Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Quick Primer for First-time Visitors to Thailand

A short few years ago, my nephew came to Thailand for the first time.  If I must say so myself, I took his parameters into account, designed, and executed a "world-class" tour of Thailand. Actually, I had been doing this for individuals and groups for a half-century in the USA, Canada, and Asia. Experience includes high school and college senior trips, industrial tours, ski trips (in the USA, Canada and Japan), cultural tours, adventure hiking, wilderness survival treks and more.  If other vocations fall through, at least I have "tour guide" and "tour agency" to fall back on.  Applying my experience to my nephew's first trip to Thailand, we pulled off a tour to remember (marred by just a day and-a-half recovering from food poisoning. Ah yes, can happen to the most experienced, jaded tourist).

Since moving to Thailand nearly 15 years ago, I've traveled the length and breadth of the country by jet, propeller plane, bus, pickup, speedboat, ferry, taxi, van, songthaew, samlor, tuk-tuk, motorbike, bicycle,and on foot. I've been on group tours (6 to 150 persons), but mostly enjoyed independent travel. I've traveled first class through fourth class (just a little under "backpacker" status).

For Thailand first-time travelers, I decided to put in writing my best tips for Thai travel.  I'm hoping a first-time tourist will stumble across this blog entry and make use of it.  Comments are welcome--especially if you disagree.


There are certainly generic tips for the traveler to Thailand which should apply to most people, as follows.

  • Do NOT drive in Thailand (renting cars, jeeps, motor bikes, scooters). Thailand has the second-highest road deaths in the world (only exceeded by Lybia). = It is dangerous because many Thais do not have licenses (ergo: no driver's training) or are underage. Enforcement of traffic laws is spotty  Further, the Thai mentality on the road is what I call "brinksmanship." Cut as many corners and engage in as many dangerous maneuvers as possible to show your driving "acumen." Passing on corners/hills, speeding, tailgating, and erratic lane changes are commonplace.  Thousands of tourists DO rent cars/motorbikes, but they have a disproportionately higher rate of road deaths than even the general populace, because they don't understand Thai road mentality. I had five accidents in my first year (riding a motorbike), and only by the grace of God am I writing blog entries years later.  I now drive a monster pickup (my "tank"), but still have close calls nearly every day. I've had at least six guardian angels suffer breakdowns.  OK, hopefully I've made my point.

  • To travel over 200-300 kilometers, I would use the discount airlines (Air Asia, Nok Air, Tiger Airlines, Kan Air, Lion Air).

  • If you must take a bus for longer distances, do not use overnight buses. That's when the vast majority of bus accidents happen. We literally have 1-2 fatal bus accidents every week here, as drivers are untrained and the equipment is faulty.  Almost all happen between midnight and 6am.

  • Aside from discount airlines travel, my favorite mode for long distance is by rail. Train routes are not plentiful, but they do get you between some of the major areas of Thailand.They are slow, but safety and relaxation are the trade-offs.  Further, you can save a hotel bill by traveling overnight.  I prefer 2nd class sleeper coach (air conditioned, comfortable and clean beds, etc.). During the day, they fold up the beds into seating arrangements. I suggest taking all your food with you on the train as train-provided fare is expensive and sub-standard. Thailand has just initiated online rail ticket booking (https://www.thairailwayticket.com/eTSRT/), so making arrangements ahead of time is convenient. 

  • As in all third-world and developing countries, tourist scams are big.  Here's a helpful article from the USA Embassy as well:https://th.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/common-scams/. While tourist scams are a problem, I believe Thailand is more tourist-friendly, and a safer destination than most of the 10 ASEAN countries. Certainly better than the ones I've traveled in: Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, and Myanmar.

  • Food Safety: While the wonderful tastes of Thailand, especially the prevalent street food, need to be tried, there are a few tips which will contribute to good travel health.  Eat only food that has been cooked on order, or very recently cooked (within a couple of hours). Drink only bottled water that has a plastic seal. Be careful about ice (it can come from questionable sources). When unsure about the sanitation of a restaurant, I always check the restroom. It's a good indicator of how clean the kitchen probably is. Even with the above precautions, bring some medications for diarrhea and stomach upset. My nephew and I were laid up 1.5 days with food poisoning on our trip. (Excuse the earlier “world-class” reference).  But I had checked the restroom AFTER we ate! Bad move!

  • Seven-11 convenience stores are everywhere in Thailand. They'll save your neck at least once or twice while traveling here. Uniform quality of products, good service, and products familiar to westerners are the attraction. You can find umbrellas, mosquito spray/lotions, tissues, toiletries, simple medications (cough remedies, band-aids, etc.) and quick snacks here. You can buy a cheap cell phone and buy minutes for it.  I even pay all my utility bills and airline ticket purchases at 7-11's. My friend pays his car payments there. Our uni. students can pay their tuition bill there as well. Quite versatile.

  • One additional thought on tourist scams (previous email). Almost NEVER will a Thai stranger approach you and initiate conversation. Generally, Thais are very shy with foreigners.  If one does approach you, you can be sure he has something up his sleeve. Be cautious.  

  • Always count your change in front of the change-giver. It's not considered rude. Always check the math on the restaurant bill in front of the waiter/waitress. It's also not considered rude. Reason? Not necessarily a scam. However, math skills are generally much lower than in the West. It's usually a genuine mistake.

  • Few restrooms outside of Bangkok have toilet tissue. If fact, generally Thais do not use TP. They prefer a water spray which is installed near most toilets. If TP is used, it is to be tossed into the restroom waste can---not down the toilet (as Asian sewer systems cannot handle TP). So, if you must use TP, carry a travel packet of tissues with you.

  • Also, carry a small bottle of bug spray for the restroom mosquitos (sometimes even handy for your hotel room). Dengue fever and malaria are a travel risk in Thailand, borne by mosquitos.

  • Most restrooms (even at the airports) have nothing to dry your hands with after washing.   Men usually use their handkerchiefs or "drip dry," and women use tissues they carry with them.  Many restrooms in restaurants have a "common towel." Stick with your hankies and tissues!


  • The foot is considered a repulsive (even offensive)  part of the human anatomy (think "mooning" someone with one's derriere).  Don't rest your foot on a chair or table.  While sitting, don't point it at anyone who can see you  (like in a room of people sitting in a circle).  Don't use your foot to retrieve an eating utensil or anything else you may have dropped. By all means, don't step on Thai money with the king's image on it (a jailable offense). I gestured with my foot toward a low-hanging painting of Thai-royalty in an art museum once, and I thought my Thai guide would pass out from shock.

  • Generally Thais are much more soft-spoken than Westerners--especially Americans.  Talking in a loud voice in restaurants, on public transportation, or in personal conversation in a room is considered crude.  Exception to the rule:  drunk Thais, and "country Thais" trying to get someone's attention.  In this case, some of the Thai ladies' voices can crack concrete.  

  • When visiting temples:  no sleeveless shirts/blouses, no shorts, and take off your shoes.

  • At a restaurant, the waiter/waitress will give you the menu and then stand there while you peruse it, waiting to take your order. This drives westerners crazy. Just ignore the waitperson and take your time. It's not considered rude.  If you tell them to go away until you decide, you may never get them to come back in a reasonable amount of time. In their mind, telling them to go away was rude.

  • Never, ever, say anything negative about royalty or inquire into the personal details of royalty (sensitive history, health, assets, etc.).  It is a criminal offense as Thai lesè majeste laws are strictly enforced.

  • Right now, Thailand is ruled by a military junta. Any public criticism of the current government is ill-advised in public conversation or on social media.

  • Restaurant dishes are rarely served all at once. The appetizer may come at the end of the meal. The dessert might come somewhere in the middle. After everyone is done eating, one dish might still be on its way. Normal.

  • When conversing with a new Thai friend, the following are common topics of questions you'll get on the first meeting:
    • What religion are you? Are you a Christian?
    • What do you think about Donald Trump? 
    • Can you eat spicy (spicy-hot) food?
    • How much is that ring? (camera? necklace? iPad? etc.)
    • Are you married?
    • How much money do you make? (my response: "Never enough")
    • Possibly other "personal" questions.  Roll with it. No harm meant.

  • The "third gender" is very prevalent in Thailand.  Thais often use the English "ladyboys" and "toms").  This social phenomenon is more open than in the West. Must be something in the water.  After your initial shock of meeting a few, just ignore it, is my best advice.

  • One more thing, however: one of the greatest things about living or visiting Thailand is the wonderful food. One of the best internet sources about Thai food is from a British guy who teaches school here, Richard Barrow.  I think he's been here for about 20 years.  Here's his Thai food blog: http://paknam.com/thai-food-blogs/  It's well worth the read for someone planning to come here for a week or a lifetime.  I dare anyone to read it without becoming ravenous.


Of course, to tailor a first-rate trip to Thailand, travelers must also consider the following additional variables, especially in regards to destinations and activities.

1) Age range.

2) Travel style:  Backpackers (hostels and buses)? "Comfort travel" (higher-end hotels, jet travel, etc.)?   Or somewhere in between?

3) Interests:   Into adventure (jungle trekking, zip-lines, adventure sports, etc.)  or culture/history/landmarks, or natural beauty?  (Or a combination of any of those?)

4) Activities:  Do they like sea-related activities? (kayaking, island-hopping, soaking in the sun on a beach, swimming, snorkeling, diving, etc.?  Are they into "city life?" (clubs, bars, plays, movies, etc.)?   Do they like to shop (light souvenir purchases; or heavy shopping for clothes, collectibles, etc.)?

5) Overall goals: Do they prefer the established tourist destinations within a country, or are they into "off the beaten-track" travel?


Putting the earlier general tips together with the variable factors immediately above, a traveler's first-time visit to Thailand should consist of less unpleasant surprises, and more delightful unexpected experiences.

Happy traveling!

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