If you haven’t already been to Thailand, it’s probably been high on your bucket list for quite some time. Known for having some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, you’ve undoubtedly pictured yourself sipping on a fruity cocktail while gazing out at the turquoise blue water on a little island in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand.
Not only is this vision pretty accurate, but you’ll also find Thailand to be an easy place to travel. Most people speak at least a little English, accommodations are relatively inexpensive, and they offer air-conditioned buses and low-cost airline carriers to transport you anywhere you want to go!
Thailand really is a dream tropical paradise vacation. But it doesn’t come without its own unique challenges as well. Read on to learn all about our Thailand travel tips and the things that you’ll definitely need to know prior to your trip to Thailand so you’re prepared for anything!
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Thailand Travel Tips: 16 Things You Need to Know Before You Go!
1. Avoid the Scams in Bangkok
There are a few scams that are prevalent in Thailand that you’ll need to be aware of before your trip. Most of them are what you’d expect in any large city so as long as you keep your wits about you and use common sense, you’ll be just fine.
When you’re walking around Bangkok, especially near the Grand Palace, you may be approached by a seemingly friendly local who asks where you’re going. When you tell them your destination they’ll say, “oh it’s closed today” or “you’re not dressed appropriately to enter”, and then offer to take you to another attraction. They are lying because they want to act as your very costly tour guide. Just ignore them and continue on your way to your original destination.
You should never get into a cab or a tuk tuk without first agreeing to a price. Unfortunately, the cab drivers in Bangkok are especially unwilling to put tourists on the meter (even in areas around the mall that are strictly meant for metered taxis). If you just want the thrill of riding a tuk tuk once, just be sure to negotiate the price ahead of time. But we’d recommend skipping both altogether and downloading the Grab app (iPhone | Android) – it’s the Uber of Southeast Asia.
2. Take a Grab
As mentioned above, Grab is the Uber of SE Asia and will make it exponentially easier for you to get around the larger cities in Thailand. Many taxi drivers in Thailand don’t speak fluent English so communicating your destination and then ensuring that your ride will be on the meter is pretty difficult.
With Grab you just set your pick-up and drop-off points and the app shows you your ride price. You can pay in cash or add your credit card details to the app. We would recommend downloading it (iPhone | Android) before you even arrive in Thailand so you can use it as soon as you land in Bangkok.
Technically Grab is illegal in Thailand (although you wouldn’t know it by how many drivers there are) so your driver may ask you where you’re from, just in case they get pulled over. That way they can just act like they are hanging out with their old American friends!
If you want to play it safe, just use the Grab app to call a GrabTaxi – you’ll be guaranteed to be put on the meter and you won’t have to worry about paying cash.
It’s also possible to rent a car and drive in Thailand. Lots of visitors do so to explore the northern areas of the country around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. We wouldn’t recommend attempting to drive yourself around Bangkok unless you have nerves of steel and cat-like reflexes!
3. Keep Your Purse Close
Violent crimes against tourists in Thailand are extremely rare. But unfortunately, purse snatching and pickpocketing are becoming more common, especially in Bangkok. Motorbikes will often speed by unwitting tourists and either yank their purse off their arm or cut through the strap.
If you choose to carry a purse, opt for a crossbody bag and wear it in front of your body. If you prefer to keep your valuables in your pocket, it’s best to choose shorts or pants with pockets that button close. And always keep your passport safe and sound in your hotel room.
4. Avoid Sex Tourism
I traveled alone to Chiang Mai back in 2013 and I wanted to have a glass of wine at a bar one evening. As I was walking around I noticed that every bar on one street had Thai women in skimpy dresses sitting alone at tables in front of each bar. I later learned that old foreign men drink at these bars so that they have Thai ladies to flirt with them while they pay for overpriced drinks.
Comparatively, that’s innocent compared to some of the other sex tourism attractions around Thailand – ping pong shows that end with live sex onstage, strip clubs where the girls wear numbers so you can easily choose the one you want, and massages with happy endings.
These girls are generally not engaging in this industry by their own free will and are not being treated well. Avoid all of these establishments and hopefully, they will cease to exist in the future.
5. Beware of Animal Tourism
When I first visited Thailand back in 2013, elephant riding and tiger petting were MUST DO tourist attractions. But over the years the mistreatment of animals has come into the spotlight and it’s definitely something to be avoided during your trip.
But you don’t have to avoid elephants altogether! There are plenty of companies in Chiang Mai that allow you to feed, bathe, and generally hang out with elephants (for an exorbitant price) without actually ever climbing on their backs for a ride. Most tout themselves as “rescue organizations” which we find a bit difficult to believe. Are there really enough wounded wild elephants wandering around Thailand to supply the dozens of organizations? Doubtful.
Do your research to find a reputable elephant organization and avoid any that advertise elephant riding or elephant shows. We had a great experience with Maerim Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai.
6. Count Your Change
Another possible scam that you might run into is getting incorrect change back from street vendors. Keep small change on you and be sure to count your change – just in case!
I’m realizing as I write this that I may be portraying Thai people as horrible scammers. And that is not the case at all! Most Thai people are incredibly warm, friendly, and happy to interact with foreigners. But unfortunately, as with every country in the world, there are a few bad seeds.
7. Cash is King
The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht (pronounced “bot”) and at the time of writing the conversion rate was about 30 THB to $1 USD. And unless you’re spending your entire vacation holed up in a luxury resort, you’ll be hard-pressed to find very many establishments that take a credit card.
But don’t worry, there are plenty of ATMs at the airport and around town so there’s no reason to get cash before actually landing in Thailand. We always highly recommend applying for a debit card that will refund your international ATM fees and the one we use is from Charles Schwab.
8. Bring Your Own TP
It’s not totally uncommon to encounter a few squatty potty toilets around Thailand and many of them have a water hose hung on the wall nearby rather than any actual toilet paper. And the water squirter is actually quite effective so you may find that you prefer it during your trip. But most foreigners prefer to have at least a little toilet paper around to clean up after.
There are plenty of street vendors selling small packs of tissues all over Thailand. You can also purchase them in the 7-11s on pretty much every street corner. Keep a pack in your bag at all times, just in case.
9. Only Engage in Friendly Bargaining
We’ve visited around 60 countries over the years and I always like to have at least a few treasures from every single one of them. Thailand is probably the most entertaining country that I’ve shopped in. Friendly, good-natured bargaining is expected and welcomed, and if you have fun with it, the Thais will too.
When you’re quoted the first price they often find it funny if you respond with a shocked look and say “pang!” Or more like “paaaaaaang!” which means “expensive” in the Thai language. They’ll usually laugh, shake their head no, and respond “my pang!” meaning “not expensive”. At that point, you can respond with a cheaper price and hopefully you meet somewhere in the middle.
Negotiations can get stressful – especially if you really want something and they won’t budge on the price. Never get angry and remember that you’re probably only haggling over a couple of dollars. If you really want it, just buy it, otherwise, walk away.
10. Respect the Royals
Thailand is a monarch kingdom and similar to the United Kingdom, they have a beloved royal family. The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, came into power in 2016 when his father, Bhumibol Adulyadej, passed away. Known as King Bhumibol the Great, he reigned over the kingdom for 70 years and 126 days, the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history.
The Thai people LOVED King Bhumibol and the country literally went into mourning for a year when he died. You’ll see photos of him (as well as the new king) everywhere – along city streets, in temples, and hung in frames in restaurants and hotels.
It’s best not to speak ill of the royal family, not only because Thai people absolutely love King Bhumibol, but also because the royal family is protected by an anti-defamation law. So scrutiny of them in speech or in writing is technically illegal. And you definitely don’t want to see the inside of a Thai prison.
11. Avoid Any Illegal Activity
Speaking of Thai prisons, have you seen the movie Brokedown Palace? It’s about two women who get caught smuggling drugs and get sent to a prison in Thailand. It’s loosely based on the true story of Patricia Cahill who was arrested in July 1990, sentenced to 15 years, but released after only 3.
Thailand did recently legalize medicinal marijuana, but recreational use is still illegal, and drug trafficking (including marijuana) is punishable by death in Thailand!
If you have any plans to purchase or partake in any drugs or other illegal activities during your trip, watch this movie first. It’s horrifying and I promise you don’t want to end up in a Thai prison.
12. Dress Appropriately in Temples
Thailand is not a conservative country by any means. So you won’t need to worry about what you are wearing on any particular day unless you are planning on visiting any temples. If you do, you’ll need to make sure that your shoulders and knees are covered and that you remove your shoes before entering. This goes for both men and women.
Some temples in Thailand do have sarongs available at the door to borrow if you need one, but it’s best to keep a scarf or something in your bag to cover up.
13. Mind Your Feet
Thai people consider feet to be the dirtiest part of the body and seem to be especially disgusted by shoes. So not only will you need to remove your shoes before entering a temple, but also when you enter someone’s home and oftentimes at places of business.
It is also considered very impolite to point your feet at anyone and ESPECIALLY if you point your feet at Buddha. You’ll see people seated at temples with their legs bent to one side and their feet facing away from Buddha. You should also never prop your feet up on a table or another chair.
14. The Buddha Image is Sacred
You’ll probably see signs all over Thailand with photos of various Buddha-related treasures that you might want to purchase during your trip. And you’ll see a giant X through them. This is the government’s not-so-subtle way of reminding tourists that Buddha is a sacred symbol in Thailand and not meant to be used as your plant holder.
Technically there is a Customs Act in Thailand that restricts the export of certain goods unless you have written permission or a license. The penalties include confiscation of the goods, a fine, and possible imprisonment. And any and all Buddha images are included in the list of “restricted items”. Also included are goods that feature the Thai flag, any fake currency, drugs, and any goods that counterfeit goods infringe on intellectual property.
That being said the law about not exporting images of the Buddha is typically ignored, and you’ll quickly realize that there are Buddha statues, carvings, and paintings for sale all over Thailand.
We have been to Thailand many times and have purchased Buddhas of all shapes and sizes in the past. We have never had any trouble returning home with our new treasures, but it is something to be aware of in case you encounter a cranky Thai customs agent or your bag gets searched on your way out of the country.
15. Alcohol Sales are Restricted
In Thailand, alcohol sales are limited to the hours of 11:00am – 2:00pm and then again from 5:00pm until midnight. You’ll find that convenience stores won’t allow you to purchase beer, wine, or liquor during the restricted times of 2:00pm until 5:00pm and then again after midnight and most restaurants and bars won’t either.
We’ve tried to around as to why this is the case and the answer that seems to be the most common is that kids get out of school around that time. And unsupervised kids can be rather naughty. So the Thai government is making an attempt to keep kids sober and somewhat behaved.
However, this is still Thailand, which can seem lawless at times. So it’s very likely that you can find someone who will sell you booze at any hour of the day. You may just have to patron a smaller mom and pop shop rather than a 7-11.
16. Show Respect with the “Wai”
You should most certainly at least attempt to learn a little of the Thai language during your trip to Thailand! The locals love it when you at least give it a shot.
To say “hello” if you’re a woman, it sounds like “saw-wad-i kaaaa” (and they really drag out the kaaaaa with a nasal intonation). And if you’re a man it sounds like “saw-wad-i kap“. To say “thank you” as a woman, you’ll say “ka-pune-kaaaaa” (again with the long kaaaaa and nasal intonation). And similarly, for a man, you’ll say “ka-pune-kap“.
It’s pretty easy to master quickly and you’ll hear both of those all day every day. If you’re too embarrassed or shy to break out your newfound Thai language skill, simply press your palms together like you’re praying and bow slightly. This is known as the “wai” and it serves as a respectful Thai greeting. If you greet with the “wai” you don’t need to say anything at all!
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