Thailand is a country in South-East Asia with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the north-west, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the south-east and Malaysia to the south.
With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture and, hey, great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers the world over.
Thailand's 76 provinces can be conveniently divided into five geographic and cultural regions.
Islands & beaches:
Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in South-East Asia, and for a reason. Exotic, yet safe and largely hassle-free; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beachfront backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential Thainess, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle.
This is not to say that Thailand doesn't have its downsides, including the considerable growing pains of an economy where an agricultural laborer is lucky to earn $1 per day ($1=40 baht) while the nouveau riche cruise past in their BMWs, and a highly visible sex tourism industry. Bangkok, the capital, is notorious for its traffic jams and rampant development has wrecked much of once-beautiful Pattaya and Phuket. In heavily touristed areas, some lowlifes have made scamming tourists into an art form, but in Thailand as anywhere the old adage is true - if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
A unified Thai kingdom was established in the mid-14th century. Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only South-East Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power, and fiercely proud of the fact. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. In alliance with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US ally following the conflict. After a string of military dictatorships and quickly toppled civilian presidents, Thailand finally stabilized into a fair approximation of a democracy and the economy, hobbled by the 1997 Asian economic crisis, is booming once again. Above it all presides the King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world's longest-reigning monarch and a deeply respected figure of near-mythic proportions.
In September 2006, a swift and bloodless military coup endorsed by the King overthrew the previous democratically elected but widely criticized government, promising elections in late 2007. Although martial law still applies and political gatherings are limited to five people, there has been no violence, no curfews are in effect, there is no longer any significant military presence in public places, and all services are functioning normally.hotels in Thailand
Thailand is largely tropical, so it's hot and humid all year around with temperatures in the 28-35°C range, a degree of relief provided only in the mountains in the far north of Thailand. The careful observer will, however, note three seasons:
There are local deviations to these general patterns. In particular, the south-east coast of Thailand (including Ko Samui) has the rains reversed, with the peak season being May-October and the rainy off season in November-February.
Thailand's people are largely Thais, although there are significant minorities of Chinese and assimilated Thai-Chinese throughout the country, Muslims in the south near the Malaysian border and hill tribes such as the Karen and the Hmong in the north of the country. The overwhelmingly dominant religion (95%) is Theraveda Buddhism, although Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and animist faiths also jostle for position.
Mainland Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand's Buddhists follow the Therevada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable thanks to their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous and becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men.
One pre-Buddhist tradition that still survives is the spirit house (ศาลพระภูมิ saan phraphuum), usually found at the corner of any house or business, which houses spirits so they don't enter the house and cause trouble. The grander the building, the larger the spirit house, and buildings placed in particularly unlucky spots may have very large ones. Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, which protects the Erawan Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Erawan) - built in 1956 on a former execution ground - and is now one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the city.
Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country's best known indigenous sport.
In addition to the mainland Thai culture, there are many other cultures in Thailand including those of the "hill tribes" in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand (e.g., Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the southern Muslims, and indigenous island peoples of the Andaman Sea.
In addition to the Gregorian calendar, Thailand also uses the Thai solar calendar, which is 543 years ahead. Thus, Thai year 2550 corresponds to the Western year 2007. Thai dates in English are often written as B.E., short for "Buddhist Era".
Some Thai holidays are still calculated with the older Thai lunar calendar, so their dates change every year.
Thailand has a lot of holidays, mostly related to Buddhism and the monarchy. Nobody celebrates all of them, except for banks, which seem to be closed a lot.
Makha Bucha falls on the full moon in of the fourth Lunar month, which usually falls in February or March, and commemorates the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 people before the Buddha, which led to their ordination and subsequent enlightenment. At temples in Bangkok and throughout Thailand, Buddhists carry candles and circumambulate the main shrine three times in a clockwise direction.
Chinese New Year is also a fun event when Chinese Thais, which are numerous in Bangkok, celebrate their New Year by cleaning their houses and offering food to their ancestors. This is, mainly, a time where feasts are abound. Visit Bangkok's Chinatown or Yaowarat to fully embrace the festivity.
Songkran (สงกรานต์) - undoubtedly the most fun holiday - is the celebration of the Thai New Year, sometime in April (officially April 13th to 15th, but the date varies in some locations). What started off as polite ritual to wash away the sins of the prior year has evolved into the world's largest water fight, which lasts for three full days. Water pistols and Super Soakers are advised and are on sale everywhere. The best places to participate are Chiang Mai, the Khao San Road area in Bangkok and holiday resorts like Pattaya, Ko Samui and Phuket. Be advised that you will get very wet, this is not a spectator sport. In recent years, the water-throwing has been getting more and more unpleasant as people have started splashing iced water onto each other. It is advised that you wear dark clothing, as light colors become essentially see-through when you are soaked wet.
Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง) is another holiday of interest, on the first full moon day in November, when people head to rivers, lakes and even hotel swimming pools to float flower and candle-laden banana-leaf (or, these days, styrofoam) floats called krathong. This krathong is meant as a thank you offering to the river goddess which gives life to the people. Thais also believe that this is a good time to float away your bad luck and many will place a few strand of hair and some finger nail clippings in the kratong. According to tradition, if you make a wish when you set down your krathong and it floats out of sight before the candle burns out, your wish will come true. Some provinces have their own version of Loy Krathong, such as Sukhothai where, at the historical part, a spectacular show is organized annually. The north, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, have their own unique tradition of floating Kom or lit laterns. This sight can be breath-taking as the sky is suddenly filled with lights, rivalling the full moon.
Coronation Day (May 5) commemorates the crowning of the current King in 1950 (although his reign actually began on June 9 1946 - making him not only the longest-serving monarch in Thai history, but also the world's longest-serving current Head of State).
The King's Birthday (December 5) is the country's National Day and also celebrated as Father's Day, when Thais pay respect to and show their love for His Majesty the King. Buildings and homes are decorated with the King's flag (yellow with his insignia in the middle) and his portrait. Government buildings, as well as commercial buildings, are decorated with lights, many saying Long Live the King. In Old Bangkok (Rattanakosin) in particular, around the Royal Palace, you will see lavish light displays on trees, buildings, and the roads. The Queen's Birthday (August 12) is Mother's Day, and is celebrated similarly if with a little less pomp.
Ordinary passport holders of 41 countries, including the United States, European Union countries, Japan,and Australia, do not need a visa if their purpose of visit is tourism and if their stay in the Kingdom does not exceed 30 days. Visa-on-arrival is available at certain entry points for passport holders of 14 other nations, including India, China and the Russian Federation. Check the latest scoop from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs .
Proof of onward transit is something of a sticky issue when flying into Thailand. Thai immigration law states that one must have return/onward ticket in order to be admitted without a visa at the airport, yet hundreds of thousands arrive each year by air with one-way tickets and the intent to leave the country overland, without difficulty. However, because the law states that the airline responsible for bringing you to Thailand will be penalised if you are denied entry, some passengers find themselves prevented from boarding their flights because they only have a one-way ticket.
It is impossible to predict which airlines will or will not permit boarding with only a one-way ticket, as this may depend on many variables, including passenger nationality and point of departure, and contacting the airline for confirmation may produce an "official" rather than "real world" response. If denied boarding for this reason, it may be possible (if time permits!) to purchase a one-way ticket for a flight out of Thailand on the spot, and then attempt to cancel and get a refund for the ticket after arriving in Thailand (not all tickets permit this).
Thai immigration requires visitors passports to have a minimum of 6 months validity and at least one completely blank visa page remaining.
Bangkok is one of Asia's largest hubs; practically every airline that flies to Asia also flies to Bangkok, meaning competition is stiff and prices are low.
The national carrier is the well-regarded THAI Airways, with Bangkok Airways filling in some gaps in the nearby region. Bangkok Airways offers free internet access while you wait for boarding to start at your gate.
Many low-cost carriers serve Thailand - see Discount airlines in Asia for today's list.
For a full at-a-glance list of all Thai-based carriers, see the Thai airlines section (below).
Cambodia - six international border crossings. The highway from Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor via Poipet to Aranyaprathet, once the stuff of nightmares, is now merely ordinarily bad and can usually be covered in less than 3 hours.
Laos - the busiest border crossing is at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong between Nong Khai and the Lao capital Vientiane. It's also possible to cross the Mekong at Chiang Khong / Huay Xai, Nakhon Phanom / Tha Khaek, Mukdahan / Savannakhet, and elsewhere.
Malaysia and Singapore - driving up is entirely possible, although not with a rented vehicle. Main crossings (with name of town on Malaysian side in brackets) between Thailand and Malaysia are Padang Besar (Padang Besar) and Sadao (Bukit Kayu Hitam) in Songkhla province, Betong (Pengkalan Hulu) in Yala province, and Sungai Kolok (Rantau Panjang) in Narathiwat province. There are regular buses across the border, mostly to the southern hub of Had Yai.
Thailand's sole international train service links to Butterworth (near Penang) and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, continuing all the way to Singapore. Tickets are cheap even in first class sleepers, but it can be a slow ride; the 2-hour flight to Singapore will take you close to 48 hours by rail, as you have to change trains twice. The luxury option is to take the Eastern & Oriental Express , a refurbished super-luxury train that runs along the same route once per week, with gourmet dining, personal butler service and every other colonial perk you can think of. However, at around US$1000 one-way just from Bangkok to Butterworth, this is approximately 30 times more expensive than an ordinary first-class sleeper!
While you can't get to Laos or Cambodia by train, you can get very close, with railheads just across the border at Nong Khai (across the river from Vientiane) and Aranyaprathet (for Poipet, on the road to Siem Reap). There are plans to connect to both countries someday, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Ferries cross from Satun in southern Thailand to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, while over in Narathiwat province, a vehicular ferry shuttles between Tak Bai and Pengkalan Kubur, near Kota Bharu in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
Thailand is a large country, and if sitting in a bus for 11 hours is not your idea of a fun time, you may well want to consider domestic flights. Never terribly expensive to begin with (at least by Western standards), the deregulation of the industry has brought in a crop of new operators; it's now possible to show up at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airports, buy your ticket and fly pretty much anywhere in the country for less than 2000 baht. Note that various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to "advertised" prices.
AirAsia offers ridiculously cheap tickets if booked well in advance, but prices rise steadily as planes fill up. They fly from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, as well as Cambodia, China and Macau, Malaysia (including Kota Kinabalu in Borneo), Myanmar, Singapore, and Vietnam. Keep in mind the price displayed in your search results is only the base fare, additional "taxes and fees" mean the true price will be appreciably higher. On-line booking is straightforward but must be done at least twenty-four hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in desk close one hour before the departure time.
Bangkok Airways promotes itself as "Asia's Boutique Airline", and has a monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui, Sukhothai and Trat. Their Discovery Airpass with fixed per segment rates can be good value, especially if used to fly to Siem Reap (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang (Laos). Note that the Discovery Airpass is no longer sold in Thailand; from February 1st 2006 it can only be purchased abroad.
Nok Air took to the skies in July 2004 sporting a lurid purple paint scheme with a bird's beak painted on the nose, and employing a price scheme similar to that of Air Asia. They fly to a number of domestic destinations.
One-Two-Go (part of Orient Thai Airlines) is a low-cost brand with 1-3 flights daily to a handful of domestic destinations. Their on-time record is notoriously bad; the 747-100s they use are flying museum pieces (but mean there's usually room to spare); and their ticketing counters can be chronically congested (one-hour queues are not unusual, but if you just want to hop on the next flight, you can head to the express ticketing counter at check-in not less than 40 minutes before departure).
Thai Airways is the most reliable and frequent Thai airline, but also the most expensive. Unusually, little to no discount is given for flying return. Travel agents can usually sell only THAI Airways tickets; you can also book online.
State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has a 4000-km network covering most of the country, from Chiang Mai in the north all the way to (and beyond) the Malaysian border in the south. Compared to buses, most trains are relatively slow, but safer. Point-to-point fares depend on the type (speed) of the train and the class of the carriage. There are three main classes:
Pre-booking is recommended, especially for sleeper berths. Many travel agencies will spare you the trouble of travelling to the station to buy tickets for a service fee (often 100 baht/ticket), or you can reserve with SRT directly by e-mail at [email protected] for a 200 baht/booking surcharge.
Thailand's roads are more or less up to international standards and hence head and shoulders above its neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, but driving habits are still quite dangerous. Drunk driving, speeding and reckless passing are depressingly common, and bus and taxi drivers (especially for private companies) work inhuman shifts and often take drugs to keep themselves awake, with predictable and tragic results. It's common for motorbikes — even police! — to drive on the kerb on the wrong side of the road. Death tolls skyrocket around major holidays, especially Songkhran, when bystanders often throw water on passing cars and bikes. Many drivers don't use headlights at night, multiplying risks, and it is wise to avoid or minimize overnight travel by road.
Generally speaking, BKS buses are the best option for both price and comfort. There are also many private bus companies, who mainly compete on price and are less reliable in terms of amenities, schedules and safety. In particular, beware of non-government "VIP" buses, which may be nothing of the sort. A special subclass are the cheap Khao San Road buses, targeted at backpackers. These are the slimiest of the lot and you may find that your supposed VIP bus is in fact a cramped minivan - after paying in advance, that is.
The basic bus types are:
example prices were correct in December 2005
Some buses may have TVs and sound systems blaring, so earplugs are well worth having, just in case.
On long-haul buses, if your ticket allocates you a front seat, you may have to switch seats if a monk boards.
A songthaew is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side. By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to someplace if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price of the ride before embarking.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose built (eg the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). A relatively recent development is the four wheeled tuk-tuk (basically a microvan-songthaew) as found in Phuket.
Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok, but rare elsewhere in the country. When available, they are an excellent means of transport - insist on the meter. Beware of taxis which idle around touristy areas and wait for people. They are looking for a tourist who will take their taxi without using a meter. Always use the meter!
As is the case throughout virtually all of Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular type are the 100cc-125cc step-through models. These are very widely used as taxis, with fares starting from as low as 5 baht.
Motorcycles can be rented without difficulty in many locations. Rates start at around 150 baht/day for recent 100-125cc semi-automatic (foot operated gearchange, automatic clutch) step-through models, 200 baht/day for fully automatic scooters; larger capacity models can also easily be found, although the rates reflect the risks - up to around 2500 baht/day for the very latest model high capacity sport bikes, such as the Honda CBR1000RR. In all cases, lower prices will apply if paying upfront for more than a week or so; in some cases, long-distance travel may be prohibited. Motorcycle rentals do not include insurance, and both motorcycling accidents and motorbike thefts are common.
Many places will rent to you without requiring a license, but legally speaking you must have a valid Thai license or International Driver's Permit. Often a deposit will be required; sometimes a passport photocopy, or even the passport itself (don't do this!), will be requested. Helmets are normally included, but are usually ultra-basic models with very flimsy chin-strap fasteners - if you're intending to travel by motorcycle and have a good quality helmet at home, then bring it with you. If supplied a helmet with a chin-cup (many cheap rental helmets are), slide the cup up the strap out of the way and securely fasten the bare strap directly under the jaw, as this is much safer.
Insurance is usually not included (or even available), so try to ensure in advance that the insurance you leave home with is going to cover you; alternatively, arrange cover with an insurance broker locally in Thailand. If you rent a vehicle without insurance and it's damaged or stolen, the bottom line is that you will be required to pay in full the cost of repairing or replacing it.
Motorcyclists (including passengers) are required to wear crash helmets and to keep their headlights switched on at all times. Enforcement varies widely, but in tourist areas spot checks for helmets and/or licences are commonplace. While the fines are light (typically 200 baht) the inconvenience can be considerable as offender's vehicle is impounded until the fine is paid, and the queue at the police station can be lengthy.
Some (but not all) border crossings allow motorcycles through. At those which do, documentation including proof of ownership must be produced (with the possible exception of day visits to Payathonzu, Myanmar via Three Pagodas Pass).
Driving your own car in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, and many rental companies can supply drivers at a very reasonable price. Prices without insurance for a self-driven car start from around 800 baht/day for small cars, and from as little as 600 baht/day for open-top jeeps; cars with insurance start at just under 1000 baht/day, and come down to around 5600 baht/week or 18000 baht/month.
Driving is (usually, but not always!) on the left hand side of the road. As of January 2006, fuel at large petrol stations is 24-27 baht/litre. Small kerbside vendors who pump by hand from drums and/or pour from bottles charge a few baht more.
Cars can be rented without difficulty in many locations. It's worth paying a little more than the absolute minimum in order to use one of the international franchises (eg Avis, Budget, Hertz) to minimize the risk of hassles, and to ensure that any included insurance is actually worth something.
More reputable agencies require that valid licences be produced: foreigners who do not have a Thai driving licence must carry a valid International Driving Permit. Even if you manage to rent a car without an IDP, not having one will invalidate the insurance and count against you in the event of an accident.
A common rental scam involves the owner taking a deposit, and then later refusing to refund it in full on the basis that the customer is responsible for previous damage; the Tourist Police (dial 1155) may be able to help. Another common scam involves the owner having someone follow the rented vehicle and later "steal" it, using a set of spare keys. Always report thefts: a "stolen" vehicle may mysteriously turn up as soon as the police become involved.
One of the Thais' many names for themselves is jao naam, the Water Lords, and from the river expresses of Bangkok to the fishing trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an indispensable way of getting around many parts of the country.
Perhaps the most identifiably Thai boat is the long-tail boat (reua hang yao), a long, thin wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long 'tail' stretching from the boat. This makes them supremely manouverable even in shallow waters, but they're a little underpowered for longer trips and you'll get wet if it's even a little choppy. Long-tails usually act as taxis that can be chartered, although prices vary widely - figure on 300-400 baht for a few hours' rental, or up to 1500 for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, long-tails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services as well as slower, sometimes overnight ferries also run from the mainland to popular islands like Ko Samui and the Phi Phi Islands. Truly long-distance services (eg. Bangkok to any other major city) have, however, effectively ceased to exist as buses, planes and even trains are faster. Safety measures are rudimentary and ferries and speedboats do sink occasionally, so avoid overloaded ships in poor weather, and scope out the nearest life jackets when on board.
Thailand's a big enough country that you can find a place to practice almost any outdoor sport. Some selections:
The official language of Thailand is, unsurprisingly, Thai. There are dozens of small language groups in the tribal areas of the north, and a small number of places where Thai speakers are few and far between. Thai is a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying "yes." versus "yes?" - that's tonal) which can make it tricky for Westerners to learn quickly, but despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrase book and give it a go.
Thai script can look like complete gibberish, but many street signs and some shop signs have Roman transcriptions (using the "Western alphabet") as well. The upside is that when there is Roman script, it will usually be fairly phonetic - for example "Sawatdee" (meaning hello) is pronounced just as it reads: sa-wat-dee. The downside is that there's no universal agreement on how to transcribe Thai letters that don't have a Roman equivalent, so Khao San Road for example is also commonly spelt Kao Sarn, Kao Sahn, Khao San, Koh Saan, Khaosan, and many other variations. Maps with names in both Thai and Roman make it easier for locals to try and help you.
Most "front desk" people in the travel industry speak at least enough English to communicate, and many are relatively fluent; some also speak one or more other languages popular with their clientele, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, etc.
The most useful bills tend to be 20s and 100s, as many small shops and stalls don't carry much change. Taxi drivers also like to pull the "no change" trick; if caught, hop into the nearest convenience store and make a small purchase (or ask them for exchange).
ATMs can be found in all cities and large towns, and international withdrawals are not a problem. However, more remote areas (including smaller islands) don't have banks or ATMs, so cash or traveller's checks are essential. Many hotels and guest houses will change money for guests, but hefty commissions and poor rates may apply. US dollars in small bills (1s, 5s, and 20s) are invaluable for onward travel to neighbouring countries other than Malaysia, but are only useful in Thailand for exceptional purchases (eg paying visa fees for Cambodia).
Credit cards are widely accepted in the tourist industry, but beware of cloning, where copies of your card are made surreptitiously. Try not to let your card out of your sight.
In a word, Thailand is cheap, and excellent value to boot: the combination of a weak currency, low labor costs and plenty of visitors means that everything a tourist could possibly want is both available and affordable. US$20 (800 baht) will get a backpacker a dorm bed or cheap room, three square meals a day and leave enough for transport and sightseeing. Doubling that budget will let you stay in decent 3-star hotels, and if you're willing to fork out US$100/day or more you can live like a king. Bangkok requires a more generous budget than upcountry destinations, but also offers by far the most competitive prices for shoppers who shop around. The most popular tourism islands such as Phuket and Ko Samui tend to have higher prices in general.
Thailand is a shopper's paradise and many visitors to Bangkok in particular end up spending much of their time in the countless markets and malls. Particularly good buys are clothing, both cheap locally produced streetwear and fancy Thai silk, and all sorts of handicrafts. Electronics and computer gear are also widely available, but prices are higher than in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
A Thai speciality are the night markets found in almost every town, the largest and best-known of which include Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Bangkok and the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. Here a variety of vendors from designers to handicraft sellers have stalls selling goods which cannot normally be found in malls and day markets. Most night markets also have large open air food courts attached.
You can also find marvelously tacky modern clothing accessories. Witness pink sandals with clear plastic platform heels filled with fake flowers. Hello Kitty also a popular icon. Night markets along the main roads and Maboonkrong (MBK) Mall, near the Siam sky train stop, are particularly good sources.
Recommended places to shop:
Thailand has a plethora of accommodation in every price bracket. Always take a look at the room (or better still several rooms) before agreeing a price.
Guesthouses are usually the cheapest option, costing under 200 baht per night (or less for a dorm bed). This gets you a room with a fan, a squat toilet (often shared) and not much else.
Thai hotels start around 200 baht and go up to around 800 baht. The upper end of this range will be air-conditioned, the lower end will not. The primary difference is that with a hotel room, your bathroom should be private, bed linen and towels should be provided, and there may be a hot shower.
Tourist hotels are generally around 1000 baht and offer the basics for a beach vacation: swimming pool, room service and colour TV.
Business and luxury hotels, 2000 baht and up, offer every modern amenity you can think of and are largely indistinguishable from hotels anywhere else in the world. Some, notably Bangkok's The Oriental and The Peninsula are among the world's best hotels. The most luxurious resorts also fall in this price category, with some of the very best and most private adding a zero to the price.
The two main opportunities for work for foreigners are teaching English and dive instruction, but both are very competitive and divemasters in particular are paid a pittance. Finding any other kind of work in Thailand can be difficult, as wages are poor and a large number of occupations are legally off limits to non-Thais.
An excellent way to get to know and understand more of the country is to do some voluntary work. There are several organisaitons such as Travel to Teach that arrange work for international volunteers in Thailand and other countries in the region.
The food alone is really reason enough for a trip to Thailand. Curries, fruit shakes, stir fries, fresh fish made a zillion ways - and that's just the beginning. Food in Thailand can be as cheap and easy as 20 baht phat thai (Thai fried noodles) cooked at a street stall or as expensive and complicated as a $100 ten-course meal by a royal chef served in one of Bangkok's 5 star hotels.
Since most backpackers will be sticking closer to the first than the second, one of the great things about Thailand is that food from stalls and tiny sidewalk restaurants is usually quite safe. Unlike some Asian countries, travellers should worry more about overeating or too much curry spice than about unclean kitchens and bad food. In fact, street restaurants, where you can see what you'll get and everything is cooked on the spot (usually in a pool of germ- and diet-killing vegetable oil) can be the safest option.
Thai food is most commonly eaten with fork and spoon. Hold the spoon in your right hand and use it to eat, and reserve the fork for piling stuff into your spoon. Chopsticks are only employed for noodle soups and Chinese-style dishes. At home, eating by hand is also common but this is rarely done in restaurants.
Thai food is meant for sharing. Everybody gets their own plate of rice and tiny soup bowl, but all the other dishes are laid out in the center of the table and you're free to eat what you wish. Though some people believe that taking the last piece from a shared plate is considered slightly unlucky, and you may hear people make wishes for others to compensate for their own misfortune — a popular wish is that "may my girl/boyfriend be beautiful"!
Thai cuisine is characterized by strong spices, especially lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander, the combination of which gives Thai food its distinctive taste. In addition, Thai food has a deserved reputation for being spicy, with hot little torpedo-shaped chillies called phrik khii nuu (พริกขี้หนู, lit. "mouse shit chillies") making their way into many a dish. Thais are well aware that these can be more than Westerners can handle and will often ask if you like it hot (เผ็ด phet); answer "yes" at your own risk!
Thai dishes can be roughly categorized into central Thai food (around Bangkok), northern Thai food (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influence), north-eastern Thai food (from the Isaan region bordering with Laos) and southern Thai food (with heavy influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some better-known central dishes; see Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
The Thai staple is rice (ข้าว khao), so much so that in Thai eating a meal, kin khao, literally means "eat rice".
In addition to rice, Thais are great noodle eaters. The most common kind is rice noodles, served angel-hair (เส้นหมี่ sen mii), small (เส้นเล็ก sen lek), large (เส้นใหญ่ sen yai) and giant (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว kuay tio), but egg noodles (บะหมี่ ba mii), Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli (เกี๊ยว kio) and glass noodles made from mung beans (วุ้นเส้น wun sen) are also popular.
Unlike most Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a rack of four condiments, namely dried red chillies , fish sauce, vinegar and sugar - diners can mix them into their own liking.
Soups and curries
The line between soups (ต้ม tom, literally just "boiled") and curries (เเกง kaeng) is a little fuzzy, and many dishes the Thais call curries would be soups to an Indian. A plate of rice with a ladleful of a curry or two on top, known as khao kaeng (ข้าวเเกง), is a very popular quick meal if eating alone.
Thais like their mains fried (ทอด thot or ผัด phat) or grilled (yaang ย่าง). Fish, in particular, is often deep-fried so long that even the meat turns brown and crispy.
About the only thing Thai salads (ยำ yam) have in common with the Western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. A uniquely Thai flavor is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chillies - the end result can be very spicy indeed!
Thais don't usually eat "dessert" in the Western after-meal sense, although you may get a few slices of fresh fruit (ผลไม้ ponlamai) for free at fancier places, but they certainly have a finely honed sweet tooth.
Vegetarians won't have too many problems surviving in Thailand, with one significant exception: fish sauce (น้ำปลา naam plaa) is to Thai cuisine what soy sauce is to Chinese food, and keeping it out of soups, curries and stir-fries will be a challenge.
That said, Thailand is a Buddhist country and vegetarianism is a fairly well-understood concept, especially among Chinese Thais (many of whom eat only vegetarian food during several festivals). Tofu is a traditional Thai ingredient and they aren't afraid to mix it up in some non traditional dishes such as omelettes (with or without eggs), submarine sandwiches, and burritos. Since Thai dishes are usually made to order, it's easy to ask for anything on the menu to be made without meat or fish. Bangkok features several fantastic veggie and vegan restaurants, but outside of big cities make sure to check that your idea of "veggie" matches the chef's.
Some key phrases for vegetarians:
Thailand has a large number of indigenous restaurant chains offering much the same fare as your average street stall, but with the added advantages of air conditioning, printed menus (often in English) and some semblance of hygiene. All the chains are heavily concentrated in Bangkok, but larger cities and popular tourist spots may have an outlet or two.
And yes, you can find the usual McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut etc if you insist. If you do end up at McD's, at least try the un-Maclike fried chicken with McSomTam (green papaya salad). For those craving American-style pizza, try the ubiquitous The Pizza Company, which is a less expensive and (arguably) tastier local chain.
Tap water is usually not drinkable in Thailand. Bottled water (น้ำเปล่า naam plao) is cheap and ubiquitous at 5-10 baht a bottle, and drinking water served in restaurants is always at least boiled (น้ำต้ม naam tom). Ice (น้ำแข็ง naam khaeng) in Thailand usually comes packaged straight from the factory and is safe; there is only reason to worry if you are served hand-cut ice.
Coconut water (น้ำมะพร้าว naam ma-phrao), iced and drunk directly from a fresh coconut is a cheap and healthy way to cool the body - available at restaurants and also from vendors that specialize in fruit juice.
Fruit juices, freezes and milkshakes of all kinds are very popular with Thais and visitors alike. Most cafés and restaurants charge 20-40 baht, but a bottle of freshly squeezed Thai sweet orange juice (น้ำส้ม naam som) - which really is orange in color! - can be sold on the street for 10 baht or less. Thais often add salt to their fruit juices-- an acquired taste that you might just learn to like.
Tea and coffee
One of Thailand's most characteristic drinks is Thai iced tea (ชาเย็น chaa yen, lit. "cold tea"). Instantly identifiable thanks to its lurid orange color, this is the side effect of adding ground tamarind seed (or, these days, artificial color) during the curing process. The iced tea is always very strong and very sweet, and usually served with a dash of condensed milk; ask for chaa dam yen to skip the milk.
Naam chaa and chaa jiin are weak and full-strength Chinese tea, often served in restaurants for free. Western-style black tea is chaa ron (ชาร้อน). Coffee (กาแฟ kaafae) is also widely available, and is usually served with condensed milk and lots of sugar. Ask for kaafae thung to get traditional filtered "bag" coffee instead of instant.
The Starbucks phenomenon has also arrived in Thailand, but for the moment local competitors Black Canyon Coffee and S&P still have the edge in marketshare. These are the places to look for if you want that triple-moccha latte with hazelnut swirl and are willing to pay 100 baht for the privilege.
Thailand is the original home of the Red Bull brand energy drink - a licensed and re-branded version of Thailand's original Krathing Daeng (กระทิงแดง, "Red Bull"), complete with the familiar logo of two bulls charging at each other.
The Thai version, however, is syrupy sweet, uncarbonated and comes packaged in medicinal-looking brown glass bottles, as the target customers are not trendy clubbers, but Thailand's working class of construction workers and bus drivers in need of a pick-me-up. Krathing Daeng and its many competitors (including M150, Shark, .357 and the inevitable Karabao Daeng, "Red Buffalo") are available in any convenience store for 10 baht a pop, although in some places you can now buy imported European Red Bull for five times the price.
Drinking alcohol in Thailand, especially if you like Western tipples, is actually comparatively expensive - but still very affordable by Western standards.
The misnamed Thai whisky (lao) refers to a number of distilled rice liquors, the best known being the infamous Mae Khong ("Mekong") brand and its competitor Saeng Som. The only resemblances to whisky are the brown color and high alcohol content, and indeed many people liken the smell to nail polish remover, but the somewhat rum-like taste is not quite as bad, especially when diluted with cola or tonic water. This is also by far the cheapest way to get blotto, as a pocket flask of the stuff (available in any convenience store or supermarket) costs only around 50 baht.
Out in the countryside many villages distil their own moonshine (lao thuean), which is strictly speaking illegal, but nobody seems to mind very much. Especially when hilltribe trekking in the North you're likely to be invited to sample some, and it's polite to at least take a sip.
Beer (เบียร์ bia) is a bit of an upmarket drink in Thailand, with the price of a small bottle hovering between 50 and 100 baht in most pubs, bars and restaurants. For many years the only locally brewed beer was Singha (pronounced just Sing) but it has lost market to cheaper and stronger Chang. Two upmarket brands are available today, Heineken and Tiger, and longstanding minor brands Kloster and Leo enjoy some popularity. Thais like their lagers with relatively high alcohol content (around 6%), as it is designed to be drunk with ice, so the beer in Thailand may pack more of a punch than you are used to.
Imported liquors, wines and beers are widely available but prohibitively priced for the average Thai. A shot of any brand-name liquor is at least 100 baht, a pint of Guinness will set you back at least 200 baht and, thanks to an inexplicable 340% tax, even the cheapest bottle of wine will set you back over 500 baht. Note that, in cheaper bars (especially the go-go kind), the content of that familiar bottle of Jack Daniels may be something entirely different.
Thailand has more than its fair share of scams, but most are easily avoided with a modicum of common sense.
More a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by touts, taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait by important monuments and temples and waylay Western travellers, telling them that the site is closed for a "Buddhist holiday", "repairs" or a similar reason. The 'helpful' driver will then offer to take the traveller to another site, such as a market or store. Travellers who accept these offers will often end up at out-of-the-way markets with outrageous prices - and no way to get back to the center of town where they came from. Always check at the front gate of the site you're visiting to make sure it's really closed.
Avoid any tuk-tuks in Bangkok. Tuk-tuk drivers might demand much higher price than agreed, or they might take you to a sex show, pretending they didn't understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who propose their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Don't buy any sightseeing tours at the airport. If you do, they will 'phone several times to your hotel in order to remind you about the tour. During the tour, you will be shortly taken to a small temple, without a guide, then they would take you to a shop, and to another shop, and to another shop (they get commissions). They might refuse to take you back home until you saw all the shops. On your way back, they would pressure you to buy more tours.
Easily identified with practice, it is not uncommon in touristed areas to be approached by a clean cut, well dressed man who often will be toting a cellphone. These scammers will start up polite conversation, showing interest in the unsuspecting tourist's background, family, or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the meat of the scam. This may be something as innocuous as over-priced tickets to a kantok meal and show, or as serious as a gambling scam or (particularly in Bangkok) the infamous gem scam. Once identified, the wary traveller should have no trouble picking out these scammers from a crowd. The tell-tale well pressed slacks and button down shirt, freshly cut hair of a conservative style, and late-model cellphone comprise their uniform. Milling around touristed areas without any clear purpose for doing so, the careful traveller should have no difficulty detecting and avoiding these scammers.
Many visitors will encounter young Thai ladies armed with a clipboard and a smile enquiring as to their nationality, often with an aside along the lines of "please help me to earn 30 baht". The suggestion is that the visitor completes a tourism questionnaire (which includes supplying their hotel name and room number) with the incentive that they just might win a price - the reality is that everyone gets a call to say that they are a "winner", however the prize can only be collected by attending an arduous time-share presentation. Note that the lady with the clipboard doesn't get her 30 baht if you don't attend the presentation; also that only English-speaking nationalities are targeted.
Another recurrent scam involves foreigners - sometimes accompanied by small children - who claim to be on the last day of their vacation in Thailand, and having just packed all their belongings into one bag in preparation for their flight home, lost everything when that bag was stolen. Now cash is urgently needed in order to get to the airport in a hurry and arrange a replacement ticket for his/her return flight in a few hours time.
Thailand's age of consent is 15 but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes. Thai penalties for sex with minors are harsh, and even if technically legal in Thailand, tourists who have sex with minors may be prosecuted by their home country. All adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2530 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on January 1st 2006 (in the Thai calendar, AD 2006 is the year 2549).
Some prostitutes are "freelancers", but most are employed by bars or similar businesses, if hiring a prostitute from a bar or similar business, you will have to pay a fee for the establishment called a "bar fine". Petty theft and other problems are more common with "freelancers".
Technically, some aspects of prostitution in Thailand are illegal (e.g. soliciting, pimping), however enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It's not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a "bar fine".
Condoms can be bought easily in Thailand in all convenience shops and pharmacies.
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of legal hot water. Possession and trafficking offenses that would merit traffic-ticket misdemeanors in other countries can result in life-long imprisonment or even death in Thailand. Police frequently raid nightclubs, particularly in Bangkok, with urine tests and full body searches on all patrons. Ko Pha Ngan's notoriously drug-fueled Full Moon Parties also often draw police attention.
Possession of cannabis (กัญชา ganchaa), while illegal, is treated less harshly and, if busted, you may be able to pay an "on the spot fine" to get out, although even this can set you back tens of thousands of baht. It's highly unwise to rely on this though.
In 2004, long-simmering resentment in the southern-most Muslim-majority provinces burst into violence in Songkhla, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces. All four provinces are off the main tourist trail, although buses and trains to Malaysia do pass through the territory.
In September 2006, three foreigners were killed in bombings in Had Yai, the largest city in the South. Some rebel groups have threatened foreigners, but while targets have included hotels, karaoke lounges and shopping malls, westerners have not been singled out for attacks.
Being a tropical country, Thailand has its fair share of exotic tropical diseases. Malaria is generally not a problem in any of the major tourist destinations, but is endemic in rural areas along the borders with Cambodia (including Ko Chang in Trat Province), Laos and Myanmar. As is the case throughout South-East Asia, dengue fever can be encountered just about anywhere, including the most modern cities.
HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are not rare in Thailand. Condoms are sold in all convenience stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.
Thais are a polite people and, while remarkably tolerant of farangs gallivanting on their beaches and with their women, you'll find that you will get more respect if you in turn treat them and their customs with respect.
The traditional greeting known as the wai, where you press your hands together as is in prayer and bow slightly, is unique to Thailand and still widely practised. Among Thais, there are strict rules of hierarchy that dictate how and when the wai should be given: in brief, inferiors salute superiors first, and the higher your hands go the more respectful you are. You will also often see Thais doing a wai as they walk past temples and spirit houses. As a foreign visitor, you are not expected to know how to wai, nor to reciprocate when wai'd to; while you're unlikely to cause offense if you do, you may well look slightly ridiculous. If somebody makes a wai to you, a slight bow alone is more than sufficient for ordinary occasions, and for business most Thais will shake hands with foreigners instead of waiing anyway.
Personal appearance is very important in Thailand as a measure of respect to other people, so clothes should be neat, clean, and free from holes or tears. Traditionally, Thais are very modest, and thus clothing should avoid showing a lot of skin. Pants should be at or below the knee, and if tank tops are worn, the straps should be thick. Swimsuits should not be revealing. You will find that dressing appropriately means that you are shown more respect in return. This translates in many ways, even sometimes lowering initial offering prices at markets.
It is best to play it safe with wats and other sacred sites in Thailand. Shorts, and sleeveless shirts are frowned on and sometimes not allowed. However remember that you will frequently need to remove your shoes when entering rooms, so don't wear shoes that are slow to get on and off. The rules are even more strict for foreign visitors, so even if you see a local in shorts it's not OK for everyone.
As in many countries, there are slightly different standards of behaviour for women. One of the most important is that Buddhist monks are meant to avoid the temptation of women, and in particular they do not touch women or take things from women's hands. Women should avoid offering anything to a monk to take. Monks will sometimes be aided by a layman who will accept things from women merit-makers on their behalf.
It's hard to find agreement on what dress is conservative enough for women. For sacred sites, some recommend that women wear only full length dresses and skirts; you should at least make sure that your clothing covers your shoulders and your entire thigh and some places may require that you wear ankle-length pants and long sleeved shirts. Women should not go topless on the beach and are often advised to wear a T-shirt over their swimming gear; this is more important at primarily-Thai beach resorts, and will be almost entirely ignored at the most heavily westernized areas.
Never touch or pat a Thai on the head, including children. Similarly, do not touch people with your feet, or even point with them; the feet are considered dirty and low. If someone is sitting with outstretched feet, avoid stepping over them, as this is very rude and could even spark a confrontation (even if the person is sleeping, it is best to go around, as others are likely to notice). It is considered impolite and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, particularly when eating in someone's home (this is true even if the sniffing is done in appreciation). Do not audibly blow your nose in public. Do not turn your back to a Buddhist statue or pose alongside one for a photo. It's OK to take photos of a statue, but everyone should be facing it. Also, as doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it's important not to step on a raised threshold, but rather to step over it. Keep this in mind especially when visiting temples.
Physical affection is rarely if ever shown in public--even married Thai men and women do not touch in public. However, it is not uncommon for same sex close friends to hold hands as an expression of affection. You may see a Thai woman expressing affection physically in public with a foreign men, but often this means that the Thai woman is a prostitute.
In Thailand, expression of negative emotions such as anger or sadness is almost never overt, and it is possible to enjoy a vacation in Thailand without ever seeming to see an argument or an unhappy person. Thai people smile constantly, and to outsiders this is seen as happiness or friendliness. In reality, smiling is a very subtle way to communicate, and to those who live in Thailand, a smile can indicate any emotion--from fear, to anger, to sadness, to joy, etc.
It's illegal to show disrespect for the King. Since he is on the country's currency, don't burn or mutilate it - especially in the presence of other Thais. If you drop a coin, do not step on it to stop it - this is very rude, since you are stomping on the picture of the King's head that is printed on the coin. Also, anything related to the story The King and I is illegal to possess in Thailand. Almost all Thais, even ones in other countries, feel very strongly when it comes to this film. They feel it makes a mockery of their age-old monarchy and is entirely inaccurate. This applies to all versions of the film including the original two classic ones Anna and the King of Siam (1946), starring Rex Harrison; Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I starring Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (1956); also the modern versions Anna and the King (1999) starring Jodie Foster, and the Warner Bros. animated The King and I of the same year.
Bring an open mind and a sense of humour. Don't come with too many preconceived ideas about what Thailand is like, as media and friends’ experiences have a habit of distorting reality.
Otherwise, bring as little as possible. If you forget something, you can buy it in Bangkok, probably for less than it originally cost you. Take enough padlocks for every double zipper to stop wandering hands and lock up your sacred belongings, even in your hotel room.
Essentials are a swimming costume, a day pack, a raincoat/umbrella in rainy season and some warm clothes if travelling in October to December, as some areas get cool. You will only need a couple of changes of clothes as you can get washing done anywhere cheaply. Sandals for when your hiking shoes are too hot can be bought cheaply in Thailand, although large sizes for women are harder to come by.
Take snorkelling gear or buy it on arrival if you plan to spend a lot of your time in the water. Alternatively put up a notice looking for gear from someone who is leaving. A tent for camping if you are a national park buff is a good idea, as is a compass. You might like to bring compact binoculars too if wildlife is your thing. A good map of Thailand is also handy.
Take earplugs for when you're stuck in a noisy room or want to sleep on the bus. Take a mirror for shaving, as often budget places won’t have any. String is very handy for hanging up washing. Travel Scrabble can be great. Cigarette papers can be difficult to find, except in tourist centres. Climbing shoes for rock climbing are useful as Thailand has some of the best cliffs in South-East Asia.
A spare pair of prescription glasses or contact lenses plus a copy of your prescription is a good idea. Bring a book you're prepared to swap. A personal music player is great as a huge range of cheap music is available everywhere.
Into the toiletries bag throw sun screen and insect repellent. Mosquito coils are also a good idea. A small pocket size torch / flashlight will come in handy when the electricity goes out or for investigating caves. Condoms, of course. Passport photos come in handy for visas.
If you plan to travel long distances by motorbike, purchase a good quality helmet, which you can do in Thailand. Last but not least, pack your stuff in plastic bags to stop them from getting wet, especially when travelling in the rainy season or on boats.
Aside from the above, the following are recommended:
Connectivity in Thailand is generally quite good.
To place an international call, you can buy a prepaid card (available for 300 baht at many convenience stores and guesthouses) to use with one of the bright yellow Lenso payphones. You should rarely have trouble finding either of these unless you're way out in the countryside. The international access code is 001.
For mobile phone users, Thailand has three GSM mobile service providers - AIS, DTAC and Truemove) - which may be useful if you have (or can afford!) a mobile phone that will work on either one or both of the GSM 900 or 1800 frequency bands (consult your phone's technical specifications). If you have one, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for any of the Thai carriers in any convenience store for as little as 200 baht and charge it up as you go. Most mobile providers lock the phone to their own SIM card when you first purchase the service, so if your phone refuses to work with another SIM card, the wizards at Bangkok's MBK shopping mall will be happy to solve this for less than 500 baht. If you need to buy a mobile phone, you can pick those up at MBK as well, as a huge selection of cheap secondhand mobiles can be found on the upper floors. International rates from a Thai carrier are surprisingly good - DTAC, for example, charges 10 baht/minute to call America (and, with DTAC, you can reduce rates even further by predialing 08 before the international country code - for instance, 08 0011 for America). Coverage is quite good in Bangkok and at many tourist destinations, including resort islands.
Internet cafés are widespread and most are inexpensive - prices as low as 20 baht/hour are commonplace, and speed and reliability of connection is generally reasonable. Higher prices prevail in major package-tourist destinations (60 baht/hour is typical, 120 baht/hour is not unusual). Islands with multiple Internet cafés include Ko Phi Phi (Don), Ko Lanta (Yai), Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao, Ko Chang (Trat), Ko Samet (Rayong), Ko Si Chang (Chonburi), and of course Phuket.
Keyloggers are all too often installed on the computers in cheap cafes, so be on your guard if using online banking, stock broking or even PayPal. Using cut and paste to enter part of your password may defeat some of them.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself typing in Thai (or any other alien script) you've probably accidentally hit whatever key-combination the computer you're using has been configured to use for switching between languages (often Ctrl+spacebar). To change back, use the "Text Services and Input Languages" option (a quick-access menu is usually available via a "TH" icon visible on the taskbar - simply switch it to "EN").