It's OK to admit it: secretly we're all drawn to Thailand for one reason or another. Whether its the country's tropical climate, lush vegetation, oriental mystique, renowned Buddhist temples, forested mountains, uncommonly beautiful islands, world-class cuisine or some other (cough cough), less commendable motives, foreigners have begun flocking to this Southeast Asian kingdom in numbers ballooning to over 20+million annually. And with a predominantly positive exchange rate and a relatively stable constitutional monarchy, who can blame them? But just in case the merits of this culture- and adventure-rich nation aren't common knowledge to you, take a minute to get acquainted with a few of the highlights of the former Siamese Empire.
If urban centers tickle your traveling fancy, the Thai capital of Bangkok should need no introduction. Consistently ranked among the world's Top 5 City Destinations by groups like MasterCard and Euromonitor International, it's a burgeoning metropolis ripe with the kinds of diversity, congestion, posh comforts and sordid underbellies that make a crime-novelist squeal with delight. Then there are the tourist havens like Phuket and Surat Thani to the south; thriving coastal developments catering to the sun-starved masses that arrive en masse in search of The Beach, full moon parties and beautiful Thai women. Looking for something a bit less conventional? Head north to cities like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai or even (dare we say it) Isaan's Nakhon Ratchasima, where you'll have the best chance to experience traditional and un-corrupted Thai culture. Whatever your taste in population centers large and small, chances are this country's got you covered.
But when you cut through the clamor of city development and tourism, what your left with is an incredibly profound and beautiful landmass encompassing over 40,000 religious temples and 130+ parks and reserves. This is the heart of Thailand. Want to scuba dive with whale sharks? You can do that (Surin Islands). Want to stop for prayers at a Buddhist monastery on your hike up a mountain? Take your pick (Doi Suthep, Phu Kradueng, etc.). Want to kayak between limestone giants or swing with gibbons through the jungle canopy? Just say when (Phang Nga, Chiang Mai). For all its growth and development, there is still a sense of both serenity and adventure here that exists almost nowhere else on Earth, allowing visitors the opportunity to engage with both a culture and a landscape that cannot help but leave one inspired and invigorated. Now all you have to do is get out there and see what all the fuss is about.
Thailand has a variety of visa agreements and exemptions with countries throughout the world, ranging in duration from 15 days to 3 months. The 30 day visa-free tourist exemption is the most extensive of these, a list that includes US citizens as well as travelers from 40+ other nations. Check out the official Thailand Ministry of Foreign Affairs website to see where your country stands.
The Thai baht (THB) is the official currency of Thailand. Some common (approximate) exchange rates are: .032 USD / .023 EUR / .020 GBP., but for up to the minute currency comparisons click here.
The Thai state is governed by an interesting mixture of monarchical and democratic practices. Formally this is known as a constitutional monarchy operating under a parliamentary democracy. The country’s king (or queen) is the head of state, while the prime minister heads up the government and retains most of the executive power in Thailand. The legislative National Assembly is composed of both the popularly-elected Senate and the House of Representatives, with a 3 court system comprising the judiciary.
It’s important to remember that, though the much of the monarchy’s power has been diminished under the current constitution, it is still a highly revered part of Thai culture. Publicly insulting or threatening the king, queen or royal family is strictly (and we mean strictly) prohibited by law, so if the subject comes up make sure you tiptoe around it gingerly. Just trust us on this one.
Though an increase in tourism numbers over the decades has led to a rise in the amount of English speakers working in the Thai service and tourism industries, don’t let that deceive you into thinking you won’t need to add a few helpful Thai phrases to your vocabulary before visitng. To put it in some perspective, the allotment of English speakers here still hovers around 30% nationwide, and most of them are located in cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. So if you want to get by on small side streets or in more remote areas of this beautiful country, make the effort to speak just a little of their language, hm? We promise it will go a long way.
Statistically, with the exception of the southernmost regions of the country (we’re talking the deep south, along the Malaysian border) which suffer from acts of separatist and extremist violence, the bulk of Thailand is an overwhelmingly safe place to visit. As far as travellers are concerned, the most predominant crimes to be aware of are non-violent acts of theft and extortion scams, with these being mainly relegated to the largest cities and/or tourism destinations. It’s important to know that drug offenses carry strict penalties in Thailand, so travelers are encouraged to stay far away from the narcotic scene. If you adhere to some simple practices like keeping valuables close to your person, exercising extreme caution in seedier “red-light” areas and traveling in pairs or groups whenever possible, you should have a problem-free experience. Just in case, however, it never hurts to search Thailand on the official US DOS website.
Though it’s historically had a reputation for congestion and haphazard travel, getting around Thailand is actually a fairly uncomplicated endeavor these days. With a cheap and competitive airline industry that was deregulated in the early 21st century, a 4-lane highway network that allows cars and buses to traverse all parts of the country unobstructed and a series of state operated rail lines that accommodate inexpensive, memorable cross-country journeys, even 2 week itineraries can incorporate much of the Thai countryside.
Currently (and for the foreseeable future), Bangkok is the only city to house a metro system, so the bulk of your city traveling will have to be accomplished via taxi or tuk-tuk. If you’d like to stick to the water, the Chao Phraya River through the capital offers river taxi and long-tail boat services, which are widely available in the country’s southern island districts as well. And should you make it to one of these islands, keep in mind that renting a scooter (provided you know how to safely operate one) is a ubiquitous and entertaining way to check out the scenery.
The weather patterns in Thailand are not too difficult to wrap your head around, so planning a trip can be a relatively pain-free process. In much of the country’s landlocked districts (think north, central and northeast), the dry season takes place between November and May: cooler from November through February, and hotter from March through May. Once June and July roll around, expect monsoon rains to fall consistently up through October (which tends to be the single wettest month nationwide). If you’re heading south towards the beaches, the heaviest rains will fall between late April and October on the west coast (Andaman Sea), and between late August and December on the east coast (Gulf of Thailand). Otherwise, expect an abundance of sunshine and year-round warm temperatures to make all that pretty sand and water even more tempting.
Tipping in Thailand is generally more a sign of appreciation than an obligation. Since service fees are added to the bill at many hotels and restaurants you aren’t expected to pay anything extra. However, as exchange rates usually tilt heavily in favor of western visitors, don’t shy away from leaving a few coins behind for your driver, server or room attendant. It will rarely add up to more than $1 or $2 US, and the offering will be greatly appreciated.
As for mealtimes, the Thai do things a little differently. Of course you can divide your meals up into three distinct sessions in a manner most westerners are accustomed to, however it’s not uncommon to see people snacking throughout the day here. After all, low-frill eateries and food stands/stalls are a ubiquitous part of life throughout much of Thailand, serving up delicious, moderately sized dishes that make day-long munching a delicious possibility. Aside from this, dinner is considered the main meal of the traditional Thai day.
Currently you must be at least 20 years of age to legally purchase or consume alcohol in Thailand. Penalties can be stiff for those caught breaking the law, though the bulk of the blame gets placed on the seller/provider. Still, best not to test the limits here. When it comes to the alcohol of choice, you’ll find that the Thai have a taste for beers and liquors that may not be quite as refined as your palate is used to. The best national brew is undoubtedly Singha, though the ubiquitous Chang is noticeably less expensive. Be wary of very strong, traditional rice whiskeys distilled in more rural areas of the country. The two name brands to trust are Sang Som and Mekhong, though they’re really more of a rum than a whiskey. And be ready to drink them the local way: i.e. with lots of ice and lots of cheap cola.
Though the phrase “land of the free” is often used to describe the United States, it may very well be that the Thai hold a more accurate claim to this moniker. Historically, at least. Because unlike the US, Old Siam was never colonized by a European power. In this regard it is utterly unique throughout Southeast Asia, as none of its neighbors can say the same thing. As you can imagine, this is a source of great pride for the people of Thailand, and may very well be at least partially responsible for its nickname: The Land of Smiles.
Peak season: Mid-October - February
Currency: Baht (THB)
Phone code: +66
Religion: Predominantly Buddhist
The all-important Songkran Festival celebrates the start of the Thai New Year, and is held annually from April 13th through either the 15th or the 16th. It's a time of revelry and new beginnings throughout the country, symbolized by the throwing or splashing of water that is meant to symbolize cleansing and rebirth. Seriously, if you're here, make sure you have a water gun and prepare to get soaked. Other popular traditions include giving blessings and food to Buddhist monks, as well as the symbolic washing of Buddha images with water and fragrant herbs.
Loi Krathong and Yi Peng
Though they're actually two unrelated events, the concurrent celebrations of Loi Krathong and Yi Peng have become combined in contemporary Thai culture, resulting in an all out Festival of Lights that typically takes place sometime in November (the specific date is fluid because Loi Krathong is based on the lunar calendar). In cities like Bangkok and, especially, Chiang Mai, candle-lit floats are sent down river while fireworks and thousands of floating lanterns (khom loi) set the sky ablaze in hopes of bringing joy and good luck to Thai citizens. It's a surreal sight to see.
Phi Ta Khon
On the off chance you need another reason to head to Isaan (Thailand's less visited northeastern region), Phi Ta Khon is it. Held in the humble Dan Sai district of Loei province, this 3 day "Ghost Festival" is one of the most colorful and raucous in the country, celebrating Buddha-to-be Prince Vessandara's return to his home city. As the story goes, the occasion was so joyous that even the dead woke to join in. This should explain the myriad ghost masks you see (we'll let you interpret the carved, parading phalli on your own). It's held on different dates annually between early March and late July.
Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The nationwide Vegetarian Festival is the Thai variation of the Chinese Nine Emperor Gods Festival and, because of its high concentration of Chinese citizens, is most famously observed on the island of Phuket. Those averse to blood and self-mutilation be warned; part of what makes this festival such a spectacle are the sometimes-gruesome body piercings and fire walks that take place over the 9 day celebration. Still, with plenty of parades, fireworks and temple events, not to mention delicious meat-free Thai food, it's likely to be both an incredibly enjoyable and memorable experience. Because it's based on the lunar calendar, the Vegetarian Festival is held annually in either September or October.