|Area||total: 514,000 sq km |
water: 2,230 sq km
land: 511,770 sq km
|Population||62,354,402 (July 2002 est.)|
|Language||Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects|
|Religion||Buddhism 95%, Muslim 3.8%, Christianity 0.5%, Hinduism 0.1%, other 0.6% (1991)|
|Electricity||220V/50Hz (American and/or Central Europe plug)|
Thailand is a country in South-East Asia with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the north-west, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the south-east and Malaysia to the south.
With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture and, hey, great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers the world over.
Thailand's 76 provinces can be conveniently divided into five geographic and cultural regions.
- North - Chiang Mai, hill tribes, and the Golden Triangle.
- Isaan - the great undeveloped north-east. Get off the beaten track and discover backcountry Thailand and some magnificent Khmer ruins.
- Central - Bangkok, lowlands and historic Thailand.
- East - beaches and islands within easy reach of Bangkok, and, oh yes, Pattaya.
- South - hundreds of kilometers of coastline and countless islands on both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, plus Phuket, Krabi, and many more of Thailand's famous beach spots.
- Bangkok - the capital city
- Pattaya - one of the main tourist destinations
- Chiang Mai - a historical city
- Surat Thani
- Udon Thani
- Ayutthaya - a historical city, world heritage site and the old capital city of Thailand
- Sukhothai - Thailand's first capital
- Ko Chang
- Ko Lanta
- Ko Pha Ngan
- Ko Phi Phi
- Ko Samet
- Ko Samui
- Ko Tao
Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in South-East Asia, and for a reason. Exotic yet safe and largely hassle-free, cheap yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beachfront backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential Thainess, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle.
This is not to say that Thailand doesn't have its downsides, including the considerable growing pains of an economy where an agricultural laborer is lucky to earn $1 per day while the nouveau riche cruise past in their BMWs, and a highly visible sex tourism industry. Bangkok, the capital, is notorious for its traffic jams and rampant development has wrecked much of once-beautiful Pattaya and Phuket. In heavily touristed areas, some lowlifes have made scamming tourists into an art form, but in Thailand as anywhere the old adage is true - if it's too good to be true, it probably is.
A unified Thai kingdom was established in the mid-14th century. Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only South-East Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power, and fiercely proud of the fact. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. In alliance with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US ally following the conflict. After a string of military dictatorships and quickly toppled civilian presidents, Thailand has finally stabilized into a fair approximation of a democracy and the economy, hobbled by the 1997 Asian economic crisis, is booming once again. Above it all presides the King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world's longest-reigning monarch and a deeply respected figure of near-mythic proportions.
Thailand is largely tropical, so it's hot and humid all year around with temperatures in the 28-35°C range, a degree of relief provided only in the mountains in the far north of Thailand. The careful observer will, however, note three seasons:
- Cool: From November to the end of February, it doesn't rain much and temperatures are at their lowest, although you will barely notice the difference in the south and will only need to pack a sweater if hiking in the northern mountains, where temperatures can fall as low as 5°C. This is the most popular time to visit and, especially around Christmas and New Year's, finding flights and accommodation can be expensive and difficult.
- Hot: From March to June, Thailand swelters in temperatures as high as 40°C. Quite nice when sitting on the beach with a coconut in hand, but not the best time of year to go temple-tramping in Bangkok.
- Rainy: From July to October, although it only really gets underway in September, tropical monsoons hit most of the country. This doesn't mean it rains non-stop, but when it does it pours and flooding is not uncommon.
Note that there are local deviations to these general patterns. In particular, the south-east coast of Thailand (including Ko Samui) has the rains reversed, with the peak season being May-October and the rainy off season in November-February.
Thailand's people are largely Thais, although there are significant minorities of Chinese and assimilated Thai-Chinese throughout the country, Muslims in the south near the Malaysian border and hill tribes such as the Karen and the Hmong in the north of the country. The overwhelmingly dominant religion (95%) is Theraveda Buddhism, although Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and animist faiths also jostle for position.
Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand's Buddhists follow the Therevada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable thanks to their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous and becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men.
Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country's best known indigenous sport.
In addition to the Western calendar, Thailand also uses the Thai solar calendar, which is 543 years ahead. Thus, Thai year 2549 corresponds to the Western year 2006. Thai dates in English are often written as B.E., short for "Buddhist Era".
Some Thai holidays are still calculated with the older Thai lunar calendar, so their dates change every year.
Thailand has a lot of holidays, mostly related to Buddhism and the monarchy. Nobody celebrates all of them, except for banks, which seem to be closed a lot.
Makha Bucha falls on the full moon in February and commemorates the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 people before the Buddha, which led to their ordination and subsequent enlightenment. At temples in Bangkok and throughout Thailand, Buddhists carry candles and circumambulate the main shrine three times in a clockwise direction.
The most fun holiday is undoubtedly Songkran (????????), the Thai New Year celebrated sometime in April (officially April 13th to 15th, but the date varies in some locations). Songkran is celebrated by throwing water at people for three straight days, what started off as polite ritual to wash away the sins of the prior year has evolved into the worlds largest water fight. Water pistols and Super soakers are advised and are on sale everywhere. The best places to participate are Chiang Mai, the Khao San Road area in Bangkok and holiday resorts like Pattaya, Ko Samui and Phuket. Be advised that you will get very wet, this is not a spectator sport.
Another holiday of interest is Loy Krathong (????????), on the first full moon day in November, when people head to rivers, lakes and even hotel swimming pools to float flower and candle-laden banana-leaf (or, these days, styrofoam) floats called krathong. According to tradition, if you make a wish when you set down your krathong and it floats out of sight before the candle burns out, your wish will come true.
The King's Birthday (December 5) is celebrated as Father's Day and the Queen's Birthday (August 12) is Mother's Day.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (http://www.tourismthailand.org)
Ordinary passport holders of 41 countries, including the United States, European Union countries, and Australia, do not need a visa if their purpose of visit is tourism and if their stay in the Kingdom does not exceed 30 days. Visa-on-arrival is available at certain entry points for passport holders of 14 other nations, including India, China and the Russian Federation. Check the latest scoop from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs  (http://www.mfa.go.th/web/12.php).
Bangkok's Don Muang Airport is one of Asia's largest hubs. Practically every airline that flies to Asia also flies to Bangkok, meaning competition is stiff and prices are low.
There are also international flights directly to/from Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Phuket, and U-Tapao.
The national carrier is the well-regarded THAI Airways (http://www.thaiair.com/), with Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com) filling in some gaps in the nearby region. Bangkok Airways offers free internet access while you wait for boarding to start at your gate.
Many low-cost carriers serve Thailand - see Discount airlines in Asia for today's list.
For a full at-a-glance list of all Thai-based carriers, see the Butterworth (near Penang) and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, continuing all the way to Singapore. Tickets are cheap even in first class sleepers, but it's a slow ride; the 2-hour flight to Singapore will take you close to 48 hours by train.
The luxury option is to take the Eastern & Oriental Express Langkawi. There are also occasional cruises from Malaysia and Singapore to Phuket and Bangkok, but no scheduled services.
Driving up from Malaysia or even Singapore is entirely possible, although not with a rented vehicle. There are regular buses across the border, mostly to the southern hub of Had Yai.
From Cambodia, the highway from Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor to Aranyaprathet in Thailand, once the stuff of nightmares, is now merely ordinarily bad and can usually be covered in less than 3 hours.
Crossing into Thailand from Laos from a number of points is now possible, the most popular being Nong Khai near the Lao capital Vientiane.
The situation for land crossings into Myanmar is as follows:
- Mae Sai - Tachileik: Foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here; no onward travel restrictions (other than those that apply to everyone, no matter how you enter); to get to Tachileik or Kengtung from the rest of Myanmar, a domestic flight must be taken (eg from Heho).
- Mae Sot - Myawadi: Foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) is not possible. USD10 fee if paid with USD notes; more (500 baht) if paying with Thai currency.
- Three Pagodas Pass: Foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) is not possible; entry/exit stamps are NOT issued here, and your passport is held at the Myanmar checkpoint.
- Ranong - Kawthoung: Foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here; no onward travel restrictions (other than those that apply to everyone, no matter how you enter); access to/from Kawthoung is by sea (Myeik/Dawei & Yangon) and air (Myeik & Yangon). USD5 fee if paid with USD notes; more (300 baht) if paying with Thai currency.
Thailand is a large country, and if sitting in a bus for 11 hours is not your idea of a fun time, you may well want to consider domestic flights. Never terribly expensive to begin with (at least by Western standards), the deregulation of the industry has brought in a crop of new operators; it's now possible to show up at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport, buy your ticket and fly pretty much anywhere in the country for less than 2000 baht. Note that various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to "advertised" prices.
AirAsia (http://www.airasia.com) offers ridiculously cheap tickets if booked well in advance, but prices rise steadily as planes fill up. Booking can easily be done online.
Bangkok Airways (http://www.bangkokair.com) promotes itself as "Asia's Boutique Airline", and has a monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui, Sukhothai and Trat. Their Siem Reap (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang (Laos) - however it cannot be purchased online.
Hua Hin Air Shuttle (http://www.sga.aero/en/destination.html) is currently the only passenger carrier offering regular flights to/from Hua Hin Airport.
Nok Air (http://www.nokair.com) took to the skies in July 2004 sporting a lurid purple paint scheme with a bird's beak painted on the nose, and employing a price scheme similar to that of Air Asia.
One-Two-Go (http://www.onetwo-go.com) (part of Orient Thai Airlines (http://www.orient-thai.com)) is a low-cost brand with 1-3 flights daily to a handful of domestic destinations. Their on-time record is notoriously bad; the 747-100s they use are flying museum pieces (but mean there's usually room to spare); and their ticketing counters at Don Muang are perennially congested (one-hour queues are not unusual, but if you just want to hop on the next flight, you can head to the express ticketing counter at check-in not less than 40 minutes before departure).
PB Air (http://www.pbair.com) flies domestically to Lampang, Nan, Mae Hong Son, Roi Et, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, Danang (Vietnam).
Ranong and to Yangon (Myanmar).
Incheon (Seoul, South Korea) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia).
Chiang Mai in the north all the way to Had Yai and the Malaysian border in the south. Trains are slow but reasonably comfortable. There are three classes:
- First class (chan neung) is akin to Western standards of comfort, with plush seats and individually regulated air conditioning. Comfortable 2-berth sleeping compartments are available, but with all surcharges figured in prices for these approach plane tickets.
- Second class (chan song) is a fairly good compromise, costing about the same as buses but with greater comfort and a much lower risk of accident. Some 2nd class trains are air-con (and charge a 70B surcharge), others aren't. Sleepers may be available, with narrower upper bunks costing a little less than wider lower bunks. The food quality is low, and the WCs are dirty.
- Third class (chan saam) is the cheapest way to travel in Thailand, with fares around half the bus. This gets you a shot at sitting on a hard plank, and as there are no seats so there are no reservations either. In fact, 3rd class is never full and SRT will always happily sell you "standee" tickets! Usually packed with tuk-tuk drivers heading home to Ubon with a sack of rice and a bottle of cheap whisky for company, as a farang you're guaranteed to be the center of attention - quite enjoyable in small doses, but 10 hours of this might be a bit much. Tip: if the seats are full (often the case), sit at the doors on the right side of the train. They face the other track, and you can sit in the breeze without people clambering past you at every stop.
There is a complex set of surcharges applied to special express (rot duan phiset), express (rot duan) and rapid (rot rew) trains. Food is available in dining cars, at your seat in 1st and 2nd class, and (especially in 3rd class) from itinerant hawkers who roam up and down the corridors.
Making reservations in advance is strongly recommended, especially for night trains. Any travel agency will spare you the (not inconsiderable) trouble of queuing for a service fee of 50-100B, or you can reserve with SRT directly by e-mail at Khao San Road, are keen to sell you VIP bus tickets. These are more often than not cramped minibuses that will do their best to arrive late, often by breaking down right next to a conveniently located restaurant, and sell you to the guesthouse that gives them the highest commissions. Theft, particularly on routes to the south, is also a major problem. Thais never use them, opting for public BKS buses instead - and you should too.
Buses travel throughout the country and the government's bus company BKS (??? Baw Kaw Saw), known in English simply as the Transport Company (http://www.transport.co.th/Eng/HomeEnglish.htm), has a terminal in every town of any size.
Generally speaking, BKS buses are the best option for both price and comfort. There are also many private bus companies, who mainly compete on price and are less reliable in terms of amenities, schedules and safety. In particular, beware of non-government "VIP" buses, which may be nothing of the sort. A special subclass are the cheap Khao San Road buses, targeted at backpackers. These are the slimiest of the lot and you may find that your supposed VIP bus is in fact a cramped minivan - after paying in advance, that is.
The basic bus types are:
- Local - relatively slow, can be cramped when full (nevertheless there's always room for one more), and stop at every village and cowshed along the way. Many are of larger songthaew flavour. Not suitable for long-distance travel, but may be the only cheap way to get around locally.
- Express (rot duan) - skip some stops, but no other frills. Identifiable by their orange colour. Size varies, with the largest having around 65 seats (five seats per row) as well as an open space across the width of the bus by the back door for you to sling your rice / chickens / bicycle / backpack.
- Second class (chan song) - skip more stops, but often take a less direct route than 1st class / VIP / S-VIP. Blue and white with an orange stripe, usually 45-48 seats per bus, air conditioned (some provide blankets, some do not), and most have no on-board toilet (however the frequent stops mean this isn't a problem).
- example price: Bangkok - Phuket 463 baht (approx 14 hours, USD12)
- First class (chan neung) - generally take the most direct routes and make very few stops. Blue and white in colour, air conditioned, blanket usually provided, fewer (larger, longer pitch) seats (typically 40, but some double-decker types seat 60+), snack and drinking water included. Most have a toilet on board (only very short haul services sometimes do not).
- example price: Bangkok - Phuket 580 baht (approx 12 hours, USD15)
- "VIP" - as per 1st class, but with only 32-34 seats, which have more leg room and recline further. Basic meal included and freshly laundered shrink-wrapped blanket provided. Also blue and white (or sometimes blue and silver) but usually signed "VIP".
- example price: Bangkok - Phuket 678 baht (approx 13 hours, USD18)
- "S-VIP" - Super-VIP is very similar to VIP, except there are only 24 seats, which are wider - the aisle is offset, each row having a pair of seats on the right and only a single seat on the left. Primarily used on overnight services.
- example price: Bangkok - Phuket 900 baht (approx 13 hours, USD24)
example prices above correct as of December 2005
Some buses may have TVs and sound systems blaring, so earplugs are well worth having, just in case.
On long-haul buses, if your ticket allocates you a front seat, you may have to switch seats if a monk boards.
A songthaew is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side. By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose built (eg the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). A relatively recent development is the four wheeled tuk-tuk (basically a microvan-songthaew) as found in Phuket.
Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok, but rare elsewhere in the country. When available, they are an excellent means of transport - insist on the meter.
As is the case throughout virtually all of Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular type are the 100cc-125cc step-through models. These are very widely used as taxis, with fares starting from as low as 5 baht, and they can also be rented without difficulty in many locations, from as little as 100 baht/day (or even less for periods of a week or more).
One of the Thais' many names for themselves is jao naam, the Water Lords, and from the river expresses of Bangkok to the fishing trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an indispensable way of getting around many parts of the country.
Perhaps the most uniquely Thai boat is the long-tail boat (reua hang yao), a long, thin wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long 'tail' stretching from the boat. This makes them supremely manouverable even in shallow waters, but they're a little underpowered for longer trips and you'll get wet if it's even a little choppy. Long-tails usually act as taxis that can be chartered, although prices vary widely — figure on 300-400 baht for a few hours' rental, or up to 1500 for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, long-tails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services as well as slower, sometimes overnight ferries also run from the mainland to popular islands like Ko Samui and the Phi Phi Islands. Truly long-distance services (eg. Bangkok to any other major city) have, however, effectively ceased to exist as buses, planes and even trains are faster.
The official language of Thailand is, unsurprisingly, Thai. There are dozens of small language groups in the tribal areas of the north, and a couple of places where Thai speakers are few and far between. People involved in the travel industry may speak a few words of English - and possibly German and Chinese. Thai is a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying "yes." versus "yes?" - that's tonal.) which can make it tricky for Westerners to learn quickly. Despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrase book and give it a go.
Thai script will look like complete gibberish, but most street signs and some shop signs will have roman transcription (using the "western alphabet") as well. The up side is that, when there is roman script, it will usually be fairly phonetic. For example "Sawatdee", or "hello", is pronounced just like it looks: sa-wat-dee. The downside is that no one can really agree on how to transcribe some Thai letters that just don't have a roman equivalent. So Kao Sarn Road might be written as Kao Sahn or Khao San. Make sure to get a map with both Thai and roman lettering. This will help locals help you
The Thai baht trades around 40 to the US dollar Bangkok in particular end up spending all their time in the countless markets and malls of the capital. Particularly good buys are clothing, both cheap locally produced streetwear as well as fancy Thai silk, and all sorts of handicrafts. Electronics and computer gear are also widely available, but due to heavier import duties they tend to be more expensive than Singapore or Hong Kong.
See also: Electronics and entertainment shopping in Thailand
Thailand has a plethora of accommodation in every price bracket. Always take a look at the room (or better still several rooms) before agreeing a price.
Guesthouses are usually the cheapest option, costing under 200 baht per night (or less for a dorm bed). This gets you a room with a fan, a squat toilet (often shared) and not much else - you will typically have to pay extra even for toilet paper.
Thai hotels start around 200 baht and go up to around 800 baht. The upper end of this range will be air-conditioned, the lower end will not. The primary difference is that with a hotel room, your bathroom should be private, bed linen and towels should be provided, and there may be a hot shower.
Tourist hotels are generally around 1000 baht and offer the basics for a beach vacation: swimming pool, room service and colour TV.
Business and luxury hotels, 2000 baht and up, offer every modern amenity you can think of and are largely indistinguishable from hotels anywhere else in the world. Some, notably Bangkok's The Oriental and The Peninsula are among the world's best hotels. The most luxurious resorts also fall in this price category, with some of the very best and most private adding a zero to the price.
- Thai Language
- Teaching Certification in ESL (English as a Second Language)
The two main opportunities for work for foreigners are teaching English and dive instructor, but both are very competitive and divemasters in particular are paid a pittance. Finding any other kind of work in Thailand can be difficult, as wages are poor and a large number of occupations are legally off limits to non-Thais.
The food alone is really reason enough for a trip to Thailand. Curries, fruit shakes, stir fries, fresh fish made a zillion ways - and that's just the beginning. Food in Thailand can be as cheap and easy as 20 baht phat thai (Thai fried noodles) cooked at a street stall or as expensive and complicated as a $100 ten-course meal by a royal chef served in one of Bangkok's 5 star hotels.
Since most backpackers will be sticking closer to the first than the second, one of the great things about Thailand that food from stalls and tiny sidewalk restaurants is usually quite safe. Unlike some Asian countries, travellers should worry more about overeating or too much curry spice than about unclean kitchens and bad food. In fact, street restaurants, where you can see what you'll get and everything is cooked on the spot (usually in a pool of germ- and diet-killing vegetable oil) can be the safest option.
Thai cuisine is characterized by strong spices, especially lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander, the combination of which gives Thai food its distinctive taste. In addition, Thai food has a deserved reputation for being spicy, with hot little torpedo-shaped chillies called phrik khii nuu (??????????, lit. "mouse shit chillies") making their way into many a dish. Thais are well aware that these can be more than Westerners can handle and will often ask if you like it hot; answer "yes" at your own risk!
Thai dishes can be roughly categorized into central Thai food (around Bangkok), northern Thai food (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influence), north-eastern Thai food (from the Isaan region bordering with Laos) and southern Thai food (with heavy influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some better-known central dishes; see Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
The Thai staple is rice (???? khao), so much so that in Thai eating a meal, kin khao, literally means "eat rice".
- Khao suai (???????) or "beautiful rice" is the plain white steamed rice that serves as the base of almost every meal.
- Khao phat (???????) is simple fried rice, usually with some pork (muu) or chicken (kai) mixed in.
- Khao tom (???????) is a salty and watery rice porridge served with condiments, quite popular at breakfast.
- Khao niao or "sticky rice" is glutinous rice - usually eaten dry with grilled/fried pork or chicken or beef.
In addition to rice, Thais are great noodle eaters. The most common kind is rice noodles, served angel-hair (???????? sen mii), small (???????? sen lek), large (???????? sen yai) and giant (?????????? kuay tiow), but egg noodles (?????? ba mii), Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli (?????? kiaw) and glass noodles made from mung beans (???????? wun sen) are also popular. Note: sen mii white rice noodle sounds similar to baa mii yellow egg noodle which is also referred to as sen baa mii but as stated before are completely different types of noodles.
Unlike most Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a rack of four condiments, namely dried red chillies , ground peanuts, vinegar and sugar - diners can mix them into their own liking.
- Phat thai (??????), literally "fried Thai", means thin rice noodles fried in a tamarind-based sauce. Ubiquitous, cheap and often excellent — and as an added bonus, it's usually chili-free!
- Bamii muu daeng (?????????????) is egg noodles with slices of Chinese-style red pork.
Soups and curries
The line between soups (??? tom, literally just "boiled") and curries (???? kaeng) is a little fuzzy, and many dishes the Thais called curries would be soups to an Indian. A plate of rice with a ladleful of a curry or two on top, known as khao kaeng (????????), is a very popular meal if eating alone.
- Tom yam kung (?????????) is the quintessential Thai dish, a sour soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal. The real thing is quite spicy, but toned-down versions are often available on request.
- Tom kha kai (?????????) is the Thai version of chicken soup in a rich galangal-flavored coconut stock, with mushrooms and not a few chillies.
- Kaeng daeng (????????, "red curry") and kaeng phet (????????, "hot curry") are the same dish and, as you might guess, this coconut-based dish can be spicy. Red curry with roast duck (kaeng ped yaang ????????????) is particularly popular.
- Kaeng khio-waan (?????????????), sweet green curry, is a coconut-based curry with strong accents of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Usually milder than the red variety.
- Kaeng som (???????), orange curry, is more like tamarind soup than curry, usually served with pieces of herb omelette in the soup.
Thais like their mains fried (??? thawt or ??? phat) or grilled (yaang ????). Fish, in particular, is often deep-fried so long that even the meat turns brown and crispy.
- Ka-phrao kai (?????????), literally "basil chicken" is a simple but intensely fragrant stirfry made from peppery holy basil leaves, chillies and chicken.
About the only thing Thai salads (?? yam) have in common with the Western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. A uniquely Thai flavor is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chillies - the end result can be very spicy indeed!
- Yam som-oh (???????) is an unusual salad made from pomelo (a mutant version of grapefruit) and anything else on hand, often including chicken or dried shrimp.
Vegetarians won't have too many problems surviving in Thailand, with one significant exception: fish sauce (?????? naam plaa) is to Thai cuisine what soy sauce is to Chinese food, and keeping it out of soups, curries and stir-fries will be a challenge.
That said, Thailand is a Buddhist country and vegetarianism is a fairly well-understood concept, especially among Chinese Thais (many of whom eat only vegetarian food during several festivals). Tofu is a traditional Thai ingredient and they aren't afraid to mix it up in some non traditional dishes such as omelettes (with or without eggs), submarine sandwiches, and burritos. Since Thai dishes are usually made to order, it's easy to ask for anything on the menu to be made without meat or fish. Bangkok features several fantastic veggie and vegan restaurants, but outside of big cities make sure to check that your idea of "veggie" matches the chef's.
Some key phrases for vegetarians:
- phom kin jeh (m) / di-chan kin jeh (f) ??(?????)????? "I eat only vegetarian food"
- karunaa mai sai naam plaa ????????????????? "Please don't use fish sauce"
Thailand has a large number of indigenous restaurant chains offering much the same fare as your average street stall, but with the added advantages of air conditioning, printed menus (often in English) and some semblance of hygiene. All the chains are heavily concentrated in Bangkok, but larger cities and popular tourist spots may have an outlet or two.
- MK and Coca are near-ubiquitous chains specializing in what the Thais call suki, perhaps better known as "hotpot" or "steamboat". A cauldron boils in the middle of your table, you buy ingredients (10-30B a pop) and brew your own soup. The longer you spend, the better it tastes, and the bigger the group you're with, the more fun this is!
- S&P (http://www.sandp.co.th) outlets are a bakery, a caf� and a restaurant all rolled into one, but their menu's a lot larger than you'd expect: it has all the Thai mainstays you can think of and then some, and most all of it is good. Portions are generally rather small, with prices mostly in the 50-100B range.
- Yum Saap (signs in Thai; look for the big yellow smiley logo) is known for their Thai-style salads (yum), but they offer all the usual suspects as well. Quite cheap with mains around 50B.
- Kuaytiaw * (signs in Thai; look for the hungry rat logo) does dirt-cheap noodles with prices starting at 20B. Portions aren't too generous, but at that price you can get two! No concessions to English speakers in menu or taste, so point & choose from the pictures and watch out for the spicier soups.
- Fuji (http://www.fuji.co.th) and Zen specialize in surprisingly passable Japanese food at very cheap prices (at least compared to Japanese restaurants almost anywhere else); rice/noodle mains are less than 100B, and you can stuff yourself full of sushi for less than 500B.
- Black Canyon Coffee (http://blackcanyoncoffee.com/) is Thailand's home-brewed Starbucks, but while coffee is their mainstay they also offer a limited meal menu. Try the chaa yen (lurid orange Thai iced tea with milk).
And yes, you can find the usual McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut etc if you insist. If you do end up at McD's, at least try the un-Maclike fried chicken with McSomTam (green papaya salad). For those craving American-style pizza, try the ubiquitous The Pizza Company, which is a less expensive and (arguably) tastier local chain.
Tap water is usually not drinkable in Thailand. Bottled water (???????? naam plao) is cheap and ubiquitous at 5-10 baht a bottle, and drinking water served in restaurants is always at least boiled (?????? naam tom). Ice (??????? naam khaeng) in Thailand usually comes packaged straight from the factory and is safe; there is only reason to worry if you are served hand-cut ice.
Coconut water (naam ma-phrao), iced and drunk directly from a fresh coconut is a cheap and healthy way to cool the body - available at restaurants and also from vendors that specialize in fruit juice.
Fruit juices, freezes and milkshakes of all kinds are very popular with Thais and visitors alike. Most caf�s and restaurants charge 20-40 baht.
Tea and coffee
One of Thailand's most characteristic drinks is Thai iced tea (?????? chaa yen, lit. "cold tea"). Instantly identifiable thanks to its lurid orange color, this is the side effect of adding ground tamarind seed (or, these days, artificial color) during the curing process. The iced tea is always very strong and very sweet, and usually served with a dash of condensed milk; ask for chaa dam yen to skip the milk.
Naam chaa and chaa jiin are weak and full-strength Chinese tea, often served in restaurants for free. Western-style black tea is chaa ron (??????). Coffee (???? kaafae) is also widely available, and is usually served with condensed milk and lots of sugar. Ask for kaafae thung to get traditional filtered "bag" coffee instead of instant.
The Starbucks phenomenon has also arrived in Thailand, but for the moment local competitors Black Canyon Coffee and S&P still have the edge in marketshare. These are the places to look for if you want that triple-moccha latte with hazelnul swirl and are willing to pay 100B for the privilege.
Thailand is the original home of the Red Bull brand energy drink - a licensed and rebranded version of Thailand's original Krathing Daeng (?????????, meaning "Red Bull"), complete with the familiar logo of two bulls charging at each other. The Thai version, however, is syrupy sweet, uncarbonated and comes packaged in medicinal-looking brown glass bottles, as the target customers are not trendy clubbers, but Thailand's working class of construction workers and bus drivers in need of a pick-me-up. Krathing Daeng and its many competitors (including Shark, .357 and the inevitable Karabao Daeng, "Red Buffalo") are available in any convenience store for 10 baht a pop, although in some places you can now buy imported European Red Bull for five times the price.
The most popular energy drink is M150 in Thailand.
Drinking alcohol in Thailand, especially if you like Western tipples, is actually comparatively expensive - but still very affordable by Western standards.
The misnamed Thai whisky (lao) refers to a number of distilled rice liquors, the best known being the infamous Mae Khong ("Mekong") brand and its competitor Saeng Som. The only resemblances to whisky are the brown color and high alcohol content, and indeed many people liken the smell to nail polish remover, but the somewhat rum-like taste is not quite as bad, especially when diluted with cola or tonic water. This is also by far the cheapest way to get blotto, as a pocket flask of the stuff (available in any convenience store or supermarket) costs only around 50 baht.
Out in the countryside many villages distil their own moonshine (lao thuean), which is strictly speaking illegal, but nobody seems to mind very much. Especially when hilltribe trekking in the North you're likely to be invited to sample some, and it's polite to at least take a sip.
Beer (?????? bia) is a bit of an upmarket drink in Thailand, with the price of a small bottle hovering between 50 and 100 baht in most pubs, bars and restaurants. For many years the only locally brewed beer was Singha (pronounced just Sing) but it has lost market to cheaper and stronger Chang. Two upmarket brands are available today, Heineken and Tiger, and longstanding minor brands Kloster and Leo enjoy some popularity. Thais like their lagers with relatively high alcohol content (around 6%), as it is designed to be drunk with ice, so the beer in Thailand may pack more of a punch than you are used to.
Imported liquors, wines and beers are widely available but prohibitively priced for the average Thai. A shot of any brand-name liquor is at least 100 baht, a pint of Guinness will set you back at least 200 baht and, thanks to an inexplicable 340% tax, even the cheapest bottle of wine will set you back over 500 baht. Note that, in cheaper bars (especially the go-go kind), the content of that familiar bottle of Jack Daniels may be something entirely different.
More a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait by important monuments and temples and waylay Western travellers, telling them that the site is closed for a "Buddhist holiday", "repairs" or a similar reason. The helpful driver will then offer to take the traveller to another site, such as a market or store. Travellers who accept these offers will often end up at out-of-the-way markets with outrageous prices - and no way to get back to the center of town where they came from. Always check at the front gate of the site you're visiting to make sure it's really closed.
Avoid any tuk-tuks in Bangkok. Tuk-tuk drivers might demand much higher price than agreed, or they might take you to a sex show, pretending they didn't understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who propose their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Don't buy any sightseeing tours at the airport. If you do, they will 'phone several times to your hotel in order to remind you about the tour. During the tour, you will be shortly taken to a small temple, without a guide, then they would take you to a shop, and to another shop, and to another shop (they get commissions). They might refuse to take you back home until you saw all the shops. On your way back, they would pressure you to buy more tours.
Easily identified with practice, it is not uncommon in touristed areas to be approached by a clean cut, well dressed man who often will be toting a cellphone. These scammers will start up polite conversation, showing interest in the unsuspecting tourist's background, family, or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the meat of the scam. This may be something as innocuous as over-priced tickets to a kantok meal and show, or as serious as a gambling scam. Once identified, the wary traveller should have no trouble picking out these scammer's from a crowd. The tell-tale well pressed slacks and button down shirt, freshly cut hair of a conservative style, and late-model cellphone comprise their uniform. Milling around touristed areas without any clear purpose for doing so, the careful traveller should have no difficulty detecting and avoiding these scammers.
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of legal hot water. Possession and trafficking offenses that would merit traffic-ticket misdemeanors in other countries can result in life-long imprisonment or even death in Thailand.
Long-simmering resentment in the southern-most Muslim-majority provinces has recently (2004/5) burst into violence in Songkhla, Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces. Some rebel groups have threatened foreigners, but no attacks have actually targeted westerners. All three provinces are off the main tourist trail, although buses and trains to Malaysia do pass through the territory.
Being a tropical country, Thailand has its fair share of exotic tropical diseases. Malaria is generally not a problem in any of the major tourist destinations, but is endemic in rural areas along the borders with Cambodia (including Ko Chang in Trat Province), Laos and Myanmar. As is the case throughout South-East Asia, dengue fever can be encountered just about anywhere, including the most modern cities.
It is best to play it safe with wats and other sacred sites in Thailand. Shorts, and sleeveless shirts are frowned on and sometimes not allowed. However remember that you will frequently need to remove your shoes when entering rooms, so don't wear shoes that are slow to get on and off. The rules are even more strict for foreign visitors, so even if you see a local in shorts it's not OK for everyone.
Men may want to avoid very casual dress: you won't see any Thai men in Bangkok wearing shorts or sarongs unless they are very poor. Your best bet is to just wear the sarong on the beach.
It's hard to find agreement on what dress is conservative enough for women. For sacred sites, some recommend that women wear only full length dresses and skirts; you should at least make sure that your clothing covers your shoulders and your entire thigh and some places may require that you wear ankle-length pants and long sleeved shirts. Women should not go topless on the beach and are often advised to wear a T-shirt over their swimming gear, although you will find that many women ignore this at the popular beach resorts.
As in many countries, there are slightly different standards of behaviour for women. One of the most important is that Buddhist monks are meant to avoid the temptation of women, and in particular they do not touch women or take things from women's hands. Women should avoid offering anything to a monk to take. Monks will sometimes be aided by a layperson who will accept things from women merit-makers on their behalf.
Never touch or pat a Buddhist on the head, including children. Similarly, do not touch people with your feet, or even point with them; the feet are considered dirty and low. If someone is sitting with outstretched feet, avoid stepping over them, as this is very rude and could even spark a confrontation (even if the person is sleeping, it is best to go around, as others are likely to notice). It is considered impolite and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, particularly when eating in someone's home (this is true even if the sniffing is done in appreciation). Do not audibly blow your nose in public. Do not turn your back to a Buddhist statue or pose alongside one for a photo. It's OK to take photos of a statue, but everyone should be facing it. Also, as doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it's important not to step on a raised threshold, but rather to step over it. Keep this in mind especially when visiting temples.
It's illegal to show disrespect for the King. Since he is on the country's currency, don't burn or mutilate it - especially in the presence of other Thais. Also, anything related to the story "The King and I" is illegal to possess in Thailand. Almost all Thais, even ones in other countries, feel very strongly when it comes to this film. They feel it makes a mockery of their age-old monarchy and is entirely inaccurate. The ban includes all versions of the film such as the one starring Yul Brynner (1956), and the modern "Anna and the King" (1999) starring Jody Foster.
Thai people are very friendly. Smile!
Bring an open mind and a sense of humour. Don't come with too many preconceived ideas about what Thailand is like, as media and friends� experiences have a habit of distorting reality.
Otherwise, bring as little as possible. If you forget something, you can buy it in Bangkok, probably for less than it originally cost you. Take enough padlocks for every double zipper to stop wandering hands and lock up your sacred belongings, even in your hotel room.
Essentials are a swimming costume, a day pack, a raincoat/umbrella in rainy season and some warm clothes if travelling in October to December, as some areas get cool. You will only need a couple of changes of clothes as you can get washing done anywhere cheaply. Sandals for when your hiking shoes are too hot can be bought cheaply in Thailand, although large sizes for women are harder to come by.
Take snorkelling gear or buy it on arrival if you plan to spend a lot of your time in the water. Alternatively put up a notice looking for gear from someone who is leaving. A tent for camping if you are a national park buff is a good idea, as is a compass. You might like to bring compact binoculars too if wildlife is your thing. A good map of Thailand is also handy.
Take earplugs for when you're stuck in a noisy room or want to sleep on the bus. Take a mirror for shaving, as often budget places won�t have any. String is very handy for hanging up washing. Travel scrabble can be great. Cigarette papers can be difficult to find, except in tourist centres. Climbing shoes for rock climbing are useful as Thailand has some of the best cliffs in South-East Asia.
A spare pair of prescription glasses or contact lenses plus a copy of your prescription is a good idea. Bring a book you're prepared to swap. A personal music player is great as a huge range of cheap music is available everywhere.
Into the toiletries bag throw sun screen and insect repellent. Mosquito coils are also a good idea. A small pocket size torch will come in handy when the electricity goes out or for investigating caves. Condoms, of course. Passport photos come in handy for visas.
If you plan to travel long distances by motorbike, purchase a good quality helmet, which you can do in Thailand. Last but not least, pack your stuff in plastic bags to stop them from getting wet, especially when travelling in the rainy season or on boats.
Aside from the above, the following are essential:
- Passport with minimum 6 month validity left
- Travel insurance
- Blood donor/type card
- Details of your next of kin
- Prescriptions for any medication you require. Most chemists will sell medicine over the counter without a script, but if you are searched by immigration it�s good to be able to show you require what you're carrying.
- A second photo ID other than your passport
Connectivity in Thailand is generally quite good.
To place an international call, you can buy a prepaid card (available for 300 baht at many convenience stores and guesthouses) to use with one of the bright yellow Lenso payphones. You should rarely have trouble finding either of these unless you're way out in the countryside.
For mobile phone users, Thailand has three GSM mobile service providers - MBK shopping mall will be happy to solve this for less than 500 baht. If you need to buy a mobile phone, you can pick those up at MBK as well, as a huge selection of cheap secondhand mobiles can be found on the upper floors. International rates from a Thai carrier are surprisingly good - DTAC, for example, charges 10 baht/minute to call America (and, with DTAC, you can reduce rates even further by predialing 08 before the international country code - for instance, 08 001 for America). Coverage is quite good in Bangkok and at many tourist destinations, including resort islands.
- Ko Phi Phi (Don), Ko Lanta (Yai), Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao, Ko Chang (Trat), Ko Samet (Rayong), Phuket.
Be careful not to accidentally hit the left side Alt+Shift keys together, or you might find yourself typing in Thai - even if you don't know any! On the other hand, if the last person left the computer this way, try the same key combination to get back to the Roman alphabet.
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