Tips for First Timers in Thailand
Practical advice on everything you need to know about the Land of Smiles
Going to the stunning Kingdom of Thailand for the first time? Starting off your backpacking trip in the Land of Smiles and wanting to be respectful to the culture? Then look no further as we’ve put together our guide to Thai etiquette, budget hacks, and travel tips to make sure you have the best time in the magnificent country.
We’ve been going in and out of Thailand for years and it’s almost our second home. We hope you love it too:
Before you go
First things first, find out if you need a visa or not, as well as what type of visa you’ll need. Thailand has agreements with many countries to allows its citizens to enter the Kingdom on tourist visas for 30 days, some free of charge. For example, if you are from the UK, Canada or from the US you can enter Thailand for 30 days on a visa exemption.
Return flight tickets
There’s often queries and debates going on in backpacker groups whether or not you will need an onward flight or a return ticket before entering Thailand. If you enter for example on a tourist exemption you will need proof of onward travel to even board your flight. Immigration didn’t seem to care but our airline flying us from London did. It is better to be safe than sorry and to have a backup plan. Onward flights to Vietnam or Malaysia are pretty cheap too even if you don’t use them.
If you overstay your visa you will be fined or possibly deported. Thailand is clamping down and modifying its visa laws every year and although it may seem like scare tactics to ward off overstayers, people are getting caught out. If you overstay by a couple of days chances are you’ll be slapped with a fine of 500 baht (£10/$13) per day, but if you overstay for longer you may be jailed or even blacklisted from reentering the country for up to 20 years.
It is possible depending on your nationality to extend your tourist visa whilst in Thailand. Some visitors can extend their tourist visas or exemptions for a further 60 days. But always check with your nearest Thai embassy before you fly!
When to go
High season is from November to March and Low season is from April to October. Monsoon season usually falls between May until October but this can change depending on where in Thailand you are visiting. Monsoon season can also be no joke due to excessive rain, rough seas, and extensive flooding. Check out the weather for the season your planning to visit in before you book your flights.
There are vaccinations that you can get before heading to Thailand and some may be free (depending on the health service in your home country) and some come at a cost. Speak to your doctor or medical practitioner for advice as to what you may need.
Do not head to Thailand without getting some decent travel insurance first. Accidents do happen and healthcare does cost a lot of money if you do not have any insurance. Compare prices for the best deal before you go. We booked our travel insurance with Alpha Travel Insurance as they covered us for long-term travel.
They are everywhere in Thailand so it’s easy and quick to pull out baht. Most ATMs will charge a withdrawal fee and some banks will also add a charge for overseas transactions. If you are concerned, do some research into a credit card or a travel card without the added charges. I used a Halifax Clarity card to keep my charges as low as possible.
- The main airport in Thailand is Suvarnabhumi Airport which welcomes the most international flights. It’s approximately 30 km outside of the centre of Bangkok so allow yourself travel time to and from your hotel.
- The second airport in Bangkok is Don Muang Airport which is mainly there for the budget airline Air Asia, if you do fly to any other countries in Asia chances are you’ll fly from here. Its closer to the centre of Bangkok and is 29 km from the main tourist area, The Khao San Road.
- There are many ways to reach your destination in Bangkok from the Suvarnabhumi Airport as the airport runs cheaper air-conditioned buses that can be booked from the ground floor to many of the main areas in the capital. Taxies can also be booked at the taxi stand or you can get the easy-to-use sky train to many major stops too.
Don’t drink the tap water
It seems like an obvious point for some backpackers who are well-versed in South East Asian travel but to clarify do not drink the tap water. Buy bottled water and only drink it if the seal hasn’t been broken. Brush your teeth with bottled water too.
Although you will try to take every precaution under the sun you may get sick, from both ends. Travellers sickness feels horrible at the time but it is likely that you’ve somehow ingested a foreign bacteria that your stomach doesn’t like and wants to get out at all costs. Even after many years of travel, I’m still partial to an occasional bout of it. Keep hydrated and if the symptoms get worse over time or last for a few days get yourself to a doctor as you can easily become dehydrated.
Bring a small medical kit
This seems self-explanatory but make sure you bring a small medical kit with you as well as medication that you know you will need. Paracetamol, anti-allergy tablets, diarrhoea blockers, and rehydrations salts are a must for even a 2 week trip to Thailand. Plasters and antiseptic cream are also a great idea due to the humidity in Southeast Asia as small cuts will take ages to heal and the risk of infection is much, much higher. Obviously, you can buy it all in Thailand if you want to but it’s safer to have it with you ready and know what’s in the medicine you may be taking.
Safety and Scams
What to know
There are several scams ongoing in Thailand but after several years in and out of the country I didn’t have any problems and I felt safe the whole time. As a woman, I have also travelled in Thailand alone and I felt just as safe. Do still be aware and trust your instincts, if it doesn’t feel right for whatever reason it probably isn’t.
If you are in trouble and need the tourist police dial: 1155 to get through to an English speaker.
Other Emergency services
Police – 191
Ambulance and rescue – 1554
Fire – 199
National Disaster Warning Centre – 1860
Get used to squatting
Ah, the infamous squat toilet! For some, it’s a nightmare for others it easy but one thing for sure they are everywhere in Thailand and they are much, much better for your bowels. For us Westerners they can take a bit of getting used to, I definitely peed on my feet several times before I got the hang of it. If you struggle for balance hold onto something or put your hand on the wall behind you.
Try a bum gun
Ok, this is our name for the toilet hose that you’ll see in every Thai bathroom. These things are amazing and not only are they more hygienic but they are less wasteful to the environment! As my friend once said ‘ If you had poo on your hand you’d want to wash it off rather than wipe it off with toilet roll!’ – I agree!
Don’t flush toilet roll down the toilet!
Thailand’s sewage systems just aren’t cut out for piles of toilet roll and the pipes will get clogged. Most guesthouses will put signs up asking guests not to put any down the toilet, instead put it in the bin that is in the cubicle.
Don’t touch a Thai person’s head
Don’t ever touch a Thai person on their head as it’s highly disrespectful. In Buddhism, the national religion, the head is the most sacred part of the body. I know you may occasionally do it back home with your mates but just don’t do it in Thailand.
Don’t point with your feet
While we are on the topic of the body, also remember not to point at anything with your feet. Say, for example, you are at the market with a Pad Thai in one hand and a Thai tea in the other and you see something on a stall that you like – don’t use your foot to point at it! The feet are considered the dirtiest part and lowest part of the body in Thailand. So even when you are sitting try to sit with your feet facing away from people, watch how Thai people sit and copy them.
For those of us Westerners that seem to be used to everyone being loud and shouty, it is a little bit different in Thailand. Whereas the country is noisy you’ll hardly ever hear anyone shouting. It’s rude and impolite and not in a Thai’s nature. By all means be firm with your voice but only shout if you really need to. If you get frustrated at a Thai person and shout at them chances are you won’t get the help that you need.
Don’t make a Thai person ‘lose face’
So this kind of comes under not shouting but being disrespectful to a Thai person and making them lose face is not a good idea. Humiliation, pointing and laughing, and swearing isn’t going to get you anywhere and you will end up in hot water. No matter how annoyed or angry you are just walk away, with a smile if you can.
As much as you can and at everyone! Martyn’s Mum recently joined us in Thailand and was stopped by a Thai lady asking where she was from, as she thought she was so smiley she must be Thai! Even if you are in trouble or lost try to smile, it’s not called the Land of Smiles for nothing!
You’ll see it on advertisements before you even enter the country but make sure you give it a go! Bring your palms together by your chest and gently bow over – this shows respect and it is a welcoming and polite gesture. You’ll get many smiles after.
Learn the language
Thai is a complicated language to learn but try to say a few words, as many Thai’s will be delighted if you try.
‘Hello’ is ‘Sawasdee’ (pronounced ‘sah-wa-dee’) and if you are female add ‘ka’ at the end (sah-wa-dee-kaa). Or if you are male add ‘khrap’ (sah-wa-dee-khrap).
‘Thank you’ is ‘Khob Khun’ (pronounced khob-khun) if you are female, again, add ‘ka’ (khob-khun-kaa’. Or if you are male add ‘khrap’ ( khob-khun-khrap).
The longer you draw out the ‘khrap’ or ‘ka’ the more respectful and grateful you are. Or if none of this makes any sense check out this Youtube video here.
Be careful what you say about the Royal Family
The Thai Royal family are well respected and dearly loved in Thailand so be careful what you say about them. Talking badly about them can land a Thai person in prison for ten years, so even if you disagree with the monarchy don’t give your opinions to locals, as it could get them into trouble. The much revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, also called Phumiphon Adunlayadet or Rama IX, passed away at the end of 2016 and the country went through a year of mourning and it was impossible to not see a Thai person dressed in the mourning colour of black.
Culture and festivals
Visit the islands
The south of Thailand is famous worldwide for its stunning crystal clear waters and white sand beaches so if you are planning a trip during the dry season from Jan-March head down to the south. Check out the best season for each island as there are several separate weather systems for different clusters of the islands, as you won’t want to arrive during Monsoon season.
Head up to the North
Northern Thailand is probably one of my favourite parts of the country. The air is cooler, the way of life is slower, and the mountains are simply breathtaking. Chiang Mai is a great city to start in as it has so much to offer from culture to it’s delicious food. Check out our guide to Chiang Mai here.
Enjoy the festivals
Thailand has an abundance of exciting and beautiful festivals to attend when you visit the country. In April it is the Songkran festival which is the Thai New Year and it is celebrated everywhere. The water festival kicks off over several days in which celebrators will squirt each other with water guns, paint clay on each other’s faces, and slip a bit of freezing ice cold water down your back. Everyone joins in and you’ll get soaked. Just make sure you try not to get any water in your mouth as it might be warm canal or river water!
Check out a list of the countries festivals here.
Eat the street food
Not only is it cheap but street food is often the most delicious food you’ll find! Thailand is pretty much run on street stalls and you’ll find it hard to walk a few meters down the street without seeing a seller. I’ve seen so many blogs that say street food will make you sick but quite frankly anything could make you sick, so go for it and pick up a Pad Thai!
Stay away from Western food
Yes, Thailand has been inundated like most countries with fast-food chains such as McDonalds and Starbucks but leave them alone and eat as much Thai food as you can. If you don’t like spicy food ask for it to be ‘non-spicey’. If you do ask for your food to be spicy it will be a milder level of heat than what is served to locals. Try a proper Thai Green Curry, Red Curry, Tom Yam Soup, Khao Soi, Pad Thai, and the list of delicous food goes on! Thailand serves some of my favourite food in the world.
Try a Chang
Thailand’s signature beer is the distinctive green and gold labelled Chang beer. It’s tasty, cheap, and the perfect accompaniment to wash down a fragrant Thai Green curry.
Make sure you cover your knees and your shoulders when planning to visit a Thai temple as you may be turned away if you are not. Most temples do offer clothing to cover up with but be respectful in the first place and wear the appropriate dress. Mostly, it’s women that need to cover up but men will not be allowed in when wearing a vest or in short-shorts.
Be respectful in Temples
No shouting, pointing at monks, touching Buddha statues, taking pictures of monks etc. Just use your common sense. Most temples are fully functioning places of worship and the monks that live there don’t need to be bothered or disrespected. Remember that you are at a sacred site and there will be people praying.
Take off your shoes
Every temple will have signs and racks where you can leave your shoes before you go in. Don’t argue about it just be polite and collect your shoes once you leave.
Tips for Bangkok
The Khao San Road
The infamous Khao San Road is a popular and crazy street to pay a visit to in the Thai capital. There are loads of market stalls, bars, restaurants, shops, tattoo parlours, and clubs but avoid booking a hotel or guesthouse there. It gets so loud when the night falls that you’ll never get any sleep. Instead, stay in one of the roads a few minutes walk away like Soi Rambutri, it’s more peaceful and you can leave the party behind when you want some sleep.
Find a viewpoint for the sunset
Bangkok is an urban jungle of skyscrapers, tuk-tuks, street food, and noise but if you can get up high enough you’ll also come across a stunning and vibrant sunset. Find a rooftop bar, grab a drink, and take it all in. Find where to watch the sunset in our Bangkok guide here.
If you are adventuring around the Khao San Road area be wary of tuk-tuk drivers offering to take you on a tuk-tuk tour to see places like the Royal Palace and Reclining Buddha for 20 baht – because this is 100% a scam. Trust me, you will not be able to get very far in Thailand in a tuk-tuk for 20 baht, no matter how good your haggling is! Instead, you’ll be taken to their friends or families gemstone shop and pressured into buying a stone. If it sounds too good to be true to probably is.
Getting around Bangkok
Travelling around Bangkok is pretty easy and depending on your location in the capital you may get to use the convenient and cheap sky train. Or you can try to navigate the loud local buses. Or if you want a hair-raising ride flag down a tuk-tuk. Always agree a price before you get in a tuk-tuk otherwise you’ll be subjected to a ridiculous increased tourist price with arguments at your desintation.
Use a metered taxi
If you stay around the Khao San Road you won’t have the luxury of using the sky train so to visit some of the main attractions you will need to flag down a metered taxi. If the driver refuses to use the meter and offers a set price, whilst complaining that it’s a peak time and there’s traffic, wave him off. The price in a metered taxi will always be cheaper. Just have some patience and wait until you find an honest driver.
Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber (Uber also works well in Thailand too!) and it’s a handy little app to have on your phone if you need a ride. You can also share your ride details with friends or family to let them know you’ve arrived safely. We used Grab a lot on our travels across Southeast Asia as the fares are great and sometimes its easier than haggling with a tuk-tuk driver. Download Grab here.
Getting Around Thailand
Renting a motorbike
Many foreign visitors to Thailand find that its easy to rent a motorbike to get around, especially on the islands, but be aware that you do need an international motorbike licence to legally rent one. Not only will you not be covered by your insurance if you don’t have one but you will be stopped by the police and be given an on the spot fine whether you like it or not. You will also be fined if you aren’t wearing a helmet.
If you are backpacking or looking to save some cash by getting an overnight bus to the North or the South it can be a great idea. Some buses are more comfortable than others but whatever you do keep your valuables on you. I’ve heard so many stories over the years of people hiding money in a sock or a camera in their luggage to find it’s not there when they reach their intended destination! Rumours started swirling on the backpacker circuit several years ago about bus companies going through passengers bags underneath the bus whilst there were asleep and I’ve met several people that this has happened to. Keep your valuables safe by keeping them on you, this includes your passport and money.
Bear in mind to keep your belongings safe try to avoid sitting on the seats which back onto the stairwell in the middle of the bus. Whilst some bus companies are honest not all are and on one of our many bus journeys, someone tried to snatch our bag from underneath my seat. I’m not saying it will happen just be aware and choose a different seat if you can.
Take food with you
Bring snacks for the journey as some night buses won’t always stop in the evening for a meal. This changes from time to time depending on how busy the season is and which company you book with. Head to one of the many thousands of 7/11s for snacks and drinks.
Carry toilet roll with you
Most restrooms in Thailand will not supply you with toilet roll so bring your own in your day-bag. It’ll definitely come in handy if you need to use the loo quickly.
How to sleep on a night bus
It’s a toss-up between travellers whether or not you’ll be able to sleep on a night bus. For us, it changed each time. To help you sleep bring an eye mask and earplugs to help you doze off, as well as a jumper or a hoodie otherwise you’ll wake up to air-conditioned arctic temperatures and frozen toes. You may not be provided with blankets.
If you are looking to do a day trip or a shorter journey to another destination in the country the chances are that you’ll be crammed into an air-conditioned minibus. These vehicles are speedy so if you do get motion sickness I’d advise not sitting at the back.
If you fancy getting some decent sleep book a sleeper train for long overnight journeys. Booking either 1st class or 2nd class tickets guarantee you a bed and a privacy curtain to shut others out. The toilets will stay pretty clean too. Again, keep your valuables on you, I usually sleep with my small daypack next to me but Thai trains are known for being relatively safe.
Buying train tickets
You can buy train tickets online, at travel agencies or at train stations. Sleeper trains often fill up pretty quickly so try and book a ticket as far in advance as possible, especially if you are travelling on the weekend or during a public holiday.
Booking a nights stay
Due to its abundant and long tourist trade Thailand has many options to suit all budgets when searching for a bed for the night. Many guesthouses and hostels can now be found online on sites such as Agoda, Hostelworld and booking.com. Or, you can arrive and see what you can find, although be aware that in peak tourist season it may be a little bit harder to just turn up but we had several successful experiences doing this.
Buying SIM cards in Thailand couldn’t be easier. Go to a 7/11 with your unlocked phone and ask for a sim card. You’ll be given many options for packages; some will include calls and texts as well as data. Or get a tourist SIM valid for 30 days and the staff will set it up for you. If you run out of data or calls you can top it up at a 7/11 too.
You will need a travel adapter for Thailand to keep your electronics charged and they are cheap to buy online at eBay or Amazon. If you do lose your adapter in Thailand there will be places where you can pick up a new one.
If you do travel with more than one electronic device that will need charging its a good idea to bring an extension lead with you. At times we’d end up needing to charge both our phones, my camera, the laptop and Martyn’s GoPro at the same time. Many guesthouse or hostels will only have one plug in each room. This is probably the best travel hack we’ve ever used! Thanks, Ryan!
If you need to charge several things or if you want to charge your phone whilst on-the-go, a power bank is a really great idea. I’ve travelled without one before but as I use my phone more to find places when I’m travelling it makes sense to keep my phone charged. Power banks are pretty cheap on Amazon or you can try your luck with a cheap knockoff version found in some of Thailands many malls or markets.
What to bring
Sleeping bag liner
Nearly all guesthouse and hostels provide bedding, however, they don’t always look like something that you’d want to snuggle up to. I bought a sleep bag liner 6 years ago and I use it on all my trips in Asia. It folds up into a tiny bag, stops mosquitos biting my legs when I’m sleeping and it comes in handy for night trains. They are thin too so it’s easy to wash and you won’t get too hot.
A reusable water bottle
Bringing a refillable water bottle is a great idea as you’ll want to drastically cut down your plastic usage once you see the thousands of bottles scattered across beaches and jungles. Across Thailand, you’ll find many reverse-osmosis stations to fill up safe drinking water for 1baht a litre. Save money and the planet.
Again, another purchase I made on my first trip 6 years ago and its one of the best things I have in my backpack. It is an elasticated washing line with a hook on each end so my washing won’t fall down once it has been set out to dry. I can wash my stuff anywhere, hook it across balconies, bathrooms and rooms. Washing powder is cheap and easy to find too. Have a look online or at travel/camping stores to buy one.
No matter how much of a sun-worshipper you are at home you will need sunscreen as it is such a sunny and tropical country. Use a high factor as yes you do still tan with factor 50, trust me, and cover up or go inside when the heat gets too much. Sunscreen is also more expensive in Thailand and you may not know how long it has been sitting on the shelf either.
I never travel without them as getting to sleep can be a mission when there are beeping horns, barking dogs, thumping music and noisy neighbours outside the window. I buy them before I leave as they are usually much cheaper at home and I use them nightly as I love my beauty sleep.
If you don’t think you’ll fit into some of the tiny Thai-sized clothes, chances are you won’t fit into their underwear either. I always bring at least 7-10 pairs of pants as they can be rolled up small so I can avoid this problem. Bring more than you need as sometimes things can go missing when you get your clothing back from laundry…
What to leave at home
Vapes and E-cigarettes
Vape cigarettes are illegal in Thailand. Foreigners caught bringing them into the country may be heavily fined or even jailed for up to 10 years. Like this guy. Just don’t bring them with you.
Some travellers may disagree with me but all the times I’ve been to Thailand I’ve never ever used it and it just has taken up unnecessary room in my bag. Every place I have stayed in where mosquitos were a problem had its own mosquito net. Avoiding mosquitos is nearly impossible but just be cautious with scratching bites and any symptoms you develop after you’ve been bitten.
Unless you are planning some treks in the jungle leave the boots at home. I travel with a pair of comfortable trainers and I bought some cheap knock-off Havanias in Thailand that were fine. Hiking boots take up a lot of room, they aren’t cheap, and they are heavy. Only bring them if you really need them.
What to buy out there
Dry bags are easy to get anywhere. I used to get long tail boats on the Thai islands and I’d always put my phone, camera, and purse in it. Just check they don’t have any holes in before you buy them!
Thailand has an abundance of shops and markets aimed at tourists and you can find some amazing items to add to your travelling wardrobe. Many garments will be lightweight to keep you cool. Haggle at markets for the best price and bear in mind that if you buy it for a cheap price, the quality will most likely be the same; you may end up having to sew it up a few weeks later.
Flip-flops, jandals, sandals, whatever you call them they are one of the easiest things to purchase in the country. If you want real designer names you will need to fork out big bucks (baht) in shopping malls. Fake rip-offs are popular everywhere and you’ll get to haggle the price too.
Bartering is deeply ingrained in Thai culture and you will be expected to haggle because its all part of the experience! Ask the seller for the price and expect to be amazed at the high price you’ll be told in return. Keep it fun by smiling and laughing and answer with a lower price, just don’t go too low as you’ll be insulting. You’ll soon get into a bidding war until either you decide not to pay the price and walk away or the seller will accept your offer.
Bartering tip: Walking away will often lower the price of what you considering buying so sometimes it pays to say no thank you and go to leave, although, it doesn’t always work!
Some of the best markets for souvenirs are the tourist markets dotted up and down the country. The Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai is one of my favourite markets in Asia. It’s absolutely huge and there’s so much to choose from as well as eat! Be aware that prices will be considerably higher at tourist markets and bartering is a necessity.
Local markets can be amazing places to explore to get a glimpse of local life. If you stay in a specific area for a while, these markets can be some of the best places to get local fruit and veg.
Thailand isn’t without its Western-style mega malls and you’ll find them in major cities, with the most impressive being in the capital, Bangkok. Central World and Siam Paragon are a series of malls all grouped together in the same area that house attractions such as Madame Tussauds as well as clothing stores. You’ll be there for hours.
Not only has 7/11 taken over Thailand but you won’t be able to walk a few meters without hearing the ding of an automatic door opening. While 7/11 can be a great convenience when you need it, there are many smaller Family Marts that are just as cheap and easy to find.
As I’ve previously stated 7/11 stores are absolutely everywhere in the country but they are a handy place to purchase over the counter medicine, snacks for bus journeys, razors, sim cards, water, and the delightful ham and cheese toasties – perfect for hangovers!
We hoped you found our practical guide to the Land of Smiles helpful! Thailand is still one of my favourite countries in the world and I would love to go back again instantly!
Do you know someone going to Thailand? Share these tips!
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