With more than 35 million visitors in 2017, it’s pretty clear that Thailand is one of the world’s top destinations. But more than its famed beaches and non-stop parties, the Land of Smiles speaks for itself when it comes to travel. From backpackers to luxury jet-setters, this place has something for everyone.
Begin your journey in chaotic Bangkok, where delicious food is cheap and rooftop bars are the craze. From there, savor the island life in Koh Samui or Ko Tao. Next, try trekking through the lush jungles of Chiang Rai. Don’t forget to be awed by the Grand Palace as well as the famous golden Buddha of Wat Pho.
And that’s just for starters. But before you buy that plane ticket, take a few minutes to know the ins and outs of this wonderful country. After all, it pays to be prepared.
Here’s everything you need to know before you visit the amazing country of Thailand:
Thailand in a Nutshell
Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand – or officially, the Kingdom of Thailand – is surrounded by the neighboring countries of Myanmar (to the North), Laos, Cambodia (both at the Eastern side), and Malaysia (to the South).
They are a constitutional monarchy as well as a parliamentary democracy. Their current monarch is Maha Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded King Bhumibol Adulyadej (the longest reigning King) in 2016. The prime minister is Prayut Chan-o-cha.
With more than 1,400 islands, you can bet that they have a varied landscape. From sandy coastlines, verdant jungles, towering mountain ranges, to green valleys, and flat farmlands.
Here are more fast facts about Thailand:
- Its capital city is Bangkok.
- Main language is Thai, but you can also find other dialects, especially if you go to more rural locations like the region of Isan.
- The main religion is Buddhism.
- The currency is Thai baht (which can go a long way if you know how to budget!).
- Tuk-tuks are one of the most popular ways to get around – but they’re more expensive than taxis, so be warned!
- Aside from tuk-tuks, you can use the BTS or Skyrain, ride buses, trains, and of course, flag down metered taxis. You can also rent motorbikes or cars; just make sure you have an international license and travel insurance.
Fun fact: Thailand may be globalized, but it has never been colonized by Europeans! Thanks to a clever strategy of allying themselves with powerful countries – as well as smart negotiations – they have managed to evade colonialism.
Common Thai Traditions and Customs
If you can sum up Thai culture, it’s perhaps in their well-known phrase, ‘mai pen rai’, which means ‘no worries’. In essence, Thai people are carefree, smiling folks. But any traveler knows that wherever you may be, you need to respect individual customs and traditions.
It’s the same in Thailand. So take note of the following common practices you need to observe to ensure your trip is smooth-sailing:
- Practice the ‘wai’. This is the traditional Thai greeting consisting of a slight bow with your palms pressed together.
- Remember: the head is the most sacred part, while the feet are dirtiest. Never show anyone the soles of your feet! And don’t ever touch someone on the head either. The only acceptable pace to ‘put your feet up’ is while in a hammock.
- Use your right hand in transactions whenever possible. That’s because the left hand is considered as the ‘toilet hand’. Use your right when paying for things or passing objects to someone. But if you’re left-handed, that’s fine.
- Eat off a spoon, NOT a fork. It’s considered rude to directly eat off a fork.
- Respect monks. You’ll see them everywhere, so mind your manners. Give them the wai, let them eat first at gatherings, and if you’re a woman, don’t touch them.
- Wear appropriate attire. You never know when you’re going to see an awesome temple you may want to enter. But if the weather is too hot or humid, you can keep a thin jacket, cardigan, or sarong in your bag to cover yourself up just in case. A good pair of comfy sneakers or sandals will go a long way, and are good for taking on and off.
- Avoid pointing with one finger. For people, you can nod or motion for them to come over with your palms down. Although it’s acceptable to point at animals or inanimate objects, in general, point with the whole hand instead of just a finger.
- Traveling as a couple? Avoid public displays of affection as much as possible (in big cities, holding hands seem to be fine though). Follow the rule of thumb: observe first, and follow everyone’s lead so as not to cause offense.
- Use your own judgment in tipping. For street food for instance, there’s no need to tip. Hotels and resorts on the other hand, will expect tips. Loved your affordable Thai massage? It won’t be a bad idea to give at least a 100 baht tip directly to your masseuse. Hired a warm, chatty tour guide that made the group trip awesome? 500-1000 baht shouldn’t be a problem, especially as their hours are long and the work itself is exhausting.
- Before entering a temple or home, watch if people are taking off their shoes. If they are, follow their lead.
- Return someone’s smile. Because you’re in the Land of Smiles!
- Last but not least, always keep your cool. Remember, ‘mai pen rai’!
As they say, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. Study locals around you and do what is appropriate. But when in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Thai people are warm, friendly, and hospitable. Who knows, you may even meet a future friend during your stay!
Staying Safe in Thailand
Thailand is a relatively safe country, especially for women or solo backpackers. Even if you know nothing of the local language, most folks – particularly in large cities like Bangkok or Chiang Mai – can understand as well as speak a bit of English. So in general, you should encounter little to no problems at all.
However, as with all countries, just be aware of common scams to protect yourself. In Thailand for instance, crimes like bag snatching is to be expected. There are also scams that involve switching of items in shops, or tuk-tuk drivers who get a commission if they take you to a gem store or restaurant.
Remember that no matter where you go, you’re going to encounter at least one person who will try and con you. That’s why you need to be informed and alert.
Here are several things to keep in mind to keep yourself safe:
- Trust your instincts. For example: if you think your driver is taking the longer route and you’re uncomfortable, ask him to stop. Use Google Maps to find the quickest way and show it to him. If he refuses to follow it, get off.
- Don’t go with strangers to another location. This may seem like common sense, but you’ll be surprised to know how many people get scammed this way. It may begin with a friendly local or attractive girl. They’ll chat you up, make you feel at ease, then ask you to come with them for a few drinks. Next thing you know, you’re being pressured to buy something expensive. Or worst, you’re held up in a room being robbed.
- Never say anything negative or make fun of the royal family. Thailand has the strictest lèse-majesté law. To err on the side of caution, keep your opinions about their government or the royal family to yourself. Simply smile or refuse to say anything, even when prompted by locals.
- Never deal with illegal substances. Just because Thailand is the party capital of Asia doesn’t mean they have a carefree attitude about drugs. Don’t do anything you’ll regret! If it’s banned in your home country, it’s banned here, too.
- Keep extra money (and your valuables) in a belt bag. You don’t need a fanny pack. Nowadays, there are lots of options for trendy, practical belt bags for storage. Make sure to have a photocopy of your passport, and keep it with you along with extra cash.
- Drinking age in Thailand is 20. So if you’re underage, don’t even try. Most bars get raided pretty frequently by the police looking for underage drinkers. So party responsibly.
- Beware the notorious buckets. If you’re in Thailand for the infamous Full-Moon Party, don’t try to consume those seemingly innocent concoctions by yourself. They’re a toxic combination of Thai whiskey, vodka, gin, and M150 (Thai energy drink).
- Keep in mind that monks are now allowed to ask for money. If a monk begs or asks you for it, it’s most likely a scam.
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Opt for bottled water, or bring your own. But the ice in restaurants is safe for drinking.
- Get the right vaccines. Doesn’t matter where you go, always make sure you have the standard vaccinations for viruses such as measles, diphtheria, tetanus, and Hepatitis A.
- Don’t forget to carry bug spray.
In general, get yourself the right travel insurance, use common sense, and don’t ignore your gut feeling. As long as you abide by the rules, respect Thai culture, and look both ways before crossing the street, you should be fine.
Best Time to Visit Thailand
After reading all that info, you’re probably itching to book that plane ticket. But as with all else, planning is essential. Thailand is a great place – but as it’s a tropical country, it can get too hot and humid in some months.
If you don’t mind the heat and humidity though, April is a good enough time because there are usually plenty of flight and hotel deals. But be warned: it’s also tourist season.
Monsoon season, which brings heavy rains, is during July to October. Rains are heaviest during June to August and tend to wind down by October, so it’s also a nice month to book your flight. The best part is that it’s not so hot (compared to April and May).
Frequent travelers would suggest visiting Thailand between November and February as it’s not too hot or too rainy. Plus, there’s also the famous Yi Peng and Loi Krathong, both visually stunning festivals typically celebrated in mid-November.
Depending on how you want to enjoy your travels, you can more or less enjoy your trip while spending only about $30-50 a day. If you love street food for example, you won’t spend more than 150 baht. Typical treats like papaya salad and the ubiquitous pad thai cost as little as 20-40 baht at most.
But as everything in Thailand is awesome, you can take advantage of 5-star treatments for less.
Beautiful islands like Koh Phangan for instance, have luxury hotels that charge less than what they would in large cities. Depending on your preferences, you can get away with spending $100-150 a day for top-of-the-line suites – sometimes with infinity pools!
Going in groups has its benefits in that you can split the costs among yourselves. Still, there are lots of apps (Agoda, Airbnb, Momondo, etc.) nowadays that give you more options and discounts. To minimize stress, simply list the activities you want to do, but DON’T book them until you arrive. The last thing you want is to pre-book a 2000-baht jungle adventure only to have it cancelled because of the monsoon.
Last tip: negotiate. You’ll want to practice this as you will be doing much haggling while shopping, riding in tuk-tuks, or booking with an agent. Keep in mind though, that if the other person isn’t budging, you can walk away. Try not to make a scene as Thais prefer to ‘save face’.
And as always, ‘mai pen rai’!