The weather in Thailand is split into three seasons: rainy (roughly May–Oct) cool (Nov–Feb) and hot (March–May).
The rains usually builds momentum between June and August, hitting its peak in September and October. The cool season is when travelling in Thailand is most pleasant, though temperatures can still reach a sticky 30°C. In the hot season, you’re best of hitting the beach.
So, the best time to go to Thailand is the cool seasons: more manageable temperatures and less rain, it offers waterfalls in full spate and the best of the upland flowers in bloom. Bear in mind, however, that it’s also the busiest season.
Thailand currently has seven main international airports: Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang), Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Krabi, Phuket and Ko Samui. The vast majority of people travelling to Thailand fly into Suvarnabhumi Airport.
Air fares to Thailand generally depend on the season, with the highest being approximately mid-November to mid-February, when the weather is best, and in July and August to coincide with school holidays. You will need to book several months in advance to get reasonably priced tickets during these peak periods.
The cheapest way of getting to most regional Thai airports is usually to buy a flight to Bangkok and then a separate domestic ticket. However, there are dozens of potentially useful, mostly seasonal, international routes into Phuket, including direct flights with several airlines from Australia.
Most international flights into Chiang Mai, Krabi, Ko Samui and Don Muang are from Malaysia, Singapore and China (including Hong Kong and Macau). Krabi also handles seasonal, mostly charter flights from Scandinavia, while Korean Airlines from Seoul is a popular route for North American visitors into Chiang Mai Airport, which has links with Myanmar and Laos too.
Travel in Thailand is largely cheap, easy and efficient – though not always speedy. For instance, long-distance journeys on land can be arduous, especially if a tight budget means you’re sat in the unforgiving second-class seats and there’s no air con.
That said, the many transport options available makes getting around Thailand a whole lot easier than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Buses are speedy, inexpensive and frequent, and can be quite luxurious.
Trains are slower, but safer and, there’s more chance to sleep during an overnight trip. It’s also worth nothing that if you’re travelling by day you’re more likely to follow a scenic route by rail than by road.
Songthaews (literally “two rows”) – open-ended vans with as many people squashed into the back as possible – supplement the bus network, especially in rural areas. Slightly more comfortable are share-taxis and air-conditioned mini-buses which connect many of the major towns and cities.
Deciding where to go in Thailand depends on two things: what you want to do, and when you want to go. The varying areas of the country, from North to South offer visitors a selection of sights, activities and experiences. In this travel guide on the best places to visit in Thailand, we unearth where to enjoy the country’s range of activities, from world-class diving to carousing at lively festivals. Once that’s decided, you’ll need to check the best time to visit.
The clash of tradition and modernity is most intense in Bangkok, which forms the first stop on almost any itinerary. Within its historic core you’ll find resplendent temples, canalside markets and the opulent indulgence of the eighteenth-century Grand Palace. Downtown’s forest of skyscrapers shelters cutting-edge fashion in decor boutiques and some achingly hip bars and clubs.
Most budget travellers head for the Banglamphu district, where if you’re not careful you could end up watching DVDs all day long and selling your shoes when you run out of money. The district is far from having a monopoly on Bangkok accommodation, but it does have the advantage of being just a short walk from the major sights in the Ratanakosin area: the dazzling ostentation of the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo, lively and grandiose Wat Pho and National Museum.
Once those cultural essentials have been seen, you can choose from a whole bevy of lesser sights, including Wat Benjamabophit (the “Marble Temple”), especially at festival time, and Jim Thompson’s House, a small, personal museum of Thai design.
If you’re wondering where to visit in the northern uplands, then start with Chiang Mai. It’s both an attractive historic city and a vibrant cultural centre, with a strong tradition of arts, crafts and festivals.
Self-improvement courses are a strong suit – from ascetic meditation to Thai cookery classes – while the overriding enticement of the surrounding region is the prospect of trekking through villages inhabited by a richly mixed population of tribal peoples.
Plenty of outdoor activities and courses, as well as hot springs and massages, can be enjoyed at Pai, a surprisingly cosmopolitan hill station for travellers, four hours northwest of Chiang Mai.
Many colourful festivals attract throngs of visitors here too: Chiang Mai is one of the most popular places in Thailand to see in the Thai New Year – Songkhran – in mid-April, and to celebrate Loy Krathong at the full moon in November, when thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River in lotus-leaf boats.
Beyond the city limits, a number of other day-trips can be made, such as to the ancient temples of Lamphun – and, of course, Chiang Mai is the main centre for hill-tribe trekking, as well as all sorts of other outdoor activities.
The pick of the coasts are in the south, where the Samui archipelago off the Gulf coast ranks as one of the best places to go in Thailand. Ko Samuiitself has the most sweeping white-sand beaches, and the greatest variety of accommodation and facilities to go with them.
Ko Pha Ngan next door is still largely backpacker territory, where you have a stark choice between desolate coves and Hat Rin, Thailand’s party capital. The remotest island, rocky Ko Tao, is acquiring increasing sophistication as Southeast Asia’s largest dive-training centre.
Tucked away beneath the islands, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the cultural capital of the south, is well worth a short detour from the main routes through the centre of the peninsula – it’s a sophisticated city of grand old temples, delicious cuisine and distinctive handicrafts.
With Chiang Mai and the north so firmly planted on the independent tourist trail, the intervening central plains tend to get short shrift. Yet there is rewarding trekking around Umphang, near the Burmese border, and the elegant ruins of former capitals Ayutthaya and Sukhothai embody a glorious artistic heritage, displaying Thailand’s distinctive ability to absorb influences from quite different cultures.
Even if you’re just passing through, you can’t miss the star attraction of Nakhon Pathom: the enormous stupa Phra Pathom Chedi dominates the skyline.
To get an idea of what shopping in Bangkok used to be like before all the canals were tarmacked over, many people take an early-morning trip to the floating market (talat khlong) at Damnoen Saduak. Sixty kilometres south of Nakhon Pathom and just over a hundred kilometres from Bangkok.
The Andaman Coast
Across on the other side of the peninsula, the Andaman coast offers even more exhilarating scenery and the finest coral reefs in the country, in particular around the Ko Similan island chain, which ranks among the best dive sites in the world.
The largest Andaman coast island, Phuket, is one of Thailand’s top tourist destinations and graced with a dozen fine beaches, though several have been overdeveloped with a glut of high-rises and tacky nightlife.
Beautiful little Ko Phi Phi is a major party hub, surrounded by the turquoise seas and dramatic limestone cliffs that characterize the coastline throughout Krabi province. Large, forested Ko Lanta is, for the moment at least, a calmer alternative for families, but for genuine jungle you’ll need to head inland, to the rainforests of Khao Sok National Park.
Further down the Thai peninsula, in the provinces of the deep south, the teeming sea life and unfrequented sands of the Trang islands and Ko Tarutao National Marine Park make this one of Thailand’s top places to go. There’s now the intriguing possibility of island-hopping your way down through them – in fact, all the way from Phuket to Penang in Malaysia – without setting foot on the mainland.
The greatest interest in the deep south is currently all over on the beautiful west coast, where sheer limestone outcrops, pristine sands and fish-laden coral stretch down to the Malaysian border.
Along Trang’s mainland coast, there’s a 30km stretch of attractive beaches, dotted with mangroves and impressive caves that can be explored by sea canoe, but the real draw down here is the offshore islands, which offer gorgeous panoramas and beaches, great snorkelling and at least a modicum of comfort in their small clusters of resorts.
Khao Yai National Park
Another regular in lists of the best places to go in Thailand, Khao Yai National Park – the country’s first national park – encapsulates the phenomenal diversity of Thailand’s flora and fauna. It’s one of the very few national parks to maintain a network of hiking trails that visitors can explore by themselves, passing dramatic waterfalls, orchids and an abundance of wildlife.
Spanning five distinct forest types and rising to a height of 1,351m, the park sustains over 300 bird and twenty large land-mammal species – hence its UNESCO accreditation as a World Heritage Site.
Rangers discourage visitors from exploring the outer, non-waymarked reaches unguided, partly for environmental reasons, but also because of trigger-happy sandalwood poachers. Sandalwood trees are indigenous to Khao Yai, and though oil collection does not usually kill the tree, it does weaken it. Guides can point out trees that have been cut in this way along the trails.
Few tourists visit Isaan, the poorest and in some ways the most traditionally Thai region. Here, a trip through the gently modulating landscapes of the Mekong River valley, which defines Thailand’s northeastern extremities.
It takes in archetypal agricultural villages and a fascinating array of religious sites, while the southern reaches of Isaan hold some of Thailand’s best-kept secrets – the magnificent stone temple complexes of Phimai, Phanom Rung and Khao Phra Viharn, all built by the Khmers of Cambodia almost ten centuries ago.
We may have already mentioned the Andaman Coast, but Phuket is worth looking at in greater detail. Thailand’s largest island and a province in its own right, Phuket is the wealthiest province in Thailand, with tourism driving the economy.
Some tourist developments have scarred much of the island, however, many of the beaches are still strikingly handsome, resort facilities are second to none, and the offshore snorkelling and diving are exceptional.
If you’re after a peaceful spot, aim for the 17km-long national park beach of Hat Mai Khao, its more developed neighbour Hat Nai Yang, or one of the smaller alternatives at Hat Nai Thon or Hat Kamala.
Despite over a million visitors a year, Ko Samui remains a top places to go in Thailand. Back-packers to bougie fortnighters come to this part of southern Thailand for the beautiful beaches. At 15km across and down, Samui is generally large enough to cope with this diversity and the paradisal sands and clear blue seas have kept their good looks.
The island’s most appealing strand, Chaweng, has seen the heaviest, most crowded development and is now the most expensive place to stay, though it does offer by far the best amenities and nightlife. Its slightly smaller neighbour, Lamai, lags a little behind in terms of looks and top-end development, but retains large pockets of backpacker bungalow resorts.
The other favourite for backpackers is Maenam, which, though less attractive again, is markedly quiet, with plenty of room to breathe between the beach and the round-island road.
Here is our Thailand travel guide condensed into 15 unmissable Thai destinations:
You could spend a year in Thailand’s capital and still not tick off all the boxes. There are a few absolute must-sees though. Start with Wat Pho, a lively and lavish temple, encompassing the awesome Reclining Buddha. Move onto the Grand Palace, which encompasses the country’s holiest and most beautiful temple, Wat Phra Kaeo. Then the markets…
Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, is the region’s major resort destination for families, package tourists and novice divers. Its dining, shopping and entertainment facilities are second to none. Phuket Town offers handsome Sino-Portuguese architecture and some of the most interesting sleeping, eating and drinking options on the island.
- Ko Tao
The furthest inhabited island of the Samui archipelago, Ko Tao, has taken off as a scuba-diving centre, but despite a growing nightlife and restaurant scene, still has the feel of a small, rugged and isolated outcrop. A boat-trip round Ko Tao Satisfying exploration and great snorkelling, especially off the unique causeway beaches of Ko Nang Yuan.
- Gulf Coast
Southern Thailand’s gently undulating Gulf coast is famed above all for the Samui archipelago, three small, idyllic islands lying off the most prominent hump of the coastline. A lazy stay in a beachfront bungalow is so seductive a prospect that most people overlook the attractions of the mainland. Added to that you’ll find scenery dominated by forested mountains that rise abruptly behind the coastal strip, and a sprinkling of fascinating historic sights.
- Chiang Mai
Old-town temples, the best of Thai crafts, cookery courses and fine restaurants – the north’s sophisticated capital is a great place to hang out. The capital and transport centre of the north, it’s also a great place just to hang out or prepare for a journey into the hills. For many tourists, this means joining a trek to visit one or more of the hill tribes, who comprise one-tenth of the north’s population.
- Chiang Rai
In the last few years Chiang Rai has acquired several genuine sights of interest, notably the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park, a beautiful storehouse of Lanna art. There’s now also a good choice of guesthouses and upmarket riverside hotels in which to lay your head, and from here you can set up a wide range of trekking, day-trips and other outdoor activities in the surrounding countryside.
- Ko Pha Ngan
In recent years, backpackers have tended to move over to Ko Samui’s fun-loving little sibling, which still has a comparatively simple atmosphere. The most popular activities on Ko Pha Ngan are round-island boat trips, from Hat Rin and Hat Yao, and trips to Ang Thong National Marine Park. Other activities include learning to cook Thai food, bicycle tours, yoga, meditation and kiteboarding.
- Ko Lanta Yai
The “island of long beaches”, Ko Lanta has an atmospheric old town, offers an appealing choice of places to stay. There’s good snorkelling and diving nearby, plus caves to explore, kayaking and other water sports. The island is especially popular with families, in part because of the local laws that have so far prevented jet-skis, beachfront parasols and girlie bars from turning it into another Phuket, though resort facilities are expanding fast.
- Ko Samui
Ko Samui is easily one of the most naturally beautiful Thai islands, with its long white-sand beaches and arching fringes of palm trees. Samui has over a dozen scuba-diving companies, offering trips for divers and snorkellers and courses throughout the year. Also on offer are plenty of spas, as well as meditation retreats, island tours, ziplines, kiteboarding and cooking classes.
- Khao Yai National Park
The stunning jungle-clad karsts of Khao Sok National Park are well worth heading inland for. Located about halfway between the southern peninsula’s two coasts and easily accessible from Khao Lak, Phuket and Surat Thani, the park has become a popular stop on the travellers’ route, offering a number of easy trails, a bit of amateur spelunking and some scenic rafthouse accommodation on Cheow Lan Lake.
- Ao Phang Nga
Protected from the ravages of the Andaman Sea by Phuket, Ao Phang Nga has a seascape both bizarre and beautiful. Covering some four hundred square kilometres of coast between Phuket and Krabi, the mangrove-edged bay is spiked with limestone karst formations up to 300m in height, jungle-clad and craggily profiled. This is Thailand’s own version of Vietnam’s world-famous Ha Long Bay, reminiscent too of Guilin’s scenery in China, and much of it is now preserved as national park.
- Ko Yao Noi
Located in an idyllic spot in Phang Nga bay, almost equidistant from Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi, the island of Ko Yao Noi enjoys magnificent maritime views from almost every angle and makes a refreshingly tranquil getaway. Measuring about 12km at its longest point, it’s home to some four thousand islanders, the vast majority of them Muslim, who earn their living from rubber and coconut plantations, fishing and shrimp-farming.
- Ko Kood
The fourth-largest island in Thailand, forested Ko Kood (also spelt Ko Kut and Ko Kud) is still a wild and largely uncommercialised island. Though it’s known for its sparkling white sand and exceptionally clear turquoise water, particularly along the west coast, Ko Kood is as much a nature-lover’s destination as a beach-bum’s. Swathes of its shoreline are fringed by scrub and mangrove rather than broad sandy beaches, and those parts of the island not still covered in virgin tropical rainforest are filled with palm groves and rubber plantations.
- Ko Samet
Blessed with the softest, squeakiest sand within weekending distance of Bangkok, the tiny Thai island of Ko Samet, which measures just 6km from top to toe, is a favourite escape for Thais, expats and tourists. Its fourteen small but dazzlingly white beaches are breathtakingly beautiful, lapped by pale blue water and in places still shaded by coconut palms and occasional white-flowered cajeput (samet) trees, which gave the island its name and which are used to build boats.
Ringed by high mountains, the small but prosperous provincial capital of Nan, 225km northeast of Lampang, rests on the grassy west bank of the river. Few Western visitors make it out this far, but it’s a likeable place with a thriving handicrafts tradition, a good museum and some superb temple murals at Wat Phumin, as well as at Wat Nong Bua out in the countryside. The town comes alive for the Lanna boat races, usually held in late October or early November.
Thai food is one of the biggest reasons for the country’s popularity with tourists. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the country’s big culinary centres, offering the cream of gourmet Thai restaurants and the best international cuisines. The rest of the country is by no means a gastronomic wasteland, however, and you can eat well and cheaply in even the smallest provincial towns, many of which offer the additional attraction of regional specialities.
In fact, visit Thailand and you’ll find that you could eat more than adequately without ever entering a restaurant, as itinerant food vendors hawking hot and cold snacks materialise in even the most remote spots, as well as on trains and buses – and night markets often serve customers from dusk till dawn.
Hygiene is a consideration when eating anywhere in Thailand, but being too cautious means you’ll end up spending a lot of money and missing out on some real local treats. Wean your stomach gently by avoiding excessive amounts of chillies and too much fresh fruit in the first few days.
You can be pretty sure that any noodle stall or curry shop that’s permanently packed with customers is a safe bet. Furthermore, because most Thai dishes can be cooked in under five minutes, you’ll rarely have to contend with stuff that’s been left to smoulder and stew.
Many travellers’ itineraries take in a few days’ trekking in the hills and a stint snorkelling or diving off the beaches of the south. Trekking is concentrated in the north, but there are smaller, less touristy trekking operations in Kanchanaburi, Sangkhlaburi and Umphang. There are also plenty of national parks to explore and opportunities for rock climbing and kayaking.
Diving in Thailand
Clear, warm waters (averaging 28°C), prolific marine life and affordable prices make Thailand a very rewarding place for diving and snorkelling.
Most islands and beach resorts have at least one dive centre that organises trips. Thailand’s premier diving destinations are generally considered to be Ko Similan, Ko Surin, Richelieu Rock and Hin Muang and Hin Daeng – all of them off the Andaman coast.
Thailand’s main dive resorts
- Ko Chang
- Ko Pha Ngan
- Ko Samui
- Ko Tao
- Ao Nang
- Khao Lak
- Ko Lanta
- Ko Phi Phi
- Ko Lipe
Snorkeling in Thailand
Boatmen and tour agents on most beaches offer snorkelling trips to nearby reefs and many dive operators welcome snorkelers to tag along for discounts of thirty percent or more; not all diving destinations are rewarding for snorkelers though, so check the relevant account in this book first.
Trekking in Thailand
Trekking in the mountains of north Thailand differs from trekking in most other parts of the world in that the emphasis is not primarily on the scenery but on the region’s inhabitants. While some of the villages are near enough to a main road to be reached on a day-trip from a major town, to get to the other, more traditional villages usually entails joining a guided party for a few days.
For most visitors, however, these hardships are outweighed by the experience of encountering people of such different cultures, travelling through tropical countryside. Here’s our take on some of Thailand’s best trekking routes.
The limestone karsts that pepper southern Thailand’s Andaman coast make ideal playgrounds for rock-climbers, and the sport has really taken off here in the past fifteen years. Most climbing is centred round East Railay and Ton Sai beaches on Laem Phra Nang in Krabi province, where there are dozens of routes within easy walking distance of tourist bungalows, restaurants and beaches.
Sea kayaking and whitewater rafting
Sea kayaking is also centred around Thailand’s Andaman coast, where the limestone outcrops, sea caves, hongs (hidden lagoons), mangrove swamps and picturesque shorelines of Ao Phang Nga in particular make for rewarding paddling.
Entertainment and sport in Thailand
Bangkok is the best place to catch authentic performances of classical Thai dance, though more easily digestible tourist-oriented shows are staged in some of the big tourist centres as well as in Bangkok. The country’s two main Thai boxing stadia are also in the capital, but you’ll come across local matches in the provinces too.
Spas and traditional massage in Thailand
With their focus on indulgent self-pampering, spas are usually associated with high-spending tourists, but the treatments on offer at Thailand’s five-star hotels are often little different from those used by traditional medical practitioners, who have long held that massage and herbs are the best way to restore physical and mental well-being.
Thai massage (nuad boran) is based on the principle that many physical and emotional problems are caused by the blocking of vital energy channels within the body.
- Ang Thong
Spectacular archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, generally visited on a day-trip from Ko Samui or Ko Pha Ngan.
- Doi Inthanon
Waterfalls, hill tribes, orchids, around four hundred bird species and the country’s highest peak.
An exceptionally pretty, seven-tiered waterfall that extends deep into the forest. Hugely popular as a day-trip from Kanchanaburi.
- Khao Sam Roi Yot
Coastal flats on the Gulf coast known for their rich birdlife plus an extensive stalactite-filled cave system.
- Khao Sok
Southern Thailand’s most visited park has rainforest trails and caves plus a flooded river system with eerie outcrops and raft-house accommodation.
- Khao Yai
Thailand’s most popular national park, three hours from Bangkok, features half a dozen upland trails plus organized treks and night safaris.
- Ko Similan
Remote group of Andaman Sea islands with famously fabulous reefs and fine above-water scenery. Mostly visited by dive boat but limited national park accommodation is provided.
- Ko Surin
National marine park archipelago of beautiful coastal waters in the Andaman Sea, though much of its coral became severely bleached in 2010. Good snorkelling and national park campsites.
- Ko Tarutao
Beautiful and wildly varied land- and seascapes on the main 26km-long island and fifty other smaller islands on its western side.
- Phu Kradung
Dramatic and strange 1300m-high plateau, probably best avoided at weekends.
Nearly all Thai festivals have a religious aspect. The most theatrical are generally Brahmin (Hindu) in origin, honouring elemental spirits and deities with ancient rites and ceremonial costumed parades.
Buddhist celebrations usually revolve round the local temple, and while merit-making is a significant feature, a light-hearted atmosphere prevails, as the wat grounds are swamped with food and trinket vendors and makeshift stages are set up to show likay folk theatre, singing stars and beauty contests.
Many of the secular festivals (like the elephant roundups and the Bridge over the River Kwai spectacle) are outdoor local culture shows, geared specifically towards Thai and farang tourists.
Visiting Thailand for most Western passport holders (that includes citizens of the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) is simple as they’re allowed to enter the country for short stays without having to apply for a visa.
Visa requirements for extended trips in Thailand are subject to frequent change, so you should always consult before departure a Thai embassy or consulate, a reliable travel agent, or the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at wmfa.go.th.
Travel in Thailand is inexpensive and efficient, if not always speedy. Unless you travel by plane, long-distance journeys in Thailand can be arduous, especially if a shoestring budget restricts you to hard seats and no air conditioning.
Nonetheless, the wide range of transport options makes travelling around Thailand easier than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Buses are fast, cheap and frequent, and can be quite luxurious; trains are slower but safer and offer more chance of sleeping during overnight trips; moreover, if travelling by day you’re likely to follow a more scenic route by rail than by road. Inter-town songthaews, air-conditioned minibuses and share-taxis are handy, and ferries provide easy access to all major islands. Local transport comes in all sorts of permutations, both public and chartered.
Buses, overall the most convenient way of getting around the country, come in four main categories. In ascending order of comfort, speed and cost, they are ordinary buses (rot thammadaa; not air-conditioned, usually orange-coloured) and three types of air-con bus (rot air or rot thua; usually blue): second-class, first-class and VIP. Ordinary and many air-con buses are run by Baw Khaw Saw (BKS), the government-controlled transport company, while privately owned, licensed air-con buses (rot ruam, usually translated as “join buses”), some of which operate from Baw Khaw Saw terminals, also ply the most popular long-distance routes. Be warned that long-distance overnight buses, on which some drivers are rumoured to take amphetamines to stay awake, seem to be involved in more than their fair share of accidents; because of this, some travellers prefer to do the overnight journeys by train and then make a shorter bus connection to their destination.
Ordinary and second-class
On most routes, including nearly all services out of Bangkok, second-class (baw sawng; look for the “2” on the side of the vehicle) air-con buses have now replaced ordinary buses as the main workhorses of the Thai bus system, though you’ll still see plenty of the latter on shorter routes in more remote parts of the country. Whether air-con or not, these basic buses are incredibly inexpensive, generally run frequently during daylight hours, pack as many people in as possible and stop often, which slows them down considerably.
It’s best to ask locally where to catch your bus. Failing that, designated bus stops are often marked by sala, small, open-sided wooden structures with bench seats, located at intervals along the main long-distance bus route through town or on the fringes of any decent-sized settlement, for example on the main highway that skirts the edge of town. Where there is only a bus shelter on the “wrong” side of the road, you can be sure that buses travelling in both directions will stop there for any waiting passengers; simply leave your bag on the right side of the road to alert the bus driver and wait in the shade. But if you’re in the middle of nowhere with no sala in sight, any ordinary or second-class bus should stop for you if you flag it down.
First-class and VIP
Express services, with fewer stops, are mostly operated by first-class (baw neung; look for the “1” on the side of the vehicle) and VIP (usually written in English on the side) buses. These are your best option for long-distance journeys: you’ll generally be allotted specific seats, there’ll be a toilet, and on the longest journeys you may get blankets, snacks and nonstop DVDs. The first-class services have fewer seats than second-class and more leg room for reclining, VIP services fewer seats again. Other nomenclature for the top-of-the-range services is also used, especially by the private “join” companies: “999”, “super VIP” (with even fewer seats), “Gold Class” and, confusingly, sometimes even “First Class” (in imitation of airlines, with just eighteen huge, well-equipped seats).
On a lot of long-distance routes private “join” buses are indistinguishable from government ones and operate out of the same Baw Khaw Saw bus terminals. The major private companies, such as Nakhon Chai Air (t02 936 0009), Sombat Tour (t02 792 1444) and, operating out of Chiang Mai, Green Bus (t053 266480), have roughly similar fares, though naturally with more scope for price variation, and offer comparable facilities and standards of service. The opposite is unfortunately true of a number of the smaller, private, unlicensed companies, which have a poor reputation for service and comfort, but gear themselves towards foreign travellers with bargain fares and convenient timetables. The long-distance tour buses that run from Thanon Khao San in Banglamphu to Chiang Mai and Surat Thani are a case in point; though promised VIP buses, travellers on these routes frequently complain about shabby furnishings, ineffective air conditioning, unhelpful (even aggressive) drivers, lateness and a frightening lack of safety awareness – and there are frequent reports of theft from luggage on these routes, too, and even the spraying of “sleeping gas” so that hand luggage can be rifled without interruption. Generally it’s best to travel with the government or licensed private bus companies from the main bus terminals (who have a reputation with their regular Thai customers to maintain) or to go by train instead – the extra comfort and peace of mind are well worth the extra baht.
Tickets and timetables
Tickets for all buses can be bought from the departure terminals, but for ordinary and second-class air-con buses it’s normal to buy them on board. First-class and VIP buses may operate from a separate station or office, and tickets for the more popular routes should be booked a day in advance. As a rough indication of fares, a trip from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, a distance of 700km, costs B600–800 for VIP, around B500 for first-class air-con and B400 for second-class air-con.
Long-distance buses often depart in clusters around the same time (early morning or late at night, for example), leaving a gap of five or more hours during the day with no services at all. Local TAT offices occasionally keep up-to-date bus timetables, but the best source of information, apart from the bus stations themselves, is thaiticketmajor.com, which carries timetables in English for 360 routes as well as useful information on how to buy tickets in advance. Options include buying them online through the site; by phone on t02 262 3456 (making your payment within five hours at, for example, any branch of 7–Eleven); and buying them at 83 major post offices (as listed on the site), including the GPO in Bangkok, the Ratchadamnoen post office in Banglamphu and the Thanon Na Phra Lan post office opposite the entrance to the Grand Palace in Ratanakosin.
Songthaews, share-taxis and air-conditioned minibuses
In rural areas, the bus network is often supplemented by songthaews (literally “two rows”), which are open-ended vans (or occasionally cattle-trucks) onto which the drivers squash as many passengers as possible on two facing benches, leaving latecomers to swing off the running board at the back. As well as their essential role within towns (see Local transport), songthaews ply set routes from larger towns out to their surrounding suburbs and villages, and, where there’s no call for a regular bus service, between small towns: some have destinations written on in Thai, but few are numbered. In most towns you’ll find the songthaew “terminal” near the market; to pick one up between destinations just flag it down. To indicate to the driver that you want to get out, the normal practice is to rap hard with a coin on the metal railings as you approach the spot (or press the bell if there is one).
In the deep south they do things with a little more style – share-taxis connect many of the major towns, though they are inexorably being replaced by more comfortable air-conditioned minibuses (rot tuu, meaning “cupboard cars”). Scores of similar private air-conditioned minibus services are now cropping up all over the country, generally operating out of small offices or pavement desks in town centres – or from the roads around Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Some of these services have a timetable, but many just aim to leave when they have a full complement of passengers; then again, some companies publish a timetable but depart when they’re full – whether before or after the published time. They cover the distance faster than buses, but often at breakneck speed and they can be uncomfortably cramped when full – they’re not ideal for travellers with huge rucksacks, who may be required to pay extra. These services are usually licensed and need to keep up their reputation with their regular Thai passengers but, as with full-sized buses (see Tickets and timetables), you should be wary of unlicensed private companies that offer minibuses solely for farangs from Bangkok’s Thanon Khao San.
In many cases, long-distance songthaews and air-conditioned minibuses will drop you at an exact address (for example a particular guesthouse) if you warn them far enough in advance. As a rule, the cost of inter-town songthaews is comparable to that of air-con buses, that of air-conditioned minibuses perhaps a shade more.
Managed by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), the rail network consists of four main lines and a few branch lines. The Northern Line connects Bangkok with Chiang Mai via Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok and Lampang. The Northeastern Line splits into two just beyond Ayutthaya, the lower branch running eastwards to Ubon Ratchathani via Khorat and Surin, the more northerly branch linking the capital with Nong Khai (with a short extension over the Mekong into Laos) via Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. The Eastern Line also has two branches, one of which runs from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border, the other of which connects Bangkok with Si Racha and Pattaya. The Southern Line extends via Hua Hin, Chumphon and Surat Thani, with spurs off to Trang and Nakhon Si Thammarat, to Hat Yai, where it branches: one line continues down the west coast of Malaysia, via Butterworth, where you usually change trains for Kuala Lumpur and Singapore; the other heads down the eastern side of the peninsula to Sungai Kolok on the Thailand–Malaysia border (20km from Pasir Mas on Malaysia’s interior railway). At Nakhon Pathom a branch of this line veers off to Nam Tok via Kanchanaburi – this is all that’s left of the Death Railway, of Bridge on the River Kwai notoriety.
Fares depend on the class of seat, whether or not you want air conditioning, and on the speed of the train; those quoted here exclude the “speed” supplements (see Train information and booking). Hard, wooden or thinly padded third-class seats are much cheaper than buses (Bangkok–Chiang Mai B121, or B221 with air-conditioner), and are fine for about three hours, after which numbness sets in. For longer journeys you’d be wise to opt for the padded and often reclining seats in second class (Bangkok–Chiang Mai B281, or B391 with air-conditioner). On long-distance trains, you also usually have the option of second-class berths (Bangkok–Chiang Mai B381–431, or B491–631 with air-conditioner), with day seats that convert into comfortable curtained-off bunks in the evening; lower bunks, which are more expensive than upper, have a few cubic centimetres more of space, a little more shade from the lights in the carriage, and a window. Female passengers can sometimes request a berth in an all-female section of a carriage. Travelling first class (Bangkok–Surat B1063–1263 per person) generally means a two-person air-con sleeping compartment, complete with washbasin.
There are several different types of train: slowest of all is the third-class-only Ordinary service, which is generally (but not always) available only on short and medium-length journeys and has no speed supplement. Next comes the misleadingly named Rapid train (B20–110 supplement), a trip on which from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, for example, takes fifteen hours; the Express (B150 supplement), which does the Chiang Mai route in about the same time; and the Special Express (B170–190 supplement) which covers the ground in around fourteen hours. Among the last-mentioned, fastest of all are the mostly daytime Special Express Diesel Railcars, which can usually be relied on to run roughly on time (most other services pay only lip service to their timetables). Nearly all long-distance trains have dining cars, and rail staff will also bring meals to your seat.
Booking at least one day in advance is strongly recommended for second- and first-class seats on all lengthy journeys, and sleepers should be booked as far in advance as possible (reservations open sixty days before departure). You can make bookings for any journey in Thailand at the train station in any major town, and it’s now also possible to book online, at least two days in advance, at SRT’s w
thairailticket.com. The website is allocated only a limited number of seats, but it allows you to pay by credit card and simply print off your ticket. Otherwise, you can arrange advance bookings over the internet with reputable Thai travel agencies such as Thai Focus (thaifocus.com) or Thailand Train Ticket (thailandtrainticket.com). Trains out of Bangkok can be booked in person at Hualamphong Station.
Regular ferries connect all major islands with the mainland, and for the vast majority of crossings you simply buy your ticket on board. Safety standards are generally just about adequate but there have been a small number of sinkings in recent years – avoid travelling on boats that are clearly overloaded or in poor condition. In tourist areas competition ensures that prices are kept low, and fares tend to vary with the speed of the crossing: thus Chumphon–Ko Tao costs between B200 (6hr) and B600 (1hr 45min).
On the east coast and the Andaman coast boats generally operate a reduced service during the monsoon season (May–Oct), when the more remote spots become inaccessible. Ferries in the Samui archipelago are fairly constant year-round. Details on island connections are given in the relevant chapters.
Thai Airways (thaiairways.com) and Bangkok Airways (wbangkokair.com) are the major full-service airlines on the internal flight network, which extends to all parts of the country, using some two-dozen airports. Air Asia (wairasia.com), Nok Air (wnokair.com), which is part-owned by Thai Airways, and Orient Thai (formerly One-Two-Go) provide the main, “low-cost” competition; Thai Airways are also about to set up a new low-cost arm, Thai Smile. In a recently deregulated but ever-expanding market, other smaller airlines come and go with surprising frequency – and while they are operating, schedules tend to be erratic and flights are sometimes cancelled.
In some instances a flight can save you days of travelling: a flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket with Thai Airways or Air Asia, for example, takes two hours, as against a couple of days by meandering train and/or bus. Book early if possible – you can reserve online with all companies – as fares fluctuate wildly. For a fully flexible economy ticket, Bangkok to Chiang Mai costs around B4000 with Thai Airways, but you’ll find flights on the same route with the “low-cost” carriers for under B1000 (with restrictions on changes), if you book online far enough in advance.
If you’re planning to make lots of domestic flights, you might want to consider the airpasses offered by Thai or Bangkok Airways – their complex conditions and prices are posted on their websites.
Most sizeable towns have some kind of local transport system, comprising a network of buses, songthaews or even longtail boats, with set fares and routes but not rigid timetabling – in many cases vehicles wait until they’re full before they leave.
Buses and songthaews
A few larger cities such as Bangkok, Khorat, Ubon Ratchathani and Phitsanulok have a local bus network that usually extends to the suburbs and operates from dawn till dusk (through the night in Bangkok). Most vehicles display route numbers in Western numerals – see the relevant accounts for further details.
Within medium-sized and large towns, the main transport role is often played by songthaews. The size and shape of vehicle used varies from town to town – and in some places they’re known as “tuk-tuks” from the noise they make, not to be confused with the smaller tuk-tuks, described below, that operate as private taxis – but all have the tell-tale two facing benches in the back. In some towns, especially in the northeast, songthaews follow fixed routes; in others such as Chiang Mai, they act as communal taxis, picking up a number of people who are going in roughly the same direction and taking each of them right to their destination. To hail a songthaew just flag it down, and to indicate that you want to get out, either rap hard with a coin on the metal railings, or ring the bell if there is one. Fares within towns are around B10–20, depending on distance.
Wherever there’s a decent public waterway, there’ll be a longtail boat ready to ferry you along it. Another great Thai trademark, these elegant, streamlined boats are powered by deafening diesel engines – sometimes custom-built, more often adapted from cars or trucks – which drive a propeller mounted on a long shaft that is swivelled for steering. Longtails carry between eight and twenty passengers: generally you’ll have to charter the whole boat, but on popular fixed routes, for example between small, inshore islands and the mainland, it’s cheaper to wait until the boatman gets his quorum.
Taxis also come in many guises, and in bigger towns you can often choose between taking a tuk-tuk, a samlor and a motorbike taxi. The one thing common to all modes of chartered transport, bar metered taxis in Bangkok and one or two cities in the northeast, is that you must establish the fare beforehand: although drivers nearly always pitch their first offers too high, they do calculate with traffic and time of day in mind, as well as according to distance – if successive drivers scoff at your price, you know you’ve got it wrong.
Named after the noise of its excruciatingly unsilenced engine, the three-wheeled, open-sided tuk-tuk is the classic Thai vehicle. Painted in primary colours, tuk-tuks blast their way round towns and cities on two-stroke engines, zipping around faster than any car and taking corners on two wheels. They aren’t as dangerous as they look though, and can be an exhilarating way to get around, as long as you’re not too fussy about exhaust fumes. Fares come in at around B60 for a medium-length journey (over B100 in Bangkok) regardless of the number of passengers – three is the safe maximum, though six is not uncommon. It’s worth paying attention to advice on how to avoid getting ripped off by Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers.
Tuk-tuks are also sometimes known as samlors (literally “three wheels”), but the original samlors are tricycle rickshaws propelled by pedal power alone. Slower and a great deal more stately than tuk-tuks, samlors still operate in one or two towns around the country.
A further permutation are the motorized samlors (often called “skylabs” in northeastern Thailand), where the driver relies on a motorbike rather than a bicycle to propel passengers to their destination. They look much the same as cycle samlors, but often sound as noisy as tuk-tuks.
Even faster and more precarious than tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis feature both in towns and in out-of-the-way places. In towns – where the drivers are identified by coloured, numbered vests – they have the advantage of being able to dodge traffic jams, but are obviously only really suitable for the single traveller, and motorbike taxis aren’t the easiest mode of transport if you’re carrying luggage. In remote spots, on the other hand, they’re often the only alternative to hitching or walking, and are especially useful for getting between bus stops on main roads, around car-free islands and to national parks or ancient ruins.
Within towns motorbike-taxi fares can start at B10 for very short journeys, but for trips to the outskirts the cost rises steeply – reckon on at least B200 for a 20km round trip.
Despite first impressions, a high accident rate and the obvious mayhem that characterizes Bangkok’s roads, driving yourself around Thailand can be fairly straightforward. Many roads, particularly in the northeast and the south, are remarkably uncongested. Major routes are clearly signed in English, though this only applies to some minor roads; unfortunately there is no perfect English-language map to compensate.
Outside the capital, the eastern seaboard and the major tourist resorts of Ko Samui and Phuket, local drivers are generally considerate and unaggressive; they very rarely use their horns for example, and will often indicate and even swerve away when it’s safe for you to overtake. The most inconsiderate and dangerous road-users in Thailand are bus drivers and lorry drivers, many of whom drive ludicrously fast, hog the road, race round bends on the wrong side of the road and use their horns remorselessly; worse still, many of them are tanked up on amphetamines, which makes them quite literally fearless.
Bus and lorry drivers are at their worst after dark (many of them only drive then), so it’s best not to drive at night – a further hazard being the inevitable stream of unlit bicycles and mopeds in and around built-up areas, as well as poorly signed roadworks, which are often not made safe or blocked off from unsuspecting traffic. Orange signs, or sometimes just a couple of tree branches or a pile of stones on the road, warn of hazards ahead.
As for local rules of the road, Thais drive on the left, and the speed limit is 60kph within built-up areas and 90kph outside them. Beyond that, there are few rules that are generally followed – you’ll need to keep your concentration up and expect the unexpected from fellow road-users. Watch out especially for vehicles pulling straight out of minor roads, when you might expect them to give way. An oncoming vehicle flashing its lights means it’s coming through no matter what; a right indicator signal from the car in front usually means it’s not safe for you to overtake, while a left indicator signal usually means that it is safe to do so.
Theoretically, foreigners need an international driver’s licence to rent any kind of vehicle, but most car-rental companies accept national licences, and the smaller operations have been known not to ask for any kind of proof whatsoever; motorbike renters very rarely bother. A popular rip-off on islands such as Ko Pha Ngan is for small agents to charge renters exorbitant amounts for any minor damage to a jeep or motorbike, even paint chips, that they find on return – they’ll claim that it’s very expensive to get a new part shipped over from the mainland. Be sure to check out any vehicle carefully before renting.
Petrol (nam man, which can also mean oil) currently costs around B38 a litre, gasohol, which can be used in most rental cars (though it’s worth checking), B36 a litre. The big fuel stations are the least costly places to fill up (hai tem), and many of these also have toilets, mini-marts and restaurants, though some of the more decrepit-looking fuel stations on the main highways only sell diesel. Most small villages have easy-to-spot roadside huts where the fuel is pumped out of a large barrel.
Renting a car
If you decide to rent a car, go to a reputable dealer, such as Avis, Budget or National, or a rental company recommended by TAT, and make sure you get insurance from them. There are international car-rental places at many airports, including Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi, which is not a bad place to kick off, as you’re on the edge of the city and within fairly easy, signposted reach of the major regional highways.
Car-rental places in provincial capitals and resorts are listed in the relevant accounts in this book. The price of a small car at a reputable company can start as low as B900 per day if booked online. In some parts of the country, including Chiang Mai, you’ll still be able to rent a car or air-conditioned minibus with driver, which will cost from around B1000 for a local day-trip, more for a longer day-trip, up to about B3000 per day for a multi-day trip, including the driver’s keep and petrol.
Jeeps or basic four-wheel drives are a lot more popular with farangs, especially on beach resorts and islands like Pattaya, Phuket and Ko Samui, but they’re notoriously dangerous; a huge number of tourists manage to roll their jeeps on steep hillsides and sharp bends. Jeep rental usually works out somewhere around B1000–1200 per day.
International companies will accept your credit-card details as surety, but smaller agents will usually want to hold on to your passport.
Renting a motorbike
One of the best ways of exploring the countryside is to rent a motorbike, an especially popular option in the north of the country. You’ll never be asked for a driving licence, but take it easy out there – Thailand’s roads are not really the place to learn to ride a motorbike from scratch. Bikes of around 100cc, either fully automatic or with step-through gears, are best for inexperienced riders, but aren’t really suited for long slogs. If you’re going to hit the dirt roads you’ll certainly need something more powerful, like a 125–250cc trail bike. These have the edge in gear choice and are the best bikes for steep slopes, though an inexperienced rider may find these machines a handful; the less widely available 125–250cc road bikes are easier to control and much cheaper on fuel.
Rental prices for the day usually work out at somewhere around B150–200 for a small bike and B500 for a good trail bike, though you can bargain for a discount on a long rental. Renters will often ask for a deposit and your passport or credit-card details; insurance is not often available, so it’s a good idea to make sure your travel insurance covers you for possible mishaps.
Before signing anything, check the bike thoroughly – test the brakes, look for oil leaks, check the treads and the odometer, and make sure the chain isn’t stretched too tight (a tight chain is more likely to break) – and preferably take it for a test run. As you will have to pay an inflated price for any damage when you get back, make a note on the contract of any defects such as broken mirrors, indicators and so on. Make sure you know what kind of fuel the bike takes as well.
As far as equipment goes, a helmet is essential – most rental places provide poorly made ones, but they’re better than nothing. Helmets are obligatory on all motorbike journeys, and the law is often rigidly enforced with on-the-spot fines in major tourist resorts. You’ll need sunglasses if your helmet doesn’t have a visor. Long trousers, a long-sleeved top and decent shoes will provide a second skin if you go over, which most people do at some stage. Pillions should wear long trousers to avoid getting nasty burns from the exhaust. For the sake of stability, leave most of your luggage in baggage storage and pack as small a bag as possible, strapping it tightly to the bike with bungy cords – these can usually be provided. Once on the road, oil the chain at least every other day, keep the radiator topped up and fill up with oil every 300km or so.
For expert advice on motorbike travel in Thailand, check out David Unkovich’s website (wgt-rider.com).
The options for cycling in Thailand are numerous, whether you choose to ride the length of the country from the Malaysian border to Chiang Rai, or opt for a dirt-road adventure in the mountains around Chiang Mai. Most Thai roads are in good condition and clearly signposted; although the western and northern borders are mountainous, the rest of the country is surprisingly flat. The secondary roads (distinguished by their three-digit numbers) are paved but carry far less traffic than the main arteries and are the preferred cycling option. Traffic is reasonably well behaved and personal safety is not a major concern as long as you “ride to survive”; dogs, however, can be a nuisance on minor roads so it’s probably worth having rabies shots before your trip. There are bike shops in nearly every town, and basic equipment and repairs are cheap. Unless you head into the remotest regions around the Burmese border you are rarely more than 25km from food, water and accommodation. Overall, the best time to cycle is during the cool, dry season from November to February and the least good from April to July.
The traffic into and out of Bangkok is dense so it’s worth hopping on a bus or train for the first 50–100km to your starting point. Intercity buses, taxis and most Thai domestic planes will carry your bike free of charge. Intercity trains will only transport your bike (for a cargo fare – about the price of a person) if there is a luggage carriage attached, unless you dismantle it and carry it as luggage in the compartment with you. Songthaews will carry your bike on the roof for a fare (about the price of a person).
Local one-day cycle tours and bike-rental outlets (B30–100 per day) are listed throughout this book. There are also a number of organized cycle tours, both nationwide and in northern Thailand (see Trekking and other outdoor activities in Chiang Mai). A very useful English-language resource is bicyclethailand.com, while Biking Asia with Mr Pumpy (mrpumpy.net) gives detailed but dated accounts of some cycling routes in Thailand.
Strong, light, quality mountain bikes are the most versatile choice. 26-inch wheels are standard throughout Thailand and are strongly recommended; dual-use (combined road and off-road) tyres are best for touring. As regards panniers and equipment, the most important thing is to travel light. Carry a few spare spokes, but don’t overdo it with too many tools and spares; parts are cheap in Thailand and most problems can be fixed quickly at any bike shop.
Bringing your bike from home is the best option as you are riding a known quantity. Importing it by plane should be straightforward, but check with the airlines for details. Most Asian airlines do not charge extra.
Buying in Thailand is also a possibility: the range is reasonable and prices tend to be cheaper than in the West or Australia. In Bangkok, the best outlet is Probike at 237/2 Thanon Rajdamri (actually off Soi Sarasin next to Lumphini Park; t02 253 3384, wprobike.co.th); Velo Thailand also sell international-brand aluminium-frame bikes, as well as renting mountain bikes for B300 per day. You can also rent good mountain bikes through the Bangkok cycle-tour operator Spice Roads (t02 712 5305, wspiceroads.com) for B280–400 per day. There are a few good outlets in Chiang Mai, too (see also chiangmaicycling.org): Cacti, who also rent all manner of mountain and city bikes; Chaitawat, on Thanon Phra Pokklao, south off Thanon Ratchamankha, on the right (t053 279890); and Canadian-owned Top Gear, 173 Thanon Chang Moi (t053 233450).
Public transport being so inexpensive, you should only have to resort to hitching in the most remote areas, in which case you’ll probably get a lift to the nearest bus or songthaew stop quite quickly. On routes served by buses and trains, hitching is not standard practice, but in other places locals do rely on regular passers-by (such as national park officials), and you can make use of this “service” too. As with hitching anywhere in the world, think twice about hitching solo or at night, especially if you’re female. Like bus drivers, truck drivers are notorious users of amphetamines, so you may want to wait for a safer offer.
Throughout this guide, the prices given for guesthouses, bungalows and hotels represent the minimum you can expect to pay in each establishment in the high season (roughly July, Aug and Nov–Feb) for a typical double room, booked via the hotel website where available; there may however be an extra “peak” supplement for the Christmas–New Year period. If travelling on your own, expect to pay between sixty and one hundred percent of the rates quoted for a double room. Where a hostel or guesthouse also offers dormitory beds, the minimum price per bed is also given; where a place has rooms in distinct categories (eg fan/air-con, shared bathroom/en suite), we’ve given the minimum price for a double in each category. Top-end hotels will add seven percent tax and ten percent service charge to your bill; the prices given in the guide are net rates after taxes have been added.
There are three main seasons in most of Thailand: rainy, caused by the southwest monsoon (the least predictable, but roughly May–Oct); cool (Nov–Feb; felt most distinctly in the far north, but hardly at all in the south); and hot (March–May). The Gulf coast’s climate is slightly different: it suffers less from the southwest monsoon, but is then hit by the northeast monsoon, making November its rainiest month.
Thailand can be a very cheap place to travel. At the bottom of the scale, you can manage on a budget of about B650 (£13/US$20) per day if you’re willing to opt for basic accommodation, eat, drink and travel as the locals do, and stay away from the more expensive resorts like Phuket, Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi – and you’d have to work hard to stick to this daily allowance in Bangkok. On this budget, you’ll be spending around B200 for a dorm or shared room (more for a single room), around B200 on three meals (eating mainly at night markets and simple noodle shops, and eschewing beer), and the rest on travel (sticking to the cheaper buses and third-class trains where possible) and incidentals. With extras like air conditioning in rooms, taking the various forms of taxi rather than buses or shared songthaews for cross-town journeys, and a meal and beer in a more touristy restaurant, a day’s outlay would look more like B1000 (£20/US$30). Staying in well-equipped, mid-range hotels and eating in the more exclusive restaurants, you should be able to live very comfortably for around B2000 a day (£40/US$60).
Travellers soon get so used to the low cost of living in Thailand that they start bargaining at every available opportunity, much as Thai people do. Although it’s expected practice for a lot of commercial transactions, particularly at markets and when hiring tuk-tuks and unmetered taxis (though not in supermarkets or department stores), bargaining is a delicate art that requires humour, tact and patience. If your price is way out of line, the vendor’s vehement refusal should be enough to make you increase your offer: never forget that the few pennies or cents you’re making such a fuss over will go a lot further in a Thai person’s hands than in your own.
It’s rare that foreigners can bargain a price down as low as a Thai could, anyway, while two-tier pricing has been made official at government-run sights, as a kind of informal tourist tax: at national parks, for example, foreigners pay up to B400 entry while Thais generally pay just B20. A number of privately owned tourist attractions follow a similar two-tier system, posting an inflated price in English for foreigners and a lower price in Thai for locals.
Big-spending shoppers who are departing via Suvarnabhumi, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Krabi, Pattaya or Phuket airports can save some money by claiming a Value Added Tax refund (wrd.go.th/vrt), though it’s a bit of a palaver for seven percent (the current rate of VAT). The total amount of your purchases (gems are excluded) from participating shops needs to be at least B5000 per person, with a minimum of B2000 per shop per day. You’ll need to show your passport and fill in an application form (to which original tax invoices need to be attached) at the shop. At the relevant airport, you’ll need to show your form and purchases to customs officers before checking in, then make your claim from VAT refund officers – from which fees of at least B100 are deducted.
As long as you keep your wits about you, you shouldn’t encounter much trouble in Thailand. Pickpocketing and bag-snatching are two of the main problems – not surprising considering that a huge percentage of the local population scrape by on under US$5 per day – but the most common cause for concern is the number of con-artists who dupe gullible tourists into parting with their cash. There are various Thai laws that tourists need to be aware of, particularly regarding passports, the age of consent and smoking in public.
To prevent theft, most travellers prefer to carry their valuables with them at all times, but it’s often possible to use a locker in a hotel or guesthouse – the safest are those that require your own padlock, as there are occasional reports of valuables being stolen by hotel staff. Padlock your luggage when leaving it in hotel or guesthouse rooms, as well as when consigning it to storage or taking it on public transport. Padlocks also come in handy as extra security on your room, particularly on the doors of beachfront bamboo huts.
Theft from some long-distance buses is also a problem, with the majority of reported incidents taking place on the temptingly cheap overnight buses run by private companies direct from Bangkok’s Thanon Khao San (as opposed to those that depart from the government bus stations) to destinations such as Chiang Mai and southern beach resorts. The best solution is to go direct from the bus stations (see Ordinary and second-class).
On any bus, private or government, and on any train journey, never keep anything of value in luggage that is stored out of your sight and be wary of accepting food and drink from fellow passengers as it may be drugged. This might sound paranoid, but there have been enough drug-muggings for TAT to publish a specific warning about the problem. Drinks can also be spiked in bars and clubs; at full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan this has led to sexual assaults against farang women, while prostitutes sometimes spike drinks so they can steal from their victim’s room.
Violent crime against tourists is not common, but it does occur, and there have been several serious attacks on women travellers in recent years. However, bearing in mind that fourteen million foreigners visit Thailand every year, the statistical likelihood of becoming a victim is extremely small. Obvious precautions for travellers of either sex include locking accessible windows and doors at night – preferably with your own padlock (doors in many of the simpler guesthouses and beach bungalows are designed for this) – and not travelling alone at night in a taxi or tuk-tuk. Nor should you risk jumping into an unlicensed taxi at the airport in Bangkok at any time of day: there have been some very violent robberies in these, so take the well-marked licensed, metered taxis instead.
Among hazards to watch out for in the natural world, riptides claim a number of tourist lives every year, particularly off Phuket, Ko Chang (Trat), Hua Hin, Cha-am, Rayong, Pattaya and the Ko Samui archipelago during stormy periods of the monsoon season, so always pay attention to warning signs and red flags, and always ask locally if unsure. Jellyfish can be a problem on any coast, especially just after a storm (see Other bites and stings).
Unfortunately, it is also necessary for female tourists to think twice about spending time alone with a monk, as not all men of the cloth uphold the Buddhist precepts and there have been rapes and murders committed by men wearing the saffron robes of the monkhood.
Though unpalatable and distressing, Thailand’s high-profile sex industry is relatively unthreatening for Western women, with its energy focused exclusively on farang men; it’s also quite easily avoided, being contained within certain pockets of the capital and a couple of beach resorts.
As for harassment from men, it’s hard to generalize, but most Western women find it less of a problem in Thailand than they do back home. Outside the main tourist spots, you’re more likely to be of interest as a foreigner rather than a woman and, if travelling alone, as an object of concern rather than of sexual aggression.
It’s advisable to travel with a guide if you’re going off the main roads in certain border areas or, at the very least, to take advice before setting off. As these regions are generally covered in dense unmapped jungle, you shouldn’t find yourself alone in the area anyway, but the main stretches to watch are the immediate vicinity of the Burmese border, where fighting on the other side of the border now and again spills over and where there are occasional clashes between Thai security forces and illegal traffickers; and the border between Cambodia and southern Isaan, which is littered with unexploded mines and which has seen recent clashes between the Thai and Cambodian armies over the disputed line of the border, especially at Khao Phra Viharn (Preah Vihear).
Because of the violence in the deep south, all Western governments are currently advising against travel to or through the border provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, unless essential (see Travel warning). For up-to-the-minute advice on current political trouble-spots, consult your government’s travel advisory.
Despite the best efforts of guidebook writers, TAT and the Thai tourist police, countless travellers to Thailand get scammed every year. Nearly all scams are easily avoided if you’re on your guard against anyone who makes an unnatural effort to befriend you. We have outlined the main scams in the relevant sections of this guide, but con-artists are nothing if not creative, so if in doubt walk away at the earliest opportunity. The worst areas for scammers are the busy tourist centres, including many parts of Bangkok and the main beach resorts.
Many tuk-tuk drivers earn most of their living through securing commissions from tourist-oriented shops; this is especially true in Bangkok, where they will do their damnedest to get you to go to a gem shop. The most common tactic is for drivers to pretend that the Grand Palace or other major sight you intended to visit is closed for the day (see City of angels), and to then offer to take you on a round-city tour instead, perhaps even for free. The tour will invariably include a visit to a gem shop. The easiest way to avoid all this is to take a metered taxi; if you’re fixed on taking a tuk-tuk, ignore any tuk-tuk that is parked up or loitering and be firm about where you want to go.
Self-styled tourist guides, touts and anyone else who might introduce themselves as students or business people and offer to take you somewhere of interest, or invite you to meet their family, are often the first piece of bait in a well-honed chain of con-artists. If you bite, chances are you’ll end up either at a gem shop or in a gambling den, or, at best, at a tour operator or hotel that you had not planned to patronize. This is not to say that you should never accept an invitation from a local person, but be extremely wary of doing so following a street encounter in Bangkok or the resorts. Tourist guides’ ID cards are easily faked.
For many of these characters, the goal is to get you inside a dodgy gem shop, nearly all of which are located in Bangkok, but the bottom line is that if you are not experienced at buying and trading in valuable gems you will definitely be ripped off, possibly even to the tune of several thousand dollars. Check the 2Bangkok website’s account of a typical gem scam (w2bangkok.com/2bangkok-scams-sapphire.html) before you shell out any cash at all.
A less common but potentially more frightening scam involves a similar cast of warm-up artists leading tourists into a gambling game. The scammers invite their victim home on an innocent-sounding pretext, get out a pack of cards, and then set about fleecing the incomer in any number of subtle ways. Often this can be especially scary as the venue is likely to be far from hotels or recognizable landmarks. You’re unlikely to get any sympathy from police, as gambling is illegal in Thailand.
An increasing number of travel agents in tourist centres all over the country are trying to pass themselves off as official government tourist information offices, displaying nothing but “TOURIST INFORMATION” on their shop signs or calling themselves names like “T&T” (note that the actual TAT, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, does not book hotels or sell any kind of travel ticket). Fakers like this are more likely to sell you tickets for services that turn out to be sub-standard or even not to exist. A word of warning also about jet skis: operators, who usually ask for a passport as guarantee, will often try to charge renters exorbitant amounts of money for any minor damage they claim to find on return.
Thai law requires that tourists carry their original passports at all times, though sometimes it’s more practical to carry a photocopy and keep the original locked in a safety deposit. The age of consent is 15, but the law allows anyone under the age of 18, or their parents, to file charges in retrospect even if they consented to sex at the time. It is against the law to have sex with a prostitute who is under 18. It is illegal for under-18s to buy cigarettes or to drive and you must be 20 or over to buy alcohol or be allowed into a bar or club (ID checks are sometimes enforced in Bangkok). It is illegal for anyone to gamble in Thailand (though many do).
Smoking in public is widely prohibited. The ban covers all air-conditioned public buildings (including restaurants, bars and clubs) and air-conditioned trains, buses and planes and even extends to parks and the street; violators may be subject to a B2000 fine. Dropping cigarette butts, littering and spitting in public places can also earn you a B2000 fine. There are fines for overstaying your visa (see Border runs, extensions and re-entry permits), working without a permit, not wearing a motorcycle helmet and violating other traffic laws.
Drug-smuggling carries a maximum penalty in Thailand of death and dealing drugs will get you anything from four years to life in a Thai prison; penalties depend on the drug and the amount involved. Travellers caught with even the smallest amount of drugs at airports and international borders are prosecuted for trafficking, and no one charged with trafficking offences gets bail. Heroin, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy are classed as Category 1 drugs and carry the most severe penalties: even possession of Category 1 drugs for personal use can result in a life sentence. Away from international borders, most foreigners arrested in possession of small amounts of cannabis are released on bail, then fined and deported, but the law is complex and prison sentences are possible.
Despite occasional royal pardons, don’t expect special treatment as a farang: you only need to read one of the first-hand accounts by foreign former prisoners (see Travelogues) or read the blogs at wthaiprisonlife.com to get the picture. The police actively look for tourists doing drugs, reportedly searching people regularly and randomly on Thanon Khao San, for example. They have the power to order a urine test if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion, and even a positive result for marijuana consumption could lead to a year’s imprisonment. Be wary also of being shopped by a farang or local dealer keen to earn a financial reward for a successful bust (there are setups at the Ko Pha Ngan full moon parties, for example), or having substances slipped into your luggage (simple enough to perpetrate unless all fastenings are secured with padlocks).
If you are arrested, ask for your embassy to be contacted immediately (see Gem scams), which is your right under Thai law, and embassy staff will talk you through procedures; the website of the British Embassy in Thailand also posts useful information, including a list of English-speaking lawyers, at wukinthailand.fco.gov.uk/en/help-for-british-nationals. The British charity Prisoners Abroad (wprisonersabroad.org.uk) carries a detailed survival guide on its website, which outlines what to expect if arrested in Thailand, from the point of apprehension through trial and conviction to life in a Thai jail; if contacted, the charity may also be able to offer direct support to a British citizen facing imprisonment in a Thai jail.
The duty-free allowance on entry to Thailand is 200 cigarettes (or 250g of tobacco) and a litre of spirits or wine.
To export antiques or newly cast Buddha images from Thailand, you need to have a licence granted by the Fine Arts Department (the export of antique Buddhas is forbidden). Licences can be obtained for example through the Office of Archeology and National Museums, 81/1 Thanon Si Ayutthaya (near the National Library), Bangkok (t02 628 5032), or through the national museums in Chiang Mai or Phuket. Applications take at least three working days in Bangkok, generally more in the provinces, and need to be accompanied by the object itself, some evidence of its rightful possession, two postcard-sized colour photos of it, taken face-on and against a white background, and photocopies of the applicant’s passport; furthermore, if the object is a Buddha image, the passport photocopies need to be certified by your embassy in Bangkok. Some antiques shops can organize all this for you.
International and domestic departure taxes are included in the price of all tickets.
Mains electricity is supplied at 220 volts AC and is available at all but the most remote villages and basic beach huts. Where electricity is supplied by generators and/or solar power, for example on the smaller, less populated islands, it is often rationed to evenings only. If you’re packing phone and camera chargers, a hair dryer, laptop or other appliance, you’ll need to take a set of travel-plug adapters with you as several plug types are commonly in use, most usually with two round pins, but also with two flat-blade pins, and sometimes with both options.
There are three main entry categories for visitors to Thailand; for all of them, under International Air Travel Association rules, your passport should be valid for at least six months. As visa requirements are subject to frequent change, you should always consult before departure a Thai embassy or consulate, a reliable travel agent, or the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at wmfa.go.th/web/2637.php. For further, unofficial but usually reliable, details on all visa matters, go to wthaivisa.com and especially their various moderated forums.
Most Western passport holders (that includes citizens of the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) are allowed to enter the country for short stays without having to apply for a visa – officially termed the tourist visa exemption. You’ll be granted a thirty-day stay at an international airport but only fifteen days at an overland border; the period of stay will be stamped into your passport by immigration officials upon entry. You’re supposed to be able to somehow show proof of means of living while in the country (B10,000 per person, B20,000 per family), and in theory you may be put back on the next plane without it or sent back to get a sixty-day tourist visa from the nearest Thai embassy, but this is unheard of. You are also required to show proof of tickets to leave Thailand again within the allotted time. This is rarely checked by Thai immigration authorities, though there have been a few cases recently, mostly at the Cambodian border. However, if you have a one-way air ticket to Thailand and no evidence of onward travel arrangements, it’s best to buy a tourist visa in advance: some airlines will stop you boarding the plane without one, as they would be liable for flying you back to your point of origin if you did happen to be stopped.
If you’re fairly certain you may want to stay longer than fifteen/thirty days, then from the outset you should apply for a sixty-day tourist visa from a Thai embassy or consulate, accompanying your application – which generally takes several days to process – with your passport and one or two photos. The sixty-day visa currently costs, for example, £25 in the UK; multiple-entry versions are available, costing £25 per entry, which may be handy if you’re going to be leaving and re-entering Thailand. Ordinary tourist visas are valid for three months, ie you must enter Thailand within three months of the visa being issued by the Thai embassy or consulate, while multiple-entry versions are valid for six months. Visa application forms can be downloaded from, for example, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
Thai embassies also consider applications for ninety-day non-immigrant visas (£50, in the UK for example, for single entry, £125 multiple-entry) as long as you can offer a reason for your visit, such as study, business or visiting family/friends (there are different categories of non-immigrant visa for which different levels of proof are needed). As it can be a hassle to organize a ninety-day visa, it’s generally easier to apply for a thirty-day extension to your sixty-day visa once inside Thai borders.
It’s not a good idea to overstay your visa limits. Once you’re at the airport or the border, you’ll have to pay a fine of B500 per day before you can leave Thailand. More importantly, however, if you’re in the country with an expired visa and you get involved with police or immigration officials for any reason, however trivial, they are obliged to take you to court, possibly imprison you, and deport you.
Setting aside the caveats about proof of funds and onward tickets (see Customs regulations), it’s generally easy to get a new fifteen-day tourist visa exemption by hopping across the border into a neighbouring country and back. Such tourist visa exemptions can be extended within Thailand for a further seven days, sixty-day tourist visas for a further thirty days, at the discretion of immigration officials; extensions cost B1900 and are issued over the counter at immigration offices (kaan khao muang; t1111 for 24hr information in English, wimmigration.go.th) in nearly every provincial capital – most offices ask for one or two photos as well, plus one or two photocopies of the main pages of your passport including your Thai departure card, arrival stamp and visa. Many Khao San tour agents offer to get your visa extension for you, but beware: some are reportedly faking the stamps, which could get you into serious trouble. Immigration offices also issue re-entry permits (B1000 single re-entry, B3800 multiple) if you want to leave the country and come back again while maintaining the validity of your existing visa.
For a full listing of Thai diplomatic missions abroad, consult the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at mfa.go.th/web/2712.php; their other site, wthaiembassy.org, has links to the websites of most of the offices below.
Australia 111 Empire Circuit, Yarralumla, Canberra ACT 2600 t02/6206 0100; plus consulate at 131 Macquarrie St, Sydney, NSW 2000 t02/9241 2542–3.
Burma 94 Pyay Rd, Dagon Township, Rangoon t01/226721.
Cambodia 196 Preah Norodom Blvd, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Khan Chamcar Mon, Phnom Penh t023/726306–10.
Canada 180 Island Park Drive, Ottawa, ON, K1Y 0A2 t613/722-4444; plus consulate at 1040 Burrard St, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2R9 t604/687-1143.
Laos Vientiane: embassy at Avenue Kaysone Phomvihane, Saysettha District t021/214581–2, consular section at Unit 15 Bourichane Rd, Ban Phone Si Nuan, Muang Si Sattanak t021/453916; plus consulate at Khanthabouly District, Savannakhet Province, PO Box 513 t041/212373.
Malaysia 206 Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur t03/2148 8222; plus consulates at 4426 Jalan Pengkalan Chepa, 15400 Kota Bharu t09/748 2545; and 1 Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 10350 Penang t04/226 9484.
New Zealand 110 Molesworth St, Thorndon, Wellington t04/476 8616.
Singapore 370 Orchard Rd, Singapore 238870 t6737 2158.
South Africa 428 Pretorius/Hill St, Arcadia, Pretoria 0083 t012/342 5470.
UK & Ireland 29–30 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JB t020/7589 2944. Visa applications by post are not accepted here, but can be sent to various honorary consulates, including those in Hull (thaiconsul-uk.com) and Dublin (thaiconsulateireland.com).
US 1024 Wisconsin Ave NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20007 t202/944-3600; plus consulates at 700 North Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611 t312/664-3129; 611 North Larchmont Blvd, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004 t323/962-9574; and 351 E 52nd St, New York, NY 10022 t212/754-1770.
Vietnam 63–65 Hoang Dieu St, Hanoi t04/3823-5092–4; plus consulate at 77 Tran Quoc Thao St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City t08/3932-7637–8.
Buddhist tolerance and a national abhorrence of confrontation and victimization combine to make Thai society relatively tolerant of homosexuality, if not exactly positive about same-sex relationships. Most Thais are extremely private and discreet about being gay, generally pursuing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding with their family. The majority of people are horrified by the idea of gay-bashing and generally regard it as unthinkable to spurn a child or relative for being gay.
Hardly any Thai celebrities are out, yet the predilections of several respected social, political and entertainment figures are widely known and accepted. There is no mention of homosexuality at all in Thai law, which means that the age of consent for gay sex is fifteen, the same as for heterosexuals. However, this also means that gay rights are not protected under Thai law.
Although excessively physical displays of affection are frowned upon for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, Western gay couples should get no hassle about being seen together in public – it’s much more acceptable, and common, in fact, for friends of the same sex (gay or not) to walk hand-in-hand, than for heterosexual couples to do so.
Transvestites (known as katoey or “ladyboys”) and transsexuals are also a lot more visible in Thailand than in the West. You’ll find cross-dressers doing ordinary jobs, even in small upcountry towns, and there are a number of transvestites and transsexuals in the public eye too – including national volleyball stars and champion muay thai boxers. The government tourist office vigorously promotes the transvestite cabarets in Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok, all of which are advertised as family entertainment. Katoey also regularly appear as characters in soap operas, TV comedies and films, where they are depicted as stereotyped but harmless figures of fun. Richard Totman’s The Third Sex offers an interesting insight into Thai katoey, their experiences in society and public attitudes towards them.
Thailand’s gay scene is mainly focused on mainstream venues like karaoke bars, restaurants, massage parlours, gyms, saunas and escort agencies. For the sake of discretion, gay venues are usually intermingled with straight ones. Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya have the biggest concentrations of farang-friendly gay bars and clubs, and Chiang Mai has an established bar scene. For a detailed guide to the gay and lesbian scene throughout the country, see the Utopia Guide to Thailand by John Goss, which can be ordered or downloaded as an e-book via wtopia-asia.com.
Thai lesbians generally eschew the word lesbian, which in Thailand is associated with male fantasies, instead referring to themselves as either tom (for tomboy) or dee (for lady). There are hardly any dedicated tom-dee venues in Thailand, but we’ve listed established ones where possible; unless otherwise specified, gay means male throughout this guide.
The farang-oriented gay sex industry is a tiny but highly visible part of Thailand’s gay scene. With its tawdry floor shows and host services, it bears a dispiriting resemblance to the straight sex trade, and is similarly most active in Bangkok, Pattaya, Patong (on Phuket) and Chiang Mai. Like their female counterparts in the heterosexual fleshpots, many of the boys working in the gay sex bars that dominate these districts are underage; note that anyone caught having sex with a prostitute below the age of 18 faces imprisonment. A significant number of gay prostitutes are gay by economic necessity rather than by inclination. As with the straight sex scene, we do not list commercial gay sex bars in the guide.
Information and contacts for gay travellers
Bangkok Lesbianwbangkoklesbian.com. Organized by foreign lesbians living in Thailand, Bangkok Lesbian hosts regular parties and posts general info and listings of the capital’s lesbian-friendly hangouts on its website.
Dreaded Ned’swdreadedned.com. Guide to the scene in Thailand that’s most useful for its what’s-on listings.
Gay People in Thailand thaivisa.com/forum/Gay-People-Thailand-f27.html. Popular forum for gay expats.
Utopia utopia-asia.com and utopia-asia.com/womthai.htm. Asia’s best gay and lesbian website lists clubs, events, accommodation, tour operators and organizations for gays and lesbians and has useful links to other sites in Asia and the rest of the world.
Although Thailand’s climate, wildlife and cuisine present Western travellers with fewer health worries than in many Asian destinations, it’s as well to know in advance what the risks might be, and what preventive or curative measures you should take.
For a start, there’s no need to bring huge supplies of non-prescription medicines with you, as Thai pharmacies (raan khai yaa; typically open daily 8.30am–8pm) are well stocked with local and international branded medicaments, and of course they are generally much less expensive than at home. Nearly all pharmacies are run by trained English-speaking pharmacists, who are usually the best people to talk to if your symptoms aren’t acute enough to warrant seeing a doctor. The British pharmacy chain, Boots, now has branches in many big cities (see wth.boots.com for locations). These are the best place to stock up on some Western products such as tampons (which Thai women do not use).
Hospital (rong phayabaan) cleanliness and efficiency vary, but generally hygiene and healthcare standards are good and the ratio of medical staff to patients is considerably higher than in most parts of the West. As with head pharmacists, doctors speak English. Several Bangkok hospitals are highly regarded (see Directory), and all provincial capitals have at least one hospital: if you need to get to one, ask at your accommodation for advice on, and possibly transport to, the nearest or most suitable. In the event of a major health crisis, get someone to contact your embassy (see Antiques) and insurance company – it may be best to get yourself transported to Bangkok or even home.
There have been outbreaks of Avian Influenza (bird flu) in domestic poultry and wild birds in Thailand (most recently in 2008) which have led to a small number of human fatalities, believed to have arisen through close contact with infected poultry. There has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission in Thailand, and the risk to humans is believed to be very low. However, as a precaution, you should avoid visiting live-animal markets and other places where you may come into close contact with birds, and ensure that poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked.
There are no compulsory inoculation requirements for people travelling to Thailand from the West, but you should consult a doctor or other health professional, preferably at least four weeks in advance of your trip, for the latest information on recommended immunizations. In addition to making sure that your recommended immunizations for life in your home country are up to date, most doctors strongly advise vaccinations or boosters against tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A and, in many cases, typhoid, and in some cases they might also recommend protecting yourself against Japanese encephalitis, rabies and hepatitis B. There is currently no vaccine against malaria. If you forget to have all your inoculations before leaving home, or don’t leave yourself sufficient time, you can get them in Bangkok at, for example, the Thai Red Cross Society’s Queen Saovabha Institute or Global Doctor.
Mosquitoes in Thailand spread not only malaria, but also diseases such as dengue fever and the very similar chikungunya fever, especially during the rainy season. The main message, therefore, is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. You should smother yourself and your clothes in mosquito repellent containing the chemical compound DEET, reapplying regularly (shops, guesthouses and department stores all over Thailand stock it, but if you want the highest-strength repellent, or convenient roll-ons or sprays, do your shopping before you leave home). DEET is strong stuff, and if you have sensitive skin, a natural alternative is citronella (available in the UK as Mosi-guard), made from a blend of eucalyptus oils; the Thai version is made with lemon grass.
At night you should sleep either under a mosquito net sprayed with DEET or in a bedroom with mosquito screens across the windows (or in an enclosed air-con room). Accommodation in tourist spots nearly always provides screens or a net (check both for holes), but if you’re planning to go way off the beaten track or want the security of having your own mosquito net just in case, wait until you get to Bangkok to buy one, where department stores sell them for much less than you’d pay in the West. Plug-in insecticide vaporizers, insect room sprays and mosquito coils – also widely available in Thailand – help keep the insects at bay; electronic “buzzers” are useless.
Thailand is malarial, with the disease being carried by mosquitoes that bite from dusk to dawn, but the risks involved vary across the country.
There is a significant risk of malaria, mainly in rural and forested areas, in a narrow strip along the borders with Cambodia (excluding Ko Chang), Laos and Burma (the highest-risk area, including the countryside around Mae Hong Son, but excluding, for example, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi towns, and resorts and road and rail routes along the Gulf coast). Discuss with your travel health adviser which anti-malarial drugs are currently likely to be effective in these areas, as prophylaxis advice can change from year to year.
Elsewhere in Thailand the risk of malaria is considered to be so low that anti-malarial tablets are not advised.
The signs of malaria are often similar to flu, but are very variable. The incubation period for malignant malaria, which can be fatal, is usually 7–28 days, but it can take up to a year for symptoms of the benign form to occur. The most important symptom is a raised temperature of at least 38°C beginning a week or more after the first potential exposure to malaria: if you suspect anything, go to a hospital or clinic immediately.
Dengue fever, a debilitating and occasionally fatal viral disease that is particularly prevalent during and just after the rainy season, is on the increase throughout tropical Asia, and is endemic to many areas of Thailand, with over 115,000 reported cases in 2010. Unlike malaria, dengue fever is spread by mosquitoes that can bite during daylight hours, so you should also use mosquito repellent during the day. Symptoms include fever, headaches, fierce joint and muscle pain (“breakbone fever” is another name for dengue), and possibly a rash, and usually develop between five and eight days after being bitten.
There is no vaccine against dengue fever; the only treatment is lots of rest, liquids and paracetamol (or any other acetaminophen painkiller, not aspirin), though more serious cases may require hospitalization.
Rabies is widespread in Thailand, mainly carried by dogs (between four and seven percent of stray dogs in Bangkok are reported to be rabid), but also cats and monkeys. It is transmitted by bites, scratches or even occasionally licks. Dogs are everywhere in Thailand and even if kept as pets they’re often not very well cared for; hopefully their mangy appearance will discourage the urge to pat them, as you should steer well clear of them. Rabies is invariably fatal if the patient waits until symptoms begin, though modern vaccines and treatments are very effective and deaths are rare. The important thing is, if you are bitten, licked or scratched by an animal, to vigorously clean the wound with soap and disinfect it, preferably with something containing iodine, and to seek medical advice regarding treatment right away.
Thailand’s seas are home to a few dangerous creatures that you should look out for, notably jellyfish, which tend to be washed towards the beach by rough seas during the monsoon season but can appear at any time of year. All manner of stinging and non-stinging jellyfish can be found in Thailand – as a general rule, those with the longest tentacles tend to have the worst stings – but reports of serious incidents are rare; ask around at your resort or at a local dive shop to see if there have been any sightings of venomous varieties. You also need to be wary of venomous sea snakes, sea urchins and a couple of less conspicuous species – stingrays, which often lie buried in the sand, and stonefish, whose potentially lethal venomous spikes are easily stepped on because the fish look like stones and lie motionless on the sea bed.
If stung or bitten you should always seek medical advice as soon as possible, but there are a few ways of alleviating the pain or administering your own first-aid in the meantime. If you’re stung by a jellyfish, wash the affected area with salt water (not fresh water) and, if possible, with vinegar (failing that, ammonia, citrus fruit juice or even urine may do the trick), and try to remove the fragments of tentacles from the skin with a gloved hand, forceps, thick cloth or credit card. The best way to minimize the risk of stepping on the toxic spines of sea urchins, stingrays and stonefish is to wear thick-soled shoes, though these cannot provide total protection; sea urchin spikes should be removed after softening the skin with ointment, though some people recommend applying urine to help dissolve the spines; for stingray and stonefish stings, alleviate the pain by immersing the wound in hot water while awaiting help.
In the case of a venomous snake bite, don’t try sucking out the venom or applying a tourniquet: wrap up and immobilize the bitten limb and try to stay still and calm until medical help arrives; all provincial hospitals in Thailand carry supplies of antivenins.
Some of Thailand’s wilder, less developed beaches are plagued by sandflies, tiny, barely visible midges whose bites can trigger an allergic response, leaving big red weals and an unbearable itch, and possible infection if scratched too vigorously. Many islanders say that slathering yourself in (widely available) coconut oil is the best deterrent as sandflies apparently don’t like the smell. Applying locally made camphor-based yellow oil (see Coastal Chanthaburi) quells the itch, but you may need to resort to antihistamines for the inflammation. Leeches aren’t dangerous but can be a bother when walking in forested areas, especially during and just after the rainy season. The most effective way to get leeches off your skin is to burn them with a lighted cigarette, or douse them in salt; oily suntan lotion or insect repellent sometimes makes them lose their grip and fall off.
Worms can be picked up through the soles of your feet, so avoid going barefoot. They can also be ingested by eating undercooked meat, and liver flukes by eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish. Worms which cause schistosomiasis (bilharziasis) by attaching themselves to your bladder or intestines can be found in freshwater rivers and lakes. The risk of contracting this disease is low, but you should avoid swimming in the southern reaches of the Mekong River and in most freshwater lakes.
By far the most common travellers’ complaint in Thailand, digestive troubles are often caused by contaminated food and water, or sometimes just by an overdose of unfamiliar foodstuffs (see Food and drink and Desserts).
Stomach trouble usually manifests itself as simple diarrhoea, which should clear up without medical treatment within three to seven days and is best combated by drinking lots of fluids. If this doesn’t work, you’re in danger of getting dehydrated and should take some kind of rehydration solution, either a commercial sachet of ORS (oral rehydration solution), sold in all Thai pharmacies, or a do-it-yourself version, which can be made by adding a handful of sugar and a pinch of salt to every litre of boiled or bottled water (soft drinks are not a viable alternative). If you can eat, avoid fatty foods.
Anti-diarrhoeal agents such as Imodium are useful for blocking you up on long bus journeys, but only attack the symptoms and may prolong infections; an antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin, however, can often reduce a typical attack of traveller’s diarrhoea to one day. If the diarrhoea persists for a week or more, or if you have blood or mucus in your stools, or an accompanying fever, go to a doctor or hospital.
HIV infection is widespread in Thailand, primarily because of the sex trade. Condoms (meechai) are sold in pharmacies, convenience stores, department stores, hairdressers and even street markets. Due to rigorous screening methods, Thailand’s medical blood supply is now considered safe from HIV/AIDS infection.
Canadian Society for International Healtht613/241-5785, csih.org. Extensive list of travel health centres.
CDCt1-800/232 4636, cdc.gov/travel. Official US government travel health site.
Hospital for Tropical Diseases Travel Clinic UK wthehtd.org.
International Society for Travel Medicine US t1-404/373-8282, wistm.org. Has a full list of travel health clinics.
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad) UK masta.org.
NHS Travel Health Website UK fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk.
The Travel Doctor – TMVCt1300/658 844, tmvc.com.au. Lists travel clinics in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Tropical Medical Bureau Ireland t1850/487 674, tmb.ie.
Most visitors to Thailand will need to take out specialist travel insurance, though you should check exactly what’s covered. Insurers will generally not cover travel in Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces in the deep south, as Western governments are currently advising against going to these areas unless it’s essential (see Travel warning). Policies generally also exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Thailand this can mean such things as scuba diving, white-water rafting and trekking.
Internet access is very widespread and very cheap in Thailand. You’ll find traveller-oriented internet cafés in every touristed town and resort in the country – there are at least twenty in the Banglamphu district of Bangkok, for example. In untouristed neighbourhoods throughout the country you can always check your email at the ubiquitous online games centres, favourite after-school haunts that are easily spotted from the piles of schoolboy pumps outside the door. Competition keeps prices low: upcountry you could expect to pay as little as B20 per hour, while rates in tourist centres average B1 per minute.
Increasing numbers of budget guesthouses and cheap hotels, especially in Bangkok, offer wi-fi in all or parts of their establishment; all upmarket hotels have it, though rates are sometimes astronomical. Plenty of cafés, restaurants, bars and other locations across the country provide wi-fi, which is usually free to customers. For a list of hot spots nationwide, try wjiwire.com; for free locations, go to stickmanweekly.com.
Guesthouses and cheap hotels all over the country run low-cost, same-day laundry services, though in luxury hotels, it’ll cost an arm and a leg. In some places you pay per item, in others you’re charged by the kilo (generally around B30–50 per kg); ironing is often included in the price.
Most major train stations have left luggage facilities, where bags can be stored for up to twenty days (around B30–80 per item per day); at bus stations you can usually persuade someone official to look after your stuff for a few hours. Many guesthouses and basic hotels also offer an inexpensive and reliable service, while upmarket hotels should be able to look after your luggage for free. There’s also left luggage at Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket international airports (B80–140 per day).
The most common source of employment in Thailand is teaching English, and Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the most fruitful places to look for jobs. You can search for openings at schools all over Thailand on wajarn.com, which also features extensive general advice on teaching and living in Thailand. Another useful resource is the excellent wthaivisa.com, whose scores of well-used forums focus on specific topics that range from employment in Thailand to legal issues and cultural and practical topics.
If you’re a qualified dive instructor, you might be able to get seasonal work at one of the major resorts – in Phuket, Khao Lak and Ao Nang and on Ko Chang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Samui and Ko Tao, for example. Guesthouse noticeboards occasionally carry adverts for more unusual jobs, such as playing extras in Thai movies. A tourist visa does not entitle you to work in Thailand, so, legally, you’ll need to apply for a work permit.
In addition to the programmes listed below, voluntary opportunities with smaller grassroots projects (see Travel essentials) and wildlife charity projects (see National parks) are available.
AFS Intercultural Programs Australia t02/9215 0077, Canada t1-800/361-7248, NZ t0800/600 300, South Africa t11/447 2673, US t1-800/AFS-INFO; wafs.org. Intercultural exchange organization with programmes in over fifty countries.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) US t1-207/553-4000, wciee.org. Leading NGO that organizes paid year-long placements as English teachers in schools in Thailand.
Phuket English teachers phukethasbeengoodtous.org. Welcomes short- and longer-term volunteers to teach and assist on its Practical English Language programme at schools on Phuket. The aim of the foundation is to improve kids’ standards of English so that they can get the better-paid jobs in Phuket’s tourist industry.
Starfish Ventures starfishvolunteers.com. Paying volunteer and gap-year placements in Thailand in the areas of health, childcare, wildlife conservation, community development and teaching.
Volunteer Teaching in Thailandwvolunteerteacherthailand.org. Continuing the good work begun by the thousands of volunteers who came to Khao Lak to help rebuild lives and homes following the 2004 tsunami, this organization teaches English to Khao Lak kids and adults to enhance their future prospects in the local tourist industry. Teaching experience is appreciated but not essential.
Volunthaiwvolunthai.com. Invites young volunteers to teach English in rural schools mostly in northeast Thailand. The minimal fees cover homestay accommodation.
Thai language classes The most popular places to study Thai are Chiang Mai and Bangkok, where there’s plenty of choice, including private and group lessons for both tourists and expats; note, however, that some schools’ main reason for existence is to provide educational visas for long-staying foreigners. The longest-running and best-regarded courses and private lessons are provided by AUA (American University Alumni; wauathailand.org), which has outlets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Rayong and Chiang Mai.
Overseas airmail usually takes around seven days from Bangkok, a little longer from the more isolated areas (it’s worth asking at the post office about their express EMS services, which can cut this down to three days and aren’t prohibitively expensive). Post offices in Thailand have recently been quite successfully privatized, and many now offer money-wiring facilities (in association with Western Union), parcel packing, long-distance bus tickets, amulets, whitening cream, you name it. They’re generally open Monday to Friday 8.30am to 4.30pm, Saturday 9am to noon; some close Monday to Friday noon to 1pm and may stay open until 6pm, and a few open 9am to noon on Sundays and public holidays. Almost all main post offices across the country operate a poste restante service and will hold letters for one to three months. Mail should be addressed: Name (family name underlined or capitalized), Poste Restante, GPO, Town or City, Thailand. It will be filed by surname, though it’s always wise to check under your first initial as well. The smaller post offices pay scant attention to who takes what, but in the busier GPOs you need to show your passport, pay B1 per letter or B2 per parcel received, and sign for them.
Post offices are the best places to buy stamps, though hotels and guesthouses often sell them too, usually charging an extra B1 per stamp. An airmail letter of under 10g costs B17 to send to Europe or Australia and B19 to North America; postcards and aerogrammes cost B15, regardless of where they’re going. The surface rate for parcels to the UK is B950 for the first kg, then B175 per kg; to the US B550 for the first kg, then B140 per kg; and to Australia B650 for the first kg, then B110 per kg; the package should reach its destination in three months. The airmail rate for parcels to the UK is B900 for the first kg, then B380 per kg; to the US B950 for the first kg, then B500 per kg; and to Australia B750 for the first kg, then B350 per kg; the package should reach its destination in one or two weeks.
For most major destinations, the maps in this book should be all you need, though you may want to supplement them with larger-scale maps of Bangkok and the whole country. Bangkok bookshops are the best source of these; where appropriate, detailed local maps and their stockists are recommended throughout the Guide. If you want to buy a map before you get there, Rough Guides’ 1:1,200,000 map of Thailand is a good option – and, since it’s printed on special rip-proof paper, it won’t tear. Reasonable alternatives include the 1:1,500,000 maps produced by Nelles and Bartholomew.
For drivers, the best atlas is Thailand Deluxe Atlas published by thinknet (wthinknet.co.th): at a scale of 1:550,000, it’s bilingual and fairly regularly updated, but costs B550. It’s available at most bookshops in Thailand where English-language material is sold. They also have a newer Thailand Handy Atlas at 1:1,000,000 for B270, and their mapping is available online at wmapguidethailand.com.
Trekking maps are hard to come by, except in the most popular national parks where you can usually pick up a free handout showing the main trails.
Thailand’s unit of currency is the baht (abbreviated to “B”), divided into 100 satang – which are rarely seen these days. Coins come in B1 (silver), B2 (golden), B5 (silver) and B10 (mostly golden, encircled by a silver ring) denominations, notes in B20, B50, B100, B500 and B1000 denominations, inscribed with Western as well as Thai numerals, and generally increasing in size according to value.
At the time of writing, exchange rates were around B30 to US$1, B45 to €1 and B50 to £1. A good site for current exchange rates is wxe.com. Note that Thailand has no black market in foreign currency.
Banking hours are Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 3.30 or 4.30pm, but exchange kiosks in the main tourist centres are always open till at least 5pm, sometimes 10pm, and upmarket hotels change money (at poor rates) 24 hours a day. The Suvarnabhumi Airport exchange counters also operate 24 hours, while exchange kiosks at overseas airports with flights to Thailand usually keep Thai currency.
Sterling and US dollar travellers’ cheques are accepted by banks and exchange booths in every sizeable Thai town, and most places also deal in a variety of other currencies; everyone offers better rates for cheques than for straight cash. Generally, a total of B33 in commission and duty is charged per cheque – though kiosks and hotels in isolated places may charge extra – so you’ll save money if you deal in larger cheque denominations. Note that Scottish and Northern Irish sterling notes may not be accepted in some places.
American Express, Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards are accepted at top hotels as well as in some posh restaurants, department stores, tourist shops and travel agents, but surcharging of up to seven percent is rife, and theft and forgery are major industries – try not to let the card out of your sight, always demand any carbon copies, and never leave cards in baggage storage. With a debit or credit card and personal identification number (PIN), you can also withdraw cash from hundreds of 24-hour ATMs around the country. Almost every town now has at least one bank with an ATM that accepts overseas cards (all the banks marked on our maps throughout the Guide have ATMs), and there are a growing number of stand-alone ATMs in supermarkets. However, Thai banks now make a charge of B150 per ATM withdrawal (on top of whatever your bank at home will be charging you); to get around this, go into a bank with your card and passport instead and ask for a cash advance, or check out waeon.co.th, the website of a Japanese bank that operates in Thailand, for locations of their ATMs – they don’t charge for ATM withdrawals from foreign bank accounts, though there have been reports of people not receiving cash from Aeon ATMs but having their accounts debited.
Most shops open long hours, usually Monday to Saturday from about 8am to 8pm, while department stores operate daily from around 10am to 9pm. Private office hours are generally Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm and Saturday 8am to noon, though in tourist areas these hours are longer, with weekends worked like any other day. Government offices work Monday to Friday 8.30am to noon and 1 to 4.30pm, and national museums tend to stick to these hours too, but some close on Mondays and Tuesdays rather than at weekends. Temples generally open their gates every day from dawn to dusk.
Many tourists only register national holidays because trains and buses suddenly get extraordinarily crowded: although government offices shut on these days, most shops and tourist-oriented businesses carry on regardless, and TAT branches continue to dispense information. (Bank holidays vary slightly from the government office holidays given below: banks close on May 1 and July 1, but not for the Royal Ploughing Ceremony nor for Khao Pansa.) Some national holidays are celebrated with theatrical festivals. The only time an inconvenient number of shops, restaurants and hotels do close is during Chinese New Year, which, though not marked as an official national holiday, brings many businesses to a standstill for several days in late January or February. You’ll notice it particularly in the south, where most service industries are Chinese-managed.
Thais use both the Western Gregorian calendar and a Buddhist calendar – the Buddha is said to have died (or entered Nirvana) in the year 543 BC, so Thai dates start from that point: thus 2013 AD becomes 2556 BE (Buddhist Era).
Jan 1 Western New Year’s Day
Feb (day of full moon) Makha Puja. Commemorates the Buddha preaching to a spontaneously assembled crowd of 1250.
April 6 Chakri Day. The founding of the Chakri dynasty.
April (usually 13–15) Songkhran. Thai New Year.
May 5 Coronation Day
May (early in the month) Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Marks the start of the rice-planting season.
May (day of full moon) Visakha Puja. The holiest of all Buddhist holidays, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
July (day of full moon) Asanha Puja. The anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon.
July (day after Asanha Puja) Khao Pansa. The start of the annual three-month Buddhist rains retreat, when new monks are ordained.
Aug 12 Queen’s birthday and Mothers’ Day
Oct 23 Chulalongkorn Day. The anniversary of Rama V’s death.
Dec 5 King’s birthday and Fathers’ Day. Also now celebrated as National Day (instead of Constitution Day).
Dec 10 Constitution Day
Dec 31 Western New Year’s Eve
Most foreign mobile-phone networks have links with Thai networks but you might want to check on roaming rates, which are often exorbitant, before you leave home. To get round this, most travellers purchase a Thai pre-paid SIM card – 1-2-Call (wais.co.th) is the biggest network with the best coverage – for their mobile phone (moe thoe). Available for as little as B50 (sometimes free at airports, for example with True Move) and refillable at 7-Elevens around the country, they offer very cheap calls, both domestically and internationally (especially if you use low-cost international prefixes such as 1-2-Call’s “005” or “009”). They also offer very cheap texting and are free of charge for all incoming calls; mobile internet and wi-fi packages are also generally available.
Even cheaper international calls – less than B1/minute to most countries – can be made with a Zay Hi phonecard (wzayhi.com), available in B300 and B500 denominations from post offices and branches of Family Mart. The cheapest option, of course, is to find a guesthouse or café with free wi-fi and Skype from your own device; Skype is also available on the computers in most internet cafés.
When dialling any number in Thailand, you must now always preface it with what used to be the area code, even when dialling from the same area. Where we’ve given several line numbers – eg t02 431 1802–9 – you can substitute the last digit, 2, with any digit between 3 and 9. For directory enquiries within Thailand, call t1133.
All mobile-phone numbers in Thailand have recently been changed from nine to ten digits, by adding the number “8” after the initial zero (you may still come across cards and brochures giving the old nine-digit number). Note also, however, that Thais tend to change mobile-phone providers – and therefore numbers – comparatively frequently, in search of a better deal.
One final local idiosyncrasy: Thai phone books list people by their first name, not their family name.
Most towns and all resorts have at least one camera shop where you will be able to get your digital pictures downloaded on to a CD for B100–150; the shops all have card readers. In tourist centres many internet cafés also offer CD-burning services, though if you want to email your pictures bringing your own cable will make life easier.
Thailand is in the same time zone year-round, with no daylight savings period. It’s five hours ahead of South Africa, seven hours ahead of GMT, twelve hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, three hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time and five hours behind New Zealand Standard Time.
It is usual to tip hotel bellboys and porters B20–40, and to round up taxi fares to the nearest B10. Most guides, drivers, masseurs, waiters and maids also depend on tips, and although some upmarket hotels and restaurants will add an automatic ten percent service charge to your bill, this is not always shared out.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT (wtourismthailand.org), maintains offices in several cities abroad and has dozens of branches within Thailand (all open daily 8.30am–4.30pm, though a few close noon–1pm) plus counters at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Regional offices should have up-to-date information on local festival dates and perhaps transport schedules, but none of them offers accommodation booking, and service can be variable. You can contact the TAT tourist assistance phoneline from anywhere in the country for free on t1672 (daily 8am–8pm). In Bangkok, the Bangkok Tourism Division is a better source of information on the capital (see Banglamphu). In some smaller towns that don’t qualify for a local TAT office, the information gap is filled by a municipal tourist assistance office, though at some of these you may find it hard to locate a fluent English-speaker.
TAT offices abroad
Australia & New Zealand Suite 2002, Level 20, 56 Pitt St, Sydney, NSW 2000 t02/9247 7549, wthailand.net.au.
South Africa Contact the UK office.
UK & Ireland 1st Floor, 17–19 Cockspur St, London SW1Y 5BL t020/7925 2511, e[email protected].
US & Canada 61 Broadway, Suite 2810, New York, NY 10006 t212/432-0433, e[email protected]; 611 North Larchmont Blvd, 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004 t323/461-9814, e[email protected].
Thailand makes few provisions for its disabled citizens and this obviously affects travellers with disabilities, but taxis, comfortable hotels and personal tour guides are all more affordable than in the West and most travellers with disabilities find Thais only too happy to offer assistance where they can. Hiring a local tour guide to accompany you on a day’s sightseeing is particularly recommended: government tour guides can be arranged through any TAT office.
Most wheelchair-users end up driving on the roads because it’s too hard to negotiate the uneven pavements, which are high to allow for flooding and invariably lack dropped kerbs. Crossing the road can be a trial, particularly in Bangkok and other big cities, where it’s usually a question of climbing steps up to a bridge rather than taking a ramped underpass. Few buses and trains have ramps but in Bangkok some Skytrain stations and all subway stations have lifts.
Several tour companies in Thailand specialize in organizing trips featuring adapted facilities, accessible transport and escorts. The Bangkok-based Help and Care Travel Company (t081 375 0792, wwheelchairtours.com) designs accessible holidays in Thailand for slow walkers and wheelchair-users, as well as offering airport transfers and personal assistants. In Chiang Mai, Thai Focus (wthaifocus.com) is used to designing trips for disabled travellers and can provide wheelchair rental. Mermaid’s Dive Centre in Pattaya (t038 232219, learn-in-asia.com/handicapped_diving.htm) runs International Association of Handicapped Divers programmes for disabled divers and instructors (see Jomtien Beach and Buddha Hill).
Tourist literature has marketed Thailand as the “Land of Smiles” so successfully that a lot of farangs arrive in the country expecting to be forgiven any outrageous behaviour. This is just not the case: there are some things so universally sacred in Thailand that even a hint of disrespect will cause deep offence.
It is both socially unacceptable and a criminal offence to make critical or defamatory remarks about the royal family. Thailand’s monarchy might be a constitutional one, but almost every household displays a picture of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit in a prominent position, and respectful crowds mass whenever either of them makes a public appearance. The second of their four children, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the heir to the throne; his younger sister, Princess Royal Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is often on TV and in the English-language newspapers as she is involved in many charitable projects. When addressing or speaking about royalty, Thais use a special language full of deference, called rajasap (literally “royal language”).
Thailand’s lese-majesty laws are among the most strictly applied in the world, increasingly invoked as the Thai establishment becomes ever more uneasy over the erosion of traditional monarchist sentiments and the rise of critical voices, particularly on the internet (though these are generally quickly censored). Accusations of lese-majesty can be levelled by and against anyone, Thai national or farang, and must be investigated by the police. As a few high-profile cases involving foreigners have demonstrated, they can be raised for seemingly minor infractions, such as defacing a poster or being less than respectful in a work of fiction. Transgressions are met with jail sentences of up to 15 years.
Aside from keeping any anti-monarchy sentiments to yourself, you should be prepared to stand when the king’s anthem is played at the beginning of every cinema programme, and to stop in your tracks if the town you’re in plays the national anthem over its public address system – many small towns do this twice a day at 8am and again at 6pm, as do some train stations and airports. A less obvious point: as the king’s head features on all Thai currency, you should never step on a coin or banknote, which is tantamount to kicking the king in the face.
Almost equally insensitive would be to disregard certain religious precepts. Buddhism plays a fundamental role in Thai culture, and Buddhist monuments should be treated with respect – which basically means wearing long trousers or knee-length skirts, covering your arms and removing your shoes whenever you visit one.
All Buddha images are sacred, however small, tacky or ruined, and should never be used as a backdrop for a portrait photo, clambered over, placed in a position of inferiority or treated in any manner that could be construed as disrespectful. In an attempt to prevent foreigners from committing any kind of transgression the government requires a special licence for all Buddha statues exported from the country (see Customs regulations).
Monks come only just beneath the monarchy in the social hierarchy, and they too are addressed and discussed in a special language. If there’s a monk around, he’ll always get a seat on the bus, usually right at the back. Theoretically, monks are forbidden to have any close contact with women, which means, as a female, you mustn’t sit or stand next to a monk, or even brush against his robes; if it’s essential to pass him something, put the object down so that he can then pick it up – never hand it over directly. Nuns, however, get treated like ordinary women.
The Western liberalism embraced by the Thai sex industry is very unrepresentative of the majority Thai attitude to the body. Clothing – or the lack of it – is what bothers Thais most about tourist behaviour. You need to dress modestly when entering temples (see City of angels), but the same also applies to other important buildings and all public places. Stuffy and sweaty as it sounds, you should keep short shorts and vests for the real tourist resorts, and be especially diligent about covering up and, for women, wearing bras in rural areas. Baring your flesh on beaches is very much a Western practice: when Thais go swimming they often do so fully clothed, and they find topless and nude bathing offensive.
According to ancient Hindu belief, the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet are the most unclean. This belief, imported into Thailand, means that it’s very rude to touch another person’s head or to point your feet either at a human being or at a sacred image – when sitting on a temple floor, for example, you should tuck your legs beneath you rather than stretch them out towards the Buddha. These hierarchies also forbid people from wearing shoes (which are even more unclean than feet) inside temples and most private homes, and – by extension – Thais take offence when they see someone sitting on the “head”, or prow, of a boat. Putting your feet up on a table, a chair or a pillow is also considered very uncouth, and Thais will always take their shoes off if they need to stand on a train or bus seat to get to the luggage rack, for example. On a more practical note, the left hand is used for washing after going to the toilet (see Vegetarians and vegans), so Thais never use it to put food in their mouth, pass things or shake hands – as a farang though, you’ll be assumed to have different customs, so left-handers shouldn’t worry unduly.
Thais rarely shake hands, instead using the wai to greet and say goodbye and to acknowledge respect, gratitude or apology. A prayer-like gesture made with raised hands, the wai changes according to the relative status of the two people involved: Thais can instantaneously assess which wai to use, but as a farang your safest bet is to raise your hands close to your chest, bow your head and place your fingertips just below your nose. If someone makes a wai at you, you should generally wai back, but it’s safer not to initiate.
Public displays of physical affection in Thailand are more common between friends of the same sex than between lovers, whether hetero- or homosexual. Holding hands and hugging is as common among male friends as with females, so if you’re caressed by a Thai acquaintance of the same sex, don’t assume you’re being propositioned.
Finally, there are three specifically Thai concepts you’re bound to come across, which may help you comprehend a sometimes laissez-faire attitude to delayed buses and other inconveniences. The first, jai yen, translates literally as “cool heart” and is something everyone tries to maintain: most Thais hate raised voices, visible irritation and confrontations of any kind, so losing one’s cool can have a much more inflammatory effect than in more combative cultures. Related to this is the oft-quoted response to a difficulty, mai pen rai – “never mind”, “no problem” or “it can’t be helped” – the verbal equivalent of an open-handed shoulder shrug, which has its basis in the Buddhist notion of karma (see The spread of Buddhism). And then there’s sanuk, the wide-reaching philosophy of “fun”, which, crass as it sounds, Thais do their best to inject into any situation, even work. Hence the crowds of inebriated Thais who congregate at waterfalls and other beauty spots on public holidays (travelling solo is definitely not sanuk), the reluctance to do almost anything without high-volume musical accompaniment, and the national waterfight which takes place during Songkhran every April on streets right across Thailand.
Although all Thais have a first name and a family name, everyone is addressed by their first name – even when meeting strangers – prefixed by the title “Khun” (Mr/Ms); no one is ever addressed as Khun Surname, and even the phone book lists people by their given name. In Thailand you will often be addressed in an anglicized version of this convention, as “Mr Paul” or “Miss Lucy” for example. Bear in mind, though, that when a man is introduced to you as Khun Pirom, his wife will definitely not be Khun Pirom as well (that would be like calling them, for instance, “Mr and Mrs Paul”). Among friends and relatives, Phii (“older brother/sister”) is often used instead of Khun when addressing older familiars (though as a tourist you’re on surer ground with Khun), and Nong (“younger brother/sister”) is used for younger ones.
Many Thai first names come from ancient Sanskrit and have an auspicious meaning; for example, Boon means good deeds, Porn means blessings, Siri means glory and Thawee means to increase. However, Thais of all ages are commonly known by the nickname given them soon after birth rather than by their official first name. This tradition arises out of a deep-rooted superstition that once a child has been officially named the spirits will begin to take an unhealthy interest in them, so a nickname is used instead to confuse the spirits. Common nicknames – which often bear no resemblance to the adult’s personality or physique – include Yai (Big), Oun (Fat) and Muu (Pig); Lek or Noi (Little), Nok (Bird), Noo (Mouse) and Kung (Shrimp); and English nicknames like Apple, Joy or even Pepsi.
Family names were only introduced in 1913 (by Rama Vl, who invented many of the aristocracy’s surnames himself), and are used only in very formal situations, always in conjunction with the first name. It’s quite usual for good friends never to know each other’s surname. Ethnic Thais generally have short surnames like Somboon or Srisai, while the long, convoluted family names – such as Sonthanasumpun – usually indicate Chinese origin, not because they are phonetically Chinese but because many Chinese immigrants have chosen to adopt new Thai surnames and Thai law states that every newly created surname must be unique. Thus anyone who wants to change their surname must submit a shortlist of five unique Thai names – each to a maximum length of ten Thai characters – to be checked against a database of existing names. As more and more names are taken, Chinese family names get increasingly unwieldy, and more easily distinguishable from the pithy old Thai names.
To keep you abreast of world affairs, there are several English-language newspapers in Thailand, though relatively mild forms of censorship (and self-censorship) affect all newspapers and the predominantly state-controlled media.
Of the hundreds of Thai-language newspapers and magazines published every week, the sensationalist daily tabloid Thai Rath attracts the widest readership, with circulation of around a million, while the moderately progressive Matichon is the leading quality daily, with an estimated circulation of 600,000.
Alongside these, two daily English-language papers – the Bangkok Post (bangkokpost.com) and the Nation (nationmultimedia.com) – are capable of adopting a fairly critical attitude to political goings-on and cover major domestic and international stories as well as tourist-related issues. The Nation, however, has recently adopted a split personality (and a more overt anti-red shirt stance) and now covers mostly business news. The Post’s Spectrum supplement, which comes inside the Sunday edition, carries investigative journalism. Both the Post and Nation are sold at most newsstands in the capital as well as in major provincial towns and tourist resorts; the more isolated places receive their few copies one day late. Details of local English-language publications are given in the relevant Guide accounts.
You can also pick up foreign magazines such as Newsweek and Time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the major resorts. English-language bookshops such as Bookazine and some expensive hotels carry air-freighted, or sometimes locally printed and stapled, copies of foreign national newspapers for at least B50 a copy; the latter are also sold in tourist-oriented minimarkets in the big resorts.
There are six government-controlled, terrestrial TV channels in Thailand: channels 3, 5 (owned and operated by the army), 7 and 9 transmit a blend of news, documentaries, soaps, sports, talk and quiz shows, while the more serious-minded PBS (formerly Thaksin Shinawatra’s ITV) and NBT are public-service channels, owned and operated by the government’s public relations department. Cable networks – available in many mid-range and most upmarket hotel rooms – carry channels from all around the world, including CNN from the US, BBC World from the UK and sometimes ABC from Australia, as well as English-language movie channels, MTV and various sports and documentary channels. Both the Bangkok Post and the Nation print the daily TV and cable schedule.
Thailand boasts over five hundred radio stations, mostly music-oriented, ranging from Virgin Radio’s Eazy (105.5 FM), which serves up Western pop, through luk thung on 95FM, to Fat Radio, which plays Thai indie sounds (104.5 FM). Chulalongkorn University Radio (101.5 FM) plays classical music from 9.30pm to midnight every night. Net 107 on 107 FM is one of several stations that include English-language news bulletins.
With a shortwave radio – or by going online – you can pick up the BBC World Service (bbc.co.uk/worldservice), Radio Australia (radioaustralia.net.au), Voice of America (voanews.com), Radio Canada (rcinet.ca) and other international stations right across Thailand. Times and wavelengths change regularly, so get hold of a recent schedule just before you travel or consult the websites for frequency and programme guides.
Despite the relative lack of child-centred attractions in Thailand, there’s plenty to appeal to families, both on the beach and inland, and Thais are famously welcoming to young visitors.
Of all the beach resorts in the country, two of the most family friendly are the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Lanta. Both have plenty of on-the-beach accommodation for mid- and upper-range budgets, and lots of easy-going open-air shorefront restaurants so that adults can eat in relative peace while kids play within view. Both islands also offer many day-tripping activities, from elephant riding to snorkelling. Phuket is another family favourite, though shorefront accommodation here is at a premium; there are also scores of less mainstream alternatives. In many beach resorts older kids will be able to go kayaking or learn rock climbing, and many dive centres will teach the PADI children’s scuba courses on request: the Bubblemaker programme is open to 8- and 9-year-olds and the Discover Scuba Diving day is designed for anyone 10 and over.
Inland, the many national parks and their waterfalls and caves are good for days out, and there are lots of opportunities to go rafting and elephant riding. Kanchanaburi is a rewarding centre for all these, with the added plus that many of the town’s guesthouses are set round decent-sized lawns. Chiang Mai is another great hub for all the above and also offers boat trips, an attractive, modern zoo and aquarium, the chance to watch umbrella-makers and other craftspeople at work, and, in the Mae Sa valley, many family-oriented attractions, such as the botanical gardens and butterfly farms. Bangkok has several child-friendly theme parks and activity centres (see Bangkok for kids).
Should you be in Thailand in January, your kids will be able to join in the free entertainments and activities staged all over the country on National Children’s Day (Wan Dek), which is held on the second Saturday of January. They also get free entry to zoos that day, and free rides on public buses.
Many of the expensive hotels listed in this guide allow one or two under-12s to share their parents’ room for free, as long as no extra bedding is required. It’s often possible to cram two adults and two children into the double rooms in budget and mid-range hotels (as opposed to guesthouses), as beds in these places are usually big enough for two. An increasing number of guesthouses now offer three-person rooms, and may even provide special family accommodation. Decent cots are available free in the bigger hotels, and in some smaller ones (though cots in these places can be a bit grotty), and top and mid-range rooms often come with a small fridge. Many hotels can also provide a babysitting service.
Few museums or transport companies offer student reductions, but in some cases children get discounts. One of the more bizarre provisos is the State Railway’s regulation that a child aged 3 to 12 qualifies for half-fare only if under 150cm tall; some stations have a measuring scale painted onto the ticket-hall wall. Most domestic airlines charge ten percent of the full fare for under-2s, and fifty percent for under-12s.
Although most Thai babies don’t wear them, disposable nappies (diapers) are sold at convenience stores, pharmacies and supermarkets in big resorts and sizeable towns; for stays on lonely islands, consider bringing some washable ones as back-up. A changing mat is another necessity as there are few public toilets in Thailand, let alone ones with baby facilities (though posh hotels are always a useful option). International brands of powdered milk are available throughout the country, and brand-name baby food is sold in big towns and resorts, though some parents find restaurant-cooked rice and bananas go down just as well. Thai women do not breastfeed in public.
For touring, child-carrier backpacks are ideal. Opinions are divided on whether or not it’s worth bringing a buggy or three-wheeled stroller. Where they exist, Thailand’s pavements are bumpy at best, and there’s an almost total absence of ramps; sand is especially difficult for buggies, though less so for three-wheelers. Buggies and strollers do, however, come in handy for feeding and even bedding small children, as highchairs and cots are only provided in more upmarket restaurants and hotels. You can buy buggies fairly cheaply in most towns, but if you bring your own and then wish you hadn’t, most hotels and guesthouses will keep it for you until you leave. Bring an appropriately sized mosquito net if necessary or buy one locally in any department store; a mini sun tent for the beach is also useful. Taxis and car-rental companies almost never provide baby car seats, and even if you bring your own you’ll often find there are no seatbelts to strap them in with. Most department stores have dedicated kids’ sections selling everything from bottles to dummies. There are even several Mothercare outlets in Bangkok.
Even more than their parents, children need protecting from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. Consider packing a jar of a favourite spread so that you can always rely on toast if all else fails to please. As with adults, you should be careful about unwashed fruit and salads and about dishes that have been left uncovered for a long time. As diarrhoea could be dangerous for a child, rehydration solutions (see Worms and flukes) are vital if your child goes down with it. Other significant hazards include thundering traffic; huge waves, strong currents and jellyfish; and the sun – not least because many beaches offer only limited shade, if at all. Sunhats, sunblock and waterproof suntan lotions are essential, and can be bought in the major resorts. You should also make sure, if possible, that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies; keep children away from animals, especially dogs and monkeys, and ask your medical advisor about rabies jabs.