A Practical Guide to Thailand
Different people find different things in Thailand. Thailand is a land of variety and diverse vibrant culture, that has something to offer for everyone. The country has plenty to satisfy single travelers, couples, or families, from Bangkok’s shopping and nightlife to adventure sports in the northern hills or a pampering spa at a beach resort. Thailand remains Southeast Asia’s most popular destination with its sparkling temples, idyllic beaches and mountain trails.
Thai culture cannot be fully appreciated without some understanding of Buddhism, which is practiced by 95% of the population. Most Chinese and Vietnamese living in Thailand follow Mahayana Buddhism, and several temples and monasteries in the country support this tradition as well. The Sukhothai period (13th–14th c.) is regarded as a period of notable achievement in Thai culture, with big advancements made in art and architecture. One of the lasting legacies of the Sukhothai period is its sculpture, characterized by the graceful aquiline-nosed Buddha either sitting in meditation or, more strikingly, walking contemplatively. These Buddha figures are considered to be some of the most beautiful representations ever produced of this genre.
Thailand’s different geographical regions provide a large variety of ecosystems, which support a great diversity of animal and plant life. Most of the country’s forests are deciduous or montane, such as those in the northern hills, where the summit of Doi Inthanon forms the highest point in Thailand at 2,565m (8415 ft.). There are a few pockets of primary rainforest on the southern peninsula, in places such as Khao Sok National Park. Other ecosystems that predominate on the southern peninsula and eastern seaboard are coastal forests, mangrove swamps, and coral reefs. Around half of these reefs are under the nominal protection of marine national parks, such as Ko Similan and Ko Tarutao, both off the Andaman Coast. Several regions of the country, most notably Phang Nga Bay, are characterized by karst outcrops – islands or mountains of porous limestone that conceal caves and pristine lagoons.
When to Go
Thailand has two distinct climate zones: Tropical in the south and tropical savanna in the north. The northern, northeastern, and central areas of the country (including Bangkok) experience three distinct seasons. The hot season lasts from March to May, with temperatures averaging in the upper 90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius), with April being the hottest month. Normally, this period sees sporadic rain. March is not the best time to visit the north, as in recent years it has been blanketed by dense haze at this time, blocking out views and causing respiratory problems. Another recent shift in weather patterns is that the rainy season now often begins in April and lasts, on and off, until late October, even November. The average temperature is 84°F (29°C) with 90% humidity. While the rainy season brings heavy downpours, it is rare to see an all-day episode. From June to September, daily showers usually come in the late afternoon or evening for 3 to 4 hours, often bringing floods and forcing traffic to a standstill.
Thai customs can be a bit confusing; foreigners are not expected to know and follow local etiquette to the letter, but good manners and appropriate dress will earn you instant respect. In temples and royal palaces, strict dress code is enforced. Wear long pants or skirts, with a neat shirt, and tops with shoulder-covering sleeves. Remove shoes and hats before entering temple buildings and give worshipers their space. Thais greet each other with a graceful bow called a wai. Palms and fingers are pressed flat together, fingers pointing up; the higher they are held, the greater the respect, with fingertips touching the top of the forehead forming the most respectful wai. Younger people are expected to wai an elder first, who will usually return the gesture. Foreigners are more or less exempt from this custom, though many new arrivals, eager to show their familiarity with Thai culture, wai everyone they meet, which is inappropriate.
Eating & Drinking
Food is one of the true joys of Thailand, and Thai cuisine is enough reason to visit the country in itself. Whether you crave the brow-mopping challenge of a fiery tom yam or an aromatic bowl of noodles in broth, you’ll find it all here. Imagine the best of Asian food ingredients combined with the sophistication of fragrant spices, sweet coconut or citrus, and topped off with ripe red and green chilies. Yes, Thais enjoy incredibly spicy food, much hotter than is tolerated in even the most piquant Western cuisine. Protect your palate by saying “Mai khin phet,” meaning “I do not take it spicy.”
Among the popular dishes you’ll find are:
- tom yum goong, a Thai hot-and-sour shrimp soup;
- satay, charcoal-broiled chicken, beef, or pork strips skewered on a bamboo stick and dipped in a peanut-coconut sauce;
- spring rolls (similar to egg rolls but thinner); larb, a spicy chicken or ground-beef salad with mint-and-lime flavoring;
- spicy salads, made with a breadth of ingredients, but most have a fiery dressing made with onion, chili pepper, lime juice, and fish sauce;
- pad Thai, rice noodles fried with shrimp, eggs, peanuts, and fresh beansprouts;
- khao sawy, a northern-style Burmese soup with light yellow curry and layers of crispy and soft noodles; a wide range of explosive curries;
- tod man pla, fried fish cakes with a sweet honey sauce
- phad thai (literally “Thai fry”), a delicious combination of rice noodles, beansprouts, peanuts, egg, and shrimp
- rat na, a plate of flat noodles topped with vegetables, meat of your choice, and a thick gravy
The Best Festivals
- Songkran: Thailand’s traditional New Year festival is a celebration that lasts for a week or more, though it’s officially only April 12 to 14. Often called the Water-Splashing Festival, it involves lots of playful fun with spray guns and buckets. Kids love it and it’s worth planning a holiday around this event.
- Loy Krathong: Thailand’s second-biggest festival, usually in November, involves floating candle-lit krathong on rivers and waterways throughout the kingdom. Without doubt the most visually beautiful of all Thai festivals, it marks the end of the rains and beginning of the cool season, a great time to be there.
- Visakha Bucha: Celebrating the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment, this countrywide festival is celebrated in May in temple compounds, where locals walk three times clockwise round the stupa carrying candles, incense, and flowers. Feel free to join in.
- Phuket Vegetarian Festival: The highlight of this eye-popping spectacle is when devotees parade the streets with skewers, swords, and drill bits stuck through their cheeks. Don’t attend if you’d be disturbed by such scenes; do attend if you’ve got a strong stomach and want to see some unforgettable sights.
- Chiang Mai Flower Festival: Taking place in February, when the maximum number of flowers is in bloom in North Thailand, this festival features floats smothered with bright-colored and sweet-smelling flowers, accompanied by proud representatives from local schools and businesses dressed in elaborate costumes.
- Surin Elephant Round-Up: A can’t-miss event for elephant lovers, this pachyderm party sees hundreds of elephants converge on Surin in Isan in November for a weekend of parades, mock battles, and a blow-out buffet. Humans are welcome, too.
- Chinese New Year, nationwide. Head for any Chinatown to see the vivid parades, firecrackers, and Lion Dances associated with this holiday. Things get most raucous on Bangkok’s Yaowarat Road, in the heart of Chinatown. It falls anytime from mid-January to mid-February, during which many businesses close for the week.
The best place to watch wildlife in Thailand is in the country’s national parks. Khao Yai National Park, just 120km (75 miles) from Bangkok, is one of the best places to see wildlife, and on a typical trail, visitors are likely to see gibbons, macaques, deer, and hornbills, especially in the company of guides who know the habits of these creatures and where they are likely to be at a certain time of day. Doi Inthanon National Park in the north is particularly popular with birders, while divers looking for coral reefs teeming with tropical fish usually head for the marine national parks in the Andaman Sea, such as Similanand Surin.
Diving & Snorkeling
Diving is probably the most popular type of active vacation in Thailand. Living coral reefs grace the waters of the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. More than 80 species of coral have been discovered in the Gulf, while the deeper and more saline Andaman has more than 210. Marine life includes hundreds of species of fish, plus numerous varieties of crustaceans and sea turtles. With the aid of scuba gear, divers can get an up-close-and-personal view of this undersea universe. For those without certification, many reefs close to the surface are still vibrant for snorkelers, especially places like the Surin Islands in the Andaman Sea.
A traditional Thai massage involves manipulating your limbs to stretch each muscle and then applying acupressure techniques to loosen up tension and start energy flowing. Your body will be twisted, pulled, and sometimes pounded in the process. For Thai massage to be beneficial, it should be fairly rigorous and at times it can be punishing: If the therapist is loath to use pressure from the start, you’ll know you are wasting your time.
Thailand is nothing short of a mecca for golfers, with hundreds, if not thousands, of courses scattered around the kingdom, many of them designed by top golfers. Add the warm climate and very reasonable fees, and you’ve got an activity that is appealing enough to attract golfers from all over the world. The combination of excellent courses and cheap fees is particularly attractive to Japanese and Koreans, who descend on the country in planeloads, hauling their golf bags through customs. However, it’s not really necessary to cart your gear with you as all courses will rent you a bag of clubs for a reasonable fee. Caddies and buggies are also available just about everywhere at affordable prices.
Kitesurfing & Windsurfing
Windsurfing has long been popular in Thailand, particularly at the popular beach destinations such as Pattaya, Phuket, and Ko Samui. It continues to be so, though these days it is being somewhat eclipsed by the more demanding, more exciting, and, it has to be said, more expensive, sport of kitesurfing, often referred to as kiteboarding. As well as at the main beach destinations, this sport can be studied and practiced at Ko Pha Ngan, Hua Hin, Chumphon, and Pranburi (south of Hua Hin). It takes a while to pick up the skills necessary to get airborne, but once you’re up there, it all seems worth it.
Thai Boxing (muay thai)
If you ever wander empty, hushed streets in Thailand and suddenly hear a roar coming from inside bars and houses, you can be sure everyone’s watching an important bout of muay thai, or Thai boxing, on the TV. This national obsession has now spread abroad and there’s no shortage of travelers happy to spend an intensive week or two training at a Thai boxing camp. Most training camps charge 3,000B to 5,000B for a week’s tuition, and many offer accommodation as well. The biggest camps are in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, but you’ll also find them on Phuket and Ko Samui.
Within the city, taxis and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized open vehicles) cruise the small streets. (Note: The latter often turn out to be more expensive than the former.) Motorcycle taxis cost little but are unsafe: They’re useful only for short hops down sois and helpful only if you know your destination in Thai.
English / Thai Transliteration / Pronunciation
Hello (male) / Sà–wàt–dii–khráp / sah-wah-dee-kup
Hello (female) / Sà-wàt-dii-khâ / sah-wah-dee-kah
How are you? / Sà bai-dii mǎi? / sah-bye-dee-my
I am fine / Sà bai-dii / sah-bye-dee
Do you speak English? / Phûut phaa-sǎa ang rìt dǎi mǎi? / poot pa-sah ang-krit dye my?
I do not understand / Mǎi khǎo jai / my cow jy
Excuse me/Sorry / Khǎw thôht (-khráp, -khǎ) / cor tort (-kup, -kah)
Thank you / Khòp khun (-khráp, -khǎ) / cop koon (-kup, -kah)
No, I do not want . . . / Mǎi ao . . . / my ow . . .
Yes, I want . . . / Chǎi, ao. . . / chai, ow . . .
Stop here! / Yùt tîi nîi! / Yut ti nee
Where is the (public) toilet? / Hâwng nám yùu thîi nǎi? / hong nam yutin nye?
I need to see a doctor / Pǒm/Deè-chǎn tǎwng kaan hǎa mǎw / pom/dee-charn tong-garn haa mor
Call the police! / Rîak tam-rùat nàwy! / reeyuk tamru-at noy
Never mind/No problem / Mǎi pen rai / my pen rye
Do you have . . . ? / Mii . . . mǎi? / mee . . . my?
Source: edited and shortened from Frommer’s® Thailand, 10th Edition