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Thailand offers something for everyone. The capital, Bangkok, is alive with commerce and street-bustle nearly every hour of the day and night. Whether in big cities, the country or on a pristine beach, Thailand offers business and leisure travelers a safe, friendly atmosphere full of possibilities. Indeed, one reason Thailand is among the most visited countries in Asia (more than 22 million visitors annually) is because of its accessibility and extensive tourism infrastructure.
Thailand has fabulous architecture, diverse hill-tribe villages, ancient ruins, beautiful islands, excellent shopping and all the amenities as well. The balance between comfort and excitement is up to you: Stay at a five-star hotel or trek through the jungles; eat at gourmet buffets or buy fruit from local vendors; shop in glitzy malls or wander through outdoor markets. Thailand offers a curious mix of the ultramodern and the simply delightful.
The tsunamis that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004 dealt a serious blow to Thailand’s western coast. The hardest-hit regions were Phang-Nga, Phuket and Krabi provinces, including popular resort areas in Phuket and Phi Phi Island. The area has fully recovered, however, and is again attracting hordes of visitors.
The center of Thailand consists of flat plains no more than a few feet/meters above sea level, watered by the Chao Phraya River and a number of smaller rivers and canals. There are mountains in the north stretching southward along the border with Myanmar, high plains in the east, and mountains and jungle covering the peninsula Thailand shares with Malaysia.
The first true Thai kingdom was established in AD 1238, though the region had been settled since 3600 BC. The ensuing two centuries are known as the Sukhothai period, a kind of Golden Age when Thais made great contributions to writing and Theravada Buddhism and generally expanded the empire. Though it was occasionally dominated for periods by its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand (or Siam, as it was called then) was the only country in the region not colonized by Europeans. The ruins of Sukhothai and other ancient Thai kingdoms are well-preserved today. The remains of these great cities date from vastly different time periods, and each is unique. A visit to at least one is well worth it.
Modern Thai history begins with the revolution of 1932, which shifted power from the king to a coalition of military and elected officials. In 1939, the official name changed from Siam to Thailand, meaning “land of the free.” Despite its loss of power, however, the monarchy continues to exert enormous influence on Thai people. The current king, Rama IX, is the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history and is beloved by nearly everyone. He is in his 80s and celebrates his birthday in December. (Because the king was born on a Monday, represented in Thailand by the color yellow, donning a canary hue on Monday is a popular way to show respect.) Royal birthdays are treated as national holidays, and pictures of the king (featured on nearly all Thai money) and queen can be found in most homes and on billboards around the country. The king’s anthem plays before the start of every movie, and the audience respectfully stands.
Among the main attractions of Thailand are beaches, snorkeling, scuba diving, temples, ruins, hill-tribe culture, trekking, fine handicrafts, excellent food, nightlife and very friendly people.
The beaches and islands along the eastern coast were not affected by the tsunami and are major destinations, similar in many ways to Phuket (pronounced Pu-KET) and the islands off the western coast. Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in the north are the two top attractions in the hill country, offering everything from elephant treks to cooking classes.
The only Southeast Asian country never colonized by a European power, Thailand’s name in the local language means Prathet Thai, or “Land of the Free.” The country was formerly known as Siam.
Even though fewer youth abide by the custom today, young Thai men (even members of the royal family) serve as Buddhist monks for a short time before embarking on their careers.
In Thailand, each day of the week is associated with a color. Yellow symbolizes the monarchy because King
Bhumibol was born on a Monday, which is represented with the color yellow. Queen Sirikit was born on a Friday, and thus represented by the color blue. But royal birthdays aren’t the only hues inspiring local fashion. In 2007, King Bhumibol was photographed wearing pale pink after a long spell in the hospital. As such, his loyal subjects soon donned the pastel shade to wish him good health.
The Elephant Art School in Chon Buri hands over its brushes to elephants, whose paintings are sold for significant sums.
Thailand actually has two New Year celebrations: one on 1 January and another on the anniversary of Buddha’s death in mid-April.
Anna and the King of Siam took place in Bangkok, but don’t praise the book (or The King and I, the play and movie based on it) to Thais; they find it to be an offensive and condescending portrayal of one of their greatest kings.
Ban Chiang, in northeastern Thailand, is considered by many to be the most important prehistoric settlement ever discovered in Southeast Asia; it had bronze artifacts dating back to 2100 BC.
The world’s smallest-sized mammal lives in Thailand. The bumblebee bat, also known as Kitti’s hog-nosed bat, is an insect-eating mammal with a body length of just 1.1 in/2.9 cm; it weighs a mere 0.07 oz/2 g.
The Sofitel Centara Grand Resort & Villas Hua Hin stood in for Cambodia’s Hotel Le Phnom in the film The Killing Fields.
Named Wichien-maat, or “moon diamond,” in the local language, Siamese cats are native to Thailand and believed to be lucky. Gifting a certain breed (a Si Sawat Siamese) to a new bride is said to bless the marriage.
A century ago, more than 100,000 elephants lived in Thailand. Sadly, decades of poaching and overzealous logging have left a modern population of just 2,000-3,000.
In Thailand, leaving the house without underwear is illegal.
Any journey to Thailand should take in the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew: they are the royal and religious centers of the Thai universe. While still in Bangkok, visitors should try to fit in Jim Thompson’s House and perhaps a half-day bicycle trip. Strike north through the ancient capitals of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai before embarking on a hilltribe trek from the templed northern capital of Chiang Mai. Head to the northeast for somnolent riverside scenery and a more laid back lifestyle; centers such as Nong Khai and That Phanom are outstanding spots. Before heading to the south, swing by the eastern islands of Koh Chang and Koh Samet, both low key compared to what awaits farther south. West of Bangkok, head to Kanchanaburi, home to the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai and lush jungle scenery.
The more adventurous traveler can head toward the Burmese frontier at Sangkhlaburi: go rafting or perhaps ride an elephant. Begin your southern stretch through the family-friendly beach resort area of Hua Hin, then choose from a bevy of islands on both the east coast (Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao) and the west (Phuket, Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi and more). Round out the trip south with some seafood in Songkhla.
Thailand’s four main regions—the central plains, north, northeast and south—offer travelers a diverse range of recreational activities. The north region of the country attracts adventurous travelers keen to explore the mountains. Trekking, rafting and caving are all popular pursuits there. In the cooler months (November-February), the area is also a highly regarded bird-watcher’s destination, as is Khao Yai National Park in Thailand’s northeastern region. The borders of the park have several excellent golf courses. The fertile land and agreeable climate have also seen several vineyards established there, which offer tours and tastings.
Lovers of sun, sand and sea head south to Thailand’s glorious islands. The most popular are Phuket and Koh Samui. The waters around the islands are known for fantastic diving, and the Similans, 62 mi/100 km northwest of Phuket, are the most spectacular. They are one of the best scuba-diving sites in the world.
With 1,984 mi/3,200 km of coastline, Thailand has more than its fair share of fabulous beaches. Some beckon to backpackers with budget hotels, cocktail buckets and 24/7 discos; others are more upscale.
As a building frenzy grips the country, quiet beaches are getting harder to find. If you’re not a fan of one
particular strip of sand, feel free to explore. Chances are good that a nearby beach might better suit your fancy.
On the mainland, many people enjoy Hua Huin, about 125 mi/200 km south of Bangkok, for its long, flat
stretches of sand. The beach resort of Pattaya, 91 mi/145 km southeast of Bangkok, is the country’s largest destination outside of Bangkok.
The sandy beaches that frame Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, are too numerous to count. Patong is the island’s largest and most popular, but inevitably attracts a seedier element. Some travelers enjoy the 24/7 party, but anyone looking for peace and quiet should avoid the area. Just a couple of miles away, Kata Beach offers the same coconut palms and warm waters, with nary a high-rise hotel in sight.
Khao Lak is a long stretch of beach 50 mi/80 km north of Phuket, about an hour’s drive. It was the area hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami, and many resorts were totally destroyed. However, the area has made a total recovery, and Khao Lak’s luxury resorts are once again attracting visitors. Free from the vibrant nightlife that defines the Phuket holiday experience, Khao Lak offers a relaxing getaway. It is also an ideal base for visiting the nearby Similan Islands, home to some of the world’s best dive sites.
Surrounded by towering limestone cliffs in the Andaman sea, Krabi province remains one of Thailand’s most popular beach destinations. On the mainland, Krabi Town, the area’s administrative capital, is nothing special, but provides regular ferries to the beautiful beaches of Ao Nang, Had Yao, Railay and Ton Sai. Nearby islands of Ko Phi Phi, where The Beach was filmed, is a favorite among backpackers. With sandy beaches lining its western shore, less developed Koh Lanta is a good option for those who want to escape the crowds. The islands of Koh
Samui, Koh Chang, Koh Pha Ngan are all well-known for sandy shores, even if they are increasingly crowded with restaurants, shops and luxury resorts. Adventurous travelers rent scooters to beach-hop, and this is particularly popular on the island of Phuket.
Cycling tours are possible in Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Kanchanaburi, Khao Yai National Park and other destinations.
SpiceRoads Cycling Tours organizes half-, full and multiday bicycle tours around Bangkok, Phuket and northern Thailand. Phone 02-381-7490. http://www.spiceroads.com.
Grasshopper Adventures offers bicycle tours of the floating markets around Bangkok and nearby temples. Phone 02-280-0832. http://grasshopperadventures.com.
Thailand has become very popular among international bird-watchers. With about 1,000 recorded bird species residing in or passing through the country, several tour companies offer specialized excursions. For the independent traveler, there are excellent guidebooks for bird-watchers available.
During the cooler winter months of November and December, the north of Thailand is one of the best regions to see migratory birds, particularly in Doi Inthanon National Park and the Doi Angkhan area.
Khao Yai National Park, a three-hour drive from Bangkok, is another excellent location for bird-watching. The park, which covers an area of more than 772 sq mi/2,000 sq km, was awarded national-park status in the early 1960s and has been listed as part of a larger UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wildlife within the park is believed to include some 300 wild elephants, deer, bears, gibbons, leopards and some of Thailand’s last remaining tigers.
Birdlife is particularly abundant in the Khao Yai region, with more than 320 species recorded there.
BOATING & SAILING
With its stunning coastline, crystal clear waters and wonderful tropical climate, Thailand is a paradise for lovers of all watersports. Thailand has become a regional haven for sailors, and the joys of sailing is highlighted by several major annual regattas. The country has a rapidly expanding charter fleet and marina facilities managed by experienced operators. The scenery around areas such as Phuket, Krabi and Phang-nga is simply stunning. There you can see majestic limestone mountains rising from the azure waters of the Andaman Sea. Tranquil, dramatic and undeniably beautiful, the area is one of the great sailing destinations of the world.
A great way to enjoy the fabulous coastal waters is to charter a yacht. There are many companies offering a
range of options from traditional cruising yachts to exotic local vessels. Chartering a yacht not only gives you the thrill of life at sea, it also gives you a unique perspective on Thailand as you discover small island communities and witness firsthand the lives of local fisherman. Available options include group day trips on sailing junks or yachts, bareboat or fully crewed charters, and catered luxury yachts.
An increasingly popular adventure sport in Thailand is white-water rafting. When the rainy season arrives in May, rivers in the far north swell and flow south with a power guaranteed to quicken the pulse of any adrenaline junkie. Generally, the rafting season runs May until mid-October, a period regarded as the low season for most tourists because of the higher rainfall. Some of the best runs are in the north of Thailand where the rivers flow through impressive mountain terrain, and the seasonal rains are heavy.
One of the most popular and long-established stretches of water for rafting is the Mae Taeng River in Chiang Mai province. Easily accessible and close to the provincial capital, the Mae Taeng is an excellent choice for one- and two-day outings while using Chiang Mai as a base. Many of the tour operators in the city act as agents for the rafting companies and are able to supply all relevant information.
Head north to the town of Pai in Mae Hong Son province and the water gets serious. Pai River provides a good 18- to 25-mi/30- to 40-km stretch of excellent rapids. The ride begins between Pai and the town of Mae Hong Son on the Klong River. There are 11 sets of rapids up to 984-ft/300-m long. Other rafting rivers in the north are Mae La Mao River in Tak province and the Kek River in Phitsanoluk.
Fishing is a popular pastime in Thailand. The coastal waters are renowned as a haven for big-game fishing, and several companies offer chartered trips with daily rates. Depending on the season, anglers can expect to haul in blue marlin, tuna, shark and barracuda. For serious sea anglers, charter boats also offer three-day live-aboard excursions in search of game fish.
Freshwater angling is also very popular, and there are many fishing parks dotting the country. Lakes are kept
well-stocked with a wide variety of fish, and the parks supply a full range of fishing tackle and bait.
Nicknamed the “golf capital of Asia,” Thailand is a paradise for golfers. With more than 200 golf courses scattered around the country and a host of quality golf-tour operators, Thailand has developed a reputation as one of Asia’s leading golfing destinations. The high standards and variety of courses, professional management, fabulous
scenery and wonderful year-round climate have succeeded in attracting golfers from all over the world. Add to this the fact that the green fees and other associated costs at Thai golf courses are very low, and it is easy to see why the country’s popularity among golfers continues to grow.
The sheer variety of golf courses in Thailand is astounding. In the north of the country, golfers can enjoy a round on a course surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. In the northeast, on the edge of the beautiful Khao Yai National Park, golf courses and vineyards often occupy the same estate—a potent combination and a considerable incentive to reach the 19th hole.
Heading south, golf courses are often backed by mountains but look out on the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea. Facilities at Thai golf courses are second to none. Most golf clubs feature luxurious resort-style accommodations, in-house spas and impeccable levels of service. Some courses have been designed by golf legends such as Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer.
HIKING & WALKING
Northern Thailand is one of the country’s most beautiful and mountainous regions. One of the best ways to experience the north is to go trekking. As the gateway to the far north, the provincial capital of Chiang Mai is an excellent place to find and book a trek. (Chiang Rai and Pai are also good bases.) Numerous travel agents and hotels in the town offer a range of exciting and adventurous excursions into the hills, ranging from a one-day trek to extended trips of several days that include staying overnight in hill-tribe villages. Choosing a company can be difficult, as there are so many, but the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) can provide a list of licensed agencies and accredited guides. http://www.tourismthailand.org.
Less scrupulous agents exploit villagers by forcing them to wear traditional dress for purposes of tourism; those who organize treks to see the Padaung, near Burma’s border, are particularly troubling. Known locally as the “long-neck women,” Padaung women traditionally wore stacks of brass rings on their necks, elongating their necks and crushing down onto their collarbones. This dangerous tradition would have long since been abandoned, were it not for tour operators who realized this village curiosity could be sold at a premium to wide-eyed western travelers. We don’t recommend supporting any company that organizes treks to see the Padaung, an expedition
likened by many to a “human zoo.” Unethical operators abound, but an equal number refuse to exploit the hill tribe’s younger generations.
Mae Hong Son is a premier destination for trekking and relaxed adventure. The townspeople are predominately Shan, also referred to as Thai Yai, and local temple architecture shows the strong influence they exerted over the region in the past. Hill-tribe people scattered throughout the mountains and frequently seen in the towns’ markets include Karen, Lisu, Lahu and H’mong. The remote Pang Mapha (better known as Soppong) district has some of the most spectacular scenery in northern Thailand. Trekkers can walk along rivers in deep valleys, climb
limestone peaks, pass extensive bamboo forests, take a shower at beautiful waterfalls, explore caves and stay
overnight in colorful hill-tribe villages of the Lisu, Karen and Lahu. (Be sure to properly dispose of all litter and waste to preserve this beautiful area, even if your guide does not.)
Treks involve a good deal of walking in rough terrain and hot conditions, so it is important to be physically fit and have suitable footwear. Elephant riding and bamboo rafting down scenic rivers is often on the itinerary, too, as are excursions by Jeep and long-tail boats. Routes usually ensure that several hill villages with different ethnic minority groups are visited. Expect to pay a minimum of 1,000 baht per day for a trip. This usually includes food, drink and basic accommodation in a village. However, low prices don’t always equal quality, and multiday treks are generally better than day hikes, which tend to be overly crowded with other day trippers. Be sure you are traveling with an accredited guide who understands hill tribe languages and customs to avoid any hairy experiences. The best time to go trekking is November-February, when the weather is dry and cool. It can be cold in the evening, so take some warm clothing.
SCUBA & SNORKELING
Thailand is one of the best places in the world for scuba diving and snorkeling, with more than 1,250 mi/2,000 km of glorious coastline and dozens of idyllic islands. The majority of diving in Thailand is concentrated around the tourist centers of Phuket and Koh Tao.
Without a doubt, the best diving is in the Andaman Sea, particularly around the Similan Islands. There are nine islands in a chain that form part of a national park. Accommodations are limited, with only two islands offering basic bungalows or camping. Most people go to the area with a live-aboard dive excursion. The Similan Islands are renowned for crystal clear waters teeming with colorful tropical fish and amazing coral formations. One of the ocean’s largest creatures, the whale shark, can be seen in the waters February-May. Manta rays are present year-round.
Dive sites around Koh Tao are also rich in marine life, ranging from tiny clown fish to giant grouper fish and sea turtles. It is possible to dive of the coast of Koh Tao year-round, but the best time is May-August. September-November, the area is affected by the rainy season and visibility can be reduced up to 30%. Many travelers go to Thailand with the intention of learning to dive. Phuket and Koh Tao have many dive outfits offering courses and dive packages. Most are professional, foreign-owned shops and dive schools. Dive shops often offer certification courses through PADI, NAUI and SSI, all of which will allow students who pass to dive anywhere in the world. Half-day introductory courses range 1,500-2,000 baht. For the more serious dive enthusiast, the four-day, open-water certification courses cost around 10,000 baht-14,000 baht. Specialty courses such as night diving, deep-water diving, wreck diving, stress and rescue, fish identification and underwater photography are also available.
Silk is a great buy in Bangkok, but remember that a variety of qualities are available (Jim Thompson is the
best-known silk house and has reliable quality). Be sure to bargain when appropriate, but not in department stores or restaurants. Although salespeople may say that an item is very old or authentic, don’t buy it unless you know
for sure. Some of the gold sold as 24-karat in Bangkok’s “thieves market” is somewhat less than pure, but it is likely to be well-crafted. Those Rolex watches sold for as little as a few baht on street corners are, of course, counterfeits. The same thing goes for those 120 baht Lacoste shirts and other copycat designer clothing.
Trendy clothing is available at reasonable prices in major Bangkok department stores, such as Central and Robinson (sizes, however, are small compared to some standards). Ma Boon Krong Center, better known as MBK, sells quality imitation shoes, clothing, handbags, souvenirs and electronics. (Ask the vendor to test DVD copies on the large screen before buying). Also shop for lacquerware, celadon pottery, painted umbrellas, tribal weavings and handicrafts, temple rubbings, custom shoes and clothing, bronze, silver, opium weights, pillows, temple bells, sand paintings and carved water-buffalo bells. Bargaining is not only common but is expected at tourist shops and in markets. Many malls have English-language bookstores with excellent selections and very nice movie theaters with movies in English.
Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok, also known as JJ, has to be seen to be believed. This sprawling open-air market sells crafts made in all regions of Thailand, antiques, silk and textiles, jewelry, clothing, books, pets and plants—you name it, you can find it there. There are restaurants, too, so you can make a day of the experience.
And with more than 6,000 shops and stalls to choose from, you’ll need plenty of time. The market is open on
Friday for wholesale customers, Saturday and Sunday 8 am-7 pm. If you are traveling by the BTS Skytrain, get off at Mor Chit station or at Kampaengphet station on the MRT underground.
Shopping Hours: Daily 10 am-9 pm. Some stores may have different hours.
Dining in Thailand is a culinary adventure and one of the most memorable experiences of any visit to the
country. Thailand has often been described as having a food culture, a statement that implies that food is more than simply sustenance but the center of almost every aspect of social life. Indeed, one only needs to wander around any town to realize just how true that statement is. The availability of food and the mind-boggling range of dishes make Thailand one of the most exciting places in the world to dine.
A frequently heard greeting in the country is “kin khao yang?”, or “Have you eaten yet?” Thai people are communal diners and grazers, seldom eating alone and never satisfied with just one dish. After work, street stalls swarm with office staff and the air is filled with the irresistible aroma of dozens of different dishes; the fiery waft of stir-fried chilies, lemongrass-scented soups and grilled meats. No evening out with friends is complete without ordering a delicious spread of dishes to converse over. Dining for Thai people is a relaxed affair, a time to chat and share a wonderful array of food.
Rice is the staple of Thailand; a grain that has shaped the landscape and defined the culture. Served at every meal, the preferred choice is jasmine rice, also known as fragrant rice because of its aroma. In the north and northeast, sticky rice, a glutinous rice that is molded into a ball with the fingers, is the most popular. Sticky rice also features in a number of desserts. Many sweets in Thailand are made using rice flour.
Thai cuisine is composed of dishes from its four distinct regions: the central plains, the north, the northeast and the south. The unifying factor is the way each skillfully combines the elements of spicy, sour, sweet and salty.
Key ingredients include the ubiquitous chili. Thais are addicted to this fiery pepper, the most lethal being the prik kee noo or “mouse poo” pepper. Fresh or dried and ground, the chili is used to add fire to almost every main dish.
Lime juice and tamarind provide the sour taste, while sweetness is provided by palm sugar. The salty taste is added by fish sauce, known as nam pla, literally “fish water.” Made by a process of prolonged salting and fermentation, fish sauce is essential in almost all dishes and is also sprinkled over food when extra saltiness is required.
Dining Thai-style is a lesson in the art of sharing, a fact that undoubtedly adds to the convivial atmosphere of dining with Thai people. Several dishes are ordered, all of which arrive at the table at the same time. A meal may
include a spicy salad, curry, soup, a fish dish, vegetables and some tidbits. All diners tuck into the food together, taking small amounts of food to their plate of rice as required. Thais eat using a spoon and fork, with chopsticks
reserved for Chinese-style noodle dishes.
A classic “must try” dish is somtam, made with papayas and vegetables. This simple yet fiery favorite hails from the northeast, and if anything, could be considered the national dish of Thailand. Made with a large pestle and
mortar called a krok, somtam sellers pepper the streets of Bangkok. Somtam is often accompanied by the equally famous gai yang, or grilled chicken, sticky rice and other northeastern favorites.
Tom yam is a deeply satisfying soup and a classic example of a dish that combines the four main flavors. Other key ingredients to this dish are lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. No restaurant menu is complete without a tom yam laced with fresh prawns or chicken.
The most widely known southern meal, and one that is extremely popular with street stalls in Bangkok, is khao mok gai—steamed yellow byriani rice with chicken. Often served with fried shallots, a sweet sauce and a clear
tom yam broth, the dish is a lunchtime favorite of many office workers in the city.
Be adventurous with the food—try the barbecued chicken legs, omelettes, sweet crepes and sticky rice with taro rolled up in a leaf (don’t eat the leaf).
Roti bread is eaten as a dessert. It is filled with a mixture of banana and egg, rolled up and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk—delicious but certainly not for the calorie-conscious diner.
The bar drink of choice is Mekong whiskey—it’s half as potent as Western whiskey, and you’ll likely see more than one bottle on a table. The local beer is Singha.
Thailand is a paradise for tropical fruits—and tropical-fruit lovers. There are more than 20 kinds of bananas (Thais eat them fresh, grilled and fried). Definitely try rambutan (ngau in Thai), a reddish lychee with soft spines
on the outside that tastes like a sweet plum. The mangoes (mamuang) are good March-July, but be aware that among the varieties for sale are some that are (intentionally) crisp and sour. Mangosteens (mongkhut) are another sweet tropical fruit. They’re round with dark brown skin and are a little bigger than a golf ball. The inside is sweet and divided into segments like an orange. Guava has an unusual taste, somewhat like a sour apple.
Papayas and pomelos (similar to a large grapefruit) are also available. And if you can get past the smell, try the infamous durian fruit (it’s so pungent that it’s illegal to take into some hotels).
Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language, and therefore difficult for some travelers to pick up quickly. Nonetheless, any effort you make to speak in the native tongue will be appreciated. At the very least, learn some simple phrases. For “thank you,” say kawp koon krahp/kah. (The phrase will end in krahp if the speaker is male and kah if the speaker is female.) Sawa-dee krahp/kah means “hello,” and mai pen rai means “never mind.” Among other
uses, it’s the Thai way of defusing a potentially embarrassing or confrontational situation to avoid losing face.
Thais greet each other with a wai, spoken with a smile while pressing palms together at chest level and bowing slightly. Wai can mean hello, thanks, sorry or goodbye. Foreigners aren’t expected to imitate the gesture, but failing to respond would be rude. Only offer wais to a person of higher status: You can answer store clerks, street vendors and children with a simple nod. In corporate settings, Thai businessmen introduce themselves with a handshake.
Because surnames are a newer concept in Thailand, locals might call you by your first name, for example, Mr. John or Miss Alice. This isn’t a sign of overfamiliarity; it’s just easier.
Remember that the avoidance of conflict, criticism and overt displays of emotion are central to Thai life. Therefore, remain calm and patient at all times, even if you find the situation unduly frustrating. Shouting and aggression will only exacerbate matters. Somewhat ironically in a nation known for sex tourism, Thais also find kissing and overt public displays of affection inappropriate. Discussions about politics, religion and personal topics are also taboo; chatting about sports, weather or food is much safer.
If you’ve come to Thailand for work, bear in mind that business meetings are rarely straightforward and may drag on for hours or days. If your first meeting concludes without anything concrete being discussed, don’t immediately consider it time wasted. Transactions take time and pass through many levels. Often it comes down to connections and who you know. Business is based on mutual trust, and sometimes settled with a simple handshake. It’s wise to draw up a simple contract, but too many clauses or involving lawyers could be seen as a sign of mistrust. Also, though you are expected to be punctual, don’t be surprised when your Thai partner is late. As a sign of respect,
introduce your business partner first. Know that title, rank and honor are very important.
Remove your shoes when entering temples, homes and some hotels or restaurants (watch what other patrons are doing). Avoid pointing to or touching anyone with your feet, including statues of the Buddha.
In general, Thailand is very safe. Tourism is vitally important to the country’s economy, and the government has zero tolerance for crime targeting visitors. However, this southeast Asian idyll isn’t a complete utopia, and violence can erupt, sometimes catching tourists by surprise. In 2005-06, political protests gripped the capital city, leading thousands of pro-monarchy protestors, known as “Yellow Shirts,” to occupy Suvarnabhumi in November 2008. Two years later, their opposition, the Red Shirts, occupied central Bangkok, leading to a bloody crackdown that led to 80 civilian deaths and more than 2,000 injuries. Since then, a tenuous peace has resumed, but political tension always simmers just below the surface. In February 2012, a bomb went off in a house in central Bangkok, thought
to be part of a terrorist plot gone wrong. Just a month earlier, Thai Police had discovered a large quantity of explosives linked to Hezbollah operatives. Travelers should avoid large crowds and demonstrations and exercise caution in clubs, discos, bars, hotels and other areas frequented by foreigners.
The massive growth of tourism has also resulted in an increase in pickpockets and purse-snatchers at crowded tourist sites. Muggings have also occurred. Use common sense and be aware of your surroundings. Guard your belongings in the red-light district of Bangkok and in dim alleys or walkways at night. Some Thai women prefer not to take taxis alone at night in Bangkok; although trouble is very unlikely, it’s probably best to follow suit. In 2013, an American man was killed by a taxi driver after an argument over the fare. This is an extreme example, but if
things turn ugly, just pay the demand and walk away calmly. Later, report the incident to the tourist police.
You may be offered drugs, particularly in parts of Khao San Road and in nightclubs and bars—don’t even think about accepting them. Penalties are severe, and claiming ignorance of the local laws is no defense. From a health Security perspective, it also makes sense to steer clear; travelers have gotten very ill (some have died) from ingesting unknown substances. Be cautious near Thailand’s border with Myanmar (formerly Burma). Burmese rebels are sometimes active along certain stretches, as are drug traffickers and other smugglers. Check with your embassy to determine which areas are safe.
In recent years, Thailand has experienced a regular and persistent threat from Muslim extremists in the far south of the country. Bombings, shootings and beheadings are happening frequently, particularly in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Although few tourists have been affected by the troubles, caution is strongly advised when travelling in the deep south.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
Outside of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and major beach resorts, sanitary conditions in some restaurants can pose problems for travelers. Most hot, freshly cooked food should be safe, but peel fresh fruit and raw vegetables, make sure meat is cooked thoroughly, avoid local dairy products and assume that tap water is unsafe to drink (even in Bangkok). Stick with prepackaged or boiled drinks. Some restaurants serve water that is a pale brown: They’ve boiled the water and added a few tea leaves to prove it. This water is fine to drink, but it’s best to drink bottled water—make sure that the cap seal is unbroken (on rare occasions, bottles are simply refilled with tap water).
Malaria is present in some of the border areas (although not in Bangkok or other tourist places). Consult your doctor about obtaining malaria suppressants—insect repellent, long-sleeved shirts and long pants are also good precautions. (Note that some malaria suppressants increase sensitivity to sun and alcohol.) Although not required, typhoid, tetanus and hepatitis vaccinations are highly recommended. If you get nipped by a stray dog, even in Bangkok, have the dog checked for rabies if possible; otherwise, it might be wise to get the shots. Skin infections are possible—even the smallest wound should be disinfected and covered with a bandage.
If on a trek in the Golden Triangle, you’ll perhaps be offered a chance to smoke opium. It is not advised, but if you decide to do it, be aware that nausea and vomiting are very common side effects, and people have become very sick after only a few puffs. AIDS is a serious problem in Thailand. Take precautions if you’re planning on intimate encounters with the sex workers of Patpong or Pattaya, or elsewhere in the country.
Most common prescription medicines and birth-control pills (which can be bought without a prescription in drugstores around the country) are available. The sun is very strong, so use sunscreen liberally and wear a hat. Don’t forget a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Don’t disrespect the monarchy, which is illegal and grounds for arrest. This includes defacing Thai baht or anything that bears the king’s image; one foreigner was sentenced to ten years in prison for spray-painting such a poster.
Do attend a Thai kickboxing match. Traditional music and rituals accompany the fast-paced sport, a combination of boxing and karate.
Don’t eat bird’s nest soup or shark fin soup—these dishes have decimated the species. And do be careful what you buy because protected animals are often hunted for their hides.
Do get a massage during your stay in Thailand (it’s a great way to overcome jet lag—if you need an excuse).
Traditional Thai massage is considered a form of spiritual medicine and until recently was only practiced at temples.
Don’t go shirtless except on the beach. Shorts are fine, but you will see that Thai people generally dress very well and rarely wear shorts themselves. Even on the beach, many Thais wear long pants. Dress modestly (long pants or skirts) and behave soberly when visiting temples. Always remove your shoes before entering. If you forget to take Security long pants to the Grand Palace, you can rent them from a shop across the street for a small fee. The Grand Palace authorities are very particular about what kind of sandals can be worn in to the general grounds; they must at least have a strap around the heel. Other temples may have extra pants that you can borrow for free.
Do stand when you hear the national anthem (usually at 8 am and 6 pm) in public zones such as airports and schools. The King’s Anthem is played before movies in movie theaters, and the whole crowd stands.
Don’t touch the heads of Thais (not even children), and don’t sit so that the bottoms of your feet point at anyone, including images of Buddha. Also, aside from the ground, don’t touch anything with your feet. The feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body. Women, more so than men, should avoid touching monks.
Do visit a celadon-pottery factory. The best ones are in Chiang Mai. As the glaze cools and cracks, the air is filled with hundreds of musical pings.
Don’t sunbathe nude on the beaches. It’s illegal, and though Thais are too polite to tell you, they find it very offensive and disrespectful.
Do wear wash-and-wear clothing in mid-April, when the Thai-Buddhist New Year tradition calls for throwing water on anyone who passes by. If you are traveling during this time, waterproof all cameras and electronics (or leave them in the hotel).
Don’t throw or toss things, except during sports activities. It is considered extremely impolite.
Do be aware of the dangers of buying marijuana, hashish, opium and so forth: Although drugs are readily available, many drug dealers turn around and report the buyer to the police to get a reward (especially in Chiang Mai)—and the Thais do prosecute foreigners.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Passports and proof of onward passage and sufficient funds are required of Australian, Canadian, U.K. and U.S. citizens. Visas are required for stays longer than 30 days. Individuals with AIDS will be denied entry. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Predominant Religions: Buddhism. About 5% of the population is Muslim.
Time Zone: 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+7 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts.
Telephone Codes: 66, country code;
The currency is the baht. ATMs can be found just about everywhere in Thailand, and most accept foreign cards.
Look for the Cirrus or Visa symbol. They’re the easiest way to exchange money and receive the best rate.
Traveler’s checks and cash can be exchanged at banks and shops, as well. Hotels and some other tourist locations may accept U.S. dollars (at a higher rate).
Banking hours are generally Monday-Friday 8:30 am-3:30 pm. They do not close for lunch, but lines can be long noon-1 pm as office workers rush to do their banking. Some banks in shopping malls operate extended hours and are open on Saturday.
In Thailand, a sales tax, or VAT (value-added tax) is levied on all purchases. The current rate is 7%. Many hotels and restaurants add VAT and an additional service charge of around 10%.
Visitors to Thailand can claim VAT refunds at Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai and Phuket international airports. The conditions stipulate that the purchase must be for a minimum of 5,000 baht with no less than 2,000 baht per receipt per day, within 60 days of purchase. Tourists should show their passport at the point of purchase and ask for a VAT refund form (Por Por 10). When leaving the country and passing through passport control, visitors will have the form (with the original sales receipt attached) processed by revenue department officials and receive a
VAT refund. You are advised to add extra time to your check-in schedule for the process.
Tipping is not a traditional custom in Thailand, but the rising number of tourists is changing expectations. It’s up to you whether you want to tip someone for especially good service. In most cases, it’s safe to observe what other customers seem to be doing and use common sense.
If a taxi fare came to 85 baht, you could simply give a 100-baht note and say “keep the change.” In a restaurant, for a meal of around 500 baht, a tip of 30 baht is adequate. You are not expected to tip in cheap restaurants, cafes or noodle shops.
Most girls working in massage parlors are paid little and survive off tips. If you have had a good massage, a tip of 50 baht-100 baht is a nice gesture.
The weather in Thailand is mostly hot and humid, although the northern highlands are generally 10 F/5 C cooler.
The best time to visit is November-February, when the days are milder and the nights are cooler. March and April are especially hot, with average high temperatures in the mid-90s F/32-35 C. Avoid the monsoon season mid-May
to October, when it’s particularly humid and rainy (the streets of Bangkok flood easily), although those willing to chance it might get better rates at hotels. Downpours are intermittent rather than constant, so they generally do not cause major problems.
Flooding is common after heavy rains, particularly in low-lying Bangkok and nearby industrial zones. If you plan to visit during the rainy season, check the weather carefully, as flooding may affect your itinerary.
What to Wear
Thailand’s year-round humid climate means that light, cool clothes are the best choice, day and night. If you are susceptible to sunburn, you are advised to pack lightweight, long-sleeved clothing, a sunhat and sunblock. Sandals are the best footwear throughout the day, but if you expect to do any cycling or any trekking in the hills, pack stout walking shoes. If you are traveling in the north during the cooler months, you may require a lightweight sweater or jacket in the early morning or evening. Likewise, in the rainy season, a lightweight rain coat or umbrella will come in handy. Those items can be bought very cheaply all over Thailand.
When visiting a temple, you will be expected to dress in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner—no shorts, leggings, flip-flops or sleeveless tops.
If you are in Thailand for business or expect to dine at top-class restaurants, a jacket and tie will be required.
All landline telephone numbers in Thailand are nine-digit numbers, and all Thai mobile phone numbers are 10 digits. All provinces have a dialing code.
International phone calls can be made from most hotels or international-call booths in tourist areas. Direct dialing is possible to more than 80 countries on five continents. When making international calls from Thailand, first dial 001 plus the country code, area code, then telephone number. Two exceptions are Malaysia and Laos. Malaysia is reached by dialing 09, and Laos is reached by dialing 009-856. These two numbers are charged at a semidomestic rate. Coin and card telephone kiosks are available in the street and in public buildings but are poorly maintained, and finding one that works is a matter of luck.
Mobile phones are cheap in Thailand. There are several major companies, including AIS, True and DTAC, each with its own mobile phone network. Coverage in the towns is excellent, but in the mountains you will rarely get a signal. SIM cards can be bought from phone shops, but you must present a valid passport. To use your phone, simply buy scratch cards from a convenience store such as 7-Eleven. These have a dial-in code to add credits.
Cards range 50 baht-500 baht in value. Others download Skype on their laptops to make cheap international calls from Internet cafes.
Major post offices also have special booths for making overseas calls. For direct assistance, call 1133.
Internet cafes can be easily found all over Thailand, even in small towns and villages. The speed and quality of service, however, can vary. Charges in a local Internet cafe can be as little as 20 baht an hour or in excess of 250 baht an hour in a major hotel. High-speed Internet access is available, and Wi-Fi hot spots are becoming more common. As more travelers carry laptops and tablets, restaurant and bar owners are responding with Wi-Fi for customers. Internet cafes, though still available, are becoming less common.
Mail & Package Services
The Thai postal service is generally excellent, cheap and efficient. Customers can send items by standard mail or registered post. DHL, UPS and FedEx services are widely available across the country.
DHL Worldwide Express
175 Sathorn City Tower 7/1 and 8/1 floor, South Sathorn Road, Thailand.
Phone 02-345-5000 for pickup. http://www.dhl.co.th.
Green Tower, Eighth Floor, 3656/22-23 Rama IV Road, Thailand. Phone
1800-236-236 (toll-free within Thailand). http://www.fedex.com/th.
General Post Office
Open 24 hours. Some English is spoken. 1156 Charoen Krung Road,
Thailand. Phone 02-233-1050. http://www.thailandpost.com.
16/1 Soi Sukhumvit, 44/1 Sukhumvit Road, Thailand.
Phone 02-762-3300. http://www.ups.com.
Newspapers & Magazines
The main daily English-language newspapers in Thailand are The Bangkok Post and The Nation. Most major tourist towns have several monthly magazines. In Bangkok, these are BK, Bangkok 101, Time Out Bangkok and Big Chilli. They have feature articles and “what’s on” listings.
Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK) is located 19 mi/30 km southeast of Bangkok. Allow an hour to reach the city center from the airport. The airport is used for most international flights and some domestic flights. Phone 02-132-1888. http://www.suvarnabhumiairport.com.
Unless you have lots of luggage, the best way to reach Bangkok from Suvarnabhumi is via the airport rail link, commonly known as the sky train. Running on a light rail above the city, the nonstop express line whisks passengers to downtown Bangkok in 15 minutes. A local line makes more stops, but still arrives the city in less than an hour. The sky train is a great way to avoid Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams. However, it’s not a good option for travelers with mobility problems, because most stops are connected to the street level by steep stairs.
Trains run 6 am to midnight.
Most budget carriers fly from the Don Muang International Airport, an older airport reopened in 2012 to help reduce flight traffic. Phone 02-535-1111. http://www.donmuangairportonline.com.
Check your flight details closely, especially when changing planes in Bangkok. The two airports are 30 mi/48 km apart; a taxi between the two will cost 350 baht. (There is also an airport surcharge of 50 baht. Passengers heading into the city will also be expected to pay highway tolls.)
To reach the city from Don Muang, take an air-conditioned bus or taxi. It’s also possible to arrive in Thailand by train or bus from Malaysia or by bus from Cambodia and Laos. Thai Airways is an excellent airline that connects dozens of cities internally at very reasonable rates. Train service is also quite good (the air-conditioned cabins and stations are exceptionally well-maintained). Trains go north to Chiang Mai, northeast to Nong Khai and east to Ubon Ratchathani (both close to the border with Laos) and south to the border with Malaysia. Sleeping cars and
air-conditioning are available on some routes—if you get an overnight sleeper, request a lower berth, as they are wider and much easier to get in and out of.
Express bus service between Bangkok and other cities is excellent. Attendants serve complimentary drinks, and video monitors show the latest Hollywood or Chinese movies. (Sometimes the movies can be a bit loud; earplugs are not offered, but it’s a good idea to carry your own.) Make sure your luggage is with the bus when it leaves.
Although lost bags are not a regular problem, luggage has been known to not arrive.
In Bangkok, two air-conditioned transit systems—the Sky Train (or BTS) and the subway—provide welcome relief from the city’s notorious traffic jams. Air-conditioned city buses cost a bit more than buses without air-conditioning, but they’re worth it. Any bus can get bogged down in traffic, however. If you’re in a hurry, take a taxi that has its windows up—that generally means it has air-conditioning. Taxis rates are very reasonable.
A tuk-tuk (a high-powered golf cart) is not a safe means of transport, but at night without traffic, they make for an enjoyable experience. If you take one during the day thinking it will whiz through traffic, forget it—you’ll likely end up stuck behind a bus, inhaling fumes and sweating profusely. Motorbike taxis are also available and also not recommended. Transport on Bangkok’s rivers and through its canals is by motorized longboats, or water taxis, which make scheduled stops near major attractions. In smaller towns, you may find yourself on a horse-drawn cart
or samlor (bicycle rickshaw). Agree on the price before taking any transportation that does not use a meter or have a set price.
If renting a car, hire a driver, too—it doesn’t cost that much more, and it’s well worth the money. Roads are generally paved, but unpaved ones can be impassable in the monsoon season. It’s also possible to rent a motorcycle or moped, but this is best left to experienced bikers outside of Bangkok.
Note: Theft from baggage when traveling by private bus in Thailand remains a problem. This is best avoided by using only the government-run public buses as they are less likely to be robbed than private coaches. Never accept sweets or drinks from strangers on buses. There are occasional reports of people being drugged and robbed in this way.
For More Information
Thailand: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 1600 New Phetchaburi Road, Ratchathevi, Bangkok 10400. Phone 02-250-5500. http://www.tourismthailand.org.
Australia: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Suite 2002, Level 20, 56 Pitt St., Sydney, NSW 2000. Phone 2-9247-7549. http://au.tourismthailand.org.
U.K.: Tourism Authority of Thailand, First Floor, 17-19 Cockspur St., Trafalgar Square, London, SW1Y 5BL. Phone44-207-925-2511. http://uk.tourismthailand.org.
U.S.: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 61 Broadway, Suite 2810, New York, NY 10006. Phone 212-432-0433. http://us.tourismthailand.org.
Canadians should contact the tourist offices in the U.S. or the consulate in Vancouver.
Australia: Royal Thai Embassy, 111 Empire Circuit, Yarralumla, ACT 2600. Phone 06-6206-0100. http://canberra.thaiembassy.org.
Canada: Royal Thai Embassy, 180 Island Park Drive, Ottawa, ON K1Y 0A2. Phone 613-722-4444. http://www.thaiembassy.ca.
U.K.: Royal Thai Embassy, 29-30 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JB. Phone 44-020-7589-2944, ext. 5500. http://www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk.
U.S.: Royal Thai Embassy, 1024 Wisconsin Ave. N.W., Suite 401, Washington, DC 20007. Phone 202-944-3600. http://www.thaiembdc.org.
Foreign Embassies in Thailand
Australian Embassy, 37 S. Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120. Phone 2-344-6300.
Canadian Embassy, 15th Floor, Abdulrahim Place, 990 Rama IV, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500. Phone 2-646-4300.
British Embassy, 14 Wireless Road, Bangkok 10330. Phone 2-305-8333.
U.S. Embassy, 95 Wireless Road, Bangkok 10330. Phone 2-205-4000. http://bangkok.usembassy.gov.
A Walking Tour: Bangkok by G. Byrne Bracken (Times Editions).
Bangkok: A Cultural and Literary History (Cities of the Imagination) by Maryvelma O’Neil (Signal Books).
Thai Street Food by David Thompson (Penguin).
Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker, JJ Goode, Austin Bush and David Thompson (Ten Speed Press).
The Beach by Alex Garland (Riverhead Press). The controversial best-selling novel about backpackers who discover a secret beach in Thailand.
Culture Shock: Thailand by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co.). An outstanding guide to cultural differences.
Easy Thai by Gordon Allison (Tuttle Press). An introduction to the Thai language, with exercises and answer keys for those who want to learn more than basic phrases.
Last Man Out: Surviving the Burma-Thailand Death Railway: A Memoir by H. Robert Charles (Zenith Press).
Written by a U.S. Marine who managed to survive building the infamous Burma-Thailand Death Railway.
The Ideal Man: The Tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American Way of War by Joshua Kurlantzick (Wiley). A
closer look at Jim Thompson, the U.S. spy turned silk magnate who made Bangkok home until his mysterious disappearance in 1967.
Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand by Duncan McCargo (Cornell University Press). A closer look at the key factors behind the ongoing separatist insurgency in southern Thailand.
Travelers’ Tales Thailand by James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger (Travelers’ Tales Inc.). A wonderful collection of articles about experiences in Thailand.
Thailand’s Political History: From the 13th Century to Recent Times by B.J. Terwiel (River Books Press). A look back at Thai politics from the 13th century to contemporary times.
Thai Proverbs by Patrick Owens and Kulaya Campiranonta (Darnsutha Press Co.). This out-of-print book takes an amusing look at the parallels between Thai and English proverbs and vulgar expressions.
The Traditional Ceramics of Southeast Asia by Mick Shippen (University of Hawaii Press). A beautifully illustrated and fascinating look at a disappearing rural craft, with a chapter devoted to Thailand.
Very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith (River Books). A fun and informative look at popular Thai culture.