Tips for First Time Travelers to Thailand
This is the traditional Thai phrase for saying hello and good-bye, only women would use “sawadee, ka” (“krap” and “ka” being the polite participle in Thai phrases). As your first lesson in Thai protocol, always use this phrase whenever you meet Thai people and they will be inclined to believe you are a “good” foreigner. You will soon learn that little actions on your part can make a big difference as to whether you have a good experience or a great experience on your first visit to Thailand.
This document is the result of many of my friends asking for advice before their first visit to the Thai kingdom. Although I have been a frequent visitor and I am married to a Thai woman, I am by no means an expert on Thai protocol and culture. There are many more complete documents on this subject; but what I find is that many first time visitors study these longer documents and forget a few simple rules. If you want to read in more detail, there are many books on the subject. For the latest in tourist information, let me suggest Lonely Planet’s web forum on travel in Thailand.
Everyone has a Smile
Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles (LOS to long time visitors). It won’t take you long to notice that Thai people love to smile, even in stressful or tense situations. This is what you should learn to do as well. Here’s how it works. When you meet someone – say hello and smile; when you don’t understand what someone is saying – say I don’t understand and smile; if someone scowls at you – well you get the idea. This little trick will ensure that almost all of your contacts with Thai people will be happy ones.
As quickly as you will notice all the smiling, you will also notice the “wai”. This gesture is when someone puts their hands together flat and then touch their forehead. This is a simple show of respect to the recipient but the rules around when to use the wai are far from simple. In fact, when to wai is linked directly to the “ten questions” below, in that people of lesser respect wai people of greater respect. How this is determined is so complex that even Thai people get it wrong sometimes. Let me suggest that you resist the urge to wai anyone (this will prevent Thai people from laughing out loud when you wai the hotel maid) and just smile broadly upon greeting people. Leave the wai-ing to the experts.
When you pick up your bag at the airport and get into a taxi, don’t be surprised if the driver starts to asks you a series of questions; some of them quite personal. The script is usually like this: what is your name, what country you from, how old are you, are you married, who do you work for, etc.? The first time this happens, you want to be a good sport and answer dutifully. The second, third, and fourth time, you might not be so forgiving. This gentle interrogation is not Thai people being nosey about your personal affairs; they are just trying to find out where you fit in their respect hierarchy. When they have a pretty good idea of where you rank, they will feel more comfortable in talking to you as they will know what to say and what not to say. Give in gracefully to this Q&A session as their ultimate goal is to make you happy.
How Do You Like Thailand?
I don’t care if you have just been robbed, or been in a car accident, or even holding your chest in pain; the answer to this question is always the same – “I love Thailand and I am having a great time”. Once you have answered this question correctly, you will be identified as a “good” tourist and will make many Thai friends. Similar to this question but just as important – What do you think about our king? This is not the time to launch into a discussion of how Americans threw out King George and lived happily ever after or any other historical trivia. The answer is “he’s a good man who loves his people and has done many good things”. Smile.
How to Handle Problems
Thai people use the expression jai yen yen to describe having a cool heart. Learn this simple Thai phrase and learn to repeat it under you breath when you are losing your temper, like when you find out it is standard practice for foreigners (farangs) to be charged twice as much admission price as Thais. Never, under any circumstances, lose your temper in Thailand or make a Thai person look bad in public. Did I say never once; I meant to say it 10 times. Tourists who have ignored this rule have sometimes ended up going home in a box. I am not being dramatic. If you have a problem, say someone has overcharged you, try to show that maybe they accidentally hit the wrong numbers on the calculator, could they try it again? Smile. Most cheating Thai’s will give in when caught but if that doesn’t work, try something more creative like “let’s split the difference.” Smile. If the dispute is still not resolved, take a deep breath and remember that 100 baht is only worth three US dollars. Is your personal safety or the success of your trip worth $10? Pay the money and smile. When you are safely home, write a post on a blog or call your congressman to alleviate your anger.
Ask just about any Thai person what is the one thing they dislike about foreigners, and if they are inclined to answer honestly, they will say their personal hygiene is not up to Thai standards. Thailand has a hot and humid climate; most Thai people take a shower at least two times a day and some even three times or more. I suggest you do the same. A hot and sweaty farang lumbering up to a Thai vendor is more apt to be spoken to rudely or cheated, (if you disrespect them with your foul smell so shall you be in return). Also, short pants on men are considered clothing for children, as are tee shirts and other very casual clothing. Especially in the evening, dress like an adult and receive Thai respect. For women, a skirt with a nice top and sandals works in most situations. For men, long pants, a collared shirt and sandals are the style. To compensate for the hot weather, wear thin, loose clothing. If you don’t have a nice pair of sandals, do not despair, Bangkok has hundreds of shoe stores with lots of styles of for very reasonable prices.
First time visitors experience with Bangkok will begin at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport. This ultra modern facility looks great but then the visitor is hit with the very old problem of getting through immigration. Even at the slowest times, these stations always seem to be under staffed, so this will be your first lesson in using jai yen yen. After this, most visitors will then experience Bangkok taxis for their trip into the city. Bangkok taxis are easy to find in most parts of the city except when it is raining, and are generally of good service. Most drivers will be able to speak a little bit of English but it is always useful to have your destinations written in Thai. Some rules about using Bangkok taxis: never get into a taxi that does not have a meter. If there is a meter and it is not on, ask the driver to turn it on. If the driver has some excuse not to (broken meter) promptly get out of the cab. Otherwise, you could be in for your first dispute in Thailand when you get a grossly inflated bill for your ride. If you get into a cab and ask to be driven to a shopping venue, don’t be surprised if the driver insists on taking you to another place. This “new” place is one of many businesses that pay drivers to bring tourists there. If this happens, just do the “no thank you” and smile routine a few times. Most drivers will back off at this point, but some will persist. At this point make it clear to your driver that if you are taken there you will not go in and will not pay his fare, then smile. This usually works but don’t expect to get a smile in return.
Bangkok street traffic is some of the worst in the world, with large traffic jams forming for the smallest of reasons. Air conditioned taxis are very convenient for getting around the city but at various times, it may not be the best way. During times of high traffic (rush hour or rains) you could find yourself sitting for hours on end. Consider using the under-used and affordable BTS Skytrain with stations throughout the city. Instructions on how to use this system are in English and pretty easy to understand. For local trips and for first-time tourists, consider using a tuk-tuk. This small, open motorcycle taxi can be fun when out casually seeing the city, but not for more formal trips. For the truly desperate traveler who needs to get through a bad traffic jam and is not faint hearted, approach one of the many motoci drivers and for a small fare, they will glad to take you to most Bangkok destinations.
There are many great places to shop in Bangkok. The top of the line is the World Trade Center with MBK being more reasonably priced. Silom Village has a number of shops catering to tourists; where it is worth a visit in the early evening when you can get a good Thai meal while watching traditional Thai performing artists. And, of course, what would a visit to Bangkok be without visiting the infamous Night Market in Patpong. Open at 8 PM, this is an area between two soi’s (lanes) with hundreds of vendors willing to bargain to sell their tourist trinkets. All taxi and tuk-tuk drivers know where this destination is.
Some advice on bargaining etiquette in Patpong and other shops in Bangkok:
- The initial vendor price is almost always double what they normally get, so start your bidding at least 50% lower.
- Don’t dicker on something you do not want; if you’re in the game you have to stay until a deal is reached.
- If the deal is still not to your liking, try combining another item for a better deal, and then everyone is happy.
For more specialized shops, (or any other timely advice) ask the concierge at your hotel. If you liked their suggestions give them a big tip and more good advice will flow your way.
Bangkok is a city where you usually have to look hard to find bad food. In fact, it is one of the main reasons why Thai people put up with the congestion and hassle of Bangkok; good food is available everywhere. There are a few great restaurants and many good ones for farangs. Again, ask around for specific suggestions in your area. One of the great things about Bangkok are all the street food vendors. They sell a variety of Thai foods, from fresh fruit to complete meals. I personally like fresh fruit for a morning snack and a hot bowl of pork noodle soup in the afternoon (chased down with a bottle of Singha purchased from one of the thousands of 7-11 stores in Bangkok). Feel free to experiment as most vendors are fairly sanitary but certainly do not eat any fruits or vegetables that have not been peeled or cooked.
While in Bangkok, consider changing your eating habits. Most Thai people eat 5 – 6 small meals a day to keep from getting bloated in the hot weather. Street vendors help with this schedule. Most important: never drink from any open container. All water, cola, beer, etc. should be from a closed container or one that you have seen opened. Ice is OK but even some people consider this a danger. Never (10 times again) drink water from a Bangkok faucet; even at the best hotels. Don’t even gargle with it or you may become the next victim of the infamous Bangkok trots. Also, most Thai people tip very little when dining out but at tourist restaurants they will expect at least 10%. If you want to tip at American scales of 20% then the next time you go there you will treated as a royal or a fool.
Thai food in Thailand is much different (and better) from anything you have ever had in America, as it is much tastier and much spicier. Generally, real Thai food is made with much stronger curries and more Thai peppers are used, although this is less true for food from tourist restaurants and hotels. Look for small red slivers in your food and push them to the side of your plate before eating the rest. This is perfectly acceptable etiquette as even Thai people will do this when they suspect a dish will be too hot for them. If you happen to miss one and your mouth catches fire, look for raw vegetables (usually served with any spicy dish) as these are effective extinguishers. After that use water or cola; as beer may make you more drunk at the end of the meal than you want to be.
Speaking of liquid refreshments, many Thai restaurants will have a setting of water, cola, ice, and sometimes Thai whiskey (Mekong) and a large bottle of Thai beer (usually Chang or Singha). The water is free, the rest is not. Most restaurants will carry popular brand names of liquor and beer, especially from Europe. Wine is just now becoming popular in Thailand with wine bars becoming quite the fad. However, I have rarely enjoyed a house brand wine in a Thai restaurant so use discretion. In the tropical climate of Thailand, many prefer beer over other alcoholic drinks. Most Bangkok venues carry quite a few internationally popular brands of beer, with domestic labels of Chang or Leo. Most tourists seem to prefer Singha beer. Don’t be surprised if your Thai beer is served with ice in the glass. This horrifies most western visitors but as Thai beers are stronger malt lagers, adding ice can dilute the beer to American palettes and be very refreshing on a hot day. One newcomer to the Thai beer scene is Beer Lao from Laos. In my opinion, this is a wonderful beer that has a distinctive flavor with very little after taste. You may have to ask for it as Thai menus are updated infrequently.
Although many consider Thailand a very safe country to visit, like any other place in the world, Bangkok has its share of crime and scams that prey on tourists. Some of these are common to all, like pickpockets, while others are unique to the land of smiles. To guard against the common threats, use well known deterrents like room safes, money belts, don’t bring expensive jewelry, don’t get excessively drunk in strange bars, etc. One of the first scams that might be encountered is the taxi scam mentioned above. Other scams are internet cafes. Most workstations have key loggers or cameras installed to capture accounts and passwords. Never use these venues for important business, especially banking. Some restaurants and bars will hope you did not notice the prices on menu items that you have ordered, and then present you with an inflated check. This scam is more common in lesser bars but the bottom line is to be alert, don’t assume that smiling face on the waiter is an honest face.
Thai beggars come in many varieties and it is your choice as to whether to make a donation to their cause. Some of these beggars are rip-offs, like the foreigner who clams they are stranded in Thailand and need airfare home (embassies usually have a slush fund for this) or monks asking for donations (monks do not solicit for money). Resist the urge to even talk to these scums. There is one situation that may seem like a scam but really isn’t. The Thai couple standing in line in front of you will be charged 50% or less to get into an attraction than you will. Rip-off? Unfortunately not, as this is considered acceptable policy for some Thai attractions. Smile and pay the extra few dollars.
The Naughty Bar Scene
Bangkok is hands-down the paid sex capital of the world, yet most tourists will not encounter this world at all in their travels around the city. However, visitors to the famous night market in Patpong will get a glimpse of it from the go-go bars that face the market, with many shoppers invited by barkers to join in the fun. The night market should definitely be on your short list of places to visit but whether you decide to enter one on the bars should be considered carefully. First, many will rip you on entrance fees and drink prices, and others are just not very nice for couples. Before going in, make sure you get a firm commitment from the barker about these items. If you want to experience this world without the hassles, try the Safari Bar, as this is a well run bar and is relatively tame. Make small talk with the mama-san (the older woman at the door) and get into the fun atmosphere. Further away from Patpong are Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy. These venues contain mostly full-blown gogo bars for picking up a partner or two for the night. If you want to experience one of Bangkok’s infamous shows at these venues, try the Anglewitch in Nana Plaza. This is a well run bar with innovative, semi-soft core shows that won’t offend most liberal couples.
For the latest on what’s happening at the Bangkok bar scene, and many other facets of Thai life, visit this wonderful web site: Stickmanbangkok.com
Hotels, restaurants, and other places to visit
There are many places to visit that should be on any first time traveler to Thailand’s list, like the Grand Palace, Wat Po, Floating Market, or even Pantip Plaza for pirate software and DVD’s. After that, it becomes a matter of when you visit and what you would like to see. Updated information is easily found on many web sites or by any hotel concierge worth his salt. Hotels are especially hard to recommend. The top tier hotels, for those not on a budget, are well known, with the crown jewel being the Oriental. The next levels become fuzzy, as conditions can change very rapidly from year to year. For example, my friend recommended a medium-priced hotel that he had stayed at in the fall, by Summer time when I visited, the hotel had changed ownership and the service I received was considerably less than my friend’s experience. Also, bar closings in Bangkok can be a variable thing, what with Buddhist holidays and over-inflated bureaucrats. Once you have found a hotel, the staff can make excellent recommendations for all other excursions. Why? Because if they don’t it could mean a major loss of face the next time you see them! That’s why you should never listen to someone you may never see again, like taxi drivers. Consider using a full-time driver recommended by the hotel for the same reasons to ferry you on your trips. If a destination does not work out for you, do like Thai people and make the best of it. In Thailand you never know; one night you may discover that wonderful, low priced restaurant or shop that few people in Bangkok know about. Then you can become the Bangkok expert for the day!
Mai Pen Rai!
More than anything else, have this phrase in your heart as you travel around Bangkok. As you encounter surprises, enjoy what the French call vive le difference, as Thailand with all its charms and beauty, really is a very different culture than America. Have fun and return home safe with lots of pictures.
That is a nice set of guidelines for a first time visitor.