Thailand. Even the name conjures up images of an exotic paradise filled with pristine beaches, Buddhist temples, mind blowing food, orange robe clad monks and hedonistic fun filled nights. The islands and beaches are legendary, as are the infamous full moon parties, the traditional markets and Buddhist temples nestle comfortably in amongst the neon clad high rises of Bangkok, and the jungle clad North is a haven for traditional tribes people and a more sedate, relaxed way of life.
Thailand is a country that seems to revel in its polarised contradictions as a pleasure-seeking, whisky bucket fuelled reputation vies for attention with the image of a relaxed tropical paradise, monks mix with prostitutes, the chaotic sprawl of frenetic cities are only a short bus ride away from traditional farming and fishing villages and the largely Westernised aspects of the country that have developed around a strong backpacker and tourist market haven’t even scratched the surface of the proud cultural traditions of the rich Thai heritage.
Thailand is the epicentre of the famous banana pancake trail and has been a popular and well worn backpacker destination for decades, only relatively recently opening up to the mass tourism market as package tourists have begun to cotton onto its endless charms. It is also one of the major travel hubs of South East Asia, and as such sees millions of visitors, backpackers and tourists through its borders every year.
Whatever your reason for coming to Thailand, whether it is the first stop on a long gap year, a location to spend a few months in or simply a holiday spot for a couple of weeks, you will absolutely fall in love with the land of smiles and will never be able to shake that feeling that you will always want to come back.
Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, although there are pockets of other religions too. Respect should be shown at any Buddhist monument or temple which includes women covering up shoulders and bare legs with a sarong or scarf. Monks should be treated with the same respect, they are forbidden to have any contact with women, no matter how minor, and it is important to remember this.
The Thai people love their monarchy – and I’m an Englishman so I know a thing or two about that – but the Thai’s take it to the next level. It is a complete social taboo – as well as a criminal offence – to insult, bad mouth or even speak negatively against the royal family. This deference is so ingrained that the lese-majesty laws have been criticised on the world stage for censoring the press against saying anything negative at all. So basically don’t express any anti monarchist sentiments! It also means standing when the Kings anthem is played (at the start of a film at the cinema for example) and stop whatever you are doing and stand if the national anthem is played anywhere.
The wai, a prayer like gesture is often used in place of shaking hands, similar to the Japanese bow in many respects, it can be used to say hello, goodbye, sorry, thank you or a variety of other expressions. There are many different degrees of wai used in varying situations and Thais will know which is appropriate for which, but they are quite understanding of farangs (westerners) who try but get it slightly wrong. As a general rule don’t initiate one, but copy the gesture used if a Thai makes a wai at you.
All in all, Thai’s are very friendly, open and gregarious, evidenced by their ‘land of smiles’ reputation and the ideology of ‘sanuk’, which translates into ‘fun’, something the Thai’s try to infuse into everything they do. They also tend to be pretty relaxed and hate any form of outward anger or raised voices and hate to lose face. So keep your cool, and keep smiling.
Visa rules are changing frequently in Thailand at the moment so it is always best to check up to date news with your own embassy.
As of August 2015, the Thai authorities have stopped allowing any visa runs, so foreigners of any nationality will no longer be allowed back into Thailand after exiting just to extend their 30 or 60 day visa length. This counts for any form of transport, air, sea or land.
In November 2015, the Thai authorities are introducing a new multiple entry tourism visa (METV) instead. This costs 5000 Baht, but allows for a stay of up to 6 months and will allow any number of exits and entries. This is basically making all those visa runs official, so tourists can do the Thailand/Vietnam/Cambodia loop officially.
Citizens of the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada and most of Europe are amongst the 41 countries that still (for the moment) do not need a pre arranged visa to enter the country for up to 30 days.
The following list of vaccinations are recommended for visits to Thailand by the Centre of Disease Control.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are also strongly recommended.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
Malaria and Dengue fever are present in Thailand, especially in the rural and jungle areas of the North and North East and the interiors of some of the islands, and particularly on the border areas with Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia and Laos. Cities and most of the islands are generally safe. Preventative measures are strongly recommended, as is anti malarial prophylaxis. Atovaquone proguanil or doxycycline are recommended for the area.
Crime and Safety.
Thailand is in general an extremely safe country to travel through. Scams on tourists and backpackers are rife however so you need to read up on the most common scams and keep your wits about you. In general though making sure the taxi drivers turn their meters on or escaping the tout trying to sell you something at an inflated price will be your biggest hassle.
Keeping yourself safe in Thailand is mostly about taking very basic common sense precautions. Looking out for yourself and taking reasonable precautions against theft and fraud is advisable, but there is no need to be overly concerned or paranoid.
It really should go without saying at this point that if you are stupid enough to get involved with drugs in Thailand, then you are on your own and you deserve everything you get if you get caught.
At the moment the FCO (Foreign Commonwealth Office) has a travel advisory on the extreme south of Thailand based on a low risk of Muslim extremism in the far Southern provinces and islands bordering Malaysia. Many people have interpreted this as a general warning for Thailand, which is not the case at all. The vast majority of Thailand is very safe, and you should only excercise reasonable caution if heading to Hat Yai or the Songkhla province. Remember also that many visitors make the border crossing into Malaysia every year very safely.
Costs and money.
Thailand’s currency is the Thai Baht, with 100 satang in one baht.
Thailand has recently introduced fees of up to 200 Baht for ATM withdrawals in many networks, so if you use ATMs frequently (which is often the best way to access your money) you may want to draw out larger sums less frequently to save on the fees. Alternatively most banks still (f0r the time being) allow you to withdraw money for free at the counter as long as you have your passport.
Thailand’s costs have risen dramatically in the last decade, and it is no longer the ultra budget destination it used to be, especially on the more touristy islands where package tourists have started to move in and resorts have shot up faster than a lego town. It is still quite cheap by Western standards however, and can still be considered a budget destination. You can still get a really good bargain if you go off the beaten track a little.
Accommodation costs in general are quite reasonable, especially in the North. Hostels can still be found for just a few pounds a night but can be more. Guesthouses are probably the best value overall at roughly £10 GBP a night on average for a fair amount of comfort, hotels tend to be £20 GBP a night upwards. The more rural and off the beaten track the area you are staying is, the cheaper it tends to be, but costs can rise dramatically for hotels or resorts in Bangkok or some of the Southern islands.
Food is unbelievably cheap in Thailand, and you can get some of the best food you will ever taste in your life for literally pennies. Street food is perhaps the best value, with good meals costing less than £1 GBP! Local eateries and restaurants are a little more expensive depending on the location or quality, but on average you can still expect a really good meal for around £2 to 3 GBP or less. Drinks are fairly reasonable too, with fresh fruit juice or smoothies being unbelievably cheap and fresh. Alcohol is relatively expensive, although still cheap by Western standards, drinking can be one of the biggest parts of your budget if you plan to booze your way through a few full moon parties.
Transportation can be really cheap, especially if you use public transportation and don’t get stung too often by unscrupulous taxi and tuk tuk drivers. Tuk Tuk rides shouldn’t cost more than £1 GBP or so with taxi rides within any given place no more than £2 -3 for a fair distance. Long distance coaches to various destinations average out at around £10 for long trips depending where you go, but can be considerably cheaper for short jaunts. Boats in between the islands cost about the same as the coaches but combined coach/boat packages can work out a little cheaper.
Activities, treks and courses will be one of your biggest expenses in Thailand, but it is important you budget well for it. These activities and experiences are half of the fun of a gap year! There is no point in coming here and not taking a jungle trek to some remote hill tribe villages, taking a cookery or Muay Thai course or even getting your PADI certificate. The costs of these vary wildly and it depends on what you do and where you do it. Trekking for example may set you back maybe £20 GBP a day in Chiang Mai, but getting your diving qualifications may run anywhere between £100 to £200 GBP.
Average daily costs can be about £25 -£30 GBP per day if you stay in reasonable but comfortable guesthouses, eat well, have a few drinks and use tuk tuks and taxis as well as local transport. You can bring this average down considerably if you stay in cheap hostels, eat local food, stay off the beer and watch your pennies but can be considerably higher if you stay in brand hotels or resorts and eat out at fancy restaurants every night. What you spend on activities is up to you.
When to go.
This is very subjective as to be honest as Thailand is generally a year round destination.
The peak Tourist season runs from November to March and then in July and August, with the rest of the time considered off peak. Either are great times to visit Thailand, but you get the added benefits of discounted rates and less tourists in the off peak.
Thailand’s rainy season is very roughly between July and October, although this is far from guaranteed and can change slightly from year to year. Some years can be very dry, others can be wetter than average, weather is just one of those things that can’t be fully predicted. On average though even in the wet season the downpours tend to be short and limited to late afternoon or overnight (if you get any at all), and then the sunshine and blue skies return.
If you can only get to Thailand in the rainy season, don’t let it be a reason to put you off, as there is absolutely no need. The weather is still great the majority of the time, the landscape, jungles and waterfalls are lush and beautiful, there are less tourists around and you can get really good discounts on accommodation! If you plan to do a lot of diving however, this can take a bit more planning in the rainy season as some dive and even boat operators can shut down depending on weather conditions so this may determine which islands you may need to visit or avoid.
Just a few short hours away from Bangkok by coach or train, this beautiful part of Thailand is rich in wartime history as it is home to the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai and the JEATH war museum as well as the death railway and poignant cemeteries. There is far more to the region than that however, as trekking opportunities into the surrounding Erawan national park and swimming in the lagoons of the stunning seven tiered waterfall and cheap, relaxed guesthouses along the riverfront bring a constant stream of backpackers here.
Ayutthaya is one of the ancient capitals of Thailand. Again just a few short hours from Bangkok by coach or train, this open, rural area is home to some magnificent temple ruins that form part of an extended UNESCO world heritage site. The ruins are quite spread out and best explored by rented bicycle, and if you plan to visit all of them be sure to buy the temple pass which works out cheaper than paying to see each one separately.
First impressions of the heady, chaotic contrasts of uber modern megamalls and skyscrapers to the traditional markets and polluted, overcrowded streets are not always good, but after your senses have come to terms with Bangkok, it gets under your skin very, very quickly.
Ancient Buddhist temples sit side by side with vast neon clad complexes full of go go bars and sex shows, the winding, shop packed streets of Chinatown lead you to the winding delights of the Chao Praya river’s floating markets as you relax in a traditional dragon boat, the modern and efficient sky train can escort you quickly over the chaotic traffic clogged roads before you take a ride in a traditional tuk tuk.
The Banglamphu district is where most Backpackers head to at first, with a huge amount of cheap accommodation, backpacker hostels and traveller infrastructure, it is also relatively close to the major sights of the ostentatious Grand Palace and the famous reclining Buddha inside the serene Wat Pho. You could spend your entire trip in Bangkok and never run out of things to do, from the traditional tourist fare to the downright bizarre.
Most backpacker use Chiang Mai as a launch pad for treks into the surrounding jungles, but it is an amazingly relaxed, chilled out place to relax and take a breather for a while too. It is much cheaper than places in the South or central regions so it is easy to get great deals on accommodation, food and anything else you can think of. Taking in a Muay Thai show is a must here after you have taken a trek or two, a great night market and there is a fantastic and renowned nearby elephant sanctuary called the Elephant Nature Park or ENP. It is also a great and relatively cheap option if you want to take a course in cooking or Thai massage.
The Southern Islands.
These tropical islands are the main reason most people come to Thailand, and are one of the quintessential parts of the banana pancake trail. Many of the islands are no longer the deserted tropical paradise many people imagine when they come to visit, and unfortunately some of the islands are know becoming overdeveloped, especially the ones popular with package tour companies such as Phuket and Samui, but there are still hidden pockets of paradise to be found if you look closely.
Get a massage.
No, not that kind! Massage here doesn’t have the same sleazy reputation it does here in the west. Massages are seen as part of normal routine health and wellbeing and massage parlours are professional, friendly and relaxing. They are literally everywhere in Thailand, from beach hut bars to Buddhist temples and you can barely walk five minutes in the major towns and cities without coming across a few places! Thai massage isn’t like western massage either, at first it feels more like an insane chiropractic procedure as an evil midget kneels on you and bends your limbs into positions you didn’t think was possible, but I guarantee you will be walking on air after it! For just a pound or two for an hour, this is a must do in Thailand!
Getting your PADI certificate is almost a rite of passage for backpackers in Thailand, and most of the islands have a string of dive centres that offer a variety of packages. Not some of the best diving in the world, but there are some really great dive spots, off Koh Tao for example, and it is relatively cheap to do here than other places.
Take a course.
Taking a course in Muay Thai, cookery or even Thai massage is an amazing way to add a few extra strings to your bow whilst you are travelling, are great fun to do and make for great stories when you return home.
The North of Thailand is famous for its trekking opportunities into the jungles bordering Myanmar and Laos and visiting various hill tribe villages. Most people use Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai as their base before and after a trek. The longer 3 day treks are generally much better than the shorter half day or day treks.