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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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