Thailand is a place that is near and dear to my heart. It’s really the country that made me fall in love with travel. I was 19 years old and on my way to the other side of the world to visit my brother (who was living in Thailand) for 3.5 weeks during my college winter break. I had absolutely no clue what I was doing or the adventure I was about to have. I landed at BKK bright eyed and just naive enough to think I’d come back the same person.
I definitely did not come back the same person, and throughout my time there I really fell in love with this country. In fact, I’ve been back 2 other times since that first trip. In all my travels here I’ve learned a lot. I’m warning you now: this post is long, but it’s very thorough and it’s everything I wish I would have known before my first trip to Thailand.
Make sure your taxi is metered
There are going to be a lot of “taxis” around willing to take you where ever you want to go. My advice is to only use a taxi that is metered OR decide on a price before you get into the car with them. If you don’t decide on a price before you get in the car they will mostly likely try to rip you off once you arrive there. Don’t be afraid to haggle with the driver some. This is common and their first price is most likely very high.
I definitely recommend taking a Tuk Tuk if you’re going less than a few miles away. Tuk Tuks are 3 wheel motorbikes with extra space on the back or side to carry several people. They’re open air and a fun option. Tuk tuks don’t have meters so decide on a price before you get in.
If a taxi driver says an attraction or site is closed for the day (such as the Grand Palace) they are most likely lying. This is a popular tactic they use so they can “suggest” other destinations that are farther away (and therefore a larger fare) or so they can take you to another place where they may make a commission for bringing you there.
The exchange rate is quite nice
One of the huge draws to Thailand — especially for budget backpackers — is that the exchange rate is AHH-mazing! Right now, 1 US dollar equals out to about 34 Thai Baht. Just like the US, some cities are more expensive than others. A one bedroom in Durham, North Carolina is going to cost of fraction of what a one bedroom in Manhattan will cost. The same is the case in Thailand. You can find hostels for $3 USD per night in Bangkok. Some of the southern islands, places like Koh Phi Phi and Koh Samui are going to be much more expensive. Whether you’re traveling in luxury or traveling on a shoestring budget, you’re going to get a lot of bang for your buck because the exchange rate is very favorable.
The King is a BIG deal
Thailand is ruled by Constitutional Monarchy, so the Prime Minister manages government affairs. The King has roles in the functions of the government, but the constitution limits his powers. Never the less, the monarchy remains an important symbol of the country (much like the British royal family).
Sadly, in October 2016, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch, passed away after 70 years as head of state. This was incredibly sad for the people of Thailand as he was loved very deeply by his people. Since his death, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has assumed the title as the new monarch.
I haven’t been back to Thailand since the King’s passing so I’m not sure what the people’s opinion of the new king is, but as a general rule of thumb the Royal Family is to be treated with the utmost respect at all times. Upon your arrival in Thailand you will quickly learn there are photos of the King everywhere. I mean everywhere! More so, it is illegal to harm or mock those pictures in anyway.
Cover up in certain places
Thai culture is very influenced by religion with about 95% of the population being Buddhist. During the day time in typical places wearing shorts and a tank top is no problem, but when entering sacred or religious places, it is extremely important that your shoulders and your legs are covered. Showing too much skin in these areas is seen as highly disrespectful and often times you simply won’t be allowed inside unless you cover up.
The food is insane
A huge part of Thai culture is food. You’ve most likely heard horror stores of people getting epic episodes of food poisoning. I have no doubt that happens from time to time (I mean, it happens from time to time here in the US), but I never got sick in Thailand and I bought many meals from street vendors.
We ate almost exclusively at local Thai markets and all of the food was amazing – so authentic and so delicious. Not only was it out of this world tasty, but we could get huge meals that had us stuffed to the brim for literally $2 American. Food in restaurants will be more expensive, but still it’ll be cheaper than a typical meal out in the US would be.
I thought I would basically just eat pad thai my entire time here, but I grew to absolutely love Thai curries, especially massum curry. I also fell in love with a Thai dessert called mango sticky rice, pictured below.
Some of the prettiest thai girls are men
Let me explain. “Kathoey” is a Thai term that translates in English to “ladyboy”. The term refers to males who exhibit varying degrees of femininity. Some are men or boys who just enjoy dressing as a woman or wearing make-up, while others are undergoing medical procedures to make their transition more permanent. Kathoeys are very common in Thailand and more accepted in Thai culture than transgender people are in other countries around the world. In fact, there are several popular Thai models, singers and movie stars that are proud kathoeys, and there are often kathoey beauty contests much like the beauty pageants we have here in the States.
Asian bone structure tends to be more delicate and of course we all know they’re known for being shorter, so there are a lot of Thai boys and men that make very beautiful women. So beautiful it can be hard to tell by a simple glance that they are actually kathoeys.
Stick to Bottled Water
I recommend drinking exclusively from bottled water while in Thailand. Will you die if you drink tap water? Probably not, but I also just wouldn’t push the envelope. The water is typically clean enough by national standards to drink (especially in big cities like Bangkok), BUT it’s also important to remember they have different water standards than we do. I used bottled water to drink and brush my teeth, and I avoided anything involving ice, including alcoholic beverages including ice (more on that below). Bottled water is super cheap and found literally every where so sticking to only bottled water shouldn’t be a problem.
Beware of buckets
Thailand is known for its sometimes insane party culture. Not as much with locals, but mostly with the backpackers and tourists that visit. One of the most advertised and popular drinks in the party scene is something called a bucket. It’s basically just a really big and really strong mixed drink. These can be made with a variety of things, but usually their made with whiskey and coke or vodka and red bull. Buckets are risky for a couple of reasons. First, as I said, they can be very strong. Second, they’re made with ice and they have an extremely large opening at the top, which would make it easy for someone to slip something in your drink while you’re not paying attention. I’m not saying theres always going to be people trying to drug you, but when it comes to large parties (say a Full Moon Party) or clubs (say on Khao San Road) it has definitely happened before.
For this reason, I stuck to bottled beer (or I have to admit, a tequila shot here or there) my entire time in Asia. Bottles are opened right in front of you and have a very small opening at the top so it would be much harder for someone to mess with your drink. On top of that, there’s no ice or water involved in either.
It’s important to note: Red Bull in Thailand is not the same as Red Bull in the States. It comes in a glass bottle, it is thick and syrupy, and has 3 times the potency of the light carbonated Red Bull we’re used to in the sates. In my opinion, it’s absolutely disgusting and I wouldn’t touch it with a 39 1/2 foot pole.
Get ready for the best message of your life
I’ve had massages at award-winning spas in the US, and they don’t even begin to compare to the messages I got in Thailand. Literally the best message I’ve ever had was an hour long massage in which a little Thai man literally manhandled me. At times I wanted to cry, and then I stood up and my body felt like it was floating on air. The best part is this hour long message cost me $7 American. Yes, $7. I got a message just about every day I was there, and I’m not ashamed about it.
Toilets may be…different
Western style toilets will be the norm in larger cities and big hotels, but you’re more than likely going to come across quite a few Asian squat toilets. These are exactly what they sound like they are: a toilet on the ground that you just crouch and hover over to use. A lot of toilets in this part of the world do not do well with toilet paper so as a result you’ll rarely see any available to use. Instead of toilet paper, most toilets will have a small sprayer — or a handheld bidet — on the side of the toilet that you are to use to clean your bottom in place of toilet paper. Also in some bathrooms you’ll find a bucket of water and a pail next to the toilet. Pouring water from the bucket into the toilet is how you “flush”. Below is a picture of a squat toilet in all its glory.
Everyone is on “Thai time”
In all of my travels throughout Thailand I never stayed at a single hostel or hotel that had a clock in it. Literally not one. No one wears a watch and whenever I asked anyone local for the time they always gave me a puzzled look. No one in Thailand knows the time and no one cares what time it is. Thai people are extremely laid back, and are really never in a hurry for anything; which brings me to my next point…
Learn the art of “Mai Pen Rai”
“Mai Pen Rai” is basically the Thai version of “Hakuna Matata”. It means “no worries”. My sister is actually the first person who told me about “Mai Pen Rai”. She had spent a semester in college studying in Bangkok. While browsing a store and she accidentally knocked something ceramic off the shelf and it broke into a million pieces. As she hurried to pick it up the woman from the store came over to help. My sister began apologizing over and over again and saying she would pay for it. The little Thai woman grabbed her by the hands and said “oh no no, Mai Pen Rai! Mai Pen Rai!”. It truly is more than a catchy saying and is more like a life philosophy for Thai people.
Beware of petty scams
Thai people are inherently friendly. It isn’t called the land of smilies for nothing. That being said, there is definitely some petty crime and people trying to scam drunk (or just plain stupid) tourists. I recommend keeping your wallet in your front pocket. This makes pickpocketing much harder. If you’re a female I recommend having a purse that you can zip up and wear across your body. Just resting the purse on your shoulder makes it much easier to for someone to snatch it off you. I also recommend avoiding getting into quarrels with the police. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they have been known to put foreigners in bad situations if the opportunity presents itself and then demand money as your only way of getting off scot-free.
Avoid Animal Tourism
Animal tourism is a big deal in this part of the world. Many tourists have “riding an elephant” or “petting a tiger” on their bucket list. These things look amazing and definitely provide for good photos, but the truth is these animals are being drugged or severely abused in order for you to get that perfect picture. Unless you are visiting an reputable sanctuary, you are partaking in animal tourism and whether you want to believe it or not you are torturing and harming these beautiful animals.
Elephants have historically been abused into submission using torturous training methods and painful bullhooks to get them to the point where they will carry humans on their backs. Elephant backs are not as strong as people may think they are, and they are also not built for being ridden, like the back of a horse is.
Similarly, it is often advertised that you can get your picture taken right next to — or even petting — a full grown tiger. It literally pains me to write this, but these animals are highly drugged, almost to the point of sedation, in order to insure they sit there calmly for a picture. I have seen video footage of a tiger chained to a cement block, her head bobbing every few seconds because she is literally unable to stay awake from all the sedation drugs she’s been given. What’s even worse is that each time her head bobs down she is poked by a large metal stick in order to keep her “awake” and her head up while a huge line of tourists take turns getting their picture taken. This poor animal endures this for several hours per day.
I am telling you this might seem like a brag-worthy thing to do, but by taking part in this you are encouraging the torture of these animals. Please please please, I’m begging you: do not take part in this. It is inhumane and disgusting.
You’ve made it to the end! YAY! Now get out there and get excited for your trip to one of the most beautiful countries in the world! You’re going to love it!