at the expense of comfort of course.

Tricycles are the main form of transportation in Laoag
Tricycles are the main form of transportation in Laoag

Travelling to Vigan

Vigan is another excellent day-trip destination from Laoag. Famed for its well-preserved Spanish colonial street stretching across half a kilometer, the Calle Crisologo is flanked by a row of two storey shophouses selling mostly tourist trinkets. No vehicles are allowed on it, so you’ll only need to avoid the occasional horse-drawn cart.

To get to Vigan, regular buses leave Laoag every hour from the city bus terminal (2 hours, 130 Pesos, hourly frequency, Partas). You could spend half a day to explore Vigan, so it’s best to leave early and return to Laoag by evening to catch the Saturday market in the city centre.

Alternatively, you can try to catch an overnight bus leaving Manila to Vigan (10 hours, 750 Pesos, Partas).

For an in-depth look into what to see and do in Vigan, check out Trotterhop’s excellent Vigan Travel Guide.

Travel down Calle Crisologo on a horse carriage
Travel down Calle Crisologo on a horse carriage
Vigan Cathedral in the town centre
Vigan Cathedral in the town centre

Where to stay in Laoag?

Laoag is a small city with fewer accommodation options. If you’re not picky about in-room amenities, People’s Inn is newly renovated and located just 10 minutes away from the city centre. It’s also cheaper than most other accommodation options in town. Check here for latest rates and available rooms.

Visit Booking.com for more deals in Laoag and Vigan:



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Booking.com

Day 4 and 5: Make your way to Sagada by bus(es)

Finding a direct bus route from Laoag to Sagada is almost impossible, given that there is a huge mountain range in between. Instead, you’ll first need to take an overnight bus to Baguio City (6 hours, 466 Pesos, Partas), which reaches Baguio City at 3am.

From there, take a cab and get to the GL Trans bus terminal, which connects you on the onwards journey from Baguio to Sagada (6 hours, 220 Pesos , departs hourly from 6am to 1pm, GL Trans). For the latter, you’ll need to buy tickets on the bus, as there’s no online reservation channel yet. Rest assured that at 6am, you’ll have plenty of seats to choose from. Enjoy the scenery along this leg of the journey, as you climb higher into the mountains.

Get to the GL Trans Bus Terminal for the first ride out to Sagada
Get to the GL Trans Bus Terminal for the first ride out to Sagada

Exploring Sagada

Sagada is a small town that runs along an incline, so get ready to huff and puff your way around. In the centre of town, the Tourist Information Centre provides everything – from price-regulated tours to the bus and jeepney timings for outward journeys to Manila, Bantoc and Banaue. It’s well run and provides a fair means of income for a town with a heavy dependence on the tourism industry.

Most tourists take the standard walking tour to visit the hanging coffins near the town cemetery, which is usually coupled with a visit to St Mary’s Church near the town centre. Adventurous trekkers can opt for a 1.5 hour or 3 hour spelunking session in the nearby Sumaguing Caves, which promises to be a thrilling and exhausting experience for most visitors. If you’re short on time however, the Adventure Trail is the best of both worlds, as you get to see the hanging coffins, followed by a 3 hour hike to visit a small easy section of the caves, and then finish off with a cliff jump into a small waterfall.

The town of Sagada is built on the slopes of lush forested hills
The town of Sagada is built on the slopes of lush forested hills
Engage tour guides and get information from the Tourist Information Centre
Engage tour guides and get information from the Tourist Information Centre
The local townspeople still practice burial in hanging coffins on the side of cliffs
The local townspeople still practice burial in hanging coffins on the side of cliffs

Getting out of Sagada

While this place deserves more time, you’ll spend at least a night here before taking a scheduled jeepney to Bantoc in the late afternoon. From Bantoc, hop aboard another jeepney to get to Banaue. It sounds more complicated that it really is, so don’t worry! You’ll figure out easily when you’re there. Note that jeepneys will leave early if they fill up ahead of time, so don’t leave everything to the last minute if you’re on a tight schedule.

If you miss the last jeepney connection to Banaue at 1pm, there’s always a 2pm Coda Lines bus service that leaves Sagada for Manila, passing by Banaue en-route. You can usually buy tickets on the spot, although it’s best to reserve a seat in advance for the bus. The Coda Lines office is just a 1-minute walk up from the Tourist Office.

Where to stay in Sagada?

Sagada is a small town, and your best bet is to stay in a guesthouse. Check out Agape Log Cabin and Restaurant, located a short 10 minute walk from the Tourist Information Centre. Find the latest rates and available rooms.

You can also consider these deals from Booking.com:



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Day 5 and 6: Get lost amidst the stunning rice terraces of Batad

Banaue, along with the village of Batad, boasts of some of the world’s most amazing rice terraces. The scale is at times unbelievable, as terraces cut across entire mountainsides. With a history stretching back two thousand years, rice farming is not just a touristy thing, but a way of life for the Ifugao people.

While Banaue offers easy access to these rice terraces, Batad holds an even more impressive set of terraces… if you can get there. It’s not easy though. For starters, you’ll need to take a 45 minute hair-raising tricycle ride along twisting steep roads. At certain sections, your tricycle driver will ask you to step out and walk up or down a stretch of slope for your safety.

You’ll eventually come to a point where the road stops. From here, walk in for another 20 minutes to get to the village proper. Guesthouses are scattered around town, so book one ahead or just enquire on the spot. There are no street lights or mobile phone reception in Batad, so it’s wise to get in before dark. Alternatively, engage a guide to help you. There should be plenty of local Ifugao guys on standby at the entrance of the village.

The steep winding road to Batad
The steep winding road to Batad
End of the road to Batad. From here, you'll need to walk 20 mins downhill.
End of the road to Batad. From here, you’ll need to walk 20 mins downhill.

Most people stay in Batad for a day, which gives them enough time to explore the rice terraces here. Neatly carved from steep mountain slopes that slowly ease into a gentle valley, Batad offers a panoramic view of the terraces from literally anywhere in town. You should also hike down to the Tappiya Waterfall, although the steep steps might put a strain on your thigh muscles when climbing back up.

You’ll also need to deal with vertigo at certain spots where the steps descend sharply without anything to hold onto. If possible, carry a hiking stick along, and engage a guide to lead you along the right way down. It takes roughly 3-4 hours for a hike down to the waterfalls and back up, and the going rate for local guides is roughly 1,000 Pesos. There’ll always be a group of tourists who decide to go without a guide, and you can spot them wading through flooded rice fields eventually after losing sight of the trail.

There’s a lot more trekking trails to nearby villages as well, if you’re keen on exploring the area. Just make sure to engage a local guide, as the mountains can be very unforgiving if you get lost at night.

The landscaped rice terraces of Batad
The landscaped rice terraces of Batad
You'll reach Tappiya Waterfall after 1.5 hours of trekking
You’ll reach Tappiya Waterfall after 1.5 hours of trekking

Where to stay in Batad?

As Batad is spread out on a hillside, your choice of accommodation will mean the difference in climbing 20 minutes to your guesthouse, or climbing up to 45 minutes on steep stone steps. The Batad View Inn and Restaurant promises (and delivers) an amazing view of the rice terraces from higher ground, which means an easier time getting there too. You can also choose to stay like a local in an Ifugao hut, which is an unforgettable experience for a slightly higher price. Check here for the latest prices and available rooms.

You can also search Booking.com for more accommodation options:



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Day 7: Return to Manila and head east to Legazpi

From Batad, return to Banaue using the same way as you arrived (i.e. 20 minute uphill climb, followed by a 45 minute tricycle ride). Ohayami Transport runs an overnight bus service to Manila (7pm, 490 Pesos, 10 hours, Ohayami Transport), and the office is located a short uphill walk from the Tourist Office in Banaue.

You’ll reach the Sampaloc bus terminal in Manila the following morning at around 5am. If you’ve got only a week to spare, it’s time to head back home. If you can afford another couple of days, head east to Legazpi.

There are several ways to get there. If you want to save time, make a beeline to the airport and catch the earliest flight out. Alternatively, regular 10-hour bus rides depart regularly from Manila. Alas, you’ll waste a day just watching the world go by from the window of a bus.

Sightseeing in Legazpi

Generally, everything touristy in Legazpi centres around Mount Mayon, an active conical stratovolcano that erupted as recently as early 2018. Two places are especially popular for viewing the volcano – the 16th century church ruins of Cagsawa at the outskirts of the city, or from an elevated vantage point at the top of Ligñon Hill.

Mount Mayon, as seen from Lignon Hill
Mount Mayon, as seen from Lignon Hill

When the volcano is not actively erupting, there’s much more to do. If you’re looking for a thrill, you can rent an ATV and rumble up the black volcanic soil towards the mountain. Organised tours can also take you closer to the volcano, instead of just admiring it from afar.

There are also lush rice plantations and interesting villages to explore. Rent a scooter for 800 Pesos per day from Bicol Bike Rental (contact Richard at 09275505828), or hire a private driver if you can afford it. After a week of constant travelling, take some time off to relax as well.

Mount Mayon erupting in early 2018
Mount Mayon erupting in early 2018

Day 8: Dive with whale sharks in Donsol

Just one and a half hour away by car, Donsol is one of the best places in the Philippines to watch a whale shark in action. Unlike the touristy whale shark experience in Oslob, Cebu, the scene in Donsal is well regulated by the local marine authorities. They even have an office to enforce responsible whale shark tourism!

Getting from Legazpi to Donsol is relatively easy. Minivans leave for the town at regular intervals throughout the day from 6am. The last van departs at 4pm, although the last van returning from Donsol to Legazpi sets off at 1pm. If you’re intending to visit as a day trip, leave very early or stay overnight in town. Alternatively, rent a scooter (see Day 7 above) and make the journey yourself.

If you have a PADI certificate, or are planning to join a diving course, then there are several dive schools to check out. Giddy’s Place is run by a professional crew with their own equipment, so you know you’re in good hands. They also run a short discovery dive session in shallow coral reefs. Try that out if you don’t have enough time to complete a PADI course.

Sailing out from Donsol
Sailing out from Donsol

A full-day leisure dive will run from 6.30am to 3pm, before returning to shore just before 5pm. If you have your own transport waiting, hop onto your bike or car and return to Legazpi. Hurry and catch the last overnight bus back to Manila at 7.30pm or 8.30pm (if available). It’s might be a bit tight, but it’ll squeeze out yet another an extra day!

Where to stay in Legazpi?

As you’ll be catching a couple of buses while staying in Legazpi, it pays to be near the bus station. Lotus Blu, a newly renovated hotel sharing the same building as a shopping mall, is a full-serviced hotel with good views of Mount Mayon. More importantly, it is only a short 5 minute walk away from the bus station. Check here for the latest rates and available rooms.

You can also visit Booking.com to look for discounted deals:



Booking.com

Day 9: Surf’s up in Real Quezon

If you had dived the previous day, you shouldn’t take a flight for the next 24 hours. It’s good though, as you have the chance to test out your surfing skills in Real Quezon, which boasts of surf-worthy waves coming from the Pacific Ocean.

Real Quezon is at least 3 hours away from Manila by car. Buses will easily take up to 5 hours for the journey though. Raymond Transport runs this route from their bus terminal in Legarda (5 hours, 160 Pesos, hourly service with no online reservations, Raymond Transport), or check out the minivan service located nearby for a potentially faster commute (3-4 hours, 220 Pesos, vans leave when filled with passengers).

Additional information

The Philippines has many more awesome surf spots. Check out the Honeymoon Backpackers’ take on the 10 best places to surf.

Where to stay in Real Quezon?

For the last leg of this trip, end it by spending the night in a campsite. By and large, the most popular place or locals to be at is the PaRK, or the Pacific Recreation Kamp.

Staying overnight at the campsite is pretty affordable. A tent rental will set you back 500 Pesos, and each person adds on another 50 Pesos. If you have your own tent and sleeping bag, it’ll be even cheaper.

Camping in the PaRK
Camping in the PaRK

Most facilities, like the bathrooms and barbeque pits, are shared. A small cafe is well stocked with cold beer, water and snacks like instant noodles. If you’re too lazy to head down to the nearby wet market, fret not. The proprietors can also prepare hot food like rice and basic Filipino cuisine. That is unlikely, however, as the smell of freshly grilled seafood will tantalise your tastebuds.

If you’re new to surfing, instructors run classes during high tide for a small fee. There’s also a nice beach to chill, mingle around a bonfire, or just soak your feet in the ocean water. It’s therefore no surprise that Real Quezon is a popular weekend getaway for city folks in Manila!

The beach along Real Quezon
The beach along Real Quezon

You can also check Booking.com for discounted deals:



Booking.com

Day 10: End your trip with fond memories of Luzon

At last, your trip across Luzon would have come to an end. It’s been a manic one and a half weeks of overnight buses and outdoor activities. While some people holiday to relax, you might actually recover from this trip by heading back to work!

Alas, Luzon has way too many interesting places to explore and 10 days is barely enough to scratch the surface. If you can spare an extra day in Laoag or Sagada or Banaue, it’ll be definitely worth your while. Otherwise, try out this itinerary and let me know how it worked out for you in the comments!

More information about travelling in Luzon and the Philippines

Is it safe to travel in the Philippines?

Luzon is very safe, and isn’t representative of the negative press coverage you read about. Outside of Manila, you’ll most likely be a victim of overpaying a tricycle driver rather than a from a mugging. Just be careful of your belongings, especially in tourist areas like Vigan and Sagada.

Also, don’t do drugs. There is currently a concerted effort by the authorities to stamp out drug abuse, and penalties are harsh. Stick to legal stuff like tobacco and alcohol when in the Philippines, please.

What should I eat in the Philippines?

If you’re seeking a local Filipino experience, you’ll need to have at least one meal at Jollibee. This ubiquitous restaurant is present in almost every street corner in Manila. Of course, Filipino food fans will be aghast at this remark, but it needs to be mentioned nonetheless.

Traditional Filipino cuisine is heavy on rice and meat. Everyone knows Lechon, which is shredded fatty slices of suckling pig. But there’s more than just that! Try pork or chicken adobo, which is shredded meat simmered in garlic, soy sauce and vinegar. Tapsilog is also a local favourite, made of sun-dried pork or beef marinated with salt and other spices, and served with garlic fried rice (sinangag).

Lechon
Lechon

Up north in Ilocos, try Bagnet (fried pork skin), Longganisa (pork sausage made up of ground pork fat stuffed in an intestine sausage) and Empandana (crispy fried turnover filled with cabbage, minced pork and sometimes a variety of other ingredients).

Bagnet in Laoag
Bagnet in Laoag
Empanada in Vigan
Empanada in Vigan

For dessert, you have to try halo halo. This sweet icy concoction comes with evaporated milk for that extra oomph. Watch the calories though, they accumulate fast if you have it every day!

Do I need to reserve bus tickets, and where can I do so?

It’s best to reserve bus tickets, but there will be many operators who still sell their tickets on the bus or at the counter only. Check Biyaheroes and PHBus for the list of operators who sell their tickets online.

What are the overnight buses like?

First Class overnight buses are not, as they suggest, first class. Forget luxury seats and onboard toilets though. Mostly it’s just a normal bus with the occasional movie screening during the day.

Every few hours, long distance buses will stop for toilet and snack breaks. Usually at around 1am or so, the lights will turn on to rouse bleary-eyed passengers. As with most buses in tropical countries, the air-conditioning is set to the lowest temperature dial. If you’re afraid of the cold, bring along a sweater, scarf or small blanket. Long pants and socks are also advisable if you’re petrified of cold temperatures.

Overnight buses are the easiest way to travel around Luzon
Overnight buses are the easiest way to travel around Luzon

Any tips especially for travelling in the Philippines?

  • As with many Southeast and East Asian cultures, saving face is important for Filipinos. Avoid direct confrontations, as it will seldom end well for you. Work towards a win-win situation, and smile throughout your ordeal.
  • Be patient, as some locals may have a different concept of time. While many service providers are reliable, they might just take more time to reply to you, or tend to your requests. You can insist on service or a response, but again, so it with a smile.
  • In Manila, mass public transport like jeepneys might be cumbersome as traffic snarls will delay your commute. Use metered taxis or private car hire apps like Uber and Grab instead.
  • Avoid talking about politics and policies initiated by the current government. Just enjoy the scenery and travel experiences, and leave the politicking to world leaders and internet trolls.

A Guide To Camping Overnight in Doi Angkhang, Thailand

Doi Angkhang mountain road

Just 3 hours away from Chiang Mai by car, Doi Angkhang is a mountain retreat popular with local tourists seeking respite from the tropical climate. This place is home to a royal agricultural project, a tea plantation and strawberry terraces, and is just a stone’s throw away from the Thai-Myanmar border.

This guide will help you plan a trip to Doi Angkhang, including your transportation and accommodation options.

How do I get to Doi Angkhang?

There are several ways to get to Doi Angkhang. In order of convenience and cost:

  • Rent a car and drive up the mountains
  • Hire a private driver from Chiang Mai for 2 days
  • Hire a private driver from Fang for 2 days

The best way to travel is by private car. Renting a car is relatively affordable, with rental rates for a basic car starting from 1,250 Baht per day. Driving your own car allows you to explore the area at your own pace, especially since there are many scenic viewpoints along the way.

However, be prepared to take on very steep and winding mountain roads for at least the last 30 minutes. You should be confident in your driving ability, and the car must be able to switch to low gear to make this climb. Cars with automatic transmission may have this setting, if there’s a ‘L’ marked on the gear stick.

The winding road to Doi Angkhang
The winding road to Doi Angkhang

Also, top up your fuel along the main road, before starting the climb up. Driving on low gear will consume a lot of fuel quickly, and there’s no petrol stations up in the mountains.

If you rather hire a driver, you’ll find plenty of tour agencies in Chiang Mai who can help. A full day rental can cost around 2,500 Baht, plus the driver’s expenses and accommodation for an overnight stay in Doi Angkhang.

Another option is to find a driver to make the trip up from Fang, the nearest city before the turnoff to Doi Angkhang. While you might save a bit on the drive from Chiang Mai, there are fewer tour agencies in Fang. To save a few dollars, you might end up wasting more time looking for a driver.

The roads to Doi Angkhang is well-maintained but narrow. There may be local marshallers along steep stretches, so keep a look out for them and do not speed. That is, of course, assuming your car is capable of moving beyond 10km/h on a very steep incline.

A clear warning to all drivers
A clear warning to all drivers

What is there to do in Doi Angkhang?

If trekking, scenic viewpoints and long walks in cool weather is your thing, you’ll enjoy Doi Angkhang. Located almost 2,000m above sea level in the remote mountainous region of Northern Thailand, this place is blessed with a comfortable temperate climate, manicured rows of tea and strawberry shrubs, and a small town with some shops.

The Royal Agricultural Station

Started by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the 1960s to reduce the cultivation of poppy, this project has blossomed into beautiful gardens and an agriculture research facility. The entrance fee to get in is 50 Baht per person and per car (separately), and the gardens closes at 6PM daily.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, there’s a hotel with rooms available for rent. You’ll need to call in ahead of time to make a booking though, as there’s no online reservation service.

Located near the hotel, you can also choose to have a proper (but expensive) meal at the hotel restaurant, offering a selection of western and Thai cuisine.

The Tea Plantation 2000

Head up the slopes from the Royal Agricultural Station for about 5 minutes, and you’ll come to a one-way road cutting through a forest. As you exit, you’ll pass by a small checkpoint manned by a guard.

Take a left turn from the checkpoint as you join back to a main road. Just further down, take another left to exit and you’ll reach the Plantation 2000. Roads signs are mostly in Thai, so set your GPS to the right coordinates beforehand, or keep a map handy to ask for directions.

Driving into the tea plantation, you’ll first come to a tea shop overlooking the terraces. Stop by for a spot of tea tasting, and buy some back if you prefer. There’s a difference between highland and lowland tea leaves, so so try both before making a decision. You can drive further down or take a slow walk to the plantation itself. There’s no barriers, so feel free to explore the place, as long as you don’t disrupt the tea leaf pickers or damage the plants.

2000 Tea Plantation
The small but scenic 2000 Tea Plantation
Neatly harvested tea plants
Neatly harvested tea plants

The Strawberry Terraces

Return to the main road, and follow along the same direction as before until the next turn left. You’ll need to drive along a sandy track for a bit, so don’t worry if the place seems too secluded. After 5-10 minutes on the track, you’ll come to a small village with shacks on both sides. If you see ladies dressed in traditional tribal attire manning souvenir stalls, you’re at the right place.

Park your car along the side, and enter through one of the openings along the wooden fence. Enjoy the picturesque view of strawberry plants growing on terraces cut into the sides of the hill, and check out the fresh strawberries sold at the shops near the entrance. This plantation is managed by the local hill tribe, so buying the local strawberries is a great way to contribute and support their community.

Strawberry plants line the terraces cut into the hillside
Strawberry plants line the terraces cut into the hillside
A stray strawberry peeks out
A stray strawberry peeks out

The Thai-Myanmar border

Once again, drive on along the same road and in the same direction for another 10-15 minutes. Eventually, you’ll reach another village with the same layout as the previous one. As you drive in, look to your left and see a slope leading up. A manned military checkpoint marks the entrance to the army observation post guarding the Thai-Myanmar border.

You can drive up the slope and into the camp. As you make your way in, souvenir stalls run by women from the hill tribes line the road. Go past them, and you’ll reach a small carpark where you can stop for a while.

Unlike the border crossings elsewhere, this is a fortified border with military camps on both side. Between the fences, barbed wire and wooden spikes stare back at each other threateningly. As long as you’re well within the Thai camp, you can walk along the foxholes, enter the pillboxes, and take photos of the border and the camp itself. It’s not advisable to take photos of soldiers without permission, though.

The Thai army camp guarding the border
The Thai army camp guarding the border
Walk past this gate and the spikes and barbed wires, and you'll find yourself in Myanmar
Walk past this gate and the spikes and barbed wires, and you’ll find yourself in Myanmar

The Sakura trees

Washington and Japan are famous for the annual Sakura flower blossoms. But few are aware that Doi Angkhang also has Sakura flowers blooming between December to January. These trees grow wild in the forest, and some areas along the main road are popular with locals who stop by for a quick photo-taking session.

There’s also a clearing where you can drive in and park the car, if you prefer to spend more time admiring the flowers. Street food and fruit vendors offer cheap eats if you’re hungry while at it.

Sakura trees in Doi Angkhang
Sakura trees in Doi Angkhang

Where should I stay in Doi Angkhang?

Hotels and guesthouses

There are limited accommodation choices in Doi Angkhang. For most tourists, the Angkhang Nature Resort is the best place to stay. A double room will set you back 3,000 Baht though, so be prepared to splurge on a stay here. Check out the latest prices and room availability.

If you’re looking for cheaper alternatives, there are guesthouses in town. Unfortunately, they’re not listed on major hotel booking sites, so you’ll need to call ahead to reserve a room, or take a chance and show up at the entrance. Be warned that rooms may be snapped up quickly on public holidays and weekends.

If all the guesthouses are full, your best bet is to head down the mountain and find lodging in the nearby city of Fang. As far as possible though, try to spend the night in Doi Angkhang to experience the serenity and peace found only in the mountains.

For a list of available options, check out Booking.com:



Booking.com

Camping

Doi Angkhang offers a unique camping experience for tourists willing to rough it out for the night. While driving along the main road in the direction of the Royal Agricultural Station, look out for tents on the right side of the road. To the left, there should be several small wooden huts selling food and basic supplies.

At 400 Baht per night for a tent and sleeping bags, camping in Doi Angkhang is cheaper than other accommodation options. There are two ways to go about finding a tent though, each with pros and cons.

Campground in Doi Angkhang
Campground in Doi Angkhang

Renting a tent from the official campground office

As you drive past the campground, look for a modern one-storey building located just beside the road. Inside, the office is manned by park rangers who manage the campground and surrounding hiking trails.

You can rent a tent and sleeping equipment from the office. The tents are already set up at the cleaning just below the office, and offer panoramic views of the valley below. The opening of the tent face east, so expect a spectacular sunrise if you can wake up early to catch it.

There are shared toilet and shower facilities a short walk up from the tents. While hot water is not available, you can pay to use a heated shower at one of the shops opposite the campground.

Campground office in Doi Angkhang
Campground office
Collect the sleeping equipment from here
Collect the sleeping equipment from here

Renting from a private operator

Alternatively, consider renting a tent from a private operator. They’re another option should all the tents from the campground office be occupied, or you prefer to camp at a different location. The difference is minor though, as all the tents are pitched in the same general area. The private ones are just slightly higher up the slope, among trees that can provide shade from the afternoon sun.

Renting a tent from a private operator is slightly more expensive at 600 Baht, but it comes with free hot water shower and manpower. If the thought of lugging all your bags and sleeping equipment from the office to the tent is daunting, look for these guys to help you out.

Dining options at the Doi Angkhang campground

While the campground is a 20 minute drive away from Doi Angkhang town, don’t worry about going without food. You can find plenty of food just across the road, as the shops stock everything from instant noodles to freshly grilled corn.

As the night falls and the temperature falls below 20°C, choose your favourite shop to order mookata for dinner. You’ll receive trays of ingredients to cook on a circular hot-plate fuelled by charcoal, which is reminiscent of huddling around a campfire with friends or family. An employee of the shop will help carry the hotplate and charcoal to your tent, so you can enjoy your meal at your own pace, with an amazing view to boot.

There’s plenty of food for 2-3 people if you get the small set, and 4-5 if you purchase the large one. Here’s a pro tip though – bring a headlamp so you can shine a light at what you’re eating. The campground gets dark at night, and there’s not a lot of street lamps around so you get a good view of the night sky. The trade-off, of course, is that you need your own light to look around. Your hands will be busy holding your bowl and chopsticks, so keep the light around your forehead for your convenience. You’ll probably need to go through it to know what I mean exactly, I suppose.

Ingredients lined up and prepared for mookata
Ingredients lined up and prepared for mookata
Mookata - cooking meats and vegetables on a circular hot plate
Mookata – cooking meats and vegetables on a circular hot plate

Getting out from Doi Angkhang

After a full day exploring Doi Angkhang, head back to ground level by using the same mountain road down. From here, return to the major road from Chiang Mai. If you continue on towards Fang, you can visit the small Chinese town of Mae Salong. This town has an interesting background story dating back to the days of the Chinese civil war and a lost battalion of troops. Alternatively, you can also reach Chiang Rai in a few hours.

For more ideas, read our full 2 week itinerary in Thailand.

A 2-Week Itinerary Across Thailand From South To North

A golden Buddha statue sits near the Golden Triangle waterfront park
Thailand is, in equal parts, a mix of outdoor adventure travel, exotic cultural experiences, relaxing beach retreats and modern megacities. Here, traditional Buddhism and modern capitalism rub shoulders with each other in an impossible harmony. Over the span of 2 weeks, this itinerary will bring you on a whirlwind trip around the country.

Quick Links

Day 1 – Exploring the Andaman Sea from Phuket

Start from Phuket, the jewel of the Andaman Sea. Spend the day after you arrive to explore the main town of Phuket, or laze on the crowded beach at Patong. If you can hire a longtail boat for a few hours, you can also head out to explore quiet beaches and dramatic cliff faces.

In a few days time, you’ll be spending a night partying at Koh Phangan, so it’s best to get some rest now.

Patong beach at PhuketPatong beach at Phuket
Patong beach at Phuket

Where to stay in Phuket

While there’s a plenty of accommodation catering to all budgets in Phuket, Calypso Patong Hotel provides an affordable option just 20 minutes away from the main beach. More importantly, this hotel is clean and easy to reach (no need to go through dodgy side streets). Check the latest rates and room availability here.

You can also consider these deals from Booking.com:



Booking.com

Day 2 – Head over to Koh Samui on the other side of Thailand

On the other side of the mainland, Koh Samui is a relatively large touristy island in the Gulf of Thailand. To get here from Phuket, Ferry Samui offers a bus & ferry service that picks you up from your hotel, and gets you all the way to the Nathon pier at Koh Samui. Despite the short distance on the map, the trip takes almost 5 hours by bus, followed by a 1.5 hour ferry ride. Fortunately midway through, the bus stops at a small canteen in the middle of nowhere for a lunch break.

You’ll reach Koh Samui in the late afternoon, just in time to check in and find somewhere to settle for dinner. Most tourists will find a place on the eastern side of the island, where most hotels, international restaurants and attractions are located. If you’re staying near the pier at the eastern side, a small but exciting night market caters to locals at affordable, backpacker-friendly prices.

If you’re on a tight budget, I recommend the Dream Cat-Cher hostel. Located along the beach at Nathon and facing the western horizon, chill out on a hammock and sip a coconut as you laze the day away. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Alternatively, go to Booking.com and check out these exclusive deals:



Booking.com

Ferry Samui office to get to Koh Samui from Phuket
Ferry Samui office to get to Koh Samui from Phuket
Nathon Pier at Koh Samui
Nathon Pier at Koh Samui

Day 3 – Party all night on the Full Moon Party beach in Koh Phangan

Explore Koh Samui during the day

The next day, spend the morning and afternoon on a round-island road trip in Koh Samui with a rented scooter. It costs 200 Baht for a full day rental, plus 50 Baht for enough fuel to last the day. If you’re uneasy with two wheels, there’s plenty of taxi drivers to complete the trip easily.

The key sights on the island is conveniently located almost along the ring road. If you’re riding in a clockwise direction, look out for these sights and attractions in this order:

Big Buddha temple
Big Buddha temple
Hin Ta Hin Yai
Hin Ta Hin Yai

As evening approaches, return to the pier and board the last ferry to Koh Phangan. If you’ve timed this right, you’ll be here on the night of the full moon. After all, Koh Phangan is world-famous for one thing in particular…

Party hard at night during the full moon party at Haad Rin

Every full moon night, thousands of party goers throng the beach at Haad Rin to drink, dance, rave or chill late into the night. As the party heads towards early morning, you might see people in a drunken stupor, crying over lost wallets, making out with strangers and more.

If you’re used to travelling on a tight budget in Thailand, you’ll need to expect the worst here. As expected, transportation, food and drinks are overpriced, and there’s a 100 baht entrance for foreigners. For a more information on getting to the full moon party and what to do there, check out our detailed full moon party guide.

A great place to stay for a night is the Phangan Barsay hostel. There’s no minimum stay policy, and the hostel is clean and looks newly renovated. There’s also heated water in the showers (don’t take this for granted in Thailand!) and individual lockers and power outlets beside each bed. Latest prices and more details are listed here.

You can also check out Booking.com for the latest deals:



Booking.com

Getting to Koh Phangan by ferry
Getting to Koh Phangan by ferry
The full moon party at Haad Rin, Koh Phangan
The full moon party at Haad Rin, Koh Phangan

Day 4 – Fly to Chiang Mai and drive up to the mountainous border of Northern Thailand

Hopefully, you hadn’t partied too hard. An early morning ferry and bus ride will take you to the Surat Thani airport*. From here, take a domestic flight across Thailand and into the northern province of Chiang Mai.

*Flights from Koh Samui are very expensive. Head over to Surat Thani for cheaper flights.

The Donsak pier of Koh Phangan
The Donsak pier of Koh Phangan

Rent a car and hit the road to Doi Angkhang

Just miles away from the mountainous Thai-Myanmar border, Doi Angkhang used to be filled with poppy plants and drug smuggling operations. In the 1960s and 70s, the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej came in with a plan to encourage fruit and tea planting, and improved the infrastructure in the area with a royal agricultural station. Today, this small mountain-top town is a quiet retreat that sees few foreigners, and is popular with locals for its cool temperature climate.

Getting to Doi Angkhang is no easy feat though, as your car needs to crawl up very steep inclines and sharp curves for almost half an hour. A small car at full throttle would inch forward at roughly 10 km/h on low gear. If your car has automatic transmission and doesn’t come with a ‘L’ marking on the gear stick, you might not want to chance it with the slopes.

Sightseeing at Doi Angkhang

From Doi Angkhang, visit a well-manicured tea plantation and strawberry terraces that look too pretty to be working farms. Further down the road, just 10 minutes by car, a fortified frontier outpost guards the Thai-Myanmar border. Unlike friendly border crossings elsewhere, trenches, pillboxes and barbed wire add to a tense atmosphere here.

Driving past sakura trees in mid-December
Driving past sakura trees in mid-December
The strawberry terraces are open to visitors for free
The strawberry terraces are open to visitors for free

Camp overnight at the Doi Angkhang campground

In the evening, you have a few accommodation options. If you can afford it, the Angkhang Nature Resort is the premier hotel in this small town. Smaller guesthouses and hotels are located near the Royal Gardens. Check out Booking.com for a list of available rooms:


Booking.com

If you’re looking for a bit of adventure without going too hard on yourself, this is it. You don’t need to carry along a tent or sleeping bags, as the campground office rents these out at extremely affordable rates. For 400 Thai Baht, you get a 2-person tent, two sleeping pads, two mattresses and a large blanket.

The toilets at the campground are washed daily and are relatively clean. You can have a cold shower at the shower rooms inside, or pay for a hot shower at one of the restaurants that line the opposite side of the road from the campground.

From your tent, you get a panoramic 180° view of the valley below on a clear day. At night, trace the tiny mountain roads as faint streaks of light lead into the distance. Almost every occupied tent would have ordered a mookata dinner set up in front of the tent. You can order one at any restaurant across the road. At 600 Baht, this is an ideal (and delicious) replacement for a campfire, and is easily a highlight of your Thailand trip.

As you drift off to sleep, set your alarm at 6am. All the tents are aligned to face east, so wake up early and catch the sunrise right in front of you!

Campground at Doi Angkhang
Campground at Doi Angkhang
A misty morning at Doi Angkhang
A misty morning at Doi Angkhang

Day 5 – Wander around the tea terraces of Mae Salong

Carry on the drive to Mae Salong via Thaton, and visit the multistoried Wat Tha Ton (Phra Aram Luang) temple. From here, enjoy the scenic viewpoint of the Kok River, before continuing onwards to Mae Salong.

After a series of steep climbs and descents down narrow but well-maintained roads, you’ll reach the mountain-top town of Mae Salong. Immediately reminiscent of a remote Chinese village, Mae Salong is famous for its community of Chinese immigrants who descend from the ‘Lost Army’ of the Kuomintang.

This dates back to the days of the Chinese civil war, when the Kuomintang were chased out of China by the Communists. Seeing refuge first in Burma (Myanmar today) and then Thailand, they were eventually given asylum by the Thais in exchange for serving as frontier troops. The descendants today still converse in Chinese, paste Chinese couplets on their front doors, and serve Yunnanese cuisine in local restaurants.

Mae Salong is famous for tea plantations, and the most accessible one is the Tea 101 factory and plantation that lies just off the main arterial road leading out of town. Here, the sweet scent of freshly cut and dried tea leaves fill the air, and you can enjoy tea sampling under the professional guidance of the staff in the factory shop.

After a long day of driving and sightseeing, spend the night at Mae Salong and enjoy the serenity of a peaceful village. The Shin Sane Guest House is located just beside the morning market, and is close to a 7-Eleven and several restaurants. This is one of the more established guesthouses in the town, and facilities are generally well-maintained and clean. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Alternatively, visit Booking.com for additional deals:



Booking.com

Check out the extensive Tea101 plantation
Check out the extensive Tea101 plantation
Sampling tea at the factory shop
Sampling tea at the factory shop

Day 6 – See where three countries meet at the Golden Triangle

The next day, wake up at 8am to catch a glimpse of the morning market. It’s small and very local, but it’s interesting to observe the people socialising and going about their daily routine. After this market closes, everyone returns to their homes and farms, and the village returns to a peaceful calm.

The morning market at Mae Salong
The morning market at Mae Salong
Savour a typical Chinese breakfast of soya bean milk and fried dough fritters - all for 20 Baht!
Savour a typical Chinese breakfast of soya bean milk and fried dough fritters – all for 20 Baht!

The Choui Fong Plantation

From Mae Salong, head towards the Choui Fong tea plantation. An hour’s drive away, this plantation was obviously built for agriculture and tourism. In the carparks, small minivans jostle for space with cars and songthaews. In the fancy teahouse cafe, well-dressed Thais and foreign tourists dig into their expensive green tea cakes and lattes. If you’re feeling the heat of the midday sun, give yourself a treat and get a green tea soft serve ice cream. It’s thick, creamy and absolutely heavenly, while you explore the rows of neatly trimmed tea bushes.

After grabbing lunch and dessert at Choui Fong, it’s time to visit the infamous Golden Triangle. After a 1 hour drive through the scenic countryside, you’ll start seeing the mighty Mekong on your right hand side. Follow it upstream and you’ll reach a small town filled with tour buses, souvenir shops and people milling around.

The Choui Fong Tea Plantation is an Instagrammer's paradise
The Choui Fong Tea Plantation is an Instagrammer’s paradise
Having desert at the Choui Fong cafe
Having desert at the Choui Fong cafe. These will set you back 340 Baht.

The Golden Triangle

Head to the Golden Triangle Park, easily identified by a big golden Buddha statue perched along the waterfront. This is where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, as the small Ruak river meets the Mekong. Once a lawless place where poppy plantations grew and drug smugglers ruled with impunity, the Golden Triangle is decidedly tamer now. Touts sell boat tours that shuttle tourists on a short trip to see Myanmar from afar, and then to a market in Laos for a spot of shopping before heading back to Thailand.

If you came here to see the drug trade first hand, you’re out of luck. Led by a royal initiative to reform the agricultural industry, farms now grow fruits and vegetables instead of poppy. You can still learn about the history of the drug trade at the excellent Hall of Opium. The entrance fee is a tad steep at 200 Baht, though. Alas if you’re looking for adventure and intrigue, you’ll be slightly disappointed that the Golden Triangle has lost some of its edgy sheen already.

The Golden Triangle where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet
The Golden Triangle where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet
A golden Buddha statue sits near the Golden Triangle waterfront park
A golden Buddha statue sits near the Golden Triangle waterfront park

Chiang Rai and the White Temple

If you still have time, hurry over to Chiang Rai and catch the White Temple before it closes at 5pm. One of Thailand’s most beautiful and unique temples, you can spend an hour just examining every little detail in the intricate artwork by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

Spend the rest of the night at the Chiang Rai night market, which opens late till 11pm. In the nearby food village, you can dine on cheap local eats while being entertained by local performers on a central stage. Just follow the sound of music from the night market – you won’t miss it!

The beautiful White Temple of Chiang Rai
The beautiful White Temple of Chiang Rai
Plastered hands reach out to visitors from both sides of the pathway into the White Temple
Plastered hands reach out to visitors from both sides of the pathway into the White Temple

Accommodation in Chiang Rai

There are plenty of hostels and guesthouses near the night market in Chiang Rai. If you’re looking for an affordable and clean place with excellent service, I highly recommend Baan Jaru. The owner goes out of the way to provide advice on what to see around town, help with travel logistics and make sure your stay is comfortable. Check out the latest prices and find out more about the guesthouse.

You can also consider the following deals on Booking.com:



Booking.com

Day 7 & 8 – Embark on an overnight trek to visit the hill tribes near the northern border

From Chiang Rai, book a 2D1N trek to the hill tribes from one of the many tour agencies around. Coconuts Tours is a reliable operator, although most tours work with similar itineraries.

(Read more about a similar trek in Hsipaw, Myanmar)

Day 1: Overnight trek to the Lisu tribe village

10am: Pick up from your hotel.

11am: Take a longtail boat ride down the Kok River to an elephant camp (optional elephant ride at an additional cost).

12pm: Reach a small town for lunch.

12pm to 4pm: Trek along jungle trails to reach a hill tribe village. The guide will decide on the destination village and trail based on your fitness level.

4pm to 7pm: Enjoy a welcome tea and a cold shower in the hut of your host family.

7pm to 10pm: Simple home-cooked dinner with the host family and guide, and you’ll probably want to rest early afterwards.

An elephant camp along the Kok River
An elephant camp along the Kok River
Trekking through the jungle
Trekking through the jungle
After hours of hiking, we come to a remote Lisu village deep in the hills of Northern Thailand
After hours of hiking, we come to a remote Lisu village deep in the hills of Northern Thailand

Day 2: Trek to a waterfall and return to Chiang Rai

9am: Wake up to the crows of the village’s roosters, and dig into a filling breakfast of local porridge or bread and jam.

10am to 1pm: Head down to the Chinese village at the foot of the hill. Along the way, you’ll pass by a tea plantation, rice fields and other hill tribe villages.

1pm: Using just bamboo, your guide will fashion a cooking vessel, eating utensils like chopsticks and cups, and start a fire to cook lunch in the jungle.

2pm to 4pm: Hike on to a waterfall for an optional swim (warning: the water gets cold especially in the winter season!), and then past another village to end with a jeep ride back to Chiang Rai.

The second day's trek starts off easier
The second day’s trek starts off easier as we enter another village
No metal pots required. Instead, bamboo is used to hold and cook green curry.
No metal pots required. Instead, bamboo is used to hold and cook green curry.

One highlight of this trek is to appreciate the ingenious craftsmanship of the guide, as he chops, slices, grinds and hammers freshly cut bamboo into useful items like cups, chopsticks and rings. If he finds a section of bamboo filled with water, you can do like Bear Grylls and have a sip right from the bamboo stem too!

The temperature drops drastically at night though, so be prepared with a jacket. The hut where you’ll be sleeping in is very basic, as you lie under a mosquito net and on an elevated platform, with a thin mattress for cushioning. You have a blanket for warmth, although it’s not going to be the clean and fluffy ones that you might be accustomed to in hotels.

Also, expect very basic bathroom facilities. The shower is a tub of river water with a small bucket to shovel water onto yourself. If you’re not ready to rough it out, this trek might just break your spirits down. Come mentally prepared.

As you return to Chiang Rai after the trek, get a ride on the pickup to the bus station. There’s no time to lose, as you have to get on the last bus to Chiang Mai at 5.30pm on the same day.

The bus station at Chiang Rai
The bus station at Chiang Rai

Day 9 – Take on winding mountain roads as you cross over to the backpacker haven of Pai

Wake up bright and early to catch an early bus to Pai. This mountain town is a 3 hour drive west of Chiang Mai, and makes up part of the infamous Mae Hong Son Loop, a dizzying series of relentlessly winding turns up and down steep mountain roads.

Once a sleepy village inhabited by farmers, this place has grown into a tourist town where every other commercial establishment is a hostel, bar, restaurant or motorbike rental shop. A place on most backpackers’ itinerary, Pai has scenic roads and some interesting sights to visit just outside town. You’ll need a motorbike* to get around easily, or hire a driver for at least a few hours.

*The police force in Pai are especially motivated to look for traffic infractions by tourists. Usually, not wearing helmet or not having a license is enough to warrant an on-the-spot fine… if you know what I mean.

Sights around Pai

Once you’re ready to explore the area, check out:

  • The Memorial bridge: a touristy bridge that tries to associate itself to the famous WWII era Bridge Over The River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. Alas, it really isn’t a WWII bridge but a pretty modern one, but tourists still come here anyway.
  • Pai Canyon: in the same light, Pai Canyon wants to be compared with the Grand Canyon, or perhaps Bryce Canyon in the United States. It’s nothing like the two, but is still worth a look anyway. It’s pretty, but don’t expect an earth-splitting chasm.
  • Wat Phra That Mae Yen (Big Buddha on the hill): Come here for amazing views of Pai from up above. You’ll need to conquer a pretty long flight of stairs to the top, but it’s worth the climb! For best result, come in the evening and watch the sun set behind the distant mountains.

By day, the Pai Walking Street is a narrow gridlocked street, flanked on both sides by touristy cafes and shops. At night, the entire area across several streets are closed to traffic, and street vendors set up their stalls as a night market slowly takes form. After a long day of sightseeing, find some cheap eats there or grab a bite at one of the many western-style cafes. Tomorrow, you’ll be leaving the creature comforts of urban life behind again.

Scrambling over steep canyon walls at Pai Canyon
Scrambling over steep canyon walls at Pai Canyon
The Memorial Bridge at Pai
The Memorial Bridge at Pai
Sunset over Pai, from the Big Buddha temple
Sunset over Pai, from the Big Buddha temple

Accommodation

While Pai is filled with hostels catering to every type of traveller with a range of budgets, I recommend Juno hostel for a cheap stay in a decent place. There’s a free snack bar, laundry facilities and individual lockers inside each room. More importantly, it’s just a 5 minute walk to the town centre of Pai. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Booking.com runs promotions on hotel deals as well. Here are some of them:



Booking.com

Day 10 & 11 – Brave the rapids from Pai to Mae Hong Son on an overnight rafting expedition

The River Pai lies just outside the town that bears the same name. From there, an overnight white-water rafting expedition will take you to Mae Hong Son, another popular town on many backpackers’ itinerary.

Mae Hong Son, of course, is famous for its winding roads. By taking on the journey by river, you’ll be missing out on this journey now – but rest assured, you’ll still have to face the 1,864 turns on the return journey by land.

For today, you’ll meet your rafting guide from Thai Rafting, a well-regarded tour operator run by Guy, a amiable Frenchman. After the equipping and luggage logistics are sorted, you’ll take a 1 hour drive out of town and along the river, stopping at a small village for to load up on snacks and beer if required.

Next, the pickup will stop at a nondescript location by the river, and the guide and his colleague will start pumping air into an impressive inflatable raft. 10 minutes later, you’ll be on the raft and in the river, ready to take on heart-pounding rapids over the next 6-8 hours. The following day, it’ll be more of the same, plus a pit stop at a hot spring, which resembles more like a mud bath than a luxurious body-soaking experience. But after enduring cold river water for much of the day, you’ll be glad to just wallow in ankle-deep hot water. If you’re looking for a thrilling experience, the best time to take on the waves is between May to October. With the rainy season bringing more water in, expect several Grade 4 rapids as you course down the river.

At the end of the first day, you’ll reach a jungle camp by 5pm, just in time to grab a shower. Again using a scoop and a tub of murky river water, comfort is not really the highest priority here. Instead, appreciate the peace and seclusion of this remote camp, where there is no electricity, water and cellphone reception. The nearest town is either a 4-hour climb through thick jungle, or a full day’s rafting down to Mae Salong. Virtually cut off from the rest of civilization, you’ll now know how it really feels like to be all alone in the world.

By late afternoon on the second day of the trip, you’ll reach the town of Mae Salong. While some travellers may stay for a day to enjoy the scenery and the laidback lifestyle, you’re pretty stretched for time during this trip. Instead, make a beeline to the bus station and take the last bus back to Chiang Mai at 5pm (Prempracha Transport).

Check out my personal account on rafting the River Pai to find out more about this unforgettable experience.

The only ride for the next 2 days
The only ride for the next 2 days
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Our guide, Mr Chai, is a master of the rapids here.

Day 12 – Ride out to a Giant Treehouse just outside Chiang Mai

With one day to explore Chiang Mai, there’s no time to waste. If you’re confident to take on busy city roads, rent a motorbike and ride out for the day. Otherwise, you’ll need to rent a songthaew for a few hours, or just stick to exploring the city centre.

One interesting place to visit is located an hour and a half away by bike. The Giant Chiang Mai is a cafe built on top of a huge tree, and requires a 30 minute climb up winding gravel roads to reach. It’s worth the effort though, as you get a panoramic view of the valley below. It’s also something to boast about as you post your #lookatmyawesomecafe photos on Instagram.

Head back in the evening and grab an early dinner, as you’ll need to catch the overnight bus to Bangkok. There’s plenty of operators serving this route, so find the one that fits your schedule at 12go. Generally, these buses are pretty comfortable, but prepare a thick jacket as the air conditioning gets cranked up in the middle of the night. You have been warned.

The cafe on a tree, at the Giant Chiang Mai
The cafe on a tree, at the Giant Chiang Mai

Day 13 & 14 – Drive from Bangkok to Khao Yai to visit a slice of Europe amid the rolling hills of the Thai countryside

After a frigid overnight ride, the bus will drive into Mo Chit. This is one of Bangkok’s major bus stations, and is just a short walk away from the famous Chatuchak market. The BTS metro station is a 20 minute walk away, but many public buses can get you there for 2 Baht. Afterwards, take the BTS train and connect to the airport express. You’ll be collecting a rental car from the Suvarnabhumi airport, so expect the trip to take slightly over an hour.

From Bangkok, drive 2 hours out of Bangkok to reach Khao Yai. With the development of numerous themed resorts in recent years, this place sees busloads of tourists everyday. Alas, you need to be a hotel guest to explore the respective hotels, so pick wisely – the better ones (Thames Valley, Toscana, Sala, Kensington English Garden etc) will cost above 5,000 Baht per night. Also, do make a trip to the PB Valley vineyard and sample locally made wines. Entry is free, but there are scheduled guided tours that you can join for 320 Baht for adults or 250 Baht for kids.

Grapes grow well on the hilly soils of the PB Valley
Grapes grow well on the hilly soils of the PB Valley vineyard
Enjoy a slice la dolce vita in the Tuscan-themed hotel
Enjoy a slice la dolce vita in the Tuscan-themed hotel, Toscana

If fancy European-themed hotels don’t interest you, drive up into the Khao Yai National Park instead. The entrance fees is a tad expensive at 400 Baht for adults and 200 Baht for children. But some claim it’s one of Thailand’s most beautiful nature reserves, so go for it!

At night, you can dine at a nice restaurant in one of the many hotels. If you’re on a budget, drive down to Pak Chong and visit the small night market along the main road. The food’s cheaper than Bangkok, and the variety doesn’t disappoint.

If you’re travelling in December or January, there’s one last surprise in store! Make a detour and head towards Saraburi. During this season, the sunflowers fields are filled with bright and cheerful blooms that scream for attention. Most fields are maintained by farmers who ask for 10 Baht per person to enter. It’s a small price, and well worth the entry fee.

The sunflower fields of Saraburi
The sunflower fields of Saraburi
If you're in time, catch the sunset over the sunflower fields
If you’re in time, catch the sunset over fields of flowers

Accommodation

If you’re looking for an interesting place to stay for the night, try glamping – or luxury camping. The Lala Mukla Tented Resort Khao Yai is located near the major tourist attractions, and getting there by car is pretty easy. It’s also not as exorbitantly priced compared to the nearby resorts, although you do need to use shared (but spotless) shower and toilet facilities. Check out the latest prices and more details.

Lala Mukla Tented Resort Khao Yai
A glamping experience at the Lala Mukla Tented Resort Khao Yai

You can also consider these deals from Booking.com:



Booking.com

Day 15 & 16 – Get lost in the glitz and grime of Bangkok

At last, your trip is at its end. You have 2 days in Bangkok to explore a city that deserves a week at the very least. It’s the ideal setting for an end to this trip, and has something for everyone – from museums to late night shopping, and from relaxing massages to world-class nightlife (or otherwise, if you know what I mean).

If you’re new to the city and want to do something outside of the usual Bangkok itinerary, here are some possible ideas.

Tailor a suit

Many visitors go for a tailor-made suit or other clothes in Bangkok. Tailors offer decent quality work at affordable rates, and are located at almost every other corner in the city. Rates and workmanship will vary wildly depending on whether you make an effort to bargain or not, but a suit may be made for US$150.

Dine like a local at the Tawandang German Brewery

A place where local Thais let down their hair, this restaurant and beer garden brews their beers on-site in huge metal vessels. The food’s good too, and do make reservations if you’re coming with a big group. You should know that the place gets really crowded during dinner time, and especially on Fridays and weekends.

Catch a 4D movie at Siam Paragon

If you’re looking for the latest in cutting edge entertainment, Paragon Cineplex at Siam Paragon could easily trump any of the cinemas back home. The newest cinema hall boasts of a 4D experience, which is essentially a non-stop simulator ride through the entire movie. Couple that with 3D glasses and the occasional blast of cool air into your face, and you’ll really feel like you’re in the movie.

Prices range between 500 to 600 Baht, depending on the location. In some countries, that’s the same price just to watch the same film on a crappy seat in an ageing cinema!

Watch a cabaret show

Transgenders are an accepted part of Thai society, and many have ordinary jobs and lead ordinary lives like other Thais. In the entertainment industry however, ladyboys have a less-than-flattering reputation as raunchy performers and sex workers.

The Calypso cabaret show is a palatable version of this image, as ladyboys go up to sing, dance and act on stage. Generally, it’s family-friendly entertainment and a offers decent income for the performers. The performers know you’ve come to gawk at them, so its natural to stare or feel uncomfortable around them. Just don’t be a jackass and make rude comments or gestures – that’s just mean!

Dine on street food everywhere in Bangkok
Dine on street food everywhere in Bangkok
Walk the busy streets
Walk the busy streets of the city centre
End the day with a craft beer at Tawandang
End the day with a craft beer at Tawandang

Accommodation

There are far too many options to consider when staying in Bangkok, catering to all types of travellers and budget. As transportation in Bangkok can be a huge hassle, my main criteria for choosing a place to stay is:

  • Near the subway or BTS station. Don’t rely on the roads to get you anywhere fast.
  • Near the city centre, as the main tourist attractions are located there.
  • Affordably priced. The market is so competitive, so you don’t need to shell out a lot to stay in a nice place.

Check out these Booking.com deals for rooms in Bangkok:



Booking.com

Additional notes

On this 16-day trip, you’ll need to plan out the logistics carefully as you’re going to be doing a lot of different activities. From trekking to driving a rental car, it pays to be prepared. On a tight budget, you don’t fork out for extra stuff at inflated prices when you’re desperate.

What to bring

Part of the itinerary will take on some amount of adventure and rugged travel. As such, keep your mosquito repellent handy and your backpacks light. Here’s a short list of things to make the trip more comfortable.

For trekking

  • Light jacket (temperatures can drop to 10°c at night between December to February)
  • Torch light or head lamp
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Sunblock
  • Portable charger for your camera phone
  • 1 liter water bottle
  • Waterproof casing for any electronics

On the road

  • A good book (Geek In Thailand is a recommended read)
  • An inflatable neck pillow
  • Eye mask and ear plugs if you’re a light sleeper
  • Pre-downloaded GPS app or maps

At the beach

  • Swimwear (bring a spare, if possible)
  • Towel
  • Sunglasses

Others

  • Copies of your passport and driver license (to rent a motorbike)
  • Small daypack to carry just the essentials

Driving tips

This itinerary requires you to rent a car at two places during the trip. Some online reviewers have previously warned that car rental companies may charge you for new dents or cracks. During the initial handover, check the car thoroughly and make sure you record every defect with your camera. Even better, time stamp the photos so you can use it when contesting a defect.

While most Thai drivers do want to get home safely, some motorists do drive like maniacs. At the very least, get some insurance for your rental car, whether it’s from signing up with a travel-related credit card or through your travel insurance. Even better, pay for an third-party zero-excess car rental insurance.

The end of a whirlwind trip

This itinerary is undoubtedly packed with many activities and sightseeing locations, all in a short span of time. Nevertheless, this trip will take you memorable places, many of which are off the regular mass tourism trail. Thailand is a beautiful country with lots of friendly people, so come in with an open mind and fire up that spirit of adventure!

Thailand

Flaming rope skipping in full moon party

From high-energy beach parties to serene temples, Thailand has it all. Find out how to backpack around this Southeast Asian country in 2 weeks.

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The comprehensive guide to enjoying the Full Moon Party at Koh Phangan, Thailand

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The comprehensive guide to enjoying the Full Moon Party at Koh Phangan, Thailand

Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan

It happens only almost once every month, as thousands of young and energetic partygoers throng the beach at Haad Rin in Koh Phangan. On any other day, the island is a picturesque and tranquil island paradise in the Gulf of Thailand. But under a full moon, the beach turns into a thumping, sweaty display of wild youthful abandon, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol.

Koh Phangan isn’t your average idyllic beach retreat. You’ll be spoilt for choice at nearby Koh Samui (30-40 minutes ferry away), or Phuket on the other side of the Thai peninsula. If you’re looking way down south, Koh Lipe has great beaches too. (Tara Lets Anywhere has a detailed guide to Koh Lipe, if you’re interested).

But if you’re planning a trip to Koh Phangan, it’s almost always for the massive party atmosphere and laid-back backpacker vibes.

Getting to Koh Phangan

There’s no airport on Koh Phangan, so most visitors come in from Koh Samui. Flights to Koh Samui are generally more expensive than the average domestic flight in Thailand, so more savvy visitors (like yourself!) will know to fly in to Surat Thani airport. From there, take a ferry from the nearby coastal town of Donsak. Ferry Samui offers a hassle free shuttle service from the Surat Thani airport to Koh Phangan by bus and ferry.

A bus will first take you from the airport to the Donsak pier, which is at least an hour’s drive away. From Donsak pier, the ferry ride to Koh Samui takes about 3 hours, and it might get very bumpy in the middle. If you get seasick easily, it’s a good idea to stock up on those seasickness pills beforehand.

From Koh Samui, it’s just another 30 minutes to Koh Phangan, and you’ll disembark at the Thong Sala pier. Waiting songthaews (converted pickups with seating at the back) will take you to various destinations around the island. During the full moon festival, expect super-inflated prices starting from 150 Baht for a quick 5 minute drive to your accommodation in town.

Ferry from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan
The ferry from Koh Samui to Koh Phangan

Getting around Koh Phangan (and to Haad Rin beach)

Songthaews are the easiest way to travel around Koh Phangan, and especially to the Haad Rin beach. On the night of the full moon party, a makeshift boarding point is set up opposite the entrance to the local night market. Here, drivers will take turns packing as many partygoers as possible into the back of the truck. As at Dec 2017, it costs 150 Baht per person.

Once the driver is satisfied that he cannot physically jam another body in for fear of igniting a nuclear fission chain reaction, he’ll speed off towards Haad Rin at breakneck speed. This party comes literally once every full moon, and he has no time to waste in making as much money as he can.

You might be tempted to rent a scooter and try to get to Haad Rin yourself. Even if you don’t intend to drink, fatigue from dancing and maniacal Songthaew drivers pose a huge risk to your safety. It’s advisable to just stick to the local drivers for this night.

Taking a songthaew to Haad Rin
Taking a songthaew to Haad Rin with other partygoers

Where to stay in Koh Phangan

A week before the party, hotels and hostels get filled up quickly. Capitalising on this influx of visitors, many places require a minimum of 2-3 days stay during this period. Those that do not have a minimum stay duration will price their rooms accordingly, anyway.

The best place to base yourself during the full moon party is near Haad Rin beach. You’ll save on expensive transportation to and fro, plus you can conveniently stumble back to your room anytime during the night/early morning once you’re done. Of course, the accommodation near Haad Rin beach is the priciest.

If you’re on a budget, consider basing yourself on Koh Samui, leaving your luggage there and going to Koh Phangan with just some cash for food, drinks and transport. 500 to 1,000 Baht should suffice, unless you’re looking for a really good time. Since you’re all prepped to party all night, you can sleep on the beach at Haad Rin till sunrise and take the first ferry back to Koh Samui.

Booking.com

What to expect during the full moon party

Entrance fee

To get into the beach itself, foreigners need to fork out 100 Baht in exchange for a fancy red wristband. Ostensibly a fee imposed for the post-party cleanup, this is a small fee in exchange for letting foreigners come in and thrash the place every few weeks.

Paying 100 Baht entrance fee to Haad Rin
You’ll need to pay a 100 Baht entrance fee to get onto Haad Rin beach

Buying alcohol

Along the way from the Songthaew terminal to the beach, vendors line the streets with carts selling buckets of alcohol and mixers (see safety tips below). The listed price for a bucket is 250 Baht onwards, and you can even bring in your own alcohol from the convenience stores outside.

Buying bucket alcohol during the full moon party in Koh Phangan
Buying buckets of alcohol during the full moon party in Koh Phangan. Black Cock does have a nice ring to it!

What to do

The main activity at the party is to dance. From small head bobbing to outlandish full body wobbling, you’ll see them all on the beach. The full moon party is not a mega-huge rave centered around a DJ. Instead, it’s a bunch of beachfront clubs that thump out all sorts of music across different parts of the beach. Each will have a theme, and you’re free to stand in front of any and start dancing. There’s no barriers, no boundaries, and no bouncers. Dance till you’re bored, and take a few steps left or right to the next place, and repeat.

There’s also a club that offers partygoers a chance to play with fire. Alternating between jumping through a flaming hoop and skipping over a flaming rope, this one draws a constant stream of macho partygoers out to prove… something.

Likewise, there is a club that encourages partygoers to do chin ups for free alcohol. As with the flaming rope jumping, there is a never-ending line of participants eager to flex their triceps.

At certain intervals, tall vertical pole structures will be set ablaze, revealing messages like Full Moon Festival 2017 and the advertiser that is sponsoring it. This always gets the crowds excited for some reason.

And somewhere in the middle, a quiet zone exists without any beachfront clubs. Here, tired revellers take a break and sit on the beach, people watching, socialising or simply staring out into space in a drunken stupor.

Dance party at the full moon party Koh Phangan
Full on dance party at the full moon party Koh Phangan.
Flaming rope skipping in full moon party
Partygoers risking life and limb by skipping over a flaming rope.
Flaming rope skipping in full moon party
The flaming rope game doesn’t get old throughout the night.
Chin up challenge at the full moon party
For the less-suicidal, there’s also a chin up challenge at the full moon party.
Flaming sign in full moon party Thailand
Occasionally, large signs are lit up with flames to a roar of approval from the crowds.
Flaming sign in full moon party Thailand
There’s something about fire and large signs that get the partygoers excited.

Visiting the toilet

As selling alcohol is a competitive business, enterprising locals have found a lucrative side business – toilet entry fees. You’ll be hard pressed to find a free toilet during the party, so set aside 20 Baht each time you need to answer the call of nature. You’ll notice lots of men standing on the surf with their backs facing the party. They’re not admiring the seascape – they’re just saving themselves 20 Baht, and contributing a bit more water to the Gulf of Thailand.

As the party heats up, some brave ladies will also take up the challenge of the open toilet. Lots of sheepish smiles, hysterical shrieks and awkward postures will follow.

Paying for toilet at Haad Rin Full Moon Party
Paying for an overpriced toilet visit.
Pissing into the sea during the full moon party
Taking a leak into the sea while drunk. That’s a thing here too.

Safety

There’s a lot of ways to screw up your holiday (and your life) after a night of insane partying. The guiding principle is to use your common sense even when everyone around is going wild, and have some control over what you drink and do.

Here are some tips to stay safe during the full moon party.

Before the party

  • Bring some cash, and leave the rest in a locker or safe back in the hotel/hostel. 500 to 1,000 Baht should be enough for a fun night out.
  • Don’t bring your passport out, for heaven’s sake. But still, there’ll be people crying over their missing passports after midnight, every time.
  • As mentioned earlier, don’t ride a scooter to the beach. You’ll need to ride back afterwards, and drunk riding on dark hilly roads is a bad idea.

During the party

  • Don’t accept any drinks from strangers. There are reports of drinks spiked with date rape drugs.
  • Don’t accept or purchase drugs. Many of these dealers are undercover police, and Thailand has strict anti-drug laws.
  • Buy alcohol from shops, and check that the seal is unbroken. Some street vendors are known to refill bottles with homemade whiskey, which runs the risk of methanol poisoning.
  • Wear shoes, slippers, flip flops or sandals at all time. By 10pm, the beach will be strewn with broken bottles and shards of glass, so tread carefully and watch where you step.
  • Jumping into the sea while drunk, in the middle of pitch darkness and surrounded by piss-mixed seawater, is a bad idea. But you’ll see, there’ll always be some who find pleasure in doing so.
  • If you’re a female, find a group to tag along from your hostel. Judge their character and personality before going partying with them, as there are lot of ill-intentioned people going to party as well.
  • Exercise some control while partying. Jumping through flaming hoops and climbing flimsy metal pole structures are downright dangerous.
  • Make sure you’re aware of your surroundings at all times. If you feel uneasy, head back to your hostel and rest.
Safety during the full moon party
Always follow safety signs during the party. Please.

After the party

  • Drink lots of water during and after the party. Between the alcohol and the partying, you’ll probably be dehydrated. It’s probably a shitty feeling to nurse a hangover for the next few days.

Money-saving tips

There’s no restriction in bringing your own alcohol into the beach. Buy buckets, bottles of whiskey, soda or beer at the convenience stores on the island at the usual listed price. You can probably find a lot of partygoers forming a long line at the cashier too.

You can easily find partygoers looking for a Songthaew to get to Haad Rin from everywhere on the island. Share a ride, and save on the cost of renting one by yourself.

For accommodation, stay as close to the Haad Rin beach if you intend to return to your room after partying. Staying far from the beach means spending more time travelling there, as well as a more expensive ride. You will also find less people to share a ride if you stay further away.

Lastly, head over to the end of the southern end of the beach for cheap-ish beer. The going rate for a small bottle of Chang beer is 60 to 70 Baht. But if you turn right (when facing the sea) and walk straight to the end, you’ll come across signs that scream 50 Baht for a bottle of beer. That’s probably a good deal along this stretch of prime party-town real estate.

50 Baht Chang beer full moon party
See the small 50 Baht sign for Chang beer in the distance!

 

Partying in Koh Phangan on a full moon is an eye-opening experience for most people. While this is definitely an exciting event, you’ll need to budget a bit for the night. Take care of your own safety as well, since alcohol, youthful abandon and the mad partying crowds are a potent mix.

But for most part, use your common sense and just enjoy the music and the crowds. You might find yourself having the time of your life, with an epic story to brag about for the rest of your life. From here, check out this 16-day Thailand travel itinerary to see what else you can do on an epic whirlwind trip around the country!

Into The Caldera Of Ijen & Bromo: A Weekend Itinerary To Volcano-Hopping in Java

Walking along the rim of Mount Bromo

Much of Indonesia lies over the ominous-sounding Ring of Fire. Marking the border where the Eurasian, Australian and Pacific tectonic plates meet, the landscape is pockmarked by countless volcanoes and grim lava fields.

But this is also a land of breathtaking scenery with abundant flora and fauna. Everyday, thousands of visitors forego a good night’s sleep to catch the sunrise at the summits of Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo.

Located at least a half day’s drive away from each other, Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo offer different experiences to visitors. It’s advisable to engage a tour operator to organise a 3-day trip, as arranging for public transport is pretty challenging in a tight timeframe. A tour guide might also be able to bring you to their favourite secret sunrise spots, which might involve slipping under a nondescript gate.

In this itinerary, you’ll learn how to visit both iconic volcanoes over a weekend, and make it back to office with amazing stories to share.

Panoroma of sunrise view from Mount Penanjakan
Panoramic view of the Sea of Sands and Mount Bromo

Day 1: Flight to Surabaya

From the Javanese city of Surabaya (second only Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta), take a 5 hour drive out into the countryside and into Bondowoso to stay the for the night. Rest early on this day and recover from any possible jetlag, as you’re going to wake up very early over the next two days.

Day 2: Climbing to the rim of Mount Ijen

Wake up at 3am and drive 2 hours towards the to catch the sunrise over the vivid aquamarine blue crater lake of Mount Ijen. This volcano is also (in)famous for its dangerous sulphur mining operations, which is largely carried out and transported by hand.

From the entrance of the trail, a local guide will be required to bring you up. The path is moderate, although sections of steep slope require some fitness to overcome. If you need help climbing up, enterprising locals can carry you in a small carriage for a fee.

From the rim of the crater, the lake shimmers with a shade of luminous funky blue-green. Unfortunately, the water contaminated by hydrochloric gas and is highly acidic. You’ll want to stay clear of any water in the lake, and streaming down from the top.

You may also spot ghostly blue flames emerging from crevices in the ground. Formed when sulphuric gases combusts underground and then shoots out under high pressure, some plumes of glowing gas can reach up to 5 meters in height.

Glowing blue lights at Mount Ijen
The famous glowing blue lights in the crater of Mount Ijen
The Ijen crater vents corrosive sulphuric gases
The Ijen crater vents corrosive sulphuric gases

To get down to the floor of the caldera, you’ll need to tread gingerly on a narrow trail of loose rocks. It takes about 45 minutes to walk down, and another set to get up, but it offers an up-close and unparalleled view of the hellish scene down below.

A sulphur miner at work, lifting slabs of sulphur out of the Ijen crater
A sulphur miner at work, lifting slabs of sulphur out of the Ijen crater

Here, miners with almost no respiratory protection fight noxious gases and sudden bursts of thick ash-clouds. The work is hard and dangerous, and life expectancy plummets to a decade at best. But that’s the price to pay for 600 Rupiah per kilo, or just over US$0.45 per pound – higher than the average wage in the area.

sulphur mining in mount ijen
Freshly mined sulphur from the crater

As day breaks, the blue flames fade and the miners end their shift. Head back down the trail, which takes about another 1-2 hours. From there, zoom back to the hotel for a quick wash-up, and then it’s another half-day drive to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. Ask your guide to arrange for accommodation inside the park itself. From the small town there, you can appreciate marvellous views of the Mount Bromo and the stunningly desolate lava field below.

Smoking caldera of Mount Bromo
The smoking caldera of Mount Bromo

Where should I stay at the Mount Bromo?

Booking.com offers an range of accommodation options, although choices are limited in the national park. Book early as large tour groups will snap up the rooms here.



Booking.com

Day 3a: Catch the sunrise from Mount Penanjakan

Wake up at 3am to yet another exciting day ahead. By 3.30am, many rumbling jeeps will set off for nearby Mount Penanjakan to catch the sunrise. You’ll be in good company though, as over a hundred jeeps carrying a sea of tourists all make a beeline to the top.

As you reach the viewing platform and the shops at the summit, traffic grinds to a halt and chaos reigns. Follow the horde of bleary-eyed tourists as they stumble into the cafes for some strong Javanese coffee, or camp at the platform to reserve the best spots. If everything goes well, you’ll probably have no more than an hour to kill before sunrise.

Jeeps going up Mount Penanjakan
A line of jeeps going up Mount Penanjakan
Jeeps going up Mount Penanjakan
Each jeep follows closely behind, to avoid losing sight of the path.
Crowds gathering for sunrise
Crowds jostle for a good vantage at the first sight of sunrise

Eventually, your guide will indicate that it’s time to head out. If it’s too crowded, there’s a secret spot marked by a locked gate that leads to a unfenced slope and clearing. Walk away from the direction of the sunrise, and try to spot locals slipping past the gate. From there, you’ll get an unblocked view of the sunrise, with the mighty Mount Semeru spewing smoke by its side.

Sunrise from Mount Penanjakan
A fiery sunrise from Mount Pananjakan
Sunrise from Mount Penanjakan
As sunlight streams in, a lush jungle hugging the sides of Mount Penanjakan reveals itself.
Mount Semeru from Mount Penanjakan
Mount Semeru, Java’s largest volano, is seen from Mount Penanjakan

Day 3b: Explore the otherworldly landscape of the lava fields

After the sunrise, the crowds will disperse into the shops, cafes, or return to their jeeps. Take a nerve-wracking drive down steep slopes and back onto the lava fields (also known as the sea of sand).

The guide will stop the jeep for an extended photo-taking session. Backdropped by Mount Bromo, standing over fine black sand and posing with a cool-looking jeep, this is a visual feast for the eyes. Well, you could even build a sandcastle if you wanted to!

After sunrise, groups of tourists make their way down winding slopes to the Sea of Sands
After sunrise, groups of tourists make their way down winding slopes to the Sea of Sands
Posing for photos on the Bromo Sand Sea
Tourists posing for photos on the Bromo Sand Sea
Posing for photos on the Bromo Sand Sea
The Sea of Sands is a scenic spot, and one of my favourite wide open spaces (after the Salt Flats of Uyuni)

Day 3c: Climbing to the rim of Mount Bromo

The last part of this leg involves climbing up Mount Bromo and peeking into the smoking caldera. All jeeps are required to park a kilometer away from the volcano, and you’ll need to proceed on foot. Walking on a sandy flat surface is easy but slow. Expect to take 30 minutes each way, and factor in extra time for plenty of photos along the way.

If you’re tired or just want to visit the volcano in style, consider riding a horse there. It’ll cost you, of course, but you get to avoid the horse dung all over the path there.

Horses to walk across the Sea of Sand
Tired tourists can pay for a horse ride across the Sea of Sands

Between the drop off point and the volcano, a seemingly out of place Hindu Temple stands stoically. Pura Luhur Poten is an important place of worship for the local Tenggerese people. On the 14th day of the Kasada month on the Hindu lunar calendar, the locals will celebrate the festival of Yadnya Kasad. Famously on this day, devotees sacrifice chickens, goats or vegetables by launching them from the rim and into the caldera.

Climbing up to Mount Bromo
It’s a long walk to Mount Bromo, and then another climb up to the rim
Walking along the rim of Mount Bromo
From the top, visitors spread out across the rim
View of the Sea of Sand
From the top of Mount Bromo, you can get a good view of the Sea of Sands

At the base of the volcano, a narrow stairway helps visitors scale the steep incline. Patience is the order of the day, as the crowd shuffles uneasily and halts every few steps. Keep at it though, and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding lava field and beyond. From the rim, peer down and face the fury of the active volcano, as smoke billows loudly from deep beneath.

Once you’re done with the view, head back the same way you came from and get into the car. Your itinerary is almost completed, but there’s still one last place to go!

The caldera of Mount Bromo
Gases bellow out of the still-active crater
Walking around on the rim of Mount Bromo
The foot of Mount Bromo is a hive of activity

Day 3d: Get soaking wet at the Madakaripura Waterfall

A short distance out of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, take a short detour to visit the Madakaripura Waterfall. This unassuming location hides a small canyon with a remarkable waterfall thundering down its expansive rock face.

From the main entrance, buy a ticket (20,000 Rupiah) and take along only your waterproof items. To get to the real entrance though, hitch a motorbike ride. It follows a meandering river, passing by verdant paddy fields and landscaped plantations.

Here, you’ll meet an assigned guide who will take you in. While the guide isn’t really necessary, he does take really creative photos when you get to the waterfall. What happens next is an uneventful 30 minute walk in, until you think you’ve come to it…

Madakaripura Waterfall path
Take a 30 minute walk into lush jungle to reach the Madakaripura Waterfall

Alas, no. That’s just a mundane waterfall. The guide will prompt you to follow him, and eventually you’ll need to wade into the river. Just past the bend, a thundering noise gets increasingly louder.

And then you finally see it. 100m directly above you, water leaps out and crashes into the pool below. The river is relatively fast flowing, but you can easily fight the current by picking the right path between rocks. You can walk right under the waterfall and let the curtain of water crash onto you. You can climb on rocks and pose for countless variations of photos.

Madakaripura Waterfall
Water from the Madakaripura Waterfall thunders down from high above
Madakaripura Waterfall posing for photo
Visitors pose for photographs directly under the Madakaripura Waterfall

Eventually, the thrill wears off. Head back to the main entrance via the same way – 30 minute walk, 5 min motorbike ride. There’s still some distance to go before you reach Surabaya, so take a rest and enjoy the Javanese countryside scenery until the urban sprawl takes over.

Onward Destinations

From Surabaya, you can head to neighbouring Semarang and take a ferry to the Karimunjawa Islands for some rest & relaxation on an island paradise!

Alternatively, check out vibrant Malang, just3 hours away by car.