Welcome to the Land of Smiles - a beautiful, sun-kissed paradise, with gorgeous beaches, a lush green countryside, and towering mountains.
In just three short decades, Thailand has become one of the top tourist destinations in the world, attracting a whopping 30 million tourists every year. It’s a no brainer why - there’s the scenery, the beaches, the food, the fun-loving atmosphere, the awesome parties, the rich culture, the festivals, the eco-tourism… the list goes on and on. It is positively impossible to be bored on holiday in Thailand.
Though Thailand has rapidly modernized to welcome the huge influx of tourists, one mustn’t forget that this Asian kingdom has a long, rich history, and for the most part remains a conservative and traditional country. As a result, there are still many things that baffle foreigners who visit Thailand for the first time. The culture shock is quite soft - after all, it’s hard to be too shell-shocked when you’re laying on the beach getting massaged right? But read on to see what are some of the thoughts that all foreigners have, as they soak in the Andaman sea, sipping on a cold Singha.
20 Why is everyone so smiley?
The locals are incredibly proud of their country and their culture. People greet each other by pressing their hands together, which is called a ‘wai’, and giving a bow of the head to show respect to others, especially elders.
Foreigners always notice that locals seem to smile almost immediately upon making eye contact, which can be intimidating if you’re used to commuting on London’s Tube every day. Saving face, even in difficult or confusing situations, is also important, and this is especially true when dealing with tourists who speak so many different languages, which can lead to misunderstandings. When in doubt, just wai and smile, and return the polite gestures. A little smile goes a long way.
19 What happened to the beach?
If you were dreaming of laying on an empty beach with gin-clear turquoise waters and turtles swimming on an untouched reef, think again. Once upon a time, tourists used to be able to sleep in a beach hut for $1 a night, but those backpacking-heaven days are gone. The most famous tourist spots, such as Phuket, Samui, and Koh Phi Phi, for example, are chock-a-block with pesky tourists, particularly in the winter, meaning every beach, hotel, and bar is packed.
The iconic Maya Beach in Koh Phi Phi, made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, was forced to close due to ‘over tourism’. If you really want to see quiet areas, you’ll need to check out smaller, less developed islands, such as Koh Yao Noo, Koh Muk, or Koh Kood, which so far remain mostly off the tourist map.
18 How many chilies?
Oh boy, food. Thai food is one of the most amazing cuisines in the world, and the locals like it hot, hot, hot. Most of the food you’ll have in restaurants in resort towns, or popular islands, will be adapted to foreign tastes, and quite different from what the locals will cook at home, or buy in a cooked food market.
A great way to learn the difference is to take a cooking class, and see for yourself how many chilies go into certain dishes, and then decide whether you want a lot of heat, or ‘Nik noy’ - just a little.
17 Where are the elephants?
Elephants are a cultural icon and the national animal of Thailand, and can be found everywhere (symbolically) from tourist souvenirs to provincial flags and emblems. For thousands of years the locals have lived side by side with elephants, domesticating them for their strength, especially for logging. When logging was banned, the elephants were used to attract much-needed tourist dollars, though this led to questionable practices.
There has been a lot of attention lately given to the elephant ‘sanctuaries’ in Northern Thailand, where cases of poor treatment have been widely reported. If you are truly intent on seeing or riding an elephant, do careful research about whether the place you visit makes the elephants’ lives better, or worse.
16 What’s a wat?
Thailand is a Buddhist country, and the locals take going to the wat, or temple, very seriously. According to Wikipedia there are almost 40,000 wats all over Thailand, and almost 300,000 Buddhist monks. Some of the wats have become huge tourist attractions, such as the stunning Wat Pho, or Temple of the Reclining Buddha, in Bangkok, and the iconic Way Rong Khun, or ‘White Temple’, in Chiang Mai. Visiting a Thai wat is a great experience, but don’t forget it is a place of worship, and you cannot enter if you are not dressed appropriately (i.e. no shirt no service). In addition, monks are not allowed to touch women, and are not even supposed to sit next to them, so keep your respectful distance from the orange robes.
15 But I’m thirsty!
Alcohol is extremely cheap in Thailand, which means visitors can afford to grab a cold one anytime, anywhere. As a result, they are always surprised to learn that by law you cannot buy alcohol at supermarkets or the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience store between 2pm and 5pm. This is because the government wants to limit the accessibility of alcohol after school hours. You can, however, still go and have a drink or two at a restaurant, bar or hotel.
If you happen to be in Thailand during an election, or on a Buddhist national holiday, you’ll also find things surprisingly ‘dry’, since it's not allowed to be sold during these times either.
14 Why do I have to take off my shoes?
In most countries in Asia, shoes are only to be worn outdoors. The same applies in Thailand, and it is common to see places like shops, salons and places like optometrists or dentists, asking that you leave your shoes at the door so that you don’t drag dirt and sand into the premises.
You should also remove shoes before visiting a wat and religious sites, and when entering people’s homes. It is considered very rude to put your feet up on a bench, chair or railing while wearing shoes, so be respectful and keep your feet on the floor.
13 They’re not going to wet me, are they?
If you happen to be in Thailand during Songkran, the Thai New Year's national holiday, be ready for three days of crazy fun. The official New Year's Day is April 13, but the holiday goes on for many days to allow people the chance to visit their hometowns. The real fun happens at the water fights which take place on the streets, where everyone - young, old, rich, poor, local, foreign - gets splashed and soaked with water. So if you don’t want your hair to get wet, or your makeup to run, or if you’re carrying bags, better stay away, because yes, you are going to get wet. This crazy festival does not discriminate!
12 Why do I have to stand at the movies?
Thailand has many modern cinemas showing Hollywood movies in English (usually with subtitles in Thai). Regardless of what you’re watching, before every movie, in every cinema across Thailand, the King’s Song is played, and you are required to stand at attention. Don’t forget, this is a Kingdom. In addition to standing at the movies, be aware that it is a punishable offence to be mocking or denigrating, so always be respectful, and mindful of the local laws.
11 Where should I get a massage?
Thai massage is famous world-round, and you can find massage parlours literally anywhere tourists congregate in Thailand. You don't even have to look for it - you'll hear them calling out 'massaaaaage?' as you pass by. It is hard to know whether or not the masseuses are actually professionally trained, but when it only costs a few dollars, and you’re in a cool air-conditioned room, who's complaining?
However, be aware that it is true that certain places offer a lot more than just a massage, especially late at night. If the place looks a bit sketchy, then trust your instinct. Many hotels have their own masseuses, so that is a pretty safe bet, and the massage huts on the beach should be fine too.
10 Are they conservative, or liberal?
This is something that astounds foreigners, that a place can be so liberal and yet so conservative at the same time. On one hand, most Thai people are modest in their daily lives, and do not show off a lot of skin, or act inappropriately. In the tourist towns, however, red light districts and family restaurants somehow peacefully coexist side by side.
It is simply accepted as part of tourism, and not hidden away, which surprises and baffles people from Western countries with more puritanical roots.
9 What’s with the whitening?
Look around any department store or pharmacy in Thailand and you’ll notice something interesting - many beauty products have some kind of ‘whitening’ agent. It is perhaps the ultimate irony that the typical European tourist wants to spend all day baking to a brown crisp in the sun, while Thai people want to cover up and stay as fair as possible. This attitude towards fair complexions has created a huge industry of whitening products in everything from deodorant to soap to moisturizer and body powder. Considering the power of the sun, perhaps the locals have it right?
8 Is this a hospital or a hotel?
If you happen to get a ‘Thai Tattoo’ - the nickname given to the phenomenon of tourists falling off a rental motorbike and getting some big, gnarly cuts - then you’ll likely end up in a nearby hospital. Consider yourself lucky, because in Thailand the hospitals look more like 5-star hotels, with Starbucks coffee shops in the lobbies and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Medical tourism is big business in Thailand, attracting people from all over the world seeking out world-class treatment at a fraction of the price. Even on the small islands, like Samui, the private hospitals are downright posh. (But please, wear a helmet!)
7 How come I have to pay more?
In Thailand, you’ll quickly realize that there is a ‘dual economy’ because of the huge difference in the exchange rate ($1 US = 32 THB), and the large income disparity between locals and foreigners. As a result, you will pay tourist prices. Just accept it, and don't get too upset. You can negotiate - it’s all part of the game - but considering what a good deal everything already is, try not to insult people by low-balling.
In addition, there are separate prices at certain attractions, like museums, heritage sites, and national parks, but when you make the conversion, you’ll see it’s not a huge difference. Try not to let it bother you and just enjoy the already-cheap prices.
6 This full moon party sucks/rocks!
It’s become a question lots of tourists are asking - should I go or not? On one hand, the Full Moon Parties in Thailand are legendary, but on the other hand it has become so commercialized that many are deciding to skip it altogether. What started in the 80s as a sort of hippie hangout with music on Haad Rin beach in Koh Phangan has morphed into a monster, attracting as many as 30,000 people jammed onto one beach for one night of debauchery.
Tourists return from the party with stories about gross beaches full of garbage and broken bottles, pickpockets, and spiked drinks, and a lack of amenities like toilets. If what you want is a wild night, then go, but if you prefer a more chilled out beach party, then Haad Rin is the place to avoid at all costs.
5 Cover up or let it loose?
You’re on holiday in paradise - we get it. You just arrived from some godforsaken snow-covered city, and all you want to do is walk around in your bikini barefoot. Just remember, for Thai people, every day is a normal day, and you should cover yourself up once you leave the beach or the pool. It is not acceptable to go into a supermarket, shopping mall or restaurant in just a bathing suit, and guys should always put on their shirts. And for the record, going topless on the beaches is also a big no-no.
If you look around, you’ll notice the locals are all dressed properly - shouldn’t you be too? So pick up one of those 'Same Same, But Different' shirts, and save the bikinis for the poolside.
4 What’s with all the traffic?
If you’re in Bangkok, better get used to it, because there ain’t no jam like a Bangkok jam. The traffic in the capital city is notorious and some of the worst in the world for bring the streets to a standstill. Pedestrians always have the right of way, and motorbikes don't break for red lights. Best to let someone else do the driving.
Though you may want to jump in a cute, brightly coloured tuk-tuk to get around, your best bet is to rise above the road rage and use the BTS Skytrain, an elevated rapid transit system built literally above the busiest roads. The BTS gets you everywhere you need to go, without all the insane honking, braking and inhaling of fumes.
3 How do I use this bathroom?
Without getting too graphic, you will need to have some strong leg muscles, and good balance, when using certain bathrooms in Thailand. This can be especially challenging after having a few Singha and you desperately need the facilities!
The ‘squatty potty’ is still common in restaurants, shops, and public toilets at places such as night markets, where you’ll have to cough up 10 THB to get some toilet paper, so always keep tissues in your bag. In addition, due to poor plumbing, you may need to put the TP in the bin, rather than in the toilet, prior to flushing.
Some hotels and guest houses will have Western-style seated toilets in a room which shares the shower, which amuses many visitors who find it interesting that you could, technically, sit on the toilet, brush your teeth, and take a shower simultaneously. Now that gives a new meaning to multi-tasking.
2 Don’t these people ever sleep?
If there’s one word that sums up your time in Thailand, it will be energy. You can feel it everywhere - whether you’re on a small island like Koh Lanta or in a big city like Chiang Mai. There’s always something going on, the motorbikes never stop riding, at all hours of the night you can hear karaoke somewhere in the distance, the massage parlours are open, the bands are playing music, the night markets keep on selling, food is always cooking… it’s easy to get the feeling that people simply don’t sleep.
But you’ll quickly realize that things are super quiet and subdued in the morning, as everyone sleeps off another long night. You’re hard pressed to find anywhere open for breakfast, and shops won’t really start opening up and dusting off their goods until around lunchtime. If you’re an early riser this can be difficult because Thailand is somewhat nocturnal. Our advice? Take a big nap in the afternoon to beat the heat, and then head out at 6pm, ready for another night of fun.
1 So... How can I stay here forever?
Many people go to Thailand, fall in love with the country, and decide simply not to return to their previous, boring, white-bread life. In addition, with such a great exchange rate, you can truly stretch your dollars, and live on a fraction of what is required in your home country. Simply staying there indefinitely is tempting, but a visa overstay is a very serious offence with immigration. Instead, go about it the right way.
If you’re truly determined to stay in the Land of Smiles, you’ll be glad to know that Thailand offers a wide variety of totally legit visas, including for Education, Employment, Retirement, Religious Studies, Voluntary Services, and even Scientific Research. Do your thorough research, plan ahead, save your dollars, and find the right path to get you into paradise.
References: Expat Arrivals, Koh Samui Sunset, Thai Visa