63 Essential Things to Know Before You Travel to Thailand

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  • Post last modified:January 6, 2021
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Thailand is hands down my favourite country I’ve visited so far, with plenty to offer from the stunning countryside, golden paradise islands and the cultural cities. Here are my top things you need to know before visiting.

1-6: Planning Ahead

1. Rain season

May to October is rain season in Thailand with the wettest months from August through to October. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel during rain season, it will be less crowded and cheaper, but be prepared for short and heavy rain storms and you should research in advance as some places will shut down for this period.

2. Burning season

Around February to March is known as burning season, this is when the farmers burn the fields to get rid of old crop, ready to plant the new season of crops. The smoke is particularly bad in the north of Thailand and it can impact the view and be uncomfortable to breathe. Just because it’s burning season, doesn’t mean you won’t have a great time, I certainly enjoyed my visit during burning season, but it’s something to be aware of when planning.

3. Get your rabies jab

Make sure you get vaccinated before you go, you’ll need to get the essential jabs such as Typhoid and Hepatitis A but I’d also recommend getting your rabies jab too. There are loads of wild dogs in Thailand which can carry rabies, I went without my vaccination and it made me very uncomfortable around any dogs.

4. Visa exemptions and border runs

Most visitors will qualify for the 30 day visa exemption, this is provided upon arrival so you don’t need to get this in advance. Once your 30 days is up you will either need to leave or do a border run where you briefly leave and re-enter. You can do up to 2 border runs per year by land. Find out more at the Thai embassy.

5. Proof of onward travel

You may need to show proof of onward travel to enter the country, this is evidence that you have an exit plan once your visa or visa exemption expires. It’s unlikely that you’ll actually have to show this, but many travellers like to be prepared just in case.

Here are 4 ways you can provide proof of onwards travel when you don’t have a return flight booked.

6. Get an international driving permit before you go

Your standard driving licence from your home country won’t be suitable, I’d highly recommend that you get an international driving permit before you leave – these are usually super cheap (£7 from post office in the UK) and well worth your time.

For the most part you won’t get checked, but in some of the main backpacker destinations in Thailand such as Pai and Koh Samui they are regularly checking tourists and will ask for a bribe fine you for not having the correct licence.

7-14: Money

7. Local currency is Baht

This is simple, the currency is baht. The largest note is 1000 baht and the smallest note is 20baht, there are coins as low as 1 baht. The sub currency is satang (below 1 baht) however I never came across any satang during my visit due to it’s low value of 1p or less.

8. Lots of places don’t take big notes

Despite the fact that most ATMs hand out 1000 baht notes, most shops or vendors don’t large notes and will ask for ‘small money’ (meaning smaller sized notes). Try to break your notes at hotels/hostels or in chain shops such as 7-eleven or Starbucks.

9. Responsible bartering

Bartering is part of the culture whether you like it or not. Being a westerner, Thai people will always try their luck with a price far higher than the locals so you’ll need to barter it down but remember that you come from a more privileged background and you should be fair. I would usually settle at around 1.5x – 2x the local price.

10. Careful when receiving change

A couple of times I had negotiated a price down but they had given me change for the original price and refused to correct it, be careful of this. Always try to pay in exact change, particularly if buying from a street vendor. If you have to pay in larger money, ask to see the change before you commit to giving them the larger notes.

11. Save money by leaving tourist areas

Thailand is an incredibly cheap place to live, however as tourism steadily increases, the popular spots have become more in demand and prices have gone up, this is especially true of some of the smaller islands in the South such as Koh Phi Phi.

If you move away from tourist hot spots then you’ll get better bargains, especially in the north of the country. However be prepared that little English will be spoken outside of the tourist hot spots so be prepared to negotiate with your fingers and thumbs.

12. Cash at a price

Outside of Bangkok, you’ll need to use cash for most of your transactions but ATMs are widely available. However, you won’t find any free ATMs, trust me I tried. Typical charge for an ATM withdrawal is 220baht although I saw some as high as 400baht on islands. Take out as much as you can without feeling uncomfortable.

13. Always ‘Continue without conversion’

On the topic of ATM fees, when withdrawing cash always choose ‘continue without conversion’. Your own bank will then convert the currency which will usually result in a far better rate than converting it at the ATM itself. This also applies to card payments and is a good tip across the world, not just Thailand.

14. Everything is probably fake

Most branded items are probably fake so don’t pay over the odds for them. 

15-25: Life in Thailand

15. Respect the king

Thai people have a huge amount of love and respect for the ruling monarchy, you’ll notice photos of their leaders all over the country, from bars and restaurants to billboard. You should never disrespect the king.

When King Bhumibol Adulyadej died in 2016, the country declared an entire year of mourning with widespread crowds honouring his death.

16. Learn to use a squat toilet

When you first come across a real asian toilet, it may be a shock to you that it’s barely more than a hole in the ground, but you’ll soon get used to it.

Take a look at this step by step guide.

17. Sim Card

If you’re spending a lot of time in Thailand, you might want to invest in a local SIM card. The best option is to get an AIS SIM card, available from most family marts (a common convenience store) or official AIS shops. Avoid buying one at the airport as these will be over priced.

SIM cards generally come with unlimited data for a set number of days, an 8 day SIM is 300 baht and a 15 day SIM is 600 baht. You’ll need to take your passport with you to register it.

18. The ‘Land of Smiles’

Thailand is known as ‘the land of smiles’. This stems from a promotional campaign aiming to attract foreigners to the country, however it is very true. The people are some of the friendliest around and are always smiling.

19. Buddhism is the official religion

The official Thai religion is Theravada Buddhism which is evident from the masses of Buddhist temples scattered throughout the country.

20. Kap khun ‘kah’ or ‘krap’

You’ll pick up a few phrases as you travel around such as hello or thank you in Thai. These words are different for men and women. To say hello as a man it’s Sawat-dee-krup or as a woman it’s Sawat-dee-ka. You’ll notice the ‘krup’ at the end for a man or ‘ka’ for a woman. Another example is thank you, which is ‘Kop-khun-krup’ for a man or ‘Kop-khun-ka’ for a woman.

21. Get the deets

Expect lots of mosquito bites, especially when you first arrive. The best way to keep them away is with deet mosquito spray. You can get 100% deet but my 50% spray did the job and didn’t sting my skin too much. Don’t forget this when you go out trekking or expect to be out after dark.

22. Tiger Balm is always the answer

From head aches and sore muscles to insect repellent and burns, it seems that Tiger Balm has infinite uses. It was created by Chinese herbalists and has been a staple in Asian households. The active ingredients actually distract your brain from any pain with counter-irritants which explains why it has so many uses.

23. Get used to the Bum guns

These will change your life. Instead of toilet paper, they use a bum gun (most likely known to you as a bidet). Once you master this you’ll never want to go back.

24. Plastic Waste

Thailand is still poorly educated about plastic waste so expect lots of single use plastics. You can only do you best to keep your consumption low, say no to carrier bags and disposable cups/straws where you can.

25. Air quality can be poor in Thailand

Air pollution can get extremely bad in some parts of Thailand, especially in Bangkok. When air quality is poor, you can reduce your exposure by using a face mask. Use the AirVisual app to monitor air quality in Thailand in real time, an AQI below 100 is okay and anything above 150 is quite bad.

26-29: Animals in Thailand

26. Geckos

If you’re wondering what the little lizard-like animals that seem to appear from nowhere on the walls and ceilings, that’s a Gecko. They are completely harmless to humans, in fact they are beneficial as they feast on mosquitoes.

Unfortunately there noises aren’t as beneficial when there is a loud one in your room at night, for animals so small they can make loud noises so have ear plugs to hand.

27. Snakes

Thailand has over 200 species of snake with more than 30 that are venomous. That being said, it is very unlikely that you’ll come across them in the wild. They are more scared of you than you are of them and will quickly slither away when they sense nearby vibrations in the ground. Avoid walking in tall paddy fields and you should be fine.

28. Monkeys

You’ll come across plenty of monkeys during your trip, especially if you visit monkey beach in Koh Phi Phi or the monkey temple near Chiang Rai. They can be adorable but don’t tease them and I’d recommend not feeding them. I saw monkeys get angry with a family who were only feeding them one banana at a time – the monkeys wanted to take the whole bunch, and they did!

29. Avoid animal tourism or look for ethical alternatives

Animal tourism is huge in Southeast Asia, particularly elephants and tigers but the standard of animal welfare is usually very poor, elephants are often rode and tigers will be drugged up, try to avoid anything involving animals unless you can be confident it is ethical.

There are a few ethical elephant sanctuaries near Chiang Mai including Elephantland.

30-35: Getting Around

30. Don’t expect anything on time

Thai people don’t adhere to strict timings, be prepared for long waits and make sure you work extra time in to travel plans for late transfers. I’m talking hours late, not minutes.

31. Thai people drive like crazy

Thai people drive like there is no tomorrow. The worst culprits have to be the VIP minivan drivers or overnight buses. Unfortunately there is nothing you can do about it and you’ll just have to hope for the best – remember they have been doing this every single day for many many years. The most notorious route will be the road from Chiang Mai to Pai – don’t eat too much before you go and try not to be hungover!

32. Be wary of taxi and tuk tuk drivers

They will usually try to over charge and will often try to agree a price before you leave that will be significantly inflated. Always ask for the meter to be switched on or find out from your hostel/hotel how much the journey should be. Even with the meter on, sometimes they will drive a longer route so keep a close eye on your journey.

33. Download Grab

Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia, depending upon the city you can use it to hire a bike (you’ll sit on the back), a tuk tuk or taxi. Even if you don’t order with the app, you can use it for an indication of the price you should be paying.

34. Try the green bus

The green bus is an excellent way to get around in Thailand without paying the extra fees for a VIP tourist bus that most hostels will book. Green bus can be booked online or at most major bus stations and is mostly used by locals so you’ll be getting a much better deal than tourist focused transport.

35. Songathews

A Songathew is a shared truck in Thailand, common in Chiang Mai and a few other cities in Northern Thailand. If you’ve ever used Uber pool, it’s similar to this but the rate is often set for travel anywhere within a certain distance limit.

36-41: How To Be Respectful

36. Take your shoes off inside

It is impolite to wear shoes inside. Many hostels and attractions will insist that you leave them outside, especially temples. Pay attention to the signage and watch what other people do.

37. Greet with a ‘Wai’

To greet a Thai person, place your palms together in prayer and slightly bow your head towards your palms. This is called the Wai and is a custom in Thailand. A simple Wai is enough for any foreigners but there are actually different levels according to social status, for example children may only receive a small nod.

38. Don’t touch someone’s head or point your feet

The feet are considered the lowest and driest part of the body and should never be pointed at someone. Conversely, the head is the most sacred part of the body so you should never touch someone else’s head.

39. Be respectful of monks

Monks are highly respected in Thailand so you should ensure to treat them similarly. For the most part they are governed by their own laws and even have special privileges similar to diplomats in that they cannot be summed as a witness in court. You shouldn’t ask any overly personal questions and bear in mind that you shouldn’t directly pass them anything, place it next to them.

40. Temple dress code

You’ll need to cover your knees, elbows and ankles. The rules are generally stricter for women than men. If you’re wearing shorts or vests, try to carry a shawl or other item of clothing you can use to visit temples.

41. Don’t pose like the Buddha

You shouldn’t try to replicate the poses that the Buddha statues are making, especially at temples. This would be considered disrespectful.

42-47: Thai Traditions

42. Visiting the cabaret 

Cabaret (also known as Ladyboy shows) are popular in many Thai cities and some of the islands, these are a great night! There is nothing rude and they are usually suitable for children.

43. Celebrate Songkran in Thailand

Songkran (Thai New Year) is one of the best times to visit Thailand as the whole country comes to a standstill for up to 2 weeks in April to celebrate the occasion. A Thai tradition is to have a huge water fight, you’ll find people running around cities throwing water over each other and there is no escape, as a tourist you’ll be involved whether you like it or not. Embrace it and get involved, it’s great fun.

44. Bun Bang Fai rocket festival

Originating in neighbouring Laos, Bun Bang Fai is a tradition that is increasingly popular in Thailand. The festival takes place around May and sees locals create rockets that are fired up in to the sky, it’s claimed that they often reach impressive heights of up to 20,000ft. In Thai culture, the rockets are essential in bringing the rainfall required to grow the crops.

45. Muay Thai is the national sport

Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing and the national sport of Thailand. It is a very serious sport with regular matches and training can begin from a young age. Try to watch a fight whilst your in Thailand and sign up to a Muay Thai class if you want to keep fit.

if you’re feeling brave, visit Koh Phi Phi and try your chances at fighting against other tourists at Reggae Bar to win a bucket of cocktail.

46. Thai massages

You can barely walk for 5 minutes without being offered a Thai massage. These ancient practices stretch back thousands of years. During a Thai massage you’ll be pulled, stretched and rocked in to a calm and relaxed state. You have to try one whilst you’re there.

47. Chiang Mai lantern festival

During November, the two festivals of Yee Peng and Loy Krathong combine to create the epic Chiang Mai lantern festival.

To celebrate Yee Peng, a lantern is released in to the air to symbolise releasing bad luck, whilst Loy Krathong is celebrated by floating a basket on the river and making a wish which will be carried forward in to the new year.

48-53: Partying in Thailand

48. Chiang is the best beer, closely followed by Leo

Thailand has many beers but the three main ones you’ll find everywhere are Chiang, Singha and Leo. My personal favourite is Chiang but they’re all actually quite good given the price.

49. Gambling law

Gambling is illegal in Thailand. The exception is the Thai lottery. You’ll come across vendors on many streets and in markets selling tickets out of a suitcase, this is the government funded Thai lottery in which you can win between 1,000 and 30 million baht. Foreigners can enter too if you’re over 20.

50. Drugs are illegal

Like most countries, drugs are illegal and hard drugs are pretty uncommon. However you may come across bars that sell weed and magic mushrooms. These are illegal but as long as you stay in the bar selling them you should be okay as the owners will be friendly with the police. However, never take drugs out of the bar you bought them in. Whilst the punishment is no longer the death penalty, you could end up paying a significant fine or serving a lengthy time in a Thai prison for possession.

51. Celebrate full moon with an epic bang

Many islands hold their own full moon parties around South East Asia but the biggest full moon party that has the attention of the world is on Koh Phangan which can attract up to 30,000 people.

52. Visit the famous Koh San road

Backpackers who visit Bangkok will become familiar with the Koh San Road. This street has become synonymous with visiting Thailand and has featured in many films because of this.

These days it has become very touristy, the bars are busy, overpriced and people try to sell you something every 30 seconds. I would still suggest paying it a visit or two but explore the neighbouring streets for a better overall experience.

53. The ‘Ping Pong’ show

Compared to the cabaret, the ping pong show is a completely different ball game, literally. You will witness these women do things with their body you wouldn’t have dreamed of, this is certainly X-rated and not family friendly.

54. The Ghost Festival

You’d never have thought that a festival in Thailand would see ghosts partying in the street, but that’s exactly what happens at Pi Ta Khon festival, also known as ‘Ghost Festival’.

The 3 day festival takes place in Loei, Thailand during June and sees the streets closed so that festival goers can parade wearing their ghost outfits. Some of the masks can get pretty scary and the locals get rowdy at the march, but all in the name of fun – they’re super friendly really.

55-59: Food and Drink

55. Food is Served When it’s Ready

If you’re used to meals arriving together and sitting politely until everyone is ready then you’ll need to adjust. In Thailand, each dish is bought out when it’s ready. This is because they don’t have a hotplate to keep the food warm. Don’t feel rude about tucking straight in, you could be waiting a while for that final dish.

56. Street dining

At first, the street food culture can seem daunting as you sit on a plastic table and chairs normally reserved for the garden and eat on the side of the street. But the food is incredible and it’s all part of the experience, you’ll soon grow to love it.

57. The 7-Eleven cheese toastie

If you go backpacking in Thailand and don’t try a cheese toastie from 7-eleven then you’ve done something wrong. They toast it in the shop while you wait and it’s just 25 baht, that’s about 60p.

58. Accommodating dietary needs can be difficult

Whilst vegetarians should manage fairly well in Thailand, other dietary needs may be more difficult to cater for, such as Vegan or Gluten Free. Vegetable fried rice is usually a safe option for meeting most needs.

59. Don’t drink tap water

The tap water in Thailand is not suitable for drinking. Look out for bottle refill points on the street or at hostels which use filtered water. If you must, then purchase bottled water from the shop.

60-63: Good to Know

60. Cooking classes

A Thai cooking class is a must-do attraction on any Thailand itinerary. Often they will involve a trip to the local market to purchase the ingredients followed by a lengthy class with multiple courses which could include curries, soups and mango sticky rice.

61. Avoid Phuket

I shudder whenever somebody tells me they plan to visit Phuket as it’s the one destination I didn’t like. The main street is like a dirtier version of Benidorm and the views aren’t anywhere near as nice as some of the country’s other islands.

62. Diving in Koh Tao

If you’re a diving fan or want to learn, make sure Koh Tao is on your list. More diving qualifications are awarded in Koh Tao than anywhere else in the world with diving resorts across the island.

63. Floating markets

Thailand is full of amazing surprises and the floating markets is one of them. Originally, these markets would have been the way locals bought their good, whilst some locals do still use them, today they are mainly a tourist attraction. Having said that, it’s still an unforgettable experience to buy your groceries from a small wooden boat.

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Kieren is the avid traveller behind the blog. His adventures have included Interrailing through Europe, road tripping the US and backpacking SE Asia.