Thailand conjures images of white sand beaches and cerulean waters, peaceful temples, and lush mountain jungles. In Bangkok, a 21st-century playground, the scent of spicy street food fills the air, and the Grand Palace recalls the country’s traditions. Outside the capital, the wonders of the countryside enchant, whether you are elephant trekking in the northern hills, exploring Ayutthaya’s splendid ruins, or diving in the waters of the idyllic southern coast. The unique spirit of the Thai people—this is the “land of smiles,” after all—adds warmth to any visit.
Bangkok is 17 hours from San Francisco, 18 hours from Seattle and Vancouver, 20 hours from Chicago, 22 hours from New York, and 10 hours from Sydney. Adjust accordingly for long stopovers and connections, especially if you’re using more than one carrier. Be sure to check your itinerary carefully if you are transferring in Bangkok—most low-cost carriers and domestic flights now operate out of Don Muang airport, while Suvarnabhumi Airport remains the international hub. On popular tourist routes during peak holiday times, domestic flights in Thailand are often fully booked. Make sure you have reservations and make them well in advance of your travel date. Be sure to reconfirm your return flight when you arrive in Thailand.
Bangkok remains Thailand’s gateway to the world. The look of that gateway changed several years ago with the opening of the new international Suvarnabhumi (pronounced soo-wanna-poom) Airport, 30 km (18 miles) southeast of town. The new airport quickly exceeded capacity, however, and Don Muang is back in service: almost all budget airlines and domestic flights now operate out of Don Muang. Shuttle service is available between the two airports. Neither airport is close to the city, but both offer shuttle links and/or bus and taxi service throughout Bangkok. The smoothest ride to Suvarnabhumi is the BTS Skytrain, which now links the international airport with key areas in the city. Chiang Mai International Airport, which lies on the edge of that town, has a large new terminal to handle the recent sharp increases in national and regional air traffic. Taxi service to most hotels costs about B120 (about $4).
Perhaps Thailand’s third-busiest airport (especially in high season) is the one at Phuket, a major link to the southern beaches region, particularly the islands of the Andaman Coast.
Bangkok Airways owns and runs the airports in Sukhothai, Trat, and Koh Samui. They have the only flights to these destinations, which can be expensive in high season. You also have to use the airport transport options they offer unless your hotel picks you up.
At Suvarnabhumi, free shuttle buses run from the airport to a public bus stand, where you can catch a bus into the city. Many public buses stop near Don Muang; there’s also a train stop across the highway from the airport, accessible by footbridge.
Meter taxis run between both airports and town and charge a B50 airport fee on top of the meter charge. Be sure to find the public taxis. (Touts are notorious for approaching travelers in the airport and offering rides at rates that far exceed the norm.) In December 2014, new automatic queue-card kiosks were opened outside gates 4 and 7 on the first floor; these are aimed at reducing the wait time for a taxi and smoothing the process. Taxis in town will often try to set a high flat fee to take you to the airport, though this is technically illegal. If you do talk a taxi driver into charging by the meter, expect a long, scenic trip to the airport.
Suvarnabhumi Airport offers several types of limousines for hire, 24 hours a day—visit the limo counter on Level 2 in the baggage claim hall.
If possible, plan your flights to arrive and depart outside of rush hours. A trip to Suvarnabhumi from the main hotel strip along Sukhumvit Road can take as little as 25 minutes if traffic is moving, but hours during traffic jams—the same goes for the Khao San Road area.
It helps to have a hotel brochure or an address in Thai for the driver. Also, stop at one of the ATMs in the arrival hall and get some baht before leaving the airport so you can pay your taxi driver.
Bangkok is one of Asia’s—and the world’s—largest air hubs, with flights to most corners of the globe and service from nearly all of the world’s major carriers, plus dozens of minor carriers. Most flights from the United States stop in Hong Kong, Tokyo, China, Singapore, or Taipei on the way to Bangkok.
Delta and Japan Airlines (JAL) are both major carriers with hubs in the United States and offer daily flights between the United States and Thailand. JAL is one of the best options, with a flight time of 17 hours from Dallas including a stopover at Tokyo’s Narita airport. East Coast travelers could also consider using American Airlines via Tokyo; Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong; or Air China via Beijing. From the West Coast, Thai Airways has connections from Los Angeles. Cathay Pacific often has good fares from San Francisco as well. Often the best prices can be found on sites such as Kayak (www.kayak.com) or Vayama (www.vayama.com).
Some of the world’s top-rated airlines for service—such as Cathay Pacific, Qatar, and Singapore—fly between the United States and Bangkok. These airlines (and Asian airlines in general) often have more comfortable seats, better food selections (still without extra charge), and more entertainment options than do most U.S.-based carriers. Many Asian airlines also allow you to change your bookings for free (or for a nominal charge) if done a week in advance. Lastly, tickets purchased from these carriers are generally no more expensive than those offered by U.S. carriers. And the extra creature comforts these airlines provide can leave you a little less frazzled when you reach your destination, ensuring that you don’t spend half your vacation recovering from the trip over.
For years, Bangkok Airways offered the only direct flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap, Cambodia (home of Angkor Wat), with exorbitant prices. A cheaper alternative exists now: Cambodia Angkor Air. The airline flies throughout the region, as do several budget airlines, making short country-hopping excursions far more feasible than before.
Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-biggest city, is slowly becoming an important regional destination, and direct flights between here and Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, various points in China, Luang Prabang in Laos, and other Asian destinations may be available. However, these routes seem to change with the wind, so check before your trip. As Myanmar opens up, more travelers are adding that country to their regional itineraries. Several carriers—Thai, Bangkok Airways, Myanmar Airways International—offer regular nonstop flights between Bangkok and Yangon, as do budget carriers AirAsia and Nok.
In March 2015, the UN International Civil Aviation Organization reported “significant safety concerns” with Thailand’s air safety practices. This caused some countries to block flights from Thailand, and as of this writing, Thai aviation authorities feared more flights to and from other countries might be affected. It’s wise to check the latest safety reports on Thailand and its carriers before booking.
Air Travel Within Thailand
Thai Airways has by far the largest network of any airline in Thailand and connects all major and many minor destinations across the country. Bangkok Airways, which bills itself as a luxury boutique airline with comfy seats and good food, covers many routes and is the only airline to service Koh Samui, Trat, and Sukhothai. Both Thai and Bangkok Airways fly a mix of larger jet aircraft and smaller turbo-props. In past years, buying tickets on the Thai Airways website was an act reserved for masochists, but it was easy (and cheaper) to go to a travel agent to get Thai Airways tickets. The websites of other Thai airlines generally work well for online bookings.
Budget airlines now cover Thailand’s skies and have dramatically lowered the cost of travel. Best known are Nok Air (a subsidiary of Thai Airways), Thai AirAsia, and Orient Thai (parent company of the now-defunct One-Two-Go, which was grounded temporarily by the Thai government following a fatal crash in Phuket).
With budget carriers, you’ll save the most by booking online and as far in advance as you can. There’s a small fee for booking over the phone, and you may not get an English-speaking operator. The airlines keep their prices low by charging extra for services like food—or not offering it at all. They charge less for flights at odd hours (often late in the day), and change their schedules based on the availability of cheap landing and takeoff times. AirAsia, generally the cheapest of the budget carriers, seems to change its flight times and routes every couple of months. Delays are more common the later in the day you’re flying, so if you need to make an international connection, morning flights are a safer bet.
Thai buses are cheap and faster than trains, and reach every corner of the country. There are usually two to three buses a day on most routes and several daily (or even hourly) buses on popular routes between major towns. Most buses leave in the morning, with a few other runs spaced out in the afternoon and evening. Buses leave in the evening for long overnight trips. Overnight buses are very popular with Thais, and they’re a more efficient use of time, but they do crash with disturbing regularity and many expats avoid them.
Avoid taking private bus company trips from the Khao San Road area. The buses are not as comfortable as public buses, they take longer, and they usually try to trap you at an affiliated hotel once you reach your destination. This is particularly the case for cross-border travel into Cambodia. There have also been many reports of rip-offs, scams, and luggage thefts on these buses over the years.
There are, generally speaking, three classes of bus service: cheap, no-frills locals on short routes that stop at every road crossing and for anyone who waves them down; second- and first-class buses on specific routes that have air-conditioning, toilets (sometimes), and loud chop-socky movies (too often); and VIP buses that provide nonstop service between major bus stations and have comfortable seats, drinks, snacks, air-conditioning, and movies (often starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme). If you’re setting out on a long bus journey, it’s worth inquiring about the onboard entertainment—14 hours on a bus with continuous karaoke VCDs blasting out old pop hits can be torturous. Air-conditioned buses are usually so cold that you’ll want an extra sweater. On local buses, space at the back soon fills up with all kinds of oversize luggage, so it’s best to sit toward the middle or the front.
Bangkok has three main bus stations, serving routes to the north (Mo Chit), south (Southern Terminal), and east (Ekamai). Chiang Mai has one major terminal. All have telephone information lines, but the operators rarely speak English. It’s best to buy tickets at the bus station, where the bigger bus companies have ticket windows. Thais usually just head to the station an hour before they’d like to leave; you may want to go a day early to be sure you get a ticket if your plans aren’t flexible—especially if you hope to get VIP tickets. Travel agents can sometimes get tickets for you, but often the fee is more than half the cost of the ticket. All fares are paid in cash.
Many small towns don’t have formal bus terminals, but rather a spot along a main road where buses stop. Information concerning schedules can be obtained from TAT offices and the bus stations.
Car travel in Thailand has its ups and downs. Major thoroughfares tend to be congested, but the limited number of roads and the straightforward layout of cities combine to make navigation relatively easy. The exception, of course, is Bangkok. Don’t even think about negotiating that tangled mass of traffic-clogged streets. Hire a driver instead.
Cars are available for rent in Bangkok and in major tourist destinations. However, even outside Bangkok the additional cost of hiring a driver is a small price to pay for peace of mind. If a foreigner is involved in an automobile accident, he or she—not the Thai—is likely to be judged at fault, no matter who hit whom.
That said, car rental can be the most pleasant, affordable way to tour the country’s rural areas.
If you do decide to rent a car, know that traffic laws are routinely disregarded. Bigger vehicles have the unspoken right-of-way, motorcyclists seem to think they are invincible, and bicyclists often don’t look around them. Few Thai drivers go anywhere anymore without a cell phone stuck to one ear. Drive very carefully, as those around you generally won’t.
Police checkpoints are common, especially near international borders and in the restive south. You must stop for them, but will most likely be waved through.
Rental-company rates in Thailand begin at about $40 a day for a jeep or $50 for an economy car with unlimited mileage. It’s better to make your car-rental reservations when you arrive in Thailand, as you can usually secure a discount.
Jeeps and other vehicles are widely available for rent from private owners in tourist spots—particularly beach areas—and prices generally begin at about $25 a day. But be wary of the renter and any contract you sign (which might be in Thai). Often these vehicles come with no insurance that covers you, so you are liable for any damage incurred.
You must have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive or rent a car in Thailand. IDP’s are not difficult to obtain, and having one in your wallet may save you from unwanted headaches if you do have to deal with local authorities. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.
As of this writing, a liter of gasoline costs B33, just over $1. Many gas stations stay open 24 hours and have clean toilet facilities and minimarts. As you get farther away from developed areas, roadside stalls sell gasoline from bottles or tanks.
You can park on most streets; no-parking areas are marked either with red-and-white bars on the curb or with circular blue signs with a red “don’t” stroke through the middle. The less urban the area, the more likely locals will double- and triple-park to be as close as possible to their destination. Thai traffic police do “boot” cars and motorcycles that are improperly parked, though only when they feel like it. The ticketing officer usually leaves a sheet of paper with a contact number to call; once you call, he returns, you pay your fine (often subject to negotiation), and he removes the boot.
In cities, the larger hotels, restaurants, and department stores have garages or parking lots. Rates vary but count on B10 or more an hour. If you purchase something, parking is often free, but you must have your ticket validated.
Thai highways and town roads are generally quite good. Byways and rural roads range from good to indescribably bad. In rainy season expect rural dirt roads to be impassable bogs.
Leafy twigs and branches lying on a road are not decorations but warnings that something is amiss ahead. Slow down and proceed with caution.
Thai traffic signs will be familiar to all international drivers, though most roads are marked in Thai. Fortunately, larger roads, highways, and tourist attractions often have English signs, too. Signs aren’t always clear, so you may find yourself asking for directions quite often—or just consult your smartphone and GPS.
If you have a choice, don’t drive at night. Motorists out after dark often drive like maniacs, and may be drunk. Likewise, if you have a choice, avoid driving during key holidays such as Songkran. The Bangkok newspapers keep tallies of road deaths during each big holiday, and the numbers are enough to frighten anyone off the highway. When you are driving anywhere in the country, at all times beware of oxcarts, cows, dogs, small children, and people on bikes suddenly joining the traffic fray.
Should you run into any problems, you can contact the Tourist Police at their hotline, 1155.
Rules of the Road
As in the United Kingdom, drive on the left side of the road, even if the locals don’t. Speed limits are 60 kph (37 mph) in cities, 90 kph (56 mph) outside, and 130 kph (81 mph) on expressways, not that anyone pays much heed. If you’re caught breaking traffic laws, you officially have to report to the police station to pay a large fine. In reality, an on-the-spot fine of B100 or B200 can usually be paid. Never presume to have the right of way in Thailand, and always expect the other driver to do exactly what you think they should not.
Many people rent small motorcycles to get around the countryside or the islands. A Thai city is not the place to learn how to drive a motorcycle. Phuket in particular is unforgiving to novices—don’t think of driving one around there unless you are experienced. Motorcycles skid easily on wet or gravel roads. On Koh Samui a sign posts the year’s count of foreigners who never made it home from their vacations because of such accidents. In the past people often did not bother to wear a helmet in the evening, but government crackdowns have made it common practice to drive as safely at night as during the day. Shoes, a shirt, and long pants will also offer some protection in wrecks, which are common. When driving a motorbike, make sure your vehicle has a rectangular sticker showing up-to-date insurance and registration. The sticker should be pasted somewhere toward the front of the bike, with the Buddhist year in big, bold numbers. You can rent smaller 100cc to 125cc motorcycles for only a few dollars a day. Dirt bikes and bigger road bikes, 250cc and above, start at about $25 per day.
Two-wheeled vacations are a growing segment of Thai tourism, especially in the north. With Thailand’s crazy traffic, this is not a good option for first-time tourists to the area.
Most Thai taxis now have meters installed, and these are the ones tourists should take. (However, the drivers of Chiang Mai’s small fleet of “meter” taxis often demand flat fees instead. Bargain.) Taxis waiting at hotels are more likely to demand a high flat fare than those flagged down on the street. Never enter any taxi until the price has been established or the driver agrees to use the meter. Most taxi drivers do not speak English, but all understand the finger count. One finger means B10, two is for B20, and so on. Whenever possible, ask at your hotel front desk what the approximate fare should be. If you flag down a meter taxi and the driver refuses to use the meter, you can try to negotiate a better fare or simply get another taxi. If you negotiate too much, he will simply take you on a long route to jack the meter price up.
Trains are a great way to get around Thailand. Though they’re a bit slower and generally more expensive than buses, they’re more comfortable and safer. They go to (or close to) most major tourist destinations, and many go through areas where major roads don’t venture. The State Railway of Thailand has four lines, all of which terminate in Bangkok. Hualamphong is Bangkok’s main terminal; you can book tickets for any route in the country there. (Chiang Mai’s station is another major hub, where you can also buy tickets for any route.)
The Northern Line connects Bangkok with Chiang Mai, passing through Ayutthaya, Phitsanulok, and Sukhothai. The Northeastern Line travels up to Nong Khai, on the Laotian border (across from Vientiane), and has a branch that goes east to Ubon Ratchathani. The Southern Line goes all the way south through Surat Thani (get off here for Koh Samui) to the Malaysian border and on to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a journey that takes 37 hours. The Eastern Line splits and goes to both Pattaya and Aranyaprathet on the Cambodian border. A short line also connects Bangkok with Nam Tok to the west, passing through Kanchanaburi and the bridge over the River Kwai along the way. (There’s no train to Phuket; you have to go to the Phun Phin station, about 14 km [9 miles] from Surat Thani and change to a bus.) The Southern Line has been attacked in insurgency-related violence. Check the security situation before booking a trip to the south.
Tickets and Rail Passes
The State Railway of Thailand offers two types of rail passes. Both are valid for 20 days of unlimited travel on all trains in either second or third class. The cheaper of the two does not include supplementary charges such as air-conditioning and berths. Ask at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station for up-to-date prices and purchasing; if the train is your primary mode of transportation, it may be worth it. If you don’t plan to cover many miles by train, individual tickets are probably the way to go.
Even if you purchase a rail pass, you’re not guaranteed seats on any particular train; you’ll need to book these ahead of time through a travel agent or by visiting the advance booking office of the nearest train station. Seat reservations are required on some trains and are strongly advised on long-distance routes, especially if you want a sleeper on the Bangkok to Chiang Mai trip. Bangkok to Chiang Mai and other popular routes need to be booked several days in advance, especially during the popular tourist season between November and January, as well as during the Thai New Year in April. Tickets for shorter, less frequented routes can be bought a day in advance or, sometimes, right at the station before departure. Most travel agencies have information on train schedules, and many will book seats for you for a small fee, saving you a trip to the station.
The State Railway of Thailand’s rather basic website has timetables, routes, available seats, and other information, but no way to book tickets. The British-based website Seat 61 also has lots of helpful information about train travel in Thailand. Train schedules in English are available from travel agents and from major railway stations.
Classes of Service
Local trains are generally pretty slow and can get crowded, but you’ll never be lonely! On some local trains there’s a choice between second and third class.
Most long-distance trains offer second- or third-class tickets, and some overnight trains to the north (Chiang Mai) and to the south offer first-class sleeping cabins. First-class sleepers have nice individual rooms for two to four people, but they are increasingly rare. If you have the chance, splurging on a first-class overnight cabin can be a unique, almost romantic experience. You’d be hard-pressed to find a first-class sleeper cabin this cheap anywhere else in the world (B1,453 for a Bangkok to Chiang Mai ticket).
Second-class cars have comfy padded bench seats or sleeper bunks with sheets and curtains. Tickets are about half the price of first-class (B881, Bangkok to Chiang Mai), and since the couchettes are quite comfortable, most westerners choose these. Second class is generally air-conditioned, but on overnight journeys you have a choice of air-conditioning or fan-cooled cars. The air-conditioning tends to be freezing (bring a sweater and socks) and leave you dehydrated. Sleeping next to an open train window can leave you deaf and covered in soot. It’s your choice. Third-class cars have hard benches and no air-conditioning and are not recommended for overnight trips but they are wildly cheap.
Meals are served at your seat in first and second classes.
So-called because of their flatulent sound, these three-wheel cabs can be slightly less expensive than taxis, and are, because of their maneuverability, sometimes a more rapid form of travel through congested traffic. All tuk-tuk operators drive as if chased by hellhounds. Tuk-tuks are not very comfortable, require hard bargaining skills, are noisy, are very polluting, are very difficult to see out of if you are more than 4 feet tall, and subject you to the polluted air they create—so they’re best used for short journeys, if at all. They are fun to take once, mildly amusing the second time, and fully unpleasant by the third.
If a tuk-tuk driver rolls up and offers to drive you to the other side of Bangkok for B20, think twice before accepting, because you will definitely be getting more than you bargained for. By dragging you along to his friend’s gem store, tailor’s shop, or handicraft showroom, he’ll usually get a petrol voucher as commission. He’ll tell you that all you need to do to help him put rice on his family’s table is take a five-minute look around. Sometimes that’s accurate, but sometimes you’ll find it difficult to leave without buying something. It can be fun at times to go along with it all and watch everybody play out their little roles, but other times you really just want a ride to your chosen destination. Either way you end up paying for it.
Most hotels and guesthouses now offer Wi-Fi connections. Some are free, others are not, and many can be very slow. This is, however, slowly starting to improve, and reliable Wi-Fi connections are becoming more common. Many hotels also have business centers that provide Internet access. Thais also love to do their digital work at hip coffee shops, just as the rest of the world does. Expect to pay western prices for that mocha latte.
Outside of large hotels and business centers, the electrical supply can be temperamental. Surging and dipping power supplies are normal, and power outages are not unheard-of.
Even many the smallest towns have Internet shops, although they are becoming less popular as more people have smartphones. Most restaurants and cafés offer Wi-Fi (with purchase). Shops used to dealing with foreigners often will allow you to connect a laptop. Typical Internet prices in tourist areas range from about B20 to B60 per hour, sometimes more in coffee shops. Larger hotels and resorts can charge a lot more, so make sure to ask in advance. Then again, many high-end resorts now offer free Wi-Fi, too.
The country code for Thailand is 66. When dialing a Thailand number from abroad, drop the initial 0 from the local area code.
To call Cambodia from overseas, dial the country code (855) and then the area code, omitting the first 0. The code for Phnom Penh is 023; for Siem Reap it’s 063. Unfortunately, Cambodia’s international lines are sometimes jammed; booking and requesting information through websites is consequently the best option. Almost all Internet shops offer overseas calling, which runs up to 50¢ a minute, depending on the location. Skype and other Internet calling options are often the easiest, cheapest methods for international calls—especially if you’re in a place with free Wi-Fi.
To call Laos from overseas, dial the country code (856) and then the area code, omitting the first 0. The outgoing international code is 00, but IDD phones are rare. In cities, Wi-Fi is becoming more readily available and so, too, is the option of Skype.
To call Myanmar from overseas, dial the country code (95), and then the area code, omitting the first 0. The country is just starting to catch up, and communications are changing rapidly since the government lowered the price of a SIM card from $1,000-plus to just a few dollars. More and more Myanmar businesses now have websites, email addresses, and mobile phone numbers. People are using Skype, too.
Calling Within Thailand
There are numerous phone companies and cell-phone operators throughout the country. Payphones are still widely available, and they generally work, though long-distance calls can only be made on phones that accept both B1 and B5 coins. But fewer people are using payphones as most people now have smartphones.
Calling Outside Thailand
The country code for the United States is 1.
To make overseas calls, you can use either your hotel switchboard—Chiang Mai and Bangkok have direct dialing—or the overseas telephone facilities at the central post office and telecommunications building. You’ll find one in all towns. But by far, it’s easiest now to use Skype or another online service.
Mobile Phones and Smartphones
Mobile phone plans vary widely, and some in the United States offer free-roaming throughout Thailand. Check with your service provider before leaving the United States. Otherwise, the roaming charges can be deadly. Many travelers use their cell phones to send and receive text messages, a cheap way to stay in touch.
Alternatively, if you have an unlocked mobile phone, you can buy a SIM card (the chip that keeps your phone number and account) in Thailand. These are often offered for free on arrival at Thai airports. Pop the SIM card into your phone, and have a local number while visiting. Then buy phone cards (available at all minimarts) in B100 to B500 denominations and pay for calls as you go, generally B3 to B10 a minute depending on the time of day and number you are calling. International calls will run about B5 to B40 a minute.
Another option is to buy a used phone at any cell-phone shop, which are ubiquitous (all malls in Thailand have them). You can usually find a used but reliable phone for $20 to $40.
CUSTOMS AND DUTIES
Most people pass through customs at Suvarnabhumi without even so much as a glance from a customs officer. Officers worry more about people smuggling opium across borders than they do about an extra bottle of wine or your new camera. That said, if you’re bringing any exorbitantly expensive foreign-made equipment from home, such as cameras or video gear, it’s wise to carry the original receipt with you or register it with U.S. Customs before you leave (Form 4457). Otherwise, you may end up paying duty on your return.
One liter of wine or liquor, 200 cigarettes or 250 grams of smoking tobacco, and all personal effects may be brought into Thailand duty-free. Visitors may bring in and leave with any amount of foreign currency; you cannot leave with more than B50,000 without obtaining a permit. Narcotics, pornographic materials, protected wild animals and wild animal parts, and firearms are strictly prohibited.
Some tourists dream of Thailand as a tropical paradise floating on a cloud of marijuana smoke—not so. Narcotics are strictly illegal, and jail terms for the transporting or possession of even the smallest amounts are extremely harsh.
If you purchase any Buddha images (originals or reproductions), artifacts, or true antiques and want to take them home, you need to get a certificate from the Fine Arts Department. Taking unregistered or unauthorized antiques out of the country is a major offense to the culture-conscious Thais. If you get a particularly good reproduction of an antique, get a letter or certificate from the seller saying it is a reproduction, or risk losing it on your way out of the country. Art or antiques requiring export permits must be taken to one of the museums listed here at least a week before the departure date. You will have to fill out an application and provide two photographs—front and side views—of the object as well as a photocopy of your passport information page.
Cambodia and Laos
You are allowed to bring 200 cigarettes or the equivalent in cigars or tobacco and one bottle of liquor into Cambodia. You are not allowed to bring in or take out local currency, nor are you allowed to remove Angkor antiquities (even though, sadly, they can be found for sale in shops across Thailand). The export of other antiques or religious objects requires a permit. Contact your embassy for assistance in obtaining one before laying out money on an expensive purchase.
Tourists are allowed to bring up to one liter of spirits and two liters of wine into Laos, as well as 200 cigarettes, 50 cigars, or 250 grams of tobacco. Bringing in or taking out local currency is prohibited, as is the export of antiques and religious artifacts without a permit.
Note that the dissemination of foreign religious and political materials is forbidden, and you should refrain from bringing such materials into the country.
Thai food is eaten with a fork and spoon; the spoon held in the right hand and the fork is used like a plow to push food into the spoon. Chopsticks are used only for Chinese food, such as noodle dishes. After you have finished eating, place your fork and spoon on the plate at the 5:25 position; otherwise the server will assume you would like another helping.
If you want to catch a waiter’s attention, use the all-purpose polite word, krup if you are a man and ka if you are a woman. Beckoning with a hand and fingers pointed upward is considered rude; point your fingers downward instead.
Meals and Mealtimes
Thai cuisine’s distinctive flavor comes particularly from the use of fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, tamarind, lime, and citrus leaves. And though some Thai food is fiery hot from garlic and chilies, an equal number of dishes serve the spices on the side, so that you can adjust the incendiary level. Thais use nam pla, a fish sauce, instead of salt.
Restaurant hours vary, but Thais eat at all times of day, and in cities you will find eateries open through the night. In Thailand breakfast outside the hotel often means noodle soup or curry on the street (or banana pancakes in backpacker areas). Street vendors also sell coffee, although die-hard caffeine addicts may not get enough of a fix; Thai coffee isn’t simply coffee, but a combination of ground beans with nuts and spices. If you’re desperate, look for a western-style espresso machine or a Chinese coffee shop.
The lunch hour is long—roughly 11:30 to 2—in smaller towns and rural areas, a holdover from when Thailand was primarily a country of rice farmers and everyone napped during the hottest hours of the day.
Unless otherwise noted, the restaurants listed are open daily for lunch and dinner.
Expect to pay for most meals in cash. Larger hotels and fancy restaurants in metropolitan areas accept some major credit cards, but they will often charge an extra 2% to 4% for the convenience. If you are at the restaurant of the hotel where you are staying, you can generally just add the bill to your room and leave a cash tip if you desire. Street vendors and small, local restaurants only accept cash.
Reservations and Dress
Generally, reservations are not necessary at Thai restaurants, and even then are only accepted at the most expensive and popular ones.
Because Thailand has a hot climate, jackets and ties are rarely worn at dinner except in expensive hotel restaurants. Attire tends to fit the setting: people dress casually at simple restaurants and in small towns, but the Bangkok and Chiang Mai elite love dressing to the hilt for a posh night on the town. We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or tie.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Singha, Tiger, and Heineken are at the top end of Thailand’s beer market, while Chang, Leo, and a host of other brands fight it out for the budget drinkers. It’s also becoming more common to find imports such as Guinness, Corona, Budweiser, and the ever-popular Beerlao lining the shelves of cosmopolitan bars.
If you want to drink like the hip locals, don’t bother with beer. Grab a bottle of whisky (Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, or the very affordable 100 Pipers) to mix with soda.
Rice whisky, which tastes sweet and has a whopping 35% alcohol content, is another favorite throughout Thailand. It tastes and mixes more like rum than whisky. Mekong and Sam Song are by far the most popular rice whiskies, but you will also see labels such as Kwangthong, Hong Thong, Hong Ngoen, Hong Yok, and Hong Tho. Thais mix their rice whisky with soda water, though it goes great with Coke, too.
Many Thais are just beginning to develop a taste for wine, and the foreign tipples on offer are expensive and generally mediocre. Thirty years ago the king first brought up the idea of growing grapes for wine and fruit through his Royal Projects Foundation. Now both fruit- and grape-based wines are made in various places up-country. Their quality generally does not match international offerings (they tend to taste better if you don’t think of them as wines, as such), but some are quite pleasant. International markets often carry them, and they can occasionally be found on the menus of larger restaurants.
The electrical current in Thailand is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); wall outlets take either two flat prongs, like outlets in the United States, or Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs, or sometimes both. Plug adapters are cheap and can be found without great difficulty in tourist areas and electrical shops. Outlets outside expensive international hotels are rarely grounded, so use caution when plugging in delicate electronic equipment like laptops.
In Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar the electrical current is 220 volts AC, 50 Hz. In Laos, outside Vientiane and Luang Prabang, electricity is spotty, and even in Luang Prabang there are frequent late-afternoon outages in hot weather. In Myanmar, locals joke that Yangon (Rangoon) is so advanced, the city has power six times a day. Actually, many cities throughout the region suffer power outages as development and demand exceed supply.
Consider making a small investment in a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one lightweight, compact unit. Most laptops and mobile-phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts), so require only an adapter. These days the same is true of small appliances such as hair dryers. Always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “For shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
Thais are generally quite helpful, so you should get assistance from locals if you need it. The Tourist Police will help you in case of a robbery or rip-off. The Tourist Police hotline is 1155.
Many hotels can refer you to an English-speaking doctor. Major cities in Thailand have some of Southeast Asia’s best hospitals, and the country is quickly becoming a “medical holiday” destination (i.e., a cost-effective place to have plastic surgery, dental work). However, if you are still wary about treating serious health problems in Thailand, you can fly cheaply to Singapore for the best medical care in the region.
Most nations maintain diplomatic relations with Thailand and have embassies in Bangkok; a few have consulates also in Chiang Mai.
The most common vacation sickness in Thailand is traveler’s diarrhea. You can take some solace in knowing that it is also the most common affliction of the locals. It generally comes from eating contaminated food, be it fruit, veggies, unclean water, or badly prepared or stored foods—really anything. It can also be triggered by a change in diet. Avoid ice unless you know it comes from clean water, uncooked or undercooked foods (particularly seafood, sometimes served raw in salads), and unpasteurized dairy products. Drink only bottled water or water that has been boiled for at least 20 minutes, even when brushing your teeth. The water served in pitchers at small restaurants or in hotel rooms is generally safe, as it is either boiled or from a larger bottle of purified water, though if you have any suspicions about its origins, it’s best to go with your gut feeling.
The best way to treat “Bangkok belly” is to wait for it to pass. Take Pepto-Bismol to help ease your discomfort and if you must travel, take Imodium (known generically as loperamide), which will immobilize your lower gut and everything in it. It doesn’t cure the problem, but simply postpones it until a more convenient time. Note that if you have a serious stomach sickness, taking Imodium can occasionally intensify the problem, leading to a debilitating fever and sickness. If at any time you get a high fever with stomach sickness, find a doctor.
If you have frequent, watery diarrhea for more than two days, see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. Days of sickness can leave you seriously dehydrated and weak in the tropics.
In any case, drink plenty of purified water or tea—chamomile, lemongrass, and ginger are good choices. In severe cases, rehydrate yourself with a salt-sugar solution (½ teaspoon salt and 4 tablespoons sugar per quart of water) or rehydration salts, available at any pharmacy.
Shots and Medications
No vaccinations are required to enter Thailand, but we strongly recommend the hepatitis A vaccination as well as typhoid; and you should make sure your tetanus and polio vaccinations are up-to-date, as well as measles, mumps, and rubella.
Malaria and dengue fever are also possible (though remote) risks as you move out of the main tourist areas. There is much debate about whether travelers headed to Thailand should take malarial prophylactics. Though many western doctors recommend that you take antimalarials, many health-care workers in Thailand believe they can do more harm than good: they can have side effects, they are not 100% effective, they can mask the symptoms of the disease if you do contract it, and they can make treatment more complicated. Consult your physician, see what medications your insurance will cover, and do what makes you feel most comfortable.
There are no prophylactics available for dengue fever. The best way to prevent mosquito-borne illness is to protect yourself against mosquitoes as much as possible .
According to the U.S. government’s National Centers for Disease Control (CDC) there’s also a risk of hepatitis B, rabies, and Japanese encephalitis in rural areas of Thailand, as well as drug-resistant malaria near the Myanmar border and in parts of Cambodia. In most urban or easily accessible areas you need not worry. However, if you plan to visit remote regions or stay for more than six weeks, check with the CDC’s International Travelers Hotline.
Specific Issues in Thailand
The avian flu crisis that ripped through Southeast Asia at the start of the 21st century had a devastating impact on Thailand. Poultry farmers went out of business, tourists stayed away, and each week brought news of a new species found to be infected (including isolated cases of humans contracting the virus). At this writing, the worry has died down as human cases continue to be exceedingly rare. That doesn’t mean it won’t flare up again, but note that all cases have occurred in rural areas outside the tourist track, and most infected people dealt with large numbers of dead birds.
Malaria and dengue fever, though more common than bird flu, are still fairly rare in well-traveled areas. Malarial mosquitoes generally fly from dusk to dawn, while dengue carriers do the opposite; both are most numerous during the rainy season, as they breed in stagnant water.
The best policy is to avoid being bitten. To that end, wear light-color clothing and some form of insect repellent (preferably containing DEET) on any exposed skin when out and about in the mornings and evenings, especially during the rainy season. Make sure that hotel rooms have air-conditioning, mosquito nets over the bed, good screens over windows, or some combination thereof. You can also use a bug spray (available everywhere) in your room before heading out to dinner, and return to a bug-free room. The ubiquitous bottles of menthol-scented Siang Pure Oil both ward off mosquitoes and stop the incessant itching of bites.
Dengue fever tends to appear with a sudden high fever, sweating, headache, joint and muscle pain (where it got the name “breakbone fever”), and nausea. A rash of red spots on the chest or legs is a telltale sign. Malaria offers a raft of symptoms, including fever, chills, headache, sweating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. A key sign is the recurrent nature of the symptoms, coming in waves every day or two.
Find a doctor immediately if you think you may have either disease. In Thailand, the test for both is quick and accurate and the doctors are much more accustomed to treating these diseases than are doctors in the United States. Left untreated, both diseases can quickly become serious, possibly fatal. Even when properly treated, dengue has a long recovery period, leaving the victim debilitated for weeks, sometimes months.
Reliable condoms in a variety of brands and styles are available at most 7-Elevens, supermarkets, and minimarts, usually near the checkout counter. Be aware that a high percentage of sex workers in Thailand are HIV positive, and unprotected sex is extremely risky.
Do not fly within 24 hours of scuba diving, as you may risk decompression sickness, which is caused by tiny bubbles forming in the body if you move from deep water (higher pressure) to the surface (lower pressure) too quickly. The water pressure while diving causes nitrogen in the air you are breathing to dissolve in your blood. Quickly encountering low pressure (whether from surfacing rapidly, flying at altitude, or even driving over mountain passes) can cause sickness if your body has not had time to off-gas the nitrogen.
Thailand has nearly every drug known to the western world and many that aren’t. All are readily available at pharmacies throughout the country. They are also often cheaper than in the United States, and many drugs don’t require the prescriptions and doctor visits needed at home. Be wary, however, of fake medications. It’s best to visit larger, well-established pharmacies that locals vouch for.
HOURS OF OPERATION
Thai business hours generally follow the 9 to 5 model, though the smaller the business, the more eclectic the hours. Nearly all businesses either close or slow to a halt during lunch hour—don’t expect to accomplish anything important at this time. Many tourist businesses in the north and on the beaches and islands in the south often shut down outside the main tourist seasons of November through January and June through August.
Thai and foreign banks are open weekdays 8:30 to 3:30 (sometimes longer), except for public holidays. Most commercial concerns in Bangkok operate on a five-day week and are open 8 to 5. Government offices are generally open weekdays 8:30 to 4:30, with a noon to 1 lunch break. Generally speaking, avoid visiting any sort of office during the Thai lunch hour—or bring a book to pass the time.
Gas stations in Thailand are usually open at least 8 to 8 daily; many, particularly those on the highways, are open 24 hours a day. Twenty-four-hour minimart-style gas stations are growing in popularity. Many also have fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
Each museum keeps its own hours and may select a different day of the week to close (though it’s usually Monday); it’s best to call before visiting.
Temples are generally open to visitors from 7 or 8 in the morning to 5 or 6 pm, but in truth they don’t really have set hours. If a compound has gates, they open at dawn to allow the monks to do their rounds. Outside of major tourist sights like Wat Po in Bangkok, few temples appear to have fixed closing times.
Most pharmacies are open daily 9 to 9. You’ll find a few 24-hour pharmacies in tourist areas.
Most small stores are open daily 8 to 8, whereas department and chain stores are usually open from 10 until 10.
Thailand: New Year’s Day (January 1); Chinese New Year (January 28, 2017); Makha Bhucha Day (on the full moon of the third lunar month); Chakri Day (April 6); Songkran (mid-April); Labor Day (May 1); Coronation Day (May 5); Ploughing Day (May 9); Visakha Bucha (May, on the full moon of the sixth lunar month); Buddhist Lent day (July); Queen’s Birthday (August 12); Chulalongkorn Memorial Day (October 23); King’s Birthday (December 5); Constitution Day (December 10). Government offices, banks, commercial concerns, and department stores are usually closed on these days, but smaller shops stay open.
Cambodia: New Year’s Day (January 1); Victory Day (January 7); Meak Bochea Day (February); International Women’s Day (March 8); Cambodian New Year (mid-April, depending on the lunar cycle); Labor Day (May 1); Visak Bochea (the Buddha’s Birthday, early May); King Sihamoni’s birthday (May 13–15); Visaka Bochea (May 19); Royal Ploughing Ceremony (May); International Children’s Day (June 1); Queen Mother’s birthday (June 18); Pchum Ben (September); Constitution Day (September 24); Anniversary of Paris Peace Agreement (October 23); Coronation Day (October 29); Sihanouk’s birthday (October 31); Independence Day (November 9); Water Festival (November); Human Rights Day (December 10).
Laos: New Year’s Day (January 1); Pathet Lao Day (January 6); Army Day (late January); International Women Day (March 8); Day of the People’s Party (March 22); Lao New Year (Water Festival, April 13–15); Labor Day (May 1); Buddha Day (May 2); Children’s Day (June 1); Lao Issara (August 13); Day of Liberation (October 12); National Day (December 2).
Myanmar: Independence Day (January 4); Union Day (February 12); Peasants’ Day (March 2); Full Moon of Tabaung (March); Armed Forces Day (March 27); Thingyan (April); Burmese New Year (April); Labor Day (May 1); Buddha’s Birthday (May 25); Martyr’s Day (July 19); Buddhist Lent (July); Thadingyut, End of Lent (October); Full Moon of Thauzangmone (November): National Day (December 8); Christmas Day (December 25).
It’s possible to live and travel quite inexpensively if you do as Thais do—eat in small, neighborhood restaurants, use buses, and stay at non-air-conditioned hotels. Traveling this way, two people could easily get by on $50 a day or less. Once you start enjoying a little luxury, prices can jump as much as you let them. Imported items are heavily taxed.
Resort areas and Bangkok are much pricier than other parts of the country.
Prices here are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad, as will the foreign bank you use. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank.
PIN numbers with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Even smaller towns have ATMs. Most accept foreign bank cards; all pay in baht. As of this writing, most Thai ATMs charge extra B150 ($5) fee per transaction, plus your home bank may well add extra fees for using a foreign bank and/or converting foreign currency. Do contact your bank and ask about this before leaving to avoid any nasty billing surprises. Some Thai ATMs take Cirrus, some take Plus, some take both.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company and the bank that issues your ATM card before you travel, especially if you don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Before you charge something at shops, restaurants or hotels that cater to tourists, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
Credit cards are almost always accepted at upper-end hotels, resorts, boutique stores, and shopping malls, and that list is slowly expanding. Expect to pay a 2% to 4% service charge. It is often illegal, but that’s what everyone does.
Currency and Exchange
The basic unit of currency is the baht. There are 100 satang to one baht. Baht come in six different bills, each a different color: B10, brown; B20, green; B50, blue; B100, red; B500, purple; and B1,000, beige. Coins in use are 25 satang, 50 satang, B1, B2, B5, and B10. The B10 coin has a gold-color center surrounded by silver.
Major hotels will convert traveler’s checks and major currencies into baht, though exchange rates are better at banks and authorized money changers. The rate tends to be better in any larger city than up-country and is better in Thailand than in the United States.
Light cotton or other natural-fiber clothing is appropriate for Thailand; drip-dry is an especially good idea, because the tropical sun and high humidity encourage frequent changes of clothing. Avoid delicate fabrics, because you may have difficulty getting them laundered. A sweater is welcome on cool evenings or in overly air-conditioned restaurants, buses, and trains.
The paths leading to temples can be rough, so bring a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Slip-ons are preferable to lace-up shoes, as they must be removed before you enter shrines and temples.
Bring a hat and UV-protection sunglasses and use them. The tropical sun is powerful, and its effects long-lasting and painful.
Thailand has a huge range of clothing options at good prices, though it may be difficult to find the right sizes if you’re not petite.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
U.S. citizens arriving by air need only a valid passport, not a prearranged visa, to visit Thailand for less than 30 days. Technically, travelers need an outgoing ticket and “adequate finances” for the duration of their Thailand stay to receive a 30-day stamp upon entry, though authorities in Bangkok rarely check your finances. They do occasionally ask to see an outbound ticket. Scrutiny is inconsistent; authorities periodically crack down on long-term tourists who try to hang out in Thailand indefinitely by making monthly “visa runs” across international borders. Tourists who arrive in Thailand by land from a neighboring country are now granted only a 14-day visa. As of this writing, tourists are not allowed to spend more than 90 days of any six-month period in Thailand, and immigration officials sometimes opt to count days and stamps in your passport.
If for whatever reason you are traveling to Thailand on a one-way ticket, airline officials might ask you to sign a waiver before allowing you to board, relieving them of responsibility should you be turned away at immigration.
If you want to stay longer than one month, you can apply for a 60-day tourist visa through a Royal Thai embassy. The embassy in Washington, D.C., charges about $40 for this visa, and you’ll need to show them a round-trip ticket and a current bank statement to prove you can afford the trip. Be sure to apply for the correct number of entries; for example, if you’re going to Laos for a few days in the middle of your stay, you’ll need to apply for two Thailand entries.
Tourist visas can also be extended one month at a time once you’re in Thailand. You must apply in person at a Thai immigration office; expect the process to take a day. Your application will be granted at the discretion of the immigration office where you apply.
If you overstay your visa by a day or two, you’ll have to pay a B500 fine for each day overstayed when you leave the country. Recently, immigration officials have reportedly started jailing foreigners who overstay by more than six weeks. And, since the military junta took control in 2014, who knows what will happen with visa requirements and services in the future.
Western-style facilities are usually available, although you still may find squat toilets in older buildings. For the uninitiated, squat toilets can be something of a puzzle. You will doubtless find a method that works best for you, but here’s a general guide: squat down with feet on either side of the basin and use one hand to keep your clothes out of the way and the other for balance or, if you’re really good, holding your newspaper. The Thai version of a bidet is either a hose or a big tank of water with a bowl. If you’ve had the foresight to bring tissues with you, throw the used paper into the basket alongside the basin. Finally, pour bowls of water into the toilet to flush it—and after thoroughly washing your hands, give yourself a pat on the back. Except at plusher hotels and restaurants, plumbing in most buildings is archaic, so resist the temptation to flush your paper unless you want to be remembered as the foreigner who ruined the toilet.
You should not travel in the four southern provinces closest to the Malaysian border: Yala, Pattani, Songkhla, and Narathiwat. A low-grade and seemingly endless insurgency there, which began in 2004, has led to the deaths of more than 6,000, with more than 10,000 injured. Although the insurgents originally targeted government institutions and officials, they have also bombed tourist centers, shopping malls, restaurants, trains, and the airport at Hat Yai. Fear permeates both Buddhist and Muslim communities in these southern provinces; often locals have no idea who is attacking or why. Witnesses to drive-bys and bombings are afraid to speak. Residents avoid driving at night, shops close early, and southern towns turn eerily quiet by sundown.
In spring 2010 political demonstrations in Bangkok resulted in the worst outbreaks of violence in decades. Demonstrations continued through May 2014, when the military seized control in a coup. At this writing, the political situation remains tenuous and the military remains in control, though day-to-day life in Thailand is generally not affected. Stay informed about local developments as best you can, and determine whether the possible dangers make you too uneasy to travel or stay in Thailand. The Bangkok Post (www.bangkokpost.com) and the Nation (www.nationmultimedia.com) are the best sources of local news.
Thailand is generally a safe country, and millions of foreigners visit each year without incident. That said, every year a few tourists are attacked or raped and murdered, generally either in Bangkok or in the southern beaches regions. Be careful at night, particularly in poorly lighted areas or on lonely beaches. Follow other normal precautions: watch your valuables in crowded areas and lock your hotel rooms securely. Thai crooks generally try to relieve you of cash through crimes of convenience or negligence, not violence.
Credit-card scams—from stealing your card to swiping it several times when you use it at stores—are a frequent problem. Don’t leave your wallet behind when you go trekking, and make sure you keep an eye on the card when you give it to a salesperson.
A great little invention is the metal doorknob cup that can be found at Thai hardware shops. It covers your doorknob and locks it in place with a padlock, keeping anyone from using a spare key or even twisting the knob to get into your room. A good B300 investment, it’s usable anywhere.
Guesthouses also offer commission for customers brought in by drivers, so be wary of anyone telling you that the place where you booked a room has burned down overnight or is suddenly full. Smile and be courteous, but be firm about where you want to go. If the driver doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go, get out and get another taxi.
Watch out for scams while shopping. Bait and switch is common, as is trying to pass off reproductions as authentic antiques. True antiques and artifact vendors will gladly help you finish the necessary government paperwork to take your purchase home. Keep in mind that authentic Thai or other Southeast Asian antiques in Thailand are usually stunningly expensive. Thais, Chinese, Malaysians, and Singaporeans are all fanatical collectors themselves, and pay as much as any western buyer. If you think you’re getting a super deal on a Thai antique, think twice.
Thailand offers many adventurous ways to spend your days, few of which include the safety provisions demanded in western countries. Motorcycle wrecks are a common way to cut a vacation tragically short.
Thailand’s most famous danger comes from the ocean. The Asian tsunami hit the Andaman coast in December 2004 and killed more than 5,300 people in Thailand. Reports from the areas hit show that many people could have been saved if they had known how to recognize the signs of an impending tsunami, or if an evacuation plan had been in place. Tsunamis are rare and very unpredictable. It’s highly unlikely you’ll experience one, but it pays to be prepared. If you plan to stay in a beach resort, ask if they have a tsunami plan in place, and ask what it is. If you feel an earthquake, leave any waterside area. Pay attention to the ocean: if you see all of the water race off the beach, evacuate immediately and head for high ground. A tsunami could be only minutes away. Remember, a tsunami is a series of waves that could go on for hours. Do not assume it is over after the first wave.
Thai beaches almost never have lifeguards, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have undertows or other dangers.
Foreign women in Thailand get quite a few stares, and Thai women as often as Thai men will be eager to chat and become your friend. Although there’s no doubt that attitudes are changing, traditional Thai women dress and act modestly, so loud or overly confident behavior from a foreign woman can be a shock to both men and women alike. It’s also worth noting that Thai men often see foreign women as something exotic. If you’re being subjected to unwelcome attention, be firm, but try to stay calm—”losing face” is a big concern among Thai men, and embarrassing them (even if it’s deserved) can have ugly repercussions.
A 7% (and sometimes more) value-added tax (V.A.T.) is built into the price of all goods and services, including restaurant meals. You can reclaim some of this tax on souvenirs and other high-price items purchased at stores that are part of the V.A.T. refund program at the airport upon leaving the country. You cannot claim the V.A.T. refund when leaving Thailand by land at a border crossing. Shops that offer this refund will have a sign displayed; ask shopkeepers to fill out the necessary forms and make sure you keep your receipts. You’ll have to fill out additional forms at the airport.
V.A.T. refund guidelines are particular. The goods must be purchased from stores displaying the “V.A.T. Refund for Tourists” sign. Purchases at each shop you visit must total more than B2,000 before they can fill out the necessary forms. The total amount claimed for refund upon leaving the country cannot be less than B5,000. You must depart the country from an international airport, where you finish claiming your refund at the V.A.T. Refund Counter—allow an extra hour at the airport for this process. You cannot claim V.A.T. refunds for gemstones.
For refunds less than B30,000 you can receive the money in cash at the airport, or have it wired to a bank account or to a credit card for a B100 fee. Refunds over B30,000 are paid either to a bank account or credit card for a B100 fee.
Tipping is not a local custom, but it is expected of foreigners, especially at larger hotels and restaurants and for taxi rides. If you feel the service has been less than stellar, you are under no obligation to leave a tip, especially with crabby cabbies.
In Thailand, tips are generally given for good service, except when a price has been negotiated in advance. If you hire a private driver for an excursion, do tip him. With metered taxis in Bangkok, however, the custom is to round the fare up to the nearest B5. Hotel porters expect at least a B20 tip, and hotel staff who have given good personal service are usually tipped. A 10% tip is appreciated at a restaurant when no service charge has been added to the bill.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.