The fun part of traveling stems from new insights, new experiences, and new knowledge. However, there are certain points of information that one should know before they visit a place like Thailand. In a country that’s bound to surprise you multiple times a day, it’s important to ensure these are the good types of surprises.
We’ll discuss a few key points regarding Thai politics, the local language, traffic, and proper dress. Then we’ll give some advice on avoiding smog and staying safe near monkeys. Most importantly, you’ll learn everything you could possibly need to know about bathrooms in Southeast Asia.
If you’re keenly aware of these subjects, you’ll be significantly more prepared than most of the tourists around you. You can save yourself the bad surprises in order to more greatly appreciate the good ones.
There are a lot of interesting political happenings in Thailand at the moment. In short, Thai’s democracy was overtaken by a military coup in 2014. The elected Prime Minister was ousted by the military and the country is now under military rule. While certainly intimidating in 2014, this won’t impact you as a tourist.
Thailand also has a Royal Family. In recent news, the Princess announced her intentions to run in the upcoming election against the coup. The King nixed this decision saying that Thailand’s Royal Family should not interfere with politics.
There are lese-majesty laws in the country, meaning that it is illegal to speak negatively about the King. It is interesting to talk to locals about their political beliefs, however, it is probably important to remember that it is illegal to speak negatively about the Royal Family.
Know the language
If you’re abroad and know a few key phrases in their language, you can usually have a better time interacting with the locals around you. Thai people love hearing you try to speak their language. It is a tonal language so it is rather hard to perfect. Most of the people you interact with will understand what you are trying to say. Also, check out our article on dealing with the Thai language.
Here are some words that will be helpful to learn during your stay:
Thank You = Kapoon krap (men) or Kapoon kaa (women)
Bathroom = Hongnaam
No = Mai Chai Krap (men) or Mai chai kaa (women)
Do you use the meter? = Chai meter mai
Go right = Leo kwaa
Go left = Leo saai
Skytrain = Rodfai faa
Subway = Rodfai dtaaidin
Never mind/C’iest la vie = Mai pen rai
Can you make it less expensive? = Lod noi dai mai
Mai ow = I do not want it.
I like spicy = Chan/Pom chawp pet
Not spicy = Mai pet
One of the best phrases you can learn is ‘mai pen rai’. This can be used in a variety of different situations and roughly translates to any of the following – ‘never mind’, ‘it’s okay’, ‘you’re welcome’, ‘don’t mention it’, ‘don’t worry’, and ‘such is life’.
You can use this phrase a lot because as a tourist, you’ll likely misjudge plenty of situations or do something you soon realize you shouldn’t have done. A quick ‘mai pen rai’ will make the locals around you smile in most situations.
If you can master a handful of these words, you will be the smartest tourist on your block. Not to mention, you’ll likely receive cheaper prices and better service for your efforts. Thai people appreciate when their culture is positively portrayed. Any interest a foreigner takes in another culture is often viewed as a sign of respect.
Haggling is commonly accepted.
Haggling is a very common practice in Thailand unless there are clearly marked, professional signs. If you want to receive a cheaper price, you’ll likely need to start with a lowball and meet somewhere in the middle. If you aim too low, you will likely disrespect someone trying to make an honest living.
There are plenty of situations where a seller will attempt to highball you on the price. Feel free to walk away before beginning to haggle. The seller will likely try to stop you from leaving by offering a second lower price.
Remember that you are in a unique situation. Many working-class Thai people who make their living selling goods/foods in the street could likely use the money. Before haggling, ask yourself if the few cents truly makes a difference to you. You’re already on the benefiting side since food is 4 times cheaper here than in the United States.
You can cross the street
The biggest concern for many people is traffic. Sidewalks are notoriously bad in many small streets in Thailand. The sidewalks of bigger streets are often torn apart, covered in trash, or partially under construction. Additionally, most Westerners are rather spoiled when it comes to walking near the streets.
We are used to commonly accepted practices like stopping for red lights, feeling safe while using a crosswalk, and crossing the street when zero cars are on the road. For safety reasons, you should pay extra close attention when walking near or across streets in Thailand. People die on the roads here and many more are injured daily.
Cities like Bangkok have invested in overpasses that allow pedestrians to cross the street above the hustle and bustle of the intersection below. Even these can be narrow, steep, and overwhelmingly crowded. In many situations, you will likely need to find a traffic light to cross the street.
As long as you move with purposeful intention and don’t doddle, you’ll do fine. If you make eye contact with a driver, you cannot change your mind half a second later. The unspoken agreement made through noticing each other is somewhat binding and he’ll use this to make movement decisions on the road.
Cars and motorbikes don’t follow red lights. They are overflowing with cargo. Streets are crowded and people are driving on the wrong side of the road. If you get in an accident here, it could very likely be deemed your fault. The best insurance (other than actual travel insurance) is constantly being attentive while walking near the street.
When crossing the street, you’ll have a stronger and safer crossing if you are in a small pack of people. The more people near you, the more power you have over a car’s decision to stop. If you acknowledge the driver and put up a hand to wave, many Thai drivers will be respectful and slow down for you.
Why act differently than at home?
I have observed the behavior of lots of tourists in Thailand. One common trend I’ve noticed is the willingness to behave differently than one would in their hometown. I fully endorse experiencing new things, but many of these different choices are available to us in the United States, too.
For example, many people decline to put on a seatbelt in their taxi. If you wouldn’t do it in a friend’s car, why would you alter your behavior in the backseat of a man who is financially incentivized to reach your destination as quickly as possible?
If you would never ride a motorcycle in your home country, why would you try to get on one in a country with significantly worse road conditions? Why would you opt to be surrounded by 1000 other people in a crowded intersection if you’d never try the same at home? We all want to have unique and authentic experiences – but judge yours carefully and make sure you’re capable first.
Another example is getting blackout drunk in the bars. While this likely doesn’t apply to the older tourist with a family, it certainly pertains to the young backpacker. If you wouldn’t black out in New York City with no ride home and no official identification, why would you order the bucket of liquor on Khao San Road? You don’t even speak the language!
While it’s important to say ‘yes’ to new experiences, just make sure you’re making smart decisions. There’s a strong likelihood that your insurance doesn’t act globally and you could quickly ruin your trip with a few seemingly harmless decisions. Who doesn’t love a good story though, eh?
Dress properly for temples
Asian cultures place a different emphasis on dress code than Western countries often do. This is especially important when you are visiting religious temples in Thailand. There is a very strict dress code that one must adhere to when visiting these areas.
You will notice several signs that explain the rules at almost every temple. In order to visit a building of religious significance, you must cover your shoulders and knees. More specifically, you need to wear pants no matter the temperature outside otherwise you will be barred from entry.
There are always a few tourists who explore the city blissfully unaware of these rules. You’ll notice them in the stores nearby the temple trying to haggle for overpriced elephant pants. You need to select a top that covers your shoulders (and ideally, your upper arms).
The rules don’t require you to dress up, but they do require you to cover up. You have to wear pants even if the temperature outside makes it look like you just jumped into a pool. When you finally enter the temple, you will be asked to remove your shoes to keep the area clean.
It is often considered taboo to take pictures of people who are praying. Remember that this is still a religious building that holds serious spiritual significance for many of the visitors. They may be praying about something serious and would prefer to not be photographed during this time.
The Grand Palace in Bangkok is notorious for having the most intense dress code regulations. You can often visit some of the smaller temples even if you forget one or two of the rules. The Grand Palace is no nonsense about this sort of thing and is creating a great revenue stream for the few clothing shops just outside the gate.
Smog and Pollution – You should get a mask. It also helps with smells.
Smog in Bangkok is absolutely horrendous. It is consistently ranked as one of the top 10 cities in terms of poor air quality. The rest of the country enjoys rather smog-free conditions most of the year. Though, Chiang Mai has a burning season once a year in the countryside North of the city.
This burning and smoky season in Chiang Mai occurs from February – April. Some years it starts earlier, other years it starts later in the season. The season will usually peak in March.
In almost all cases, it begins a few months after the rainy season and ends as the rainy season begins. Rain and constant storms do a good job of clearing out the smoke. These showers flush out the smog and help the city regain its fresh air.
The smoke is caused by human activity which is subject to change each year. This is why the season’s beginning and end are subject to change. The burning season isn’t exclusive to man-made fires, however. Wildfires are occasionally naturally occurring and certainly play a part in this part of Thailand.
Whether farmers are clearing land to begin their new set of crops or used in the hunting and trapping of wild animals, the people here certainly use fire often in their rural lifestyles.
Don’t get close to the monkeys
There are countless forums online where people seek advice after a close encounter with a monkey. In some cases, their phones or expensive cameras have been snatched away by a rather mean monkey. In more dangerous situations, people have been bitten or attacked by several at a nice. Generally speaking, these cute creatures act terribly in Thailand.
Monkeys in Thailand are usually the Thai macaque (though there are quite a few other species, as well). These creatures seldom exceed 2 feet tall and barely weigh more than a mid-sized dumbbell. Don’t be fooled by their tiny demeanor – these small little devils pack a punch.
Monkeys in Thailand put people in the hospital every week. Local governments have placed warning signs and created rules that disallow visitors from interacting with these monkeys, but it’s ruled like the Land of the Apes in certain parts of Thailand.
Many tourist areas still do encourage people to feed the monkeys. These areas with warning signs once acted this way, as well. If visitors are encouraged to bring treats for the macaques, they’ll become very reliant and used to being on the receiving end of whatever may be in a tourist’s had. This emboldens the cute little monsters.
It is commonplace for macaques to grab items out of people’s hands or act aggressively if they don’t get what they want. There are countless stories of people whose cameras are stolen by the monkeys. They end up needing to buy bananas they can use as bait to distract the monkey while they get their goods back.
These little pranksters bite hard and are happy to steal phones, bags, food, and any sort of plastic object you hold in your hand. If you see monkeys, observe from a distance. If you feel comfortable getting close to one, wait for an overeager Russian man to approach them first. You only need to wait a few minutes at any monkey-filled tourist spot before you can observe such an exchange.
The Toilet Situation
There is a new trend in the United States. Many people are opting to buy a new invention called ‘The Squatty Potty’. They are selling like hotcakes at a fair. This device sits underneath your toilet and positions your legs into a flexed squatting pose.
The invention is simple – it’s supposed to mimic the squat position without the actual physical challenge of holding a squat for an extended period of time. Scientifically speaking, this posture is better for your body’s excrement system as the human body was not built for toilets, a new invention.
Save yourself the $20 on a Squatty Potty because Asia offers an alternative for free. They’re called Squat Toilets and we guarantee – you’re gonna hate them at first. These toilets sit on the ground and are usually quite messy.
They come with a filled bucket of water and a small pail you use to wash down whatever is in the toilet. There is no flushing mechanism. You have to use the same physics lesson as shotgunning as beer.
While certainly not ideal for every traveler, you’ll likely encounter these at least once during your trip in Thailand. In many restrooms, you can also find a normal, traditional toilet. They’re normally in neighboring stalls at the bigger places. Try one for the story – when in Rome!
It’s an odd juxtaposition. Some parts of the country feature mainly squat toilets which feel primitive. Other neighborhoods almost exclusively offer bidets in their restrooms. The technology behind some of these bidets will make you feel as though you are living in 2040.
Most of these bidet features have upwards of 25 buttons and the writing is exclusively in Korean. There is iconography on each button but for some reason, these images often only make the setup more confusing. You can even adjust the temperature of the water to fit your specific needs.
There’s always one person in every group that likes to brag about how they’d never use a bidet. They explain that it feels gross and they don’t think it is clean. It is now your duty to remind these people that wiping your buttocks with a sheet of paper in your hand isn’t exactly high class.
If you accidentally stepped in dog poop barefoot, you wouldn’t wipe it off with a sheet of paper and then get on with your day. You would wash your foot with water and soap like a normal human being. Why should it be any different in regards to your toilet experience? Welcome to the future.
Bidets exist in some Thai toilets while squat toilets are the primary means in other areas. The most common fixture in a Thai bathroom is a ‘bum gun’. These odd hoses are fixated on the wall behind your toilet and can be confusing at first.
Here’s how they work – Most Thai plumbing systems cannot accommodate toilet paper like their American counterparts. They use less water, have less water pressure, and have smaller pipes. It is a common practice to have a waste bin beside the toilet and a sign that reads ‘Do not flush toilet paper’.
While certainly gross to many Westerners, this is a common practice in Asia. After wiping, throw the toilet paper into the trash receptacle beside you. After doing so, you can use the hose as a bidet. This ensures that it’s now received a paper treatment and water treatment. You should wait a minute or two so your underwear isn’t wet when you put your pants back on.
If you understand the logic behind Asian toilets, you won’t be so scared of them. You’ll just be intimidated, which is much better than being intimidated AND being afraid of the technology around you.
Public Transportation in Bangkok
If you’re staying in Bangkok and want to move around the city with ease, it is imperative that you select a hotel close to a public transportation stop. The two most popular transportation methods in Bangkok are the SkyTrain and the Metro.
It becomes pricey to take a taxi ride or two every single day. The roads are so crowded around the rush hours that your vehicle will barely move and you’ll be paying money to sit in a stalled vehicle. If you are in close proximity to these, you can save yourself the frequent 30-minute taxi ride through crowded, barely-moving Bangkok traffic. After all, the city is huge – it’s the same size as New York City.
Street Food is Safe
Many people have a number of negative misconceptions when they think about street food. We have more regulations in the Western world regarding food than almost every other place in the world. While these regulations certainly seek to protect us, they also deprive us of some incredibly tasty and cheap eats.
Lack of refrigeration is a huge deterrent for many people who are on the fence about trying food from a stall. The average street food vendor buys food fresh that morning. You don’t need to keep meat refrigerated if it will only be out for a few hours at the most.
On the contrary, many restaurants in Thailand have over a hundred items on their menu. Imagine just how many ingredients a kitchen needs to stock in order to accommodate all these potential items.
A popular kitchen is busy and they need to open the refrigerator hundreds of times a day. This means that the refrigerator is barely able to keep these goods cold. With hundreds of items to choose from, many of these ingredients end up sitting in the kitchen for days and even weeks.
Street food vendors only get their food that morning as they usually have no place to store food overnight. This ensures a certain freshness. Not to mention, the majority of street food is cooked a grill directly in front of you. Heat kills off many germs and it’s hard to cook a food item like satay pork incorrectly.
There are plenty of countries where I would think twice before eating the street food. Thailand is certainly not one of them. If you skip these stalls, you are hurting your experience abroad. Most of the best restaurants are situated on a street corner with tiny plastic chairs in the nearby vicinity for visiting patrons.
All in all, Thailand is a fantastic country to visit because the citizens are warm, receptive, and helpful to newcomers who wish to explore and appreciate their culture. It’s a land full of surprises and excitement. You literally have no idea what may happen when you get on that boat taxi or when you start walking down Khao San Road.
If you’re prepared for the surprises that people tend to dislike, you’ll be in a mental state that’s keenly aware of how to solve these micro problems. You’ll likely have a more fun trip to Thailand if you learn to appreciate the differences, as opposed to complaining about them. That’s why we travel after all!
Is Thailand safe?
Yes, Thailand is a very safe country. While pickpocketing and small crime might be more likely in Thailand than in your home country, more intense crimes are actually less likely to occur. Tourism is a huge industry for Thailand and as such, they implement very strict laws for citizens who endanger the tourism industry with violence or crime. Every city will feel safe but you should still take the necessary precautions and act responsibly.
What are the most common scams in Thailand?
There aren’t many scams you will be frequently exposed to in Thailand. The most common frustration for people is tourist pricing. The cost of admission to many attractions and the cost of certain foods is normally more expensive than what a local Thai-speaking citizen would pay. There are several scams that involve taxis, which is why many people prefer to choose Grab. Always make sure your taxi driver uses a meter.