As you plan your trip to Southeast Asia, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with options. Which country should you see? Which cities should you see and which should you skip? Most travelers find themselves asking ‘Should I visit Thailand or should I go to Bali, instead?”.
As Socrates once said, “Different strokes for different folks”. There is no indisputably correct answer to this age-old question. However, we will lay out the pros and cons of each country and each city. We’ll explain why certain places might be better options for specific types of people.
In Robert Frost’s ‘The Road No Taken’, he writes,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”.
I believe that this poem isn’t about choosing a less popular destination. But rather, the poem is a tale about the importance of being cognizant of your decision. It does not matter which road you choose. It only matters that you know why you chose it. This distinction is what makes all the difference.
Cities vs. Countries
To begin, one should never try to compare countries. You won’t be visiting the whole of a country but rather individual cities within the country. It’s like explaining the culture of the United States of America to somebody from a foreign country. One cannot put Las Vegas on the same page as Topeka, Kansas. You can’t compare San Francisco to Philadelphia and God forbid you even try to explain Florida to anybody.
The same is true with Thailand and Indonesia. The cities of Thailand are as drastically different as those in the United States of America. If one visited the hippy city of Pai, they wouldn’t even believe Pai is in the same country as Bangkok. We will discuss the most popular cities that tourists visit in these countries, as this will paint a more accurate picture for a proper comparison.
The most visited cities in Thailand are Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi island, Koh Pha-ngan, Chiang Mai, and Pai. The most visited sections of Bali are Kuta, Canggu, Uluwatu, Nusa Penida, Ubud, and Mount Batur.
Bangkok is a great place for people who are interested in exploring the religious features of Buddhist Thailand. There are hundreds of Buddhist temples, including some of the most impressive in Thailand. You can observe ancient statues, talk with monks, and even take meditation classes inside these impressive buildings.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Bangkok is also an incredible city for those who enjoy partying like wild animals. Between Khao San Road, Silom Road, Nana Plaza, and RCA, there are countless party districts. You could go to a different bar in Bangkok every single day, and you still wouldn’t visit every bar in Bangkok after 2 years. Maybe that’s a good thing – after a night out on Khao San Road, you likely won’t want anybody from the night before to see your face.
Phuket is also an insanely popular destination for those who like to party. Bangla Road is Phuket’s version of Khao San Road. The entire strip is lined with vendors selling alcohol, people trying to get tourists to eat scorpions, and ‘massage parlors’ that should be avoided at all costs. The key difference between partying in Bangkok vs Phuket is the beautiful scenery, incredible beaches, and lack of smog one finds in Phuket.
Phuket isn’t just for depraved animals of the alcoholic night, it’s an incredible place for those who love the beach. With more than 10 world-class, white-sand beaches, you won’t run out of beautiful stretches of sand. Each beach offers something different, too. Some are great for families, others are almost completely isolated. Phuket is perfect for nature lovers and those after a good tan.
Krabi is a haven for those who love the outdoors. Between the famous Tiger Temple, a religious monument at the top of a mountain (very hard to reach), natural hot springs, and world-class rock climbing, people who enjoy spending time exploring the outdoors almost consistently choose Krabi for their destination.
Krabi is much closer to Malaysia than the rest of Thailand. As such, the city has a much larger Muslim population than the rest of Thailand. This is most clear in the food available to you. The Penang curry, the Massaman curry, and tons of other foods are all a step above their counterparts throughout the rest of the country. Your stomach can thank us later.
Phi Phi Island, Thailand
While the other cities might fit the stereotypical profile of partiers or outdoorsmen, the beauty of Phi Phi is that every type of person can enjoy what this small island has to offer. That’s exactly why Phi Phi is world famous.
It’s a great spot for those who love to dive. The island is an awesome spot for those who love a challenging hike (the view is incredible). Phi Phi might be best for those who love to party. At night, the beach bars become quite crowded. At almost every nightlife spot, you can find local Thai artists who spin and throw fire in an impressive impromptu dance. You can even test your Muay Thai skills at the local reggae bar.
Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand
If you have read about Koh Pha-ngan before, then the infamous island needs no introduction. Once a month, this island throws the biggest party that Asia has ever seen. It gets bigger month after month, too. Around 40,000 people attended the last Full Moon Party with no signs of slowing growth.
You might begin to be noticing a pattern. Thailand is a good place for those who enjoy a cold beer. Koh Pha-ngan is a step above that. People who visit the Full Moon Party aren’t drinking beer, they’re drinking liquor out of a bucket the size of their head. This isn’t an exaggeration – this is a warning to your liver. Visit Koh Pha-ngan at your own risk.
Chaing Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai is often referred to as the digital nomad capital of the world. This city offers a unique blend of everything you could ask for in the mountains of Thailand. Not only is it a cultural epicenter for those interested in religious monuments and temples, but the city is also a playground for those who love to hike and explore. The markets here are incredible and it’s a great place for those who love to shop.
Chiang Mai offers quite a few different districts. You can find the Old City, which is exactly what it sounds like. On the opposite end of the spectrum, explorers who wish for more modern amenities can check out Nimman Road (a newer part of town). We highly recommend checking out the Night Bazaar. These night markets are popular in every Thai city, but the craftsmanship in Chiang Mai is a step above the rest.
Pai is a much slower version of Chiang Mai. If you’re wondering how so many tourists learned how to spin fire poi, then the city of Pai holds the answer for you. This is very clearly the drug capital of Thailand, as is evident by the number of dreaded white guys wearing elephant pants and no shoes while talking about the environment (but doing nothing to make an actual difference themselves).
Pai was once a part of the Golden Triangle – the epicenter of where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar met to trade goods (read: trade drugs). The most popular part of town is surely the Pai Circus Hostel – a place where like-minded people go to practice circus-related skills. While drugs are highly illegal in Thailand, Pai appears to be somewhat exempt from these rules. Exercise caution when visiting the area, as it wouldn’t be the first time the Thai military dictatorship exercised power over a city known for debauchery.
Kuta is the most common destination for tourists in Bali (that can be both a good thing and a bad thing – just depends what you’re after). Kuta is no longer filled with a culture that truly represents the Balinese part of Indonesia. It’s a busy area to go to 5-star hotels, clubs, bars, and shopping.
Don’t let the popularity of this town scare you away. Kuta Beach is where Bali’s surfing scene began. After all, surfing was what spurred the initial growth of tourism in the country. You’ll have no problem renting a surfboard in Kuta (or a kitesurfing apparatus if you go a bit further down the beach). While big hotel chains and fancy restaurants may have taken over the area, the ocean hasn’t changed a bit.
Canggu is Kuta’s cooler little brother. The area is developing into something of an up-and-coming resort area but half the town is filled with bright green rice fields. It’s a nice blend between Bali’s past and Bali’s future. Not to mention the most important feature for Canggu’s tourists – it has several popular beaches for surfing.
The accommodations in Canggu are less centered around resorts. Instead, you’ll find more villas and homestays. You’re more likely to stay in a neighborhood than a hotel chain here. The beauty of a developing city is that you can feel like you’re escaping the hustle and bustle while still having access to surf camps, posh restaurant openings, and a ton of shopping options.
Canggu is a great place to come if you’re new to surfing. You’ll see hundreds of Australians driving their motorbikes around town (without helmets like idiots). They all have surfboards attached to the left side of their bikes and are headed to the beach. Canggu is a great place for young backpackers who can’t afford the pricey nature of Kuta but want a similar experience. It’s an ideal destination for young travelers.
Uluwatu is situated South of Kuta on the island’s Southern peninsula. Most have seen pictures of Uluwatu if they’ve seen images of the temple atop a giant cliff beside the ocean’s edge. This area is covered with gorgeous hills and cliffs akin to those on Ireland’s shores. Naturally, you’ll find a high number of resorts and villas here as the land can make construction challenging (read: expensive) to build. However, it’s nowhere near as crowded as nearby Kuta or Canggu.
There are surf spots here that should only be attempted by those who know what they are doing. All the limestone cliffs make for quite a rocky break and if you’re not careful or if you’re surfing at the wrong time, you can land yourself in a tricky situation. That being said, the surf here is incredible.
Uluwatu is great for those who love dinner with a view. Thanks to all the cliffs and fancy resorts, almost every restaurant in town offers an unimaginable view for sunset. You can also watch the sunset at any number of beautiful beaches in town. Uluwatu has an incredible cultural dance called the Kecak Dance you should check out – many parts of Bali perform this dance but Uluwatu’s dance is situated with the most incredible view.
While Canggu and Kuta might be cooler parts of the city, Uluwatu still holds strongly to Balinese culture. The other two districts are somewhat overtaken by tourists. Large groups of tourists flock to certain spots because they’re fantastic – there is no doubt those areas offer something great. However, according to many, they become less and less authentically Balinese every year.
For Balinese people, Nusa Penida doesn’t technically count as Bali. For tourists, no trip to Bali is complete without a visit to this nearby tropical island. Nusa Penida is the largest of the three nearby Nusa islands (there are also three nearby Gili islands).
This is one of the most remote and exotic parts of Bali. You can find impressive Hindu temples and incredible natural features around almost every corner. You can’t find many accommodations throughout the island. The infrastructure for tourism is relatively minimal, and the internet is certainly sparse. However, it more than makes up for this lack of modernity with the gorgeous natural beauty.
Whether you’re interested in jaw-dropping views of limestone cliffs (like a dinosaur-shaped mountain on the beach) or scuba diving with manta rays, Nusa Penida is the go-to spot for all things nature. Depending on the season, many tourists are lucky enough to spot whale sharks and the equally large Mola-Mola fish.
In my biased opinion, Ubud is the best part of Bali. This city has the closest ties to traditional Balinese culture and is certainly the spiritual center of Bali. In the 1920s, Ubud was a popular tourist destination for wealthy French and Dutch explorers. Tourism died off during the war in the ’40s but surged as soon it was over. Bali (and more specifically, Ubud) became a hotbed for affordable tourism.
The one expensive hotel in Ubud was quickly overcome with the competition when Ubudian families realized they could build a small home beside their current residence and market the property as a homestay. These homestays and villas flourished and Ubud quickly became a place where wanderers ended up (and didn’t want to leave).
It’s no wonder why people are so attracted to Ubud. Around every corner, you can find rice terraces juxtapositioned beside 100-foot tall palm trees. The rice terraces were first formed alongside hills over a thousand years ago when the very first Ubudians used gravity as a means to push running water through their rice fields.
It’s also the most popular spot for monkey-sighting in all of Bali. In the center of Ubud, one can find the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest – home to thousands of (shady and sneaky) monkeys. It’s a great place to buy artisanal gifts, take a yoga class, eat raw vegan food, and much more. It’s also home to a number of temples, including one famous religious center where you can be washed in a Hindu holy fountain.
If you’ve googled ‘Bali’ or ‘Indonesia’, you’ve likely come across news of various natural disasters throughout history. Bali sits right beside the ring of fire. While this can be dangerous for those who are unaware of their surroundings, the Indonesian government has taken substantial steps to make sure local teams are prepared in case disaster strikes.
Bali has 2 active volcanoes. The most dangerous is Mount Agung – tourists should not climb this mountain unaccompanied because they frequently get lost and endanger the lives of the search and rescue teams that make it their mission to save the unprepared backpackers. Mount Batur is accessible to an everyday hiker.
Don’t be deterred by fear around the world ‘volcano’. Even if it erupts, the chances of it erupting anything more than several meters of smoke/ash are minimal. Mount Batur offers several sunrise hikes and there are hotels with natural springs that sit in Batur’s shadows. Batur is a great place for those looking for a natural experience far away from tourist row.
Which is better – Bali or Thailand?
You’re on a website called ‘Vacation Thailand’… what do you think our answer is? In all seriousness, let us break it down simply. If you’re an Australian surfer or cosmopolitan traveler, Bali is the right place for you. If you want to have isolated beaches all to yourself in the middle of paradise, Thailand is the ideal spot for you.
If you’re a traveler who loves to dive into the culture of a city, then both are great options. Those interested in Hindu cultures should visit Bali. The religion permeates itself into everyday aspects of life that are unparalleled elsewhere. You have to avoid accidentally walking on offerings and incense that cover the streets. Magnanimous Hindu temples are around every single corner.
Though, the last sentence holds true for Thailand, as well. However, the pivotal difference is that Buddhism is the religion of choice for the Thai people. Both cultures are known throughout the world for being extremely peaceful, tolerant of other cultures, and open for foreigners to explore.
It does seem that more backpackers who visit Southeast Asia for more than a year will end up defining their religion as ‘Buddhist leaning’, but we strongly believe that they are confusing their love for yoga/meditation for a serious, practicing religion.
Both countries have an odd relationship with parties. There are districts where people get blackout drunk nightly, alcohol is served more quickly than water, and shady things go down after night. However, both Thailand and Indonesia have extremely strict laws regarding drug use.
If caught with drugs (even drugs that are legal in your home country), you should fully expect to spend more than 10 years in prison. If you are caught trafficking these drugs, it’s common to receive (even for Westerners) the death penalty.
That being said, for some odd reason, both countries have at least one city that is a hotbed for tourist drug use. In Bali, the island is called ‘Gili Trawangan’ (though it’s worth noting that this is not technically Bali). While Bali is a Hindu island, the country of Indonesia is a Muslim country. One certainly doesn’t think of rampant drug abuse when Muslim countries come to mind.
However, in Gili Trawangan, the local community is ruled by a small Muslim tribunal. Gili literally translates to ‘small island’ in Indonesian. So it’s not to be expected that the strongarm of the Indonesian government exerts its power over tiny islands. It’s also worth noting that the small island has a zero tolerance for hard drugs but allows the sale of various plants in certain bars throughout the island.
The same is true for Pai, Thailand. Despite the legalization of medical marijuana throughout the country, these new laws certainly don’t apply to travelers in Thailand. The government claims that those carrying the correct Thai paperwork and (Thai) doctor’s notices are legally allowed to bring marijuana into the country if examined by the proper government agencies upon arrival. However, only a sociopath would actually try this. Don’t do it.
Pai, Thailand represent an exclusion from these rules. Likely because the tiny city would lose all tourism-related income if the police actually did crack down on the law. Pai does have a small meth problem among locals and the government certainly takes these issues seriously.
Besides, the art and fire-twirling practices that are learned here are spread throughout the country in a way that benefits all of Thailand. The islands of Phi Phi are notorious for hiring fire twirlers from this part of the country. After all, only a person numbed by drugs would have the slightest desire to throw fire around the body.
Bottom line – don’t do drugs in these countries. Thailand literally translates to ‘Free Man’s Land’. Those who you drugs in a foreign country are certain to contradict this meaning. You can’t be a free man in the prison of an Asian country. The story isn’t worth it.
Which country do I choose?
Most of these articles will reiterate their claim that neither country is better than the other. We believe this to be true. However, we stress that you should visit Thailand if presented with the option (unless you like to surf). Bali is fantastic – but you will likely experience your own culture in a different country if you visit the area. Tourism has replaced the local culture in places like Kuta or even certain parts of Canggu.
Tourism in new countries should be about exploring something unknown. It should be about expanding your horizons. Visiting a new country should be about trying new food and struggling to communicate properly with your taxi driver. Your travels should represent the new. Instead, many travelers in Bali choose a safe space where they can eat pizza and drink Heineken.
Your travels should represent something more. While places like Ubud in Bali certainly offer that, you’re more likely to experience a vastly different culture in Thailand. Make no mistake – both are beautiful countries with beautiful people. But the trend of tourism in Bali has gone unchecked.
In Thailand, the government has taken severe action to preserve the sanctity of their culture. Some refer to this action as unnecessarily bold (completely shutting down tourism in environmentally sensitive areas and canceling the fun Songkran festival’s famous water gun fight), but the reality is that Thailand has taken steps to remain themselves. The most popular parts of Bali have become whitewashed.
If you choose Bali, you’ll have the time of your life. However, we believe you should make efforts to stay with Indonesian families or in Indonesian owned hotels (instead of International chain hotels). You should eat Indonesian food at warungs instead of ordering a hamburger twice a day. You should make an effort to drink with locals instead of other Western travelers.
Bali is a beautiful country. Don’t let your desire to feel comfortable take hold – travel is best experienced when you’re on the edge of your seat and a tad uncomfortable. Thailand understands this. That’s why 42 million people will visit the country this year.
What are the most popular cities to visit in Thailand?
The most popular cities in Thailand for tourists are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Krabi, Pai, Phi Phi island, and Koh Pha-ngan. Most short-term visitors prefer to spend the majority of their experience in the Southern islands. Most long-term travelers make their home in Chiang Mai or Bangkok.
What is the best city in Thailand for tourists?
While certainly open for debate, most people report that the best city for tourists in Thailand is Phi Phi island. Regardless of your age or desired activity, Phi Phi island offers something for all types of travelers. Between snorkeling, hiking, relaxing on the beach, kayaking, or clubbing, Phi Phi offers a bit of everything.