25 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING IN THAILAND
Thailand, with over 26 million foreign entries in 2016, can be a very touristic place to visit. By some accounts, 20% of the Thai GDP is based on tourism (worldwide nations average about 10%). Thailand is often an entry point for all of Asia, a constant revolving door of tourists on short or extended trips. We’re writing this article to help you avoid getting your hand caught in that often dangerous door.
Thailand is a country that can live up to its high expectations and reputation. It really can be paradise. On the other hand, it can be a disappointing place filled with drunken pub crawlers, tourist scams, empty promises and subpar made-for-tourists versions of local dishes. Pad thai made with instant noodles? You’ll find it all over Phuket and Koh Samui. If you venture past the tourists districts, the food is to die for. Thailand takes some effort.
We’ve spent about a year and a half in Thailand over the past ten years, visiting at least once a year and struggling to make sense of why this is Asia’s favorite destination. It wasn’t until recently that we’ve ‘figured out’ Thailand to the point where we can enjoy it as much as others have.
Here are 25 Things You Need to Know Before Visiting Thailand
WHEN THE ATM MACHINE ASKS YOU IF YOU WANT TO ACCEPT THEIR CONVERSION RATE, SELECT “CONTINUE WITHOUT CONVERSION“
Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) is when at ATM machine converts the local currency to that which is connected to your ATM card (in my case USD). All ATMs dispense Thai baht, but when using a foreign ATM card, the option to “continue with converstion” will always be there. Hurried foreign users often just select “OK” until someone explains to them the losses involved. It’s supposed to be a convenience for us, but it’s really just a ripoff. When you withdrawal Thai baht using DCC, you lose about 12% in the transaction. That’s huge. I generally take out 10,000 baht ($300usd) each time. If I were to accept the conversion rate, I would lose about 1,100 baht ($33usd) each time I take cash. In Thailand, that’s lunch for a month. Do not accept the ATM’s conversion rate.
TUK TUKs ARE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN TAXIs
The ubiquitous ‘Tuk Tuk” is so named due to the sputtering sound of its determined engine. They can often travel faster than taxis due to their ability to maneuver through traffic. You would think a ramshackle motorbike-powered vehicle driven by a guy that looks like he just stepped out of a trench would be cheap. However, Tuk Tuk drivers are so used to ripping off newbies to Thailand that even with negotiating and walking away, you will not get them to take you to places for the same low price a comfortable, air-conditioned taxi will charge. Every visitor should take a tuk tuk once, for the experience, but it’s actually not as great as you may imagine- the roof hangs low, blocking your view of the city, making you crane your neck into dangerous positions. You’re better off in a cab. Motorbike taxi (guys in orange vests 20 years younger than tuk tuk drivers) are about the same price as a taxi but will go faster and provide for you a free massive heart attack.
THAILAND IS FUN AND OPEN: DO NOT TOUCH ILLEGAL DRUGS
This one should be obvious, yet travelers are constantly getting caught with illegal substances in a country with some of the most strict drug laws in the world. For some reason, travelers see the relaxed nature of the locals, the “anything goes” excitement of Bangkok and the shoeless islands and assume that they’ve found the Amsterdam of Asia. Alcohol is fairly cheap, available everywhere and yet some foreign travelers here still assume that drugs are no big deal. They are. Do a Google search of “Thai prison cell” to see the possibilities. Even some drugs that pharmacies will sell you over-the-counter, such as valium, could land you in trouble in Thailand. Police are authorized to stop you and search your person and possessions for drugs at any time, and they often do.
AN ULTRA-LIGHT WINDBREAKER WITH HOOD WILL BE YOUR BEST FRIEND
Heavy rains often happen unexpectedly and can catch you off guard. In addition, temples and palaces require you to cover your elbows. A light windbreaker is each to pack, light to carry and will come in handy quite often!
THE ICE IS OK
Tap water is not safe to drink. However, the ice at restaurants and bars is purchased safely from an ice broker that would never use tap water. Myself and all others I know have never got sick from ice here in Thailand. If your stomach is super sensitive, ask for “no ice” (ไม่มีน้ำแข็ง / mâi ao nám kăeng ká).
HOTEL PACKAGE INCLUDES MEALS? GREAT. SKIP THEM.
No need to eat at your hotel, even breakfast. The food is often “Thailand lite”: weak soup, flavorless stir fries, you’ll get the same in Ohio. The unique ingredients that make Thai food so engaging and unforgettable are omitted at restaurants catering to first-timers in Thailand. Hit the night markets. If you see a local restaurant with no windows or walls packed full of locals: go for it. Just point to a dish on someone else’s table and take a chance. Don’t bother with the loveless hotel food. A hotel package that includes meals in Thailand is a bit like a flight to Venice that includes a free car rental. Not only do you not need it, you’ll be missing out if you take up the offer.
DON’T RIDE AN ELEPHANT OR TAKE A PICTURE WITH A TIGER
Documenting your trip to exotic Thailand with a picture atop a beautiful elephant now suffering from spinal problems, or making a peace sign beside a drugged-out tiger is tempting. However, it can also be considered animal abuse. There are more responsible options at elephant parks that allow you bathe the elephants (but not tigers, no).
DINING OUT IN THAILAND IS MUCH, MUCH DIFFERENT FROM DINING OUT IN THE WEST
“What are you having?” Nope. “What are we having?”. That’s better.
In Thailand, everyone shares the dishes ordered. Everyone at the table will discuss which dishes to go for and then everyone agrees on a selection of meals to share (often a salad, a fried dish, a stir fry and a curry). It’s a team effort. The European/American style of “I should’ve ordered what you did. Big mistake.” is not happening here, unless you’re in a hotel restaurant. It’s a little buffet on your table, all freshly made. Still hungry? Ask for a menu. Also, dishes will not come out at the same time. Dishes may come out one-by-one, as they are completed. So, roll with it. Have a few bottles of Singha on ice while you wait and you won’t even notice what’s missing from the table.
Note: It’s a good idea to get a Hepatitis A shot before arriving if you plan on eating lots of raw seafood and many adventurous dishes.
GO TO THE ISSAN REGION
Northeast Thailand, or Issan, is the least-traveled region of Thailand. For that reason, it’s the most “authentic” slice of Thailand you can find. The music, the food, the people are the best in the country. However, there are no mountains or beaches. The fact that most tourists skip it makes it so great. Every experience here is truly authentic and endearing.
STRAY DOGS ARE A PROBLEM IN THE SMALLER CITIES
The islands and the big cities are void of stray dogs, but the smaller cities are rife with them. Pet owners don’t spay or neuter their dogs and the culture of the Thai people encourages locals to feed stray dogs, who have no other means to eat. While heartbreaking, the stray dogs can be a nuisance, and sometimes dangerous. They will follow you, snap at you, and occasionally bite. Walk with purpose and stomp your feet at them if you feel threatened. Don’t trot away or they will chase. When I’m walking through a city such as Trang or Khon Kaen at night, I never wear flip flops and I carry something to brandish in the case that the dogs get a bit too close. Most Thai people don’t mind the strays, because they don’t often travel on foot.
BUG SPRAY IS YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND
If you’re wearing flip flops, expect your feet to be bitten, especially when eating outdoors. In all seasons, mosquitos are a problem. Always carry bug spray to thwart this. Many restaurants carry it as well, so ask the waitstaff to hook you up if needed.
RESPECT THE KING AND ROYAL FAMILY
Pictures of the royal family adorn Thailand. You will leave here very familiar with the faces of the royal family. Thailand is a country with lèse-majesté, or defamation laws, against speaking or writing improperly about the royal family. While questions about their history may be welcomed and lead to good conversation, do not interject your own opinion about royalty, even if asked. You can, however, speak about how cool immensely cool the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was (and he was). The Thai royal family has really united the country through tumultuous political times and are seen as family by Thai people.
THE MOST FAMOUS DESTINATIONS ARE OFTEN THE WORST
If you’re a seasoned world traveler, you will roll your eyes at the tourist hordes in Phuket, Koh Samui, Pattaya and areas of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. They are often hyper-touristic and offering the worst of Thailand. However, walk a bit further into the local districts, or hop a bus to Trang or Ubon Ratchathani and you will find the best of what Thailand has to offer: transcendent food, friendly locals and a day that goes by so slowly it feels like a month. Thailand is a place that requires a bit of intrepid exploration if you really want the same experiences you can get in India or China.
IF YOU’VE BEEN TO ANGKOR WAT, DO NOT GO TO AYUTTHAYA
Ayutthaya, a day trip from Bangkok, is a popular tourist destination due to its history and accessibility. However, if you’ve been to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or Bagan in Burma, Ayutthaya is lame. However, if you cannot get to Cambodia or Burma, Ayutthaya may be worth the day trip. Sukhothai, way up north, is much much better than Ayutthaya if if you do have the time.
THAI PEOPLE DON’T EAT “BREAKFAST”
In Thailand, breakfast may be a rice porridge or a bowl of soup. The same meals are often late night snacks as well. Most restaurants that advertise “breakfast” are probably overpriced and underwhelming. Plus, it’s usually hot as hell in the morning and you may not wake up as hungry as you would be home. I like to have some fruit and a coffee and save my first meal for lunch.
CHIANG MAI IS NOT A SLEEPY MOUNTAIN TOWN
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s largest city outside of Bangkok. It has traffic congestion, haze, and scams just as Bangkok does. If you really want to get away in Thailand, visit Chiang Rai or Katchanaburi. Chiang Mai has tons to offer, but if you think you’re getting away from the tourist hordes, think again.
CHOOSE A MALE IMMIGRATION OFFICER UPON ENTRY
Thailand has become a bit strict lately when arriving through Immigration at the border or airport. Due to many expats and online workers making “visa runs”, Thai officials are becoming more suspicious of tourists, often asking them to show 20,000 baht ($650usd) upon entering, or denying them entry based on an unspecified suspicion. It’s well-known in expat circles that male immigration officers are usually more lenient than female officers. Take heed.
DON’T PAY MORE THAN 100 BAHT FOR A THAI DISH
In the USA, and certainly Europe, restaurants generally do get better the more you pay. Thailand is the opposite. The sweet spot for a Thai meal is in the 45 baht – 80 baht range. Anything cheaper than 45 baht may be loaded with MSG and made with subpar ingredients. Anything more expensive than 100 baht will be unpopular with locals and likely frozen. In Thailand, if the price is too high (could be real estate or air conditioning costs) the restaurants will be near-empty and the food sits around. Price ≠ Quality when it comes to food in Thailand. My favorite restaurant in Thailand (and I’ve eaten in 500+) charges 50 baht for seafood salads and 45 baht for stir fry dishes. Expensive restaurants = frozen food prepared without love or commitment.
“FARANG (ฝรั่ง [faràŋ])” MEANS “WHITE GUY”, NOT “FOREIGNER”
It’s not a slur or an insult, but “farang (falang)” is a word to bunch together the uncountable solo male travelers and expats in Thailand. Japanese are not “farang”. I don’t like the word due to its association with beer-bellied, french-fry eating, sandal-and-socks-wearing, tank topped, Chang beer-straight-from-the-bottle-guzzling old guys in Thailand. By learning a bit about Thai culture, dressing smart (long pants, dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves) and eating what locals eat, you can transcend “farang” and be accepted as more than another retiree that “no eat spicy”.
PAD THAI IS JUST A MINOR SNACK HERE, NOT A SIGNATURE DISH
The most popular Thai dish outside of Thailand is actually not all that popular within Thailand.
IMPORTS ARE EXPENSIVE, BUY THE THAI STUFF
A bottle of Corona in a bar may cost $6. A bottle of local beer may be $1. Local Thai food may be the best in the world, a hamburger may cost the same as it does in Chicago. You wouldn’t fly to Japan to eat pizza, so don’t fly to Thailand to eat a hot dog. Find the Thai dishes that suit you and go for the best of them.
USE THE BIG VIP BUSES, NOT THE LOCAL, RAMSHACKLE BUSES
I’m usually a huge advocate of doing as the locals do. However, when it comes to long-distance buses, I have to say that some of these cheap, falling apart buses are a miserable experience. They may save you $3 but they’ll cost you three hours of extra time on the road, making choppy stops. If you’re going intercity, pick the biggest, fastest bus available.
GET AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVERS LICENSE BEFORE EVEN CONSIDERING RENTING A CAR OR MOTORBIKE
A collision in Thailand can cost you an arm and a leg. Never drive here unless you’re licensed and insured.
NEVER EVER EVER EVER GET INTO A WHITE MINIVAN
In Thailand, as alternatives to buses and trains, there are a fleet of 12-seater white minivans that tear ass across the country, from city to city. They are death traps. Riding in these white minivans are as dangerous as wandering through the worst neighborhoods of Caracas or Johannesburg at night. Do not, under any circumstance, take these white vans from any border crossing or any city-to-city trek. They the cause of many horrific accidents and they will not slow down no matter what you suggest. Thailand has the 2nd-highest traffic fatality rate in the world and these intercity vans are often the cause of fatal crashes. Take the train or VIP bus instead.
KEEP YOUR FEET DOWN
In Thai culture, the head is the most sacred and important part of the body. The feet are considered to be dirty. Pointing your feet at someone is the equivalent of the middle finger. Still, you will see backpackers with their feet up in a tuk tuk, or resting their feet up on a chair in a restaurant. This is considered awful manners in Thailand. Put your feet up on a beach hammock only.