10 things you need to know about Thailand before you go

By Francesca Fletcher

Thailand is a country of many contradictions. It has the richest royal family in the world, and some of its poorest citizens. It has remote rural mountain villages where communities live by subsistence farming, thriving cities, and blissful island beaches. It has so much to offer to travellers, but it can be overwhelming, and you’ll find that the stereotypes about Thailand are hopelessly one dimensional and flawed.

To help you enjoy your time here to the maximum, here are some handy tips, practical and cultural. After all, a little homework never hurts.

1) Toilets

Be prepared to get to grips with the joys of a squat toilet. Believe it or not, squatties are actually much healthier than the sit down versions usually used in the west, and many advocates claim squatting is more hygienic too. Dubious? See below the infographic you never knew you needed, from a company that sells footstools to make our western toilets healthier:

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More importantly, know that your hostel/restaurant/airport is not joking when they ask you not to flush toilet paper. The sewage pipes in Thailand are much narrower than those in many countries, and flushing anything solid will cause blockages. If you disregard this rule and your wad of toilet tissue happens to break the plumbing, it’s terrible karma.

Most toilets have a hose which you should use to clean yourself. Then use toilet paper to dry up and pop that in the bin. This method may be new to you but don’t knock it till you try it: the hose solution is a godsend. You’ll feel cleaner than ever before!

Some rural bathrooms are more old fashioned and only have a bucket and tap. You're expected to splash water on yourself using your hand. If this is daunting, carry wet wipes and a small plastic bag to carry your trash away with you.

2) Shoes and feet

Please don't bring your expensive new leather heels with you - they'll likely stay in your suitcase, or come home much worse for wear! Those of us who've lived here for some time spend most of our time in practical rubber flip flops or sandals cut out to deal with dust, rain, and sweat.

Generally you'll want to wear footwear that you can slip on and off easily. If you are visiting homes or temples you will be asked to remove your shoes, and it's a real pain to have to bother with laces or buckles numerous times a day.

Be careful where you point your feet: don't point them at people or at Buddha images; don't walk over people's legs or plates of food; don’t put your feet up on seats or tables. As we explained a couple of weeks ago, feet are considered to be the grossest, least noble part of your body. Nobody else should have to look at them.  

3) Food and drink

Wonderfully, Thai street food is plentiful, cheap and safe. It isn't the healthiest cuisine in the world, as most meals are fried with lashings of oil and liberal additions of sugar and salt, but it's delicious. There are also a lot of great vegan and vegetarian options - be prepared to pay quite a bit more for food that is definitely vegan, though. If you try to ask for vegan or veggie options on the street it may be cooked with fish sauce, egg noodles, egg tofu and so on.

Alcohol, outside of the cheap Thai spirits and beers, can be more expensive than you'd think. Expect a decent cocktail to set you back 200THB or more. If you stick to Thai beverages, and drink Chang or Leo over ice or a bottle of Sangsom with a few mixers, you can have a very fun and cost-effective evening.

Be aware that alcohol is not sold on election days, religious holidays or between midnight and 11am and 2-5pm each day. This is to prevent drink driving, which it goes without saying you shouldn’t even contemplate.

Chiang Mai Gate (south gate) food market.jpeg

4) Manners

Westerners are incredibly direct, we tend towards informality, and we don’t have very hierarchical societies. All of those things can make Thai ideas about respect and manners seem confusing.

You may have heard about the Thai custom of waiing, the graceful custom of greeting others by bowing over steepled hands. We’re here to tell you: wai carefully! You should wai to seniors or those in positions of power, but waiing to children or those in service positions like waitresses or gas station staff is seen as embarrassing all round. Generally speaking, a nod and a smile will do.

As for general demeanour, conflict of any kind is to be avoided at all costs in the Land of Smiles. Please keep your temper! Thais believe that displays of emotion or aggression betray a shameful lack of self control, and what’s more, accusing another person can cause them to lose face. This is a big deal. So be nice, and avoid being overly direct.

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5) Packing

This is a quick one - we know most travellers already have a good idea what they need on holiday. You can buy nearly everything you could need here in Thailand more cheaply than at home. The things that are more difficult to find cheaply here are sunscreen, tampons, plus-size clothing, good sportswear, some medications, and books. Everything else you can get on the go.

6) Transport

Thailand has a frighteningly high rate of road deaths so it’s vital to have your wits about you on the road. Think twice before renting your own transportation - whether it’s a motorbike or car, Thai police expect you to have an international driving license and you’ll have to cough up a fine should you get caught without one. They will also fine you for driving under the influence (please, for your own safety, just don’t), and for bikes, driving without a helmet, driving a bike without an up-to-date tax disk, and driving with your pegs down if you don’t have a passenger.

In cities, you can use Grab cars as an alternative. This Uber-lookalike service is cheap and convenient. Just be aware it’s hard to pick up Grab at the airport or in more remote areas.

7) Treks and tours

It’s tricky to trek solo in Thailand - there aren’t many marked trails especially in more remote areas. Instead, invest in a guide who will be able to teach you about Thai culture and the environment around you as well as helping you find your way. In a country that does have deadly wildlife, it’s useful to have someone around who knows what to avoid, too.

When looking for the right tour, as a rule of thumb, if it seems like it’s too good to be true, it usually is! Most good companies that deliver a satisfying experience and pay their staff properly will charge upwards of 3000THB for a day’s worth of activities. Expect to pay more for a boutique or private tour.

8) All about money

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not funny or polite to haggle a vendor down to a tenth of their original asking price. Honestly, do you really need to? Ask politely for a discount and with one or two negotiations you may be able to get about 30-40% off. You’re more likely to get a deal if you buy multiple items. Smile throughout the exchange.

Unlike the west where cashless payment is the norm, most smaller businesses here don’t accept card. Carry cash with you at all times. It shouldn’t be too difficult - there are ATMs nearly everywhere in Thailand. Never accept the bank’s own currency conversion rate - this will incur extra charges. Be extra vigilant about covering your PIN.

Museums, National Parks, and other attractions will likely charge a Thai price for entrance which is significantly less than the Falang (tourist) price. There’s nothing you can do about it, sorry. Swallow your pride and pay up, and console yourself with the knowledge that your salary is probably at least double that of most Thais.

When it comes to tipping, there’s no obligation to tip in most cheap local restaurants but it’s very much appreciated; in higher end restaurants 10% is about right. Round up for taxis. For tour guides, anything between 200THB and 1000THB is fine. If in doubt, be generous - bear in mind the average minimum wage in Thailand averages 315THB a day, so what feels like a small amount to you can be a real gift to a Thai person.

9) Religion and politics

In all your dealings with the worlds of religion and politics here, tread with caution and respect. Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand. Respect the Buddha image - don’t try to purchase Buddha statues to bring home or get tattoos of the Buddha. We once heard a story about a young traveller who had a tattoo of the Buddha on his ankle, and had to spend his whole holiday in his socks - even on the beach!

While other faiths are tolerated and some young Thais are quietly atheist, anti-religious sentiment is not appreciated. Take this opportunity to learn about Buddhist values and lessons.

With regards to politics, it’s honestly best to keep quiet. The situation here in Thailand right now isn’t entirely straightforward, and officials frown on outspoken foreigners. Some tourists have faced jail time for comments that are perceived as anti-government or anti-monarchy, so to be safe, refrain from getting involved in political discussions.

10) General behaviour

This may sound obvious, but you shouldn’t do anything here that you wouldn’t do at home. Thailand has a conservative culture, probably more so than your own. This is not a “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” kind of situation, whatever stories you may have heard. Misdemeanours could end you up with a big fine - or worse, in jail. But if you play by the rules, Thailand is an incredibly welcoming and safe destination - one which many travellers find themselves drawn back to time and time again. Enjoy it!

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Thailand Temple Etiquette: Everything You Need to Know

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By Francesca Fletcher

Buddhism is deeply ingrained in Thai culture, and the most visible signs of its prominence are the glittering temples that are to be found in every settlement.

No holiday in Thailand is complete without a visit to these important holy places. But unless you are well versed in Buddhist practices and principles, it can be hard to be sure if you are avoiding offence.

Follow these simple steps to ensure that you are being a culturally aware and respectful visitor.

1)  BE QUIET

Temples are places of reflection and meditation. Regardless of whether or not worship is taking place while you are visiting, it’s important to keep your voice down - you don’t want to deprive people of their right to think and pray in peace.

2) DRESS MODESTLY

Instagram can give a really false idea of what’s ok to wear to a temple: scrolling through lots of pictures of tourists in beautiful dresses that display bare shoulders or have thigh-high splits, it’s easy to think that anything goes. Let’s be clear: in a temple, you are expected to dress modestly and failing to do so will offend Thai worshippers.

In some very strict Bangkok temples, torn jeans or leggings are banned. But generally speaking the rules are a little more relaxed than that. Your clothes should cover shoulders and knees and be high-necked. And common sense applies here - crop tops are not suitable and if your shirt is sheer it  defeats the object of covering up.

3) REMOVE YOUR SHOES

Shoes are dirty, metaphorically and actually. They’re covered with dust, mud or worse, and shedding them at the temple steps represents your intention to cleanse yourself physically and spiritually before entering this holy place.

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Step over the threshold, not on it. Protective spirits are believed to live in the threshold step, so if you place your foot on it you will bring bad luck to yourself. If you can remember, step into the temple with your left foot and leave it with your right foot first. The left is symbolic of your mortal, sinful self, and your right suggests your cleansed, spiritual self. So entering with your left and exiting with your right demonstrates how your time in the temple has transformed you.

4) WATCH YOUR FEET

Once you’re inside the temple, don’t lose sight of your feet. Because of what they represent, it’s disrespectful to point them in the direction of other worshippers or of the Buddha. Sit crosslegged or kneel with your toes facing the back of the temple.

5) THINK ABOUT YOUR BODY LANGUAGE

To show respect to the Buddha image, try not to turn your back to it. Buddha images, whether they are statues or paintings, are created to show honour to the Buddha and give worshippers a focal point for their offerings and meditations. By turning your back to it you are showing a dismissive attitude, as you would if you raised yourself above a Buddha image.

Approach facing the Buddha and when you are ready to leave the temple, back away from it until you are quite a few metres away. If you are taking a photo of the Buddha don’t pose with your back to it.

Be observant of monks around you, too. You should not be higher than a monk, so if you are passing a seated monk, lower your body by crouching or move past on your knees. When you wai to a monk, you should be most reverential - bow your head and raise your hands in prayer position to your forehead.

6) BE A RESPECTFUL PHOTOGRAPHER

Most temples graciously allow photography. But use your common sense here! Avoid using flash and don’t take photographs during a ceremony or communal worship. Thais meeting in sincere devotion and meditation do not want to feel like exhibits or attractions. Remember that you are entering a space which is central to many people’s daily lives and to their sense of spiritual well being.

7) BOW

When you enter the temple, you should kneel resting on your heels and bow three times to acknowledge and honour the triple gems: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

Raise your hands in prayer to your forehead, bow forward from your hips and press your hands and head to the floor. Repeat three times, when you arrive and when you leave.

Practitioners of Buddhism profess to take refuge in these three foundations of their faith. Honouring the Buddha is, of course, the first and central priority - and not only the Buddha himself, but the enlightenment that he embodies. The second bow acknowledges the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings, which state that following the Four Noble Truths will release a person from fear and ignorance. The third shows reverence and gratitude to the Sangha, the community of monks, nuns, Buddhist teachers who share Buddhist wisdom with their followers.

Photo by  @lucy.ha19

Photo by @lucy.ha19

8) LOOK BUT DON’T TOUCH

Don’t touch the art on the walls, the altar, the Buddha image, or any monk. Don’t put your feet on the temple wall to fasten your shoes. Don’t ring bells if you don’t understand what they’re for. If in doubt, keep your hands to yourself!

If you are visiting the temple with your significant other, resist the temptation to hold hands or kiss. Public displays of affection, while tolerated for the most part, are definitely frowned upon in holy places.

9) DON’T DISTURB WORSHIP

Yes, you’re on holiday, and yes, you might not return to Thailand soon. But try to respect the environment and situation you are in. Your photographs are not more important than the worship of those around you and your conversation can wait.

10) PUT YOUR PHONE AWAY

It can be so challenging to clear your mind and focus on the present moment, especially when your phone is buzzing away in your pocket with IMs and DMs and memes and snapchats.

In Buddhism though, mindfully existing in the present is a vital way of reducing suffering and promoting good action. A useful article on the history of mindfulness quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR, who said: “Quite simply, the future is not here. . . . The past is already over. We have to deal with things as they are in the moment. . . . Healing and transformation are possible the moment we accept the actuality of things as they are.”

So turn off your phone, take some deep breaths and enjoy the moment you’re in.


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Songkran Festival 2019 Schedule

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Songkran (Thai: เทศกาลสงกรานต์, pronounced [tʰêːt.sā.kāːn sǒŋ.krāːn]) is the Thai New Year's national holiday. Songkran is 13 April every year. In 2019, the holiday will be observed 12–16 April as 13 April falls on a Saturday. The word "Songkran" comes from the Sanskrit word saṃkrānti (Devanāgarī: संक्रांति), literally "astrological passage", meaning transformation or change.

Songkran

In northern Thailand 13 April is celebrated with gunfire or firecrackers to repel bad luck. On the next day, people prepare food and useful things to offer to the monks at the temple. People have to go to temple to make merit and bathe Buddha's statue and after that they pour water on the hands of elders and ask for their blessings. -"Songkran, everything you need to know about Thailand's famous new year water fight". South China Morning Post.

10 Instagrammable spots in Chiang Mai

By Francesca Fletcher

Chiang Mai is an incredibly visually diverse place. Stylish cafes, lush greenery, chic cocktail bars, and ancient temples are at every corner, so wandering round the city for a day will give you enough material for the ‘gram for weeks. But if you’re pushed for time and need some pointers, here are ten spots for really gorgeous shots.

1) Ancient Walls

Thapae Gate

The old city of Chiang Mai was built in a near perfect square, with a defensive wall that took 90,000 men four months to complete. Six fort-like gates were added:

They were always guarded and were only open from sunrise to sunset. Outside each gate was a bamboo bridge spanning the moat and in times of war these bridges were taken away and the gates firmly closed. Throughout their history the walls and the gates have survived the ravages of time and the onslaught of invading armies through a continuous process of decay and repair. The city gates were restored in 1801, during the reign of Phra Chao Kawila. It was the Japanese in the 1940's, during their occupation of Thailand, who ended an era when they used the bricks from the walls to build a road up to Pai.

- The Gates of Chiang Mai: Portals on History

Thapae is the most well known of the gates, and was restored to its former glory with pristine and glowing red bricks in 1975. Today it is always busy, providing the backdrop for lots of community events but also playing host to the hundreds of tourists that come to see this memento of Chiang Mai’s powerful history.

It might be a challenge to get a shot like the one below with the amount of traffic and tourists passing by and through the gate, but it’s worth the effort. Beat the crowds by arriving early in the morning.

Post by @lllllittlee

2) Artist’s Village

Baan Kang Wat

Image by  @baankangwat

Image by @baankangwat

Baan Kang Wat, at the foot of Doi Suthep, is the photogenic result of local artists gathering together to create a space where they could live, work and run their own small businesses. The sense of peace and community is palpable. It’s full of green spaces and its architecture is somehow simultaneously industrial and rustic - it even has its own little amphitheatre. It’s the perfect place to chill for an afternoon or buy something handmade after you’ve taken enough selfies to satisfy you. There’s a lovely market on Sundays, too.

For bonus shots: Call in at Wat Umong, one of Chiang Mai’s most mysterious ancient temples, or No. 39 Cafe - both are also in the same area.

3) Urban Glam

Iron bridge

The Iron Bridge that crosses the Ping at the end of Loi Kroh road looks like a WWII construction, with its industrial steel girders and narrow road. In fact, it was built very recently as an homage to the old Nawarat Bridge which was demolished in the 1970s.

Head here at night to see the bridge illuminated in cool jewel tones. Lit up, it’s reminiscent of a nightclub, and maybe that’s why it attracts the trendy young people of Chiang Mai. Even if you don’t plan on taking photos there, it’s still fun to watch the Instagram crowd taking slightly hair-raising risks (near misses with oncoming traffic, leaning perilously far over the rails) as they compete to get the trendiest image.

Shot by  @marcdelfire

Shot by @marcdelfire

4) Sacred space

Wat Suan Dok

There are so many incredible temples in Chiang Mai. Some are entirely silver, some have crumbling stupas, some glitter all over. But Wat Suan Dok is special.

Photo by  @everysteph

Photo by @everysteph

It was built in the 14th Century for a famous monk to spend the rainy season, and to house a sacred Buddha relic that the monk had found. According to myth,

When the monk arrived in Chiang Mai, the bone had magically split into two pieces, one being of the original size, the other one smaller. The smaller relic was enshrined in the Wat Suan Dok.

The King ordered the larger part to be put on the back of a white elephant that was set free to go where it wanted. The elephant climbed up Doi Suthep mountain, West of Chiang Mai. It trumpeted three times and died close to the top. At that spot the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was built in the year 1383.

- Thailand for Visitors

The temple has a magnificent golden Chedi built in the Sri Lankan style and a field of whitewashed mausoleums which contain the remains of the ruling family of Chiang Mai. Once you have enjoyed the visual splendour of the temple, you are able to learn about Buddhist life from the temple’s monks at daily monk chats and meditation lectures.

Top tip: Please respect this sacred place and dress modestly. Make sure your insta-worthy outfit covers shoulders and knees.

5) Breakfast with elephants

Chai Lai Orchid

Photo by  @nushymusic

Photo by @nushymusic

We couldn’t really miss ourselves off the list, could we?

Our home, the Chai Lai Orchid, is a haven for animal-loving instagrammers. Every moment presents a new opportunity to photograph elephants enjoying the grounds and the river at the hotel.

Guests say that their most unique pictures are taken during elephant morning call, where they are woken up, not by a shrieking alarm clock, but an elephant reaching through their bedroom window.

How to book: Elephant morning call is 1500THB per room. You can book on arrival with our reception staff.

6) Mountain vista

Mon Long and Mon Chaem

Escape the city and flee to the mountains where the air is cooler and the pace of life slows down. About an hour’s drive outside Chiang Mai city, Mon Chaem (or Mon Cham, or Mon Jam, depending on who you ask) has become a magnet for Thais and tourists who are hoping for some rest and relaxation away from the city smog.

Mon Chaem itself is part of Nong Hoi Royal Project. Thailand’s beloved last King, Rama IX, started the Royal Projects as a way to provide Hilltribe farmers with high-income crops: this successfully discouraged opium farming and logging and improved the lives of many vulnerable communities in more remote mountainous areas.

Most visitors head to Mon Chaem’s ridge-top restaurant and viewpoint where spectacular fields of lavender, strawberries and herbs roll into the distance. It can get extremely busy in the middle of the day - so it’s best to drive out there in the early morning or late afternoon.

Alternatively, go a little further to Mon Long viewpoint, where you’re more likely to get unhindered views over the Thai landscape.

Photo by  @somlon.s

Photo by @somlon.s

Bonus shot: Stay overnight in a cute cabin or luxury tent to see the mountains immersed in morning mist.

7) Modern art

Maiiam Art museum

Photo by  @gibbbbbbb

Photo by @gibbbbbbb

Contemporary art museums have always been achingly cool, and Maiiam is no exception. Even its name is smart:

The name of the museum is a play on words, as “Mai” in Chiang Mai means “new city”, and is also a tribute to Eric Bunnag Booth’s great grand aunt “Chao Chom Iam”, a royal consort to King Rama V, who lived during a time when Thailand came into modernity. The double entendre extends to the meaning of MAI IAM, which means “brand new”.

- Maiiam Museum

They have intriguing and thoughtful exhibitions like 2019’s “DIASPORA: ExitExileExodus of Southeast Asia”, as well as a permanent collection which, they say, “includes seminal works from the masters of Thai Contemporary art as well as the discoveries they have made amongst the young and emerging artists of Thailand and the region.” Where better to celebrate the notable talent of Thailand’s modern art scene?

The architectural team behind Maiiam’s clean industrial interior and glittering facade aimed to create a stage for the works inside the museum, rather than highlight the architecture itself as an attraction. Whether or not they have achieved this goal is up for dispute, though. Not many photographers can resist that mirror-like wall.

8) Rooftop cocktail hour

Rise bar

This is one for the luxury traveller: Rise Rooftop Bar, on the roof of Akyra Manor hotel, is absolute #travelgoals. Visitors can enjoy a cocktail while they look out at the city below, or swim in the glass sided swimming pool. Akyra’s website describes their cocktail hour as “an essential ritual and a religious experience”. Whether that’s true or not, you will certainly be able to get a taste of the high life and snap some very pretty photos.

Posted by  @brynaea

Posted by @brynaea

9) Local Life

Kad Luang Market

Kad Luang, meaning Great Market in the Lanna dialect, is actually comprised of two markets close to the Ping river, Warorot and Talad Ton Lam Yai. They are both vast, connected by a network of little roads and alleys overflowing with stalls selling shoes, clothes, food, and gold.

Photo by  @tesfayetra

Photo by @tesfayetra

Kad Luang was opened in 1910, when a royal consort moved to the Suan Dok area and created a space for locals to buy and sell their produce. Over time it became a melting pot of cultures as Indian and Chinese traders came to sell their wares alongside local Thais.

Despite a devastating fire in 1968, Kad Luang has continued to be a vital part of the Chiang Mai community, bringing together people from all walks of life at a common meeting point. For tourists, if you can move past the sensory overwhelm, it offers an opportunity to sample delicious Thai food on a budget and enjoy the hustle and bustle of this vibrant heart of city life.

Kad Luang is a chaotic, colourful place. Spending an hour or two wandering its narrow lanes will reward you with photographs that epitomise the intersection of Thai tradition and modern life. If you need a breather afterwards, you can head to one of the quiet cafes on the opposite bank of the Ping to watch the river flowing by.

10) still waters

Huay tung tao

Make like a local and spend a lazy Sunday morning at Huay Tung Tao. Reached by a short 15 minute motorbike or song thaew ride from the old city, the reservoir is the ideal place to while away a couple of peaceful hours.

It was built by the legenday Rama IX to solve a water shortage problem, but quickly became a popular local spot to relax. It costs 20THB to enter, and there are lots of additional activities available, but most choose to spend their time chilling with friends and eating together in the cute bamboo huts that flank the lake.

It’s still not too well known amongst tourists, so posting from Huay Tung Tao will show the world that you have legitimate traveller credentials.

Top tip: If you’re planning on sticking around in Chiang Mai for a while, Huay Tung Tao is a great place to exercise. It’s got some lovely trails for walking and biking.

That’s it for our ten Instagrammable spots in Chiang Mai. Do you agree with our choices? Which places would you add to our list?