Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand is a country in South-East Asia with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the north-west, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the south-east and Malaysia to the south. With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture and great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers the world over. Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in South-East Asia, and for a reason. You can find almost anything here: thick jungle as green as can be, crystal blue beaches that feel more like a warm bath than a swim in the ocean and food that can curl your nose hairs while tap dancing across your taste buds. Exotic, yet safe; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beach front backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential Thainess, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle. Many travelers come to Thailand and extend their stay well beyond their original plans and others never find a reason to leave. Whatever your cup of tea is, they know how to make it in Thailand.
Major Cities in Thailand
- Bangkok – Thailand’s bustling, frenetic capital
- Ayutthaya – a historical city, world heritage site and old capital of Thailand
- Chiang Mai – the capital of the North and the heart of Lanna culture
- Chiang Rai – gateway to the Golden Triangle
- Hat Yai – largest city in the Southern region
- Kanchanaburi – home of the Bridge over the River Kwai
- Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) – main city in the Isaan region
- Pattaya – one of the main tourist destinations
- Sukhothai – Thailand’s first capital
- Surat Thani – Main city of Ko Samui Ko Pha Ngan Ko Tao and Srivijaya Empire.
Islands & Beaches:
- Ko Lipe – Small island in the middle of Tarutao National Park amazingly unspoilt, great reefs and beaches absolutely stunning, a must see.
- Ko Chang – once quiet island undergoing major tourism development
- Krabi – Southern beach and watersports Mecca, includes Ao Nang, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta
- Ko Lanta – sleepy southern island with rapidly developing tourism
- Ko Pha Ngan – site of the famous Full Moon Party with miles of quiet coastline
- Ko Samet – the nearest island beach escape from Bangkok
- Koh Samui – comfortable, nature, and entertainment hippie mecca gone upmarket
- Ko Tao – Small Island neighbor of Samui
- Phuket – the original Thai paradise island now very developed but still with some beautiful beaches remaining
- Rai Leh – stunning beach by the limestone cliffs of Krabi, rock climbers mecca
National Parks in Thailand:
- Ang Thong National Marine Park – in Surat Thani Province
- Khao Sok National Park – in Surat Thani Province
- Ko Phi Phi – Thailands largest Marine National Park and backpacker favorite where The Beach was filmed
- Khao Yai National Park – in Isaan
- Ko Chang National Park – in Trat Province
- Similan Islands – in Phang Nga province
- Tarutao National Park – in Satun Province
Thailand is largely tropical, so it’s hot and humid all year around with temperatures in the 28-35°C range (82-95°F), a degree of relief provided only in the mountains in the far north of Thailand. The careful observer will, however, note three seasons:
- Cool: From November to the end of February, it doesn’t rain much and temperatures are at their lowest, although you will barely notice the difference in the south and will only need to pack a sweater if hiking in the northern mountains, where temperatures can fall as low as 5°C. This is the most popular time to visit and, especially around Christmas and New Year’s, finding flights and accommodation can be expensive and difficult.
- Hot: From March to June, Thailand swelters in temperatures as high as 40°C (104°F). Pleasant enough when sitting on the beach with a drink in hand, but not the best time of year to go temple-tramping in Bangkok.
- Rainy: From July to October, although it only really gets underway in September, tropical monsoons hit most of the country. This doesn’t mean it rains non-stop, but when it does it pours and flooding is not uncommon.
There are local deviations to these general patterns. In particular, the south-east coast of Thailand (including Ko Samui) has the rains reversed, with the peak season being May-October and the rainy off season in November-February.
People and Culture of Thailand
Thailand’s people are largely Thais, although there are significant minorities of Chinese and assimilated Thai-Chinese throughout the country, Muslims in the south near the Malaysian border and hill tribes such as the Karen and the Hmong in the north of the country. The overwhelmingly dominant religion (95%) is Theravada Buddhism, although Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and animist faiths also jostle for position. The people respects the royalty, the King and the Queen, very much. Even pointing fingers to the picture of them is considered bad.
Mainland Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand’s Buddhists follow the Therevada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable thanks to their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous and becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men.
One pre-Buddhist tradition that still survives is the spirit house (ศาลพระภูมิ saan phraphuum), usually found at the corner of any house or business, which houses spirits so they don’t enter the house and cause trouble. The grander the building, the larger the spirit house, and buildings placed in particularly unlucky spots may have very large ones. Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, which protects the Erawan Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Erawan) – built in 1956 on a former execution ground – and is now one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the city.
Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country’s best known indigenous sport.
In addition to the mainland Thai culture, there are many other cultures in Thailand including those of the “hill tribes” in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand (e.g., Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the southern Muslims, and indigenous island peoples of the Andaman Sea.
How to Get in Thailand?
Ordinary passport holders of many Western and Asian countries, including the United States, Canada, most European Union countries, Russia, most ASEAN countries, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia, do not need a visa if their purpose of visit is tourism. Visitors arriving by air receive 30-day permits (except for citizens of Korea, Brazil and Peru who get 90 days), but effective December 15, 2008, those arriving by land are only allowed 15 days. Thai immigration requires visitors’ passports to have a minimum of 6 months validity and at least one completely blank visa page remaining. Visa-on-arrival is available at certain entry points for passport holders of 20 other nations, including India and China. Check the latest scoop from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By law, you must carry your passport with you at all times.
Proof of onward transit, long happily ignored by Thai immigration, has been known to be strictly applied in some instances. (Airlines, who have to pay for your return flight if immigration doesn’t let you in, also check this.) A print-out of an e-ticket on a budget airline is sufficient to convince the enforcers, but those planning on continuing by land may have to get a little creative. Buying a fully refundable ticket and getting it refunded once in Thailand is also an option. Land crossings, on the other hand, are a very straightforward process and no proof of onward journey required (unless the border officials decide otherwise).
Overstaying in Thailand is dodgy. If you make it to Immigration and are less than 10 days over, you’ll probably be allowed out with a fine of 500 baht per day. However, if for any reason you’re busted overstaying by regular cops — and drug raids etc are fairly common — you’ll be carted off to the notoriously unpleasant illegal immigrant holding pens and may be blacklisted from Thailand entirely. For most people it’s not worth the risk: get a legal extension or do a visa run to the nearest border instead.
There are plenty of airlines offering flights to Thailand from major UK airports including London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Aberdeen, Belfast, Glasgow, Cardiff, New Castle, London Gatwick. Bangkok is one of Asia’s largest hubs as well as the busiest airport in Southeast Asia; practically every airline that flies to Asia also flies to Bangkok, meaning competition is stiff and prices are low. There are also international flights directly to/from Chiang Mai, Ko Samui, Phuket, Krabi and Udon Thani.
The national carrier is the well-regarded THAI Airways, with Bangkok Airways filling in some gaps in the nearby region. Bangkok Airways offers free internet access while you wait for boarding to start at your gate. Chartered flights from and to Thailand from international destinations are operated by Hi Flying group. They fly to Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui and Udon Thani. Many low-cost carriers serve Thailand – see Discount airlines in Asia for an up to date list.
Cambodia – six international border crossings. The highway from Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor via Poipet to Aranyaprathet, once the stuff of nightmares, is now merely bad and can usually be covered in less than 3 hours.
Laos – the busiest border crossing is at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong between Nong Khai and the Lao capital Vientiane. It’s also possible to cross the Mekong at Chiang Khong / Huay Xai, Nakhon Phanom / Tha Khaek, Mukdahan / Savannakhet, and elsewhere.
Vientiane / Udon Thani – A bus service runs from the Morning Market bus station in Vientiane to the bus station in Udon Thani. The cost is 80 Baht or 22,000 Kip and the journey takes two hours. The Udon Thani airport is 30 minutes by Tuk Tuk from the bus station and is served by Thai Airways, Nok Air and Air Asia.
Malaysia and Singapore – driving up is entirely possible, although not with a rented vehicle. Main crossings (with name of town on Malaysian side in brackets) between Thailand and Malaysia are Padang Besar (Padang Besar) and Sadao (Bukit Kayu Hitam) in Songkhla province, Betong (Pengkalan Hulu) in Yala province, and Sungai Kolok (Rantau Panjang) in Narathiwat province. There are regular buses across the border, mostly to the southern hub of Hat Yai.
Thailand’s sole international train service links to Butterworth (near Penang) and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, continuing all the way to Singapore. Tickets are cheap even in first class sleepers, but it can be a slow ride; the 2-hour flight to Singapore will take you close to 48 hours by rail, as you have to change trains twice. The luxury option is to take the Eastern & Oriental Express, a refurbished super-luxury train that runs along the same route once per week, with gourmet dining, personal butler service and every other colonial perk you can think of. However, at around US$1000 one-way just from Bangkok to Butterworth, this is approximately 30 times more expensive than an ordinary first-class sleeper!
While you can’t get to Laos or Cambodia by train, you can get very close, with railheads just across the border at Nong Khai (across the river from Vientiane) and Aranyaprathet (for Poipet, on the road to Siem Reap). A link across to Mekong to Laos is supposed to open in March 2009, but service to Cambodia remains on the drawing board. There are no rail services to Myanmar, but the Thai part of the infamous Burma Death Railway is still operating near Kanchanaburi.
What you can do in Thailand
Thailand’s a big enough country that you can find a place to practice almost any outdoor sport. Some selections:
- Golf – see the separate Golf in Thailand article
- Rock climbing – the cliffs of Rai Leh in Krabi are arguably among the best in the world
- Scuba diving – easily accessible Ko Tao and Ang Thong National Marine Park (near Ko Samui) draws the crowds, but also possible in Pattaya and Krabi, and the Similan Islands are worth the journey. See also Diving in Thailand
- Trekking – very popular up north around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
- Surfing – possible in Khao Lak, Phuket and Koh Samui
- Liveaboard Diving see the separate Diving in Thailand article
- Spas – Although spas weren’t introduced here until the early 1990s, Thailand has quickly become the second-highest ranking spa destination in the world. There are a phenomenal variety of spa types, and spas can be found at almost every destination in the country. The most popular spas can be found at major tourism destinations such as Phuket, Pattaya, Hua Hin, Bangkok, Ko Samui and Chiang Mai.
- Medical tourism – Many travellers go to Thailand to undergo medical treatments at a fraction of the cost charged in their home countries. The renowned Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok attracts on average 400,000 foreign patients per year or an average of 1,000+ a day. Other hospitals, such as Samitivej also specialize in serving foreigners. Private hospitals in Thailand are accredited by the government according to standards that meet or exceed those in North America, and many of the doctors in Thailand hold international accreditation and relevant licenses. Popular treatments, ranging from cosmetic, organ transplants and orthopedic treatments to dental and cardiac surgeries, are available at a price much lower than the US or Europe. Treatments also include physical and mental therapies.
The official language of Thailand is Thai. Thai is a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying “yes.” versus “yes?” – that’s tonal) which can make it tricky for Westerners to learn quickly, but despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrasebook and give it a go. Thai is a language with many dialects, though the Bangkok dialect, also known as Central Thai, is used as the standard and is taught in all schools. Language schools can be found in all larger Thai cities, including Bangkok and Phuket.
In the Muslim-dominated south, dialects of Malay that are somewhat incomprehensible to speakers of standard Malay/Indonesian are spoken. Various dialects of Chinese are spoken by the ethnic Chinese community, with Teochew being the dominant dialect in Bangkok Chinatown, and Cantonese speakers also forming a sizeable minority among the Chinese community. Down south in Hat Yai, Hokkien is also widely understood due to the large number of tourists from Penang. The eastern Isaan dialects are closely related to Lao and there are dozens of small language groups in the tribal areas of the north, some so remote that Thai speakers are few and far between.
Public signage is generally bilingual, written in both Thai and English. There is also some prevalance of Japanese and Chinese signs. Where there is English, it is usually be fairly phonetic – for example “Sawatdee” (meaning hello) is pronounced just as it reads: sa-wat-dee. There is no universal agreement on how to transcribe Thai letters that don’t have an English equivalent, so Khao San Road for example is also commonly spelt Kao Sarn, Kao Sahn, Khao San, Koh Saan, Khaosan, and many other variations. Maps with names in both Thai and English make it easier for locals to try and help you.
Most “front desk” people in the travel industry speak at least enough English to communicate, and many are relatively fluent; some also speak one or more other languages popular with their clientele, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, etc. Many Thais have trouble pronouncing the consonant clusters of the English language. Common confusion comes from the fact that Thais often pronounce “twenty” as “TEH-wen-ty”, making it sound like they’re saying “seventy”. Therefore it is a good idea to make use of the calculators that street vendors may offer you in order to avoid confusion about prices offered when buying goods.
Long-simming tension between pro- and anti-government groups came to head in 2008, with the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) first blockading several airports in the South for a few days in summer and in November taking over both of Bangkok’s airports for a week, causing immense disruption to tourism and the Thai economy. However, while several protesters were killed or injured in scuffles, by and large the protests were peaceful and no tourists were harmed.
Following the resignation of the prime minister in December 2008, things have gone back to normal for time being, but the situation remains unstable. Keep an eye on the news and try to keep your plans flexible.
Thailand has more than its fair share of scams, but most are easily avoided with a modicum of common sense. More a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by touts, taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait by important monuments and temples and waylay Western travellers, telling them that the site is closed for a “Buddhist holiday”, “repairs” or a similar reason. The ‘helpful’ driver will then offer to take the traveller to another site, such as a market or store. Travellers who accept these offers will often end up at out-of-the-way markets with outrageous prices – and no way to get back to the center of town where they came from. Always check at the front gate of the site you’re visiting to make sure it’s really closed.
Some Tuk-tuk drivers might demand much higher price than agreed, or they might take you to a sex show, pretending they didn’t understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who propose their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Don’t buy any sightseeing tours at the airport. If you do, they will phone several times to your hotel in order to remind you about the tour. During the tour, you will be shortly taken to a small temple, without a guide, and then one shop after another (they get commissions). They might refuse to take you back home until you see all the shops. On your way back, they pressure you to buy more tours.
Easily identified with practice, it is not uncommon in tourist areas to be approached by a clean cut, well dressed man who often will be toting a cellphone. These scammers will start up polite conversation, showing interest in the unsuspecting tourist’s background, family, or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the meat of the scam. This may be something as innocuous as over-priced tickets to a kantok meal and show, or as serious as a gambling scam or (particularly in Bangkok) the infamous gem scam. Once identified, the wary traveller should have no trouble picking out these scammers from a crowd. The tell-tale well pressed slacks and button down shirt, freshly cut hair of a conservative style, and late-model cellphone comprise their uniform. Milling around tourist areas without any clear purpose for doing so, the careful traveller should have no difficulty detecting and avoiding these scammers.
Many visitors will encounter young Thai ladies armed with a clipboard and a smile enquiring as to their nationality, often with an aside along the lines of “please help me to earn 30 baht”. The suggestion is that the visitor completes a tourism questionnaire (which includes supplying their hotel name and room number) with the incentive that they just might win a prize – the reality is that everyone gets a call to say that they are a “winner”, however the prize can only be collected by attending an arduous time-share presentation. Note that the lady with the clipboard doesn’t get her 30 baht if you don’t attend the presentation; also that only English-speaking nationalities are targeted.
Another recurrent scam involves foreigners – sometimes accompanied by small children – who claim to be on the last day of their vacation in Thailand, and having just packed all their belongings into one bag in preparation for their flight home, lost everything when that bag was stolen. Now cash is urgently needed in order to get to the airport in a hurry and arrange a replacement ticket for his/her return flight in a few hours time.
Robbery on overnight buses
Thailand is quite safe for tourists. However, there have been some reports about people getting drugged and robbed while traveling on overnight buses. To avoid this, steer away from cheapish and non-government buses, make sure you have all your money stored safely in a money belt or another hard-to-reach place and always check your money balance before getting off. Warning your travel companions about this danger is also advised. In case this happens, firmly refuse to get off the bus, tell the rest of the people about the situation and immediately call the police. It may not be possible to stay on the bus, as your refusal may prompt the staff to unload your hold luggage onto the street and then continue to drive the bus without your luggage, forcing you to disembark or lose it.
Thailand’s age of consent is 15 but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes. Thai penalties for sex with minors are harsh, and even if your partner is over the age of consent in Thailand, tourists who have sex with minors may be prosecuted by their home country. As far as ascertaining the age of your partner goes, all adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2533 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on January 1st 2008 (in the Thai calendar, AD 2008 is the year 2551).
Some prostitutes are “freelancers”, but most are employed by bars or similar businesses and if hiring a prostitute from a bar or similar business, you will have to pay a fee for the establishment called a “bar fine”. This entitles you to take them out of their place of employment; it does not pay for any bedroom gymnastics.
Remember that bar girls, gogo girls and freelancers are all professionals, who are far more likely to be interested in money you can give them than in any continuing relationship for its own sake. Cases of visitors falling desperately in love and then being milked out of all they are worth abound. Thailand has a high rate of STD infection, including HIV/AIDS, both among the general population and among prostitutes. Condoms can be bought easily in Thailand in all convenience shops and pharmacies but may not be as safe as Western ones. Technically, some aspects of prostitution in Thailand are illegal (e.g. soliciting, pimping), however enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It’s not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a “bar fine”.
Make a photocopy of your passport and the page with your visa stamp. Always keep your passport or the photocopy with you (the law requires that you carry your actual passport at all times, however in practice a photocopy will usually suffice). Many night clubs insist on a passport (and ONLY a passport) as proof of age. It is not required that you leave your passport with a hotel when you check in.
Carrying your own padlock is a good idea, as budget rooms sometimes use them instead of (or as well as) normal door locks; carry a spare key someplace safe, like your money belt, otherwise considerable expense as well as inconvenience may result should you lose the original. Also consider some type of cable to lock your bag to something too big to fit through the door or window.
Wildlife in Thailand
Thailand has a few dangerous animals. The most common menace is stray dogs which frequent even the streets of Bangkok. The vast majority of which are passive and harmless, but a few of which may carry rabies, so steer clear of them and do not, by any means, feed or pet them.
Poisonous cobras can be found throughout Thailand, hiding in tall brush or along streams. You’re unlikely to ever see one, as they shy away from humans, but they may bite if surprised or provoked. The Siamese crocodile, on the other hand, is nearly extinct and found only in a few remote national parks. Monitor lizards are common in jungles, but despite their scary reptilian appearance they’re harmless.
Thais are normally very tolerant of people and tourists, regardless of skin colour, are very unlikely to encounter aggresive racial abuse. However some dark skinned visitors, especially those of African descent, may encounter some uncomfortable situations related to their race. Usually these situations are limited to stares or unwanted attention in shops. Prejudice against blacks tends to be based on nationality. Black tourists from the USA, Canada and Western Europe can expect to be treated much the same as white tourists from western nations and will generally receive better treatment than Africans. If you are black, you may be more likely than non-black people in certain situations (entering a nightclub, etc.) be asked to present your passport.
Do not get into fights with Thais. Foreigners will eventually be outnumbered 15 to 1 (even against Thai people not initially involved) and weapons (metals, sharp objects, beer bottles, martial arts) are never omitted. Trying to break up someone else’s fight is just as bad and your good deed will be punished.
How to Stay Healthy
Being a tropical country, Thailand has its fair share of exotic tropical diseases. Malaria is generally not a problem in any of the major tourist destinations, but is endemic in rural areas along the borders with Cambodia (including Ko Chang in Trat Province), Laos and Myanmar. As is the case throughout South-East Asia, dengue fever can be encountered just about anywhere, including the most modern cities.
Food hygiene levels in Thailand are reasonably high, and it’s generally safe to eat at street markets and to drink any water offered to you in restaurants. Using common sense — eg. avoiding the vendor who leaves raw meat sitting in the sun with flies buzzing around — and following the precautions listed in Food poisoning is still advisable.
HIV/AIDS (adult infection rate is 1 in 66) and other sexually transmitted diseases are common, especially among sex workers. Condoms are sold in all convenience stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, etc. Avoid injecting drug use.
Thais are a polite people and, while remarkably tolerant of foreigners gallivanting on their beaches and with their women, you’ll find that you will get more respect if you in turn treat them and their customs with respect.
The traditional greeting known as the wai, where you press your hands together as is in prayer and bow slightly, is derived from the Hindu cultural influence from India, and still widely practised. Among Thais, there are strict rules of hierarchy that dictate how and when the wai should be given. In brief, inferiors salute superiors first. You should not wai service people or street vendors. The higher your hands go, the more respectful you are. You will also often see Thais doing a wai as they walk past temples and spirit houses. As a foreign visitor, you are not expected to know how to wai, nor to reciprocate when wai’d to; while you’re unlikely to cause offense if you do, you may well look slightly ridiculous. If somebody makes a wai to you, a slight bow alone is more than sufficient for ordinary occasions, and for business most Thais will shake hands with foreigners instead of waiing anyway.
Personal appearance is very important in Thailand as a measure of respect to other people, you will find that dressing appropriately means that you are shown more respect in return. This translates in many ways, even sometimes lowering initial offering prices at markets. While some allowance is made for the differing customs of foreigners, Thais respond more positively to well-dressed Westerners.
Traditionally, Thais are modest and conservative dressers. At a minimum your clothes should be neat, clean, and free from holes or tears. Except at the beach or at sacred sites normal western dress is acceptable for both men and women, except that you should avoid clothing showing a lot of skin. Pants are preferable to shorts, blouses should have capped sleeves, and if tank tops are worn, the straps should be thick (i.e., not spaghetti straps). Thai men generally wear pants, and most Thais view an adult man wearing shorts as fairly ridiculous; shorts are primarily worn by laborers and schoolchildren. Men’s shorts should be knee length or more, if worn at all.
Taking off one’s shoes at temples and private homes is mandatory etiquette, and this may even be requested at some shops. Wear shoes that slip on and off easily. Flip-flops, hiking sandals, and clog-type shoes are usually a good pragmatic choice for traveling in Thailand; only in the most top-end establishments are shoes required.
It is best to play it safe with wats and other sacred sites in Thailand; your dress should be unambiguously modest and cover your entire torso and most of your limbs. For men, ankle-length pants are mandatory; on top, t-shirts are acceptable, though a button-front or polo shirt would be best. Many recommend that women wear only full length dresses and skirts; you should make sure that your clothing covers at least your shoulders and your knees and some places may require that you wear ankle-length pants or skirts and long sleeved tops. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are highly inappropriate, as are short skirts. The rules are even more strict for foreign visitors, so even if you see a local in shorts it’s not OK for everyone.
Swimsuits should not be revealing — many Thais swim in full clothing. Women should never go topless on the beach, especially beaches in national parks, as this is illegal and most Thais consider it offensive in the extreme. Women are sometimes advised to wear a T-shirt over their swimming gear; this is more important at primarily-Thai beach resorts, and will be almost entirely ignored at the most heavily westernized areas.
Women and monks
Buddhist monks are meant to avoid the temptation of women, and in particular they do not touch women or take things from women’s hands. Women should make every effort to make way for monks on the street and give them room so they do not have to make contact with you. Women should avoid offering anything to a monk with their hands. Objects or donations should be placed in front of a monk so he can pick it up, or place it on a special cloth he carries with him. Monks will sometimes be aided by a layman who will accept things from women merit-makers on their behalf.
The Royal Family
It’s illegal (lese-majeste) to show disrespect to royalty, a crime which carries up to 15 years imprisonment. Do not make any negative remarks, or any remarks which might be perceived as disrespectful about the King or any members of the Royal Family. Since the King is on the country’s currency, don’t burn, tear, or mutilate it – especially in the presence of other Thais. If you drop a coin or bill, do not step on it to stop it – this is very rude, since you are stomping on the picture of the King’s head that is printed on the coin. Also, anything related to the stories and movies The King and I and Anna and the King is illegal to possess in Thailand. Almost all Thais, even ones in other countries, feel very strongly when it comes to any version of this story. They feel that it makes a mockery of their age-old monarchy and is entirely inaccurate. In 2007, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for spraying graffiti on the King’s portrait, although he later expressed remorse and was pardoned by His Majesty personally (quote: “It troubles Me when such harsh sentences are passed.”) and deported.
The head is considered the holiest part of the body, and the foot the dirtiest part. Never touch or pat a Thai on the head, including children. If you accidentally touch or bump someone’s head, apologize immediately or you’ll be perceived as very rude. Similarly, do not touch people with your feet, or even point with them. If someone is sitting with outstretched feet, avoid stepping over them, as this very rude and could even spark a confrontation. Squeeze around them or ask them to move. Even if the person is sleeping, it is best to go around, as others are likely to notice. Take care when you sit in a temple to cross your legs under you “mermaid-style” so your feet do not point at any person or statue. Do not pose alongside a Buddhist statue for a photo and certainly don’t clamber on them. It’s OK to take photos of a statue, but everyone should be facing it. It is considered impolite and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, particularly when eating in someone’s home (this is true even if the sniffing is done in appreciation). Do not audibly blow your nose in public. Also, as doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it’s important not to step on a raised threshold, but rather to step over it. Keep this in mind especially when visiting temples.
Physical affection is rarely if ever shown in public — even married Thai men and women do not touch in public. However, it is not uncommon for same sex close friends to hold hands as an expression of affection. You may see a Thai woman expressing affection physically in public with a foreign man, but often this means that the Thai woman is a prostitute.
In Thailand, expression of negative emotions such as anger or sadness is almost never overt, and it is possible to enjoy a vacation in Thailand without ever seeming to see an argument or an unhappy person. Thai people smile constantly, and to outsiders this is seen as happiness or friendliness. In reality, smiling is a very subtle way to communicate, and to those who live in Thailand, a smile can indicate any emotion — from fear, to anger, to sadness, to joy, etc. “Saving face” is a very important aspect of Thai culture and they will try to avoid embarrassment and confrontation.
In public places (such as large markets) the National Anthem is played over loudspeakers at 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. When this is played, everybody stops what they are doing and stands still, and you should do the same. The Royal Anthem is played in cinemas before the film, and everyone must stand. It lasts about a minute, then everyone will continue where they left off.