Thailand is a country that’s been at the top of my travel wish list for years, over seven to be precise. And yet, every tidbit on this list was something that I learned only through traveling there for the first time. These 21 things to know before traveling to Thailand are meant to be a guide for first time travellers.
But first, background on my Thailand love affair.
On my radar as a country that would be nice to visit one day, my interest increased tenfold after working on their tourism advertising.
Imagine loving to travel, coming into work and getting to help archetype social strategy, as well as produce content for Thailand’s tourism channels (targeting Westerners). It was an absolute dream.
And yet, somehow, Thailand never made its way into my travel plans in the years that followed. Truthfully, I think I always struggled to commit to taking a full two weeks (what I felt would be needed at minimum) to explore one country when there were so many other places I wanted to see.
Having the luxury to spend almost a month in Thailand as part of backpacking SE Asia has been unbelievable.
It’s still not enough time- I’d love to spend more time in Chiang Mai, visit Pai and make my way to Khao Sok National Park. Plus, as much as I’ve complained about Bangkok’s traffic- I’d like to spend another day or two there to visit ancient Ayutthaya.
All the more reason to come back someday.
You’d have thought with all the years I spent dreaming of visiting this beautiful country, I’d have done tons of planning research to prepare for my trip.
Well, yes, to an extent. I did enough research to know where I wanted to visit, key things to see, and read up on customs and cultural differences to better understand what I’d experience.
Some things though, you learn by doing. And, having spent a month in Thailand, these are the things I’ve learned during my time here no one told me before I arrived. By nature, they’re all things that would have made my first few days, if not the entire first week, a bit easier. And, so, cue, a roster of things to know before traveling to Thailand.
21 Things to Know Before Traveling to Thailand
Lots of people work really hard to keep you comfortable. Let me say that again- a lot of people work really hard to keep you comfortable. As with when I ventured to Tulum, I’m irritated when tourists complain about ferries that are late, brief power outages, or any small inconvenience where they are not in danger or actually threatened. That sense of adventure or feeling or remoteness you desire in your holiday comes at a cost- sometimes, that means accepting that you are indeed on a tropical (distant) island and taking whatever minor (in the grand scheme of things) inconveniences in stride.
Unlock your phone and use a local SIM: This may not be possible, based on your phone plan, but knowing I’d be breaking my contract with EE, I used an online service to unlock my phone so I’d be able to use local SIMs while travelling SE Asia. By comparison, EE was charging me £5-10 a day for a few MBs of data (outrageous). The 30 day SIM I’m using in Thailand with unlimited data cost £18. If you can do it, it’s worth it- I’m all for disconnecting, but it’s been a lifesaver for using maps and calling Grabs (SE Asia version of Uber). If unlocking is not an option for you, you can still try using wifi to call Grabs / access internet. And, the airport or a shopping mall is the easiest place to grab a travel SIM.
3 Must Pack Items: Sunscreen / aloe vera, mosquito spray, light, breezy casual clothing.
Ladies, Sports Bras Only: Seriously, it’s so hot and humid, I can’t even imagine wearing a normal bra (coming from someone who wears a C cup). Low impact sports bras are where it’s at- the last thing you want are things chafing, sticking, etc.
Try to Dress Conservatively: Conservative means something different to everyone, but if you look at how locals dress- they often cover more skin (even when it’s hot) and opt for very light fabrics. A lot of Westerners on the other hand tend to wear heavier fabrics (jean shorts, for example) and show as much skin as possible. I’m not saying you have to dress like Thais, but I always try to be respectful of local culture when I’m visiting a foreign country, and sometimes that means being a bit more modest in dress.
Taxi Taking Tips: In Bangkok, no one wanted to turn on the metre. In Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, I used Grab any time I needed a taxi (vs. tuk tuk or songthaew) so I never had to ask for the metre.
Back to Bangkok: Every driver I encountered from the airport, to hotels, to ones on the street wanted me to agree to a flat price vs. turning on the metre. The logic here is simple: The flat price benefits the driver- usually by at least 2-3x. Asking them to turn on the metre wasn’t enough- I had to be really aggressive in insisting they turn it on.
An example here: From DMK (Bangkok’s smaller airport) to my hotel, I was quoted 500 baht. I asked for the metre to be turned on instead, and even with heavy traffic, driver fees and tolls, I only paid 350 baht. 150 baht may not seem like a big deal, but it adds up and when you’re on a budget, every baht matters.
More things to know before traveling to Thailand-
Drink More Water Than You Think You Need: Acclimating to SE Asia my first week was tough, but I drank a lot of water and tried to make sure I was inside during the hottest parts of the day. With all the sweating you’re bound to be doing, you need to replace that fluid- and no, mai tais don’t count. 😉
And, On That Note- Drink Cold Things: Seems like a no brainer, but it took me almost a week in SE Asia to order my first fruit smoothie (or, as they call them- fruit shakes). Whatever it may be- a smoothie, iced coffee or iced tea- drinking iced beverages helps bring your body temperature down.
Speaking of Smoothies, Ask for ‘No Sugar’: Everything is sweetened with sugar- coffee, tea, smoothies. Thais believe it enhances the flavour. Coming from the West, I’ll never understand why they want to alter the flavour of what I consider fresh, tropical fruits, but no biggie- just ask for whatever you order with ‘no sugar’ unless you’re into things that are extra sweet.
Pack a Global Charger: I travel with a universal charger, so I never need to worry, but I noticed some hotels in Bangkok needed my Asia setting and others in Thailand had outlets suited for a Europe setting.
Always Carry Baht: Most places, unless they’re upmarket, are cash only. And, even if they do accept card- there’s likely a 500 or 1,000 baht minimum spend. No need to exchange at an airport- just withdraw from an ATM, I use Revoult so there are no foreign transaction fees.
Bring Luggage Locks: If you’re taking buses, trains or the ferry (most likely for island travel), bring locks for your luggage. All the luggage is often stored together at the front/back of a boat and it’s likely you won’t be seated near your bags. I’ve heard so many reports of theft, it just doesn’t make sense to not lock your luggage- in my opinion, this applies for any country and is just good travel etiquette.
Pack a Scarf/Sarong: Women, you’ll need to cover your legs past your knees, and shoulders/upper arms when entering Thai temples. I usually wear a midi / maxi dress or trousers and then bring a scarf to ensure I’m covered on top. If you forget, a lot of temples let you rent items for a cost. Always check a temple’s rules (if they don’t have a website, try TripAdvisor for tips from others who have visited).
One thing to note, the strictest temple in Thailand is the Grand Palace in Bangkok. You must wear trousers/a skirt that covers well below the knees and a t-shirt. A scarf won’t cut it- it has to be a t-shirt.
Never Point Your Feet at Buddha: Thais consider this to be a serious sign of disrespect. Pay attention in the temples and you’ll notice Thais worship on their knees (feet behind) or sitting sideways on their feet tucked to the side. Standing directly in front of Buddha? Point your feet in a V, an easy way to ensure you don’t unknowingly offend anyone.
On that Note, Don’t do Anything in a Temple You Wouldn’t Do in a Church (or other place of worship): Temples are a place of worship. Be respectful with photography or video and in observing anyone who is worshipping.
If You Encounter Them, Respect the Monks: Thais highly respect monks. If you come across one, keep your head below theirs as you pass- duck if you need to. And, do not touch them or take photos of their faces (the latter is just rude).
Remove Your Shoes Before Entering: Thais believe feet are the dirtiest part of the body, it’s why they’re cleansed before a massage and shoes are removed before walking into a home/store/temple. Always take your shoes off when entering a home or temple. When in doubt at a store, look to see if there are other shoes by the door. If they are, take yours off. I always find it better to err on the side of caution and remove.
Bring Hand Sanitizer and Tissues: Most of the time, there isn’t toilet paper in public bathrooms (cue the tissues). And, in public bathrooms and cities, I find having hand sanitizer critical. Especially if I’m going to be eating street food while wandering.
Don’t Expect Everyone to Speak English: For as developed as parts of Thailand are, don’t expect to find fluent English- even at restaurants frequented by tourists or your hotel. Remember, this is Thailand- people speak Thai. Most of the time, at least one person on the wait staff will know transactional English, which should be enough to get you by. Need help translating? Google Translate is my go-to.
Tipping Isn’t Always Necessary: At street stands or small restaurants, you don’t need to tip. But, if someone takes your order and delivers food, consider leaving a few baht- 10-20 per person (depending on the cost of your meal). In nice establishments, consider leaving 10-15%- think super attentive server, elegant touches- the works.
Know Your Plans May Not Work Out: As with travel anywhere, nature is nature. If you need a long tail boat to get to a resort but it’s storming, you may have to spend a night on the mainland. It’s just how it goes, and why travel insurance is so important- I always use World Nomads.
And finally- just remember to relax and try to have a good time. It’s okay to ask questions or for help, just as long as you’re not rude in the process.
Remember, you’re experiencing a new country, full of unfamiliar sights, sounds and things. It’s okay if everything doesn’t work out exactly ‘to plan’- you never know what you’ll discover, sometimes it may be even better than what had imagined.
These things to know before traveling to Thailand aren’t meant to completely prepare you for your visit- but, rather, make your visit a bit more enjoyable. As with travel to any place new, you should still expect to be uncomfortable at times, and learn as you go.
Have you ever been to Thailand? What tips would you give to someone visiting for the first time? Did you know any of these ‘things to know before traveling to Thailand’ when you visited?
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