Thailand is a country with a rich cultural tradition, awe-inspiring Buddhist temples, natural splendor, humid heat, delicious food, bustling streets, and wonderful people. Here are 15 things I learned before and during my trip to Bangkok and Pattaya that you should know before you go to Thailand so that you can most enjoy and show respect for this amazing country.
1. Thailand is hot, hot, hot! (Especially in April.)
Thailand is tropical, humid, and hot, and April is the hottest month of the year, with an average high in Bangkok of 35° C/95° F. I recommend bringing a parasol, light pants and skirts, a packable sun hat, and a fan. “Elephant pants,” lightweight pants commonly printed with elephant patterns, are the perfect answer to the heat, and you can pick up a pair almost anywhere.
2. Bangkok’s full name is the longest place name in the world!
Try this: “Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit.”
3. You may not criticize the monarchy.
Thailand is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch and is currently under military rule. King Rama IX has been ruling for almost 70 years, and he is incredibly well loved and respected. It is not only offensive but also illegal to criticize the monarchy, so don’t!
4. Many people speak English, but not everyone.
While English is very widely spoken in Bangkok, especially at tourist destinations, I encountered some people, especially at shops and cafés, who did not know much English. I recommend learning some basic Thai and bringing a written list of phrases. While my Thai friends did their best to help me learn the different tones required to speak the language, my Thai was only intelligible about half the time, hence my recommendation to bring a written list. (When I tried to pronounce, “You are handsome,” apparently I said, “You are scary”!)
5. Public trains are clean and fast, and Uber is widely available in Bangkok.
Uber is widely available in Bangkok. Being able to set the destination in advance can be especially helpful when no one in your group speaks Thai. That said, taking the train is often faster than driving when there is heavy traffic. (There is often heavy traffic.)
6. Prices can be negotiated.
If you feel comfortable, you can try to negotiate prices at the open-air markets. If you have a Thai friend going shopping with you, definitely ask them to haggle on your behalf!
7. Electrical adapters are optional but highly recommended.
While many locations serving tourists have universal outlets, I recommend bringing an adapter. I also strongly suggest getting a compact dual voltage travel hairdryer and making sure to change the voltage with a screwdriver before you leave home to avoid any mishaps. (I may or may not have blown out two hair dryers in one week.)
8. You shouldn’t drink the tap water.
Don’t drink the tap water. I recommend keeping a couple of large bottles in your room and having a pack of smaller water bottles to grab on your way out the door. From what I was told and from my own experience, it’s fine to use tap water for rinsing your toothbrush.
9. But you should drink the milk tea!
Milk tea (generally referred to in the U.S. as “Thai iced tea”) is amazing, especially when poured over tapioca pearls. Try to ignore how much condensed milk you’re consuming and just enjoy the indulgence. While beverages in Bangkok are pretty decadent, desserts are not, so it all evens out.
10. You should eat street food where the locals do. And order mango sticky rice.
The street food, especially the mango sticky rice (Oh, the mango sticky rice!), is delicious. Just make sure to only eat food that is prepared in front of you at stands where locals line up.
Photo by Iris Feng
11. Thailand is largely a Buddhist nation.
Theravada Buddhism is practiced by more than 90% of Thais, and Buddhism is a central element of Thai culture.
12. You should be prepared to cover up when visiting temples.
When visiting the temples (one of my favorite parts of Bangkok), cover up. Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is especially strict with its dress code, and you will have to wait in long lines to rent clothes if you are not properly dressed. The following are the temple dress codes I encountered in Bangkok:
Women should wear maxi skirts (I love this, this, and this in grey.) or maxi dresses (such as this, this, and this), tops or cardigans that are at least short-sleeved, and shoes or sandals with backs. Shawls are considered insufficient coverage; pants are allowed for women in some but not all sites, and flip-flops without backs are not allowed.
Men should wear long pants, shirts or sweaters that are at least short-sleeved, and shoes or sandals with backs. Flip-flops without backs are not allowed.
13. You should mind your hands and feet.
It is disrespectful to point, especially at religious icons, with either your hands or your feet. Gesture with an open hand, and keep your toes angled away from religious statues. You have to take off your shoes outside of most Buddhist temples, so wear shoes you can slip in and out of easily. Try not to show the soles of your feet. When you see a raised threshold, step over it and not on it.
14. Smiling is good manners.
Smile openly in the “Land of Smiles.” Be calm, respectful, quiet, and grateful. Greet others with the “wai” gesture: slightly bow your head to your hands, with your hands pressed together as in prayer.
15. Thai people are what makes the country great!
Thai people, according to global reports and my own experience, are some of the friendliest people in the world!