More than 26.7 million people visited Thailand in 2013. A large percentage of these visitors come from neighboring South Asian countries but European and US visitors also make up a huge chunk. Thailand still retains its old world charm and its culture is largely intact. For a long time, Bangkok was a starting point for many backpacking tours into South and South East Asia.
Did you know that Thailand is a constitutional monarchy? This might come as a surprise to travelers from the West who are used to total democratic governments. There are a number of monuments and cultural attractions in Thailand including many in the capital Bangkok.
Thailand is actually much more than the neon lights and high rises that most tourists who come to Bangkok expect. If you care to go outside the city, you will find the people living an idyllic lifestyle. Most Thais are farmers and fishermen. Farms, rubber plantations and Buddhist temples dot the countryside. The major cities (for tourists) in Thailand are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Ko Samui, Hua Hin District, Patong, Chiang Rai and Krabi.
The Thai are very friendly people. Some tourists have said that the Thai are some of the nicest people they have ever met. This comes from the region’s Buddhist influence. The typical Thai is always smiling, very polite, helpful and always happy. They will go out of their way to help you and even translate for you. They also treat guests very well. If you have ever made friends with a Thai, the next time he sees you, he will give you a big smile and a hug. No wonder, Thailand is called, ‘land of smiles.’
Nearly 95% of the people are Buddhists (Theravada). Theravada Buddhism is supported by the government and the monks receive many government benefits, like free bus travel. The traditional Thai greeting is the wai, which is performed with folded hands and a slight bow of the head. It is similar to the ‘Anjali mudra’ of the Indian subcontinent. In other ways, the Thai are very conservative and they don’t show PDAs (public displays of affection). Touching the head, unless you are an elder is considered rude. Most Thai don’t speak English (but the Thai will make every effort to understand you) so it is a good idea to learn basic Thai phrases before you come here.
Most foreigners to Thailand arrive in Bangkok and start their journey from there. Bangkok has a number of famous Buddhist temples that are worth visiting. Please dress appropriately when you go to the temples otherwise you may be turned away. Wat Pho or ‘Temple of the Reclining Buddha’ is a must visit.
Other places to visit in Thailand are Pai (town), Phanon Rung, Railay (if you are an adventure junkie or rock climber), Khao Sok National Park, the ancient city of Ayuthaya (just 80 km away from Bangkok), Chiang Mai (best city in the North) and the Thai islands (gorgeous scenery, beautiful beaches and lively party scene).
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s cultural capital. In Chiang Mai, do visit Doi Suthep (a hill top temple) and Nimmanhaemin (for trendy shops, eateries and cafes). There are also a number of elephant parks in and around Chiang Mai.
There are three main sets of islands in Thailand. Some of the well known ones are Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Samet, Ko Chang, Ko Tao, Ko Phi Phi and Phuket. Ko Phi Phi is where Leonardo DiCaprio starred, ‘The Beach’ was shot. Phuket is the best and largest island destination in Thailand. If you want to go scuba diving, visit Ko Tao.
Thai food pays a lot of attention to detail, taste, color and texture. It is intricate, has good flavor and uses ingredients with medicinal properties. The Thai are not only concerned about how the food tastes, they are also interested in how it smells, how it looks and how it fits in with other food.
Most Thai dishes require light preparation, have strong aroma and are quite spicy. Seven Thai dishes have made the list of 50 most delicious foods from around the world (by CNN International). These dishes are Pad Thai, Tom Yam Goong, Massaman Curry, Som Tam, Thai fried rice, moo nam tok and green curry.
Thai cuisine is four regional cuisines rolled into one. They are central Thai, Northern Thai, Isan and Southern Thai. Rice is staple in most diets. In fact, the word khao means both rice and food. Rice is made into congee, noodles, vermicelli and even rice flour.
Herbs, vegetables and a variety of spices are a big part of Thai food. Fish and other sea food are commonly eaten in Thailand. Most Thai meals will finish off with a sweet dish (can be fruit also), containing rice, coconut milk, banana and fruits.
The Thai also eat fried insects especially in the North where they are quite popular. Crickets, silkworm, termites, ant eggs, bee larve, grasshoppers are commonly fried and eaten. Thai street food is also renowned around the world (Thailand is called the world’s street food capital). Most Thai are non-vegetarians, so finding exclusive vegetarian food in Thailand can be quite difficult. Don’t forget to try the local beers – Singha (called Sing by the locals) and Chang. Other popular beverages in Thailand are Thai Ice tea and Thai coffee. Krating Deang is a popular energy drink in the region (Red Bull was derived from this drink).
Some of the popular places for shopping in Thailand are Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai. Carry a small hand towel with you to wipe yourself because it can get quite hot and sweaty during the day. The best time to visit a market is in the early morning or in the afternoon (because the markets are typically crowded in the evening). Plan where you want to go so you don’t go wandering in the city. Bangkok’s street markets are quite popular (Sampeng, Chatuchak, Saphan Phut, Pratunam). Do not offer a vendor a price, if you are not ready to meet it.
Bangkok is also known for its nightlife. There are a number of bars and nightclubs which are frequented by foreigners. The top nightclubs in Bangkok are Insanity Nightclub, Levels Club & Lounge, Route 66, Demo and Grease Nightclub. There are also a number of seedly back alley massage parlous and Go-Go bars in Bangkok but avoid those. In the south, Phuket has a very colorful nightlife. Seduction Club in Patong is very popular.
Gambling is illegal in Thailand. All games of chance and luck are banned in Thailand (except the state owned lottery). So don’t go betting on Thai boxing matches, fish fights and cockfights. If you are caught engaging in any one of them, the police will charge you.
There are a number of travel options when in Thailand. Traveling in Thailand is inexpensive though not always fast. There are local buses in the cities but they may be crowded, so it is a good idea to rent a car when you are in Thailand (check for damages before you rent the car or the car owner will charge you for them later). Train is the prefered mode of transport for long distance travel. Please ask a local travel agent to help you with reservations.
Do note that foreigners may have to pay a bit more for long distance train tickets than locals. Women are recommended to travel with companions and it is better to avoid night travel.
If you want to go to another island, take a ferry. All major Thai islands are connected to the mainland by ferries. Avoid traveling on boats that are in poor condition or overcrowded. You might have to wait for some time for the next ferry to depart but its worth it. Ferry prices are very cheap and you must buy the tickets inboard. There are speedboats too but those cost a lot more.
If you don’t mind the cost, consider taking a flight. All the major cities are connected by plane. In some cases, you can save a lot of time and effort by traveling by plane. For example, the journey from Chiang Mai to Phuket can take days by road but it is only two hours by plane. There are a number of low cost carriers to consider.
Thailand’s climate can be divided into three parts. They are the rainy season (May to October), the cool winter (November to February) and the hot summer (March to May). The best time to visit Thailand is between November and February during the cool season. Don’t arrive during the rainy season because you will have to contend with heavy rains and slushy roads. Note that the ‘cool’ season is actually not cool (temperatures can easily reach up tp 30 degrees in the middle of the day).
The official Thai currency is the Thai Baht. Currently, the Baht is hovering around 33 Baht per US dollar. With a thousand US dollars, you can live a very comfortable life in Thailand for at least a month.
It is a good idea to base yourself near a hospital whilst in Thailand. Keep cash with you when you go to a doctor or a hospital. Please take care of your passport and other important travel documents because once they are lost, they may be lost for good. Get photocopies of your important documents and stash them in a safe place. If you lose your original documents, please contact your embassy immediately. Foreign nationals from 19 countries are eligible for visa on arrival in Thailand.