Charities and volunteer projects
Reassured by the plethora of well-stocked shopping plazas, efficient services and apparent abundance in the rice fields, it is easy to forget that life is extremely hard for many people in Thailand. Countless charities work with Thailand’s many poor and disadvantaged communities: listed below are a few that would welcome help in some way from visitors. The website of the Bangkok Post also carries an extensive list of charitable foundations and projects in Thailand at wbangkokpost.com/outlookwecare. Longer-term placements, volunteer jobs on charitable wildlife projects and organized holidays that feature community-based programmes are also available (see Internet, National parks and A better kind of travel).
Baan Unrak, Home of Joy Sangkhlaburi wbaanunrak.org. Works with ethnic-minority refugee women and children from Burma. Visitors and volunteers welcome.
Foundation to Encourage the Potential of Disabled Persons Chiang Mai wassistdisabled.org. This foundation provides, among other things, free wheelchairs, home visits and residential care for disabled people. Volunteers, donations and sponsorships for wheelchairs and severely disabled children are sought.
Children’s World Academy Kapong, near Khao Lak t087 271 2552, wyaowawit.com. Set in quiet countryside on the Takua Pa–Phang Nga road, Yaowawit School was set up for tsunami orphans and socially disadvantaged children. It accepts donations, volunteer teachers and guests who wish to stay at its lodge, a hospitality training centre.
Hill Area and Community Development Foundation Chiang Rai wnaturalfocus-cbt.com. Aiming to help hill tribes in dealing with problems such as environmental management, HIV/AIDS, child and drug abuse, the foundation has set up a community-based tourism company, Natural Focus, to offer mountain-life tours, volunteer opportunities and study and work programmes.
Human Development Foundation 100/11 Kae Ha Klong Toey 4, Thanon Damrongratthaphipat, Klong Toey, Bangkok t02 671 5313, wmercycentre.org. Founded in 1973, Father Joe Maier’s organization provides education and support for Bangkok’s street kids and slum-dwellers, as well as for sea gypsies in the south. It now runs two dozen kindergartens in the slums, among many other projects. Contact the centre for information about donations, sponsoring and volunteering. The Slaughterhouse: Stories from Bangkok’s Klong Toey Slum gives an eye-opening insight into this often invisible side of Thai life.
Koh Yao Children’s Community Center Ko Yao Noi wkoyao-ccc.com. Aims to improve the English-language and lifelong learning skills of islanders on Ko Yao Noi. Visitors, volunteers and donations welcome.
Lifelong Learning Foundation (Thailand) t081 894 6936, wtrangsea.com & wlifelong-learning.org. Promoting nature conservation and the personal development of sea gypsies and other local people in Trang province, this nonprofit organization seeks donations, encourages partnerships with sympathetic overseas organizations, and especially welcomes the custom of tourists at its resorts at Ban Chao Mai and on Ko Mook and Ko Libong, and on its award-winning tours.
Mae Tao Clinic Mae Sot wmaetaoclinic.org. Award-winning health centre providing free care to Burmese refugees. Visitors, donations and volunteers welcome.
The Mirror Foundation 106 Moo 1, Ban Huay Khom, Tambon Mae Yao, Chiang Rai t053 737412, wthemirrorfoundation.org. NGO working with the hill tribes in Chiang Rai province to help combat such issues as drug abuse, erosion of culture and trafficking of women and children; it offers trekking and homestays, as well as a guesthouse in Chiang Rai. Volunteers, interns and donations sought.
The Students’ Education Trust (SET) wthaistudentcharity.org. High-school and further education in Thailand is a luxury that the poorest kids cannot afford so many are sent to live in temples instead. The SET helps such kids pursue their education and escape from the poverty trap. Some of their stories are told in Little Angels: The Real-Life Stories of Twelve Thai Novice Monks. SET welcomes donations.
Thai Child Development Foundation Pha To wthaichilddevelopment.org. This small Thai-Dutch-run village project in Chumphon province helps educate, feed and look after needy local children. The foundation welcomes donations of materials and money, takes on volunteers, and has an ecotourism arm (see Ko Samet).
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There are three main seasons in most of Thailand: rainy, caused by the southwest monsoon (the least predictable, but roughly May–Oct); cool (Nov–Feb; felt most distinctly in the far north, but hardly at all in the south); and hot (March–May). The Gulf coast’s climate is slightly different: it suffers less from the southwest monsoon, but is then hit by the northeast monsoon, making November its rainiest month.
Thailand can be a very cheap place to travel. At the bottom of the scale, you can manage on a budget of about B650 (£13/US$20) per day if you’re willing to opt for basic accommodation, eat, drink and travel as the locals do, and stay away from the more expensive resorts like Phuket, Ko Samui and Ko Phi Phi – and you’d have to work hard to stick to this daily allowance in Bangkok. On this budget, you’ll be spending around B200 for a dorm or shared room (more for a single room), around B200 on three meals (eating mainly at night markets and simple noodle shops, and eschewing beer), and the rest on travel (sticking to the cheaper buses and third-class trains where possible) and incidentals. With extras like air conditioning in rooms, taking the various forms of taxi rather than buses or shared songthaews for cross-town journeys, and a meal and beer in a more touristy restaurant, a day’s outlay would look more like B1000 (£20/US$30). Staying in well-equipped, mid-range hotels and eating in the more exclusive restaurants, you should be able to live very comfortably for around B2000 a day (£40/US$60).
Travellers soon get so used to the low cost of living in Thailand that they start bargaining at every available opportunity, much as Thai people do. Although it’s expected practice for a lot of commercial transactions, particularly at markets and when hiring tuk-tuks and unmetered taxis (though not in supermarkets or department stores), bargaining is a delicate art that requires humour, tact and patience. If your price is way out of line, the vendor’s vehement refusal should be enough to make you increase your offer: never forget that the few pennies or cents you’re making such a fuss over will go a lot further in a Thai person’s hands than in your own.
It’s rare that foreigners can bargain a price down as low as a Thai could, anyway, while two-tier pricing has been made official at government-run sights, as a kind of informal tourist tax: at national parks, for example, foreigners pay up to B400 entry while Thais generally pay just B20. A number of privately owned tourist attractions follow a similar two-tier system, posting an inflated price in English for foreigners and a lower price in Thai for locals.
Big-spending shoppers who are departing via Suvarnabhumi, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Krabi, Pattaya or Phuket airports can save some money by claiming a Value Added Tax refund (wrd.go.th/vrt), though it’s a bit of a palaver for seven percent (the current rate of VAT). The total amount of your purchases (gems are excluded) from participating shops needs to be at least B5000 per person, with a minimum of B2000 per shop per day. You’ll need to show your passport and fill in an application form (to which original tax invoices need to be attached) at the shop. At the relevant airport, you’ll need to show your form and purchases to customs officers before checking in, then make your claim from VAT refund officers – from which fees of at least B100 are deducted.
Crime and personal safety
As long as you keep your wits about you, you shouldn’t encounter much trouble in Thailand. Pickpocketing and bag-snatching are two of the main problems – not surprising considering that a huge percentage of the local population scrape by on under US$5 per day – but the most common cause for concern is the number of con-artists who dupe gullible tourists into parting with their cash. There are various Thai laws that tourists need to be aware of, particularly regarding passports, the age of consent and smoking in public.
To prevent theft, most travellers prefer to carry their valuables with them at all times, but it’s often possible to use a locker in a hotel or guesthouse – the safest are those that require your own padlock, as there are occasional reports of valuables being stolen by hotel staff. Padlock your luggage when leaving it in hotel or guesthouse rooms, as well as when consigning it to storage or taking it on public transport. Padlocks also come in handy as extra security on your room, particularly on the doors of beachfront bamboo huts.
Theft from some long-distance buses is also a problem, with the majority of reported incidents taking place on the temptingly cheap overnight buses run by private companies direct from Bangkok’s Thanon Khao San (as opposed to those that depart from the government bus stations) to destinations such as Chiang Mai and southern beach resorts. The best solution is to go direct from the bus stations (see Ordinary and second-class).
On any bus, private or government, and on any train journey, never keep anything of value in luggage that is stored out of your sight and be wary of accepting food and drink from fellow passengers as it may be drugged. This might sound paranoid, but there have been enough drug-muggings for TAT to publish a specific warning about the problem. Drinks can also be spiked in bars and clubs; at full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan this has led to sexual assaults against farang women, while prostitutes sometimes spike drinks so they can steal from their victim’s room.
Violent crime against tourists is not common, but it does occur, and there have been several serious attacks on women travellers in recent years. However, bearing in mind that fourteen million foreigners visit Thailand every year, the statistical likelihood of becoming a victim is extremely small. Obvious precautions for travellers of either sex include locking accessible windows and doors at night – preferably with your own padlock (doors in many of the simpler guesthouses and beach bungalows are designed for this) – and not travelling alone at night in a taxi or tuk-tuk. Nor should you risk jumping into an unlicensed taxi at the airport in Bangkok at any time of day: there have been some very violent robberies in these, so take the well-marked licensed, metered taxis instead.
Among hazards to watch out for in the natural world, riptides claim a number of tourist lives every year, particularly off Phuket, Ko Chang (Trat), Hua Hin, Cha-am, Rayong, Pattaya and the Ko Samui archipelago during stormy periods of the monsoon season, so always pay attention to warning signs and red flags, and always ask locally if unsure. Jellyfish can be a problem on any coast, especially just after a storm (see Other bites and stings).
Unfortunately, it is also necessary for female tourists to think twice about spending time alone with a monk, as not all men of the cloth uphold the Buddhist precepts and there have been rapes and murders committed by men wearing the saffron robes of the monkhood.
Though unpalatable and distressing, Thailand’s high-profile sex industry is relatively unthreatening for Western women, with its energy focused exclusively on farang men; it’s also quite easily avoided, being contained within certain pockets of the capital and a couple of beach resorts.
As for harassment from men, it’s hard to generalize, but most Western women find it less of a problem in Thailand than they do back home. Outside the main tourist spots, you’re more likely to be of interest as a foreigner rather than a woman and, if travelling alone, as an object of concern rather than of sexual aggression.
It’s advisable to travel with a guide if you’re going off the main roads in certain border areas or, at the very least, to take advice before setting off. As these regions are generally covered in dense unmapped jungle, you shouldn’t find yourself alone in the area anyway, but the main stretches to watch are the immediate vicinity of the Burmese border, where fighting on the other side of the border now and again spills over and where there are occasional clashes between Thai security forces and illegal traffickers; and the border between Cambodia and southern Isaan, which is littered with unexploded mines and which has seen recent clashes between the Thai and Cambodian armies over the disputed line of the border, especially at Khao Phra Viharn (Preah Vihear).
Because of the violence in the deep south, all Western governments are currently advising against travel to or through the border provinces of Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, unless essential (see Travel warning). For up-to-the-minute advice on current political trouble-spots, consult your government’s travel advisory.
Despite the best efforts of guidebook writers, TAT and the Thai tourist police, countless travellers to Thailand get scammed every year. Nearly all scams are easily avoided if you’re on your guard against anyone who makes an unnatural effort to befriend you. We have outlined the main scams in the relevant sections of this guide, but con-artists are nothing if not creative, so if in doubt walk away at the earliest opportunity. The worst areas for scammers are the busy tourist centres, including many parts of Bangkok and the main beach resorts.
Many tuk-tuk drivers earn most of their living through securing commissions from tourist-oriented shops; this is especially true in Bangkok, where they will do their damnedest to get you to go to a gem shop. The most common tactic is for drivers to pretend that the Grand Palace or other major sight you intended to visit is closed for the day (see City of angels), and to then offer to take you on a round-city tour instead, perhaps even for free. The tour will invariably include a visit to a gem shop. The easiest way to avoid all this is to take a metered taxi; if you’re fixed on taking a tuk-tuk, ignore any tuk-tuk that is parked up or loitering and be firm about where you want to go.
Self-styled tourist guides, touts and anyone else who might introduce themselves as students or business people and offer to take you somewhere of interest, or invite you to meet their family, are often the first piece of bait in a well-honed chain of con-artists. If you bite, chances are you’ll end up either at a gem shop or in a gambling den, or, at best, at a tour operator or hotel that you had not planned to patronize. This is not to say that you should never accept an invitation from a local person, but be extremely wary of doing so following a street encounter in Bangkok or the resorts. Tourist guides’ ID cards are easily faked.
For many of these characters, the goal is to get you inside a dodgy gem shop, nearly all of which are located in Bangkok, but the bottom line is that if you are not experienced at buying and trading in valuable gems you will definitely be ripped off, possibly even to the tune of several thousand dollars. Check the 2Bangkok website’s account of a typical gem scam (w2bangkok.com/2bangkok-scams-sapphire.html) before you shell out any cash at all.
A less common but potentially more frightening scam involves a similar cast of warm-up artists leading tourists into a gambling game. The scammers invite their victim home on an innocent-sounding pretext, get out a pack of cards, and then set about fleecing the incomer in any number of subtle ways. Often this can be especially scary as the venue is likely to be far from hotels or recognizable landmarks. You’re unlikely to get any sympathy from police, as gambling is illegal in Thailand.
An increasing number of travel agents in tourist centres all over the country are trying to pass themselves off as official government tourist information offices, displaying nothing but “TOURIST INFORMATION” on their shop signs or calling themselves names like “T&T” (note that the actual TAT, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, does not book hotels or sell any kind of travel ticket). Fakers like this are more likely to sell you tickets for services that turn out to be sub-standard or even not to exist. A word of warning also about jet skis: operators, who usually ask for a passport as guarantee, will often try to charge renters exorbitant amounts of money for any minor damage they claim to find on return.
Age restrictions and other laws
Thai law requires that tourists carry their original passports at all times, though sometimes it’s more practical to carry a photocopy and keep the original locked in a safety deposit. The age of consent is 15, but the law allows anyone under the age of 18, or their parents, to file charges in retrospect even if they consented to sex at the time. It is against the law to have sex with a prostitute who is under 18. It is illegal for under-18s to buy cigarettes or to drive and you must be 20 or over to buy alcohol or be allowed into a bar or club (ID checks are sometimes enforced in Bangkok). It is illegal for anyone to gamble in Thailand (though many do).
Smoking in public is widely prohibited. The ban covers all air-conditioned public buildings (including restaurants, bars and clubs) and air-conditioned trains, buses and planes and even extends to parks and the street; violators may be subject to a B2000 fine. Dropping cigarette butts, littering and spitting in public places can also earn you a B2000 fine. There are fines for overstaying your visa (see Border runs, extensions and re-entry permits), working without a permit, not wearing a motorcycle helmet and violating other traffic laws.
Drug-smuggling carries a maximum penalty in Thailand of death and dealing drugs will get you anything from four years to life in a Thai prison; penalties depend on the drug and the amount involved. Travellers caught with even the smallest amount of drugs at airports and international borders are prosecuted for trafficking, and no one charged with trafficking offences gets bail. Heroin, amphetamines, LSD and ecstasy are classed as Category 1 drugs and carry the most severe penalties: even possession of Category 1 drugs for personal use can result in a life sentence. Away from international borders, most foreigners arrested in possession of small amounts of cannabis are released on bail, then fined and deported, but the law is complex and prison sentences are possible.
Despite occasional royal pardons, don’t expect special treatment as a farang: you only need to read one of the first-hand accounts by foreign former prisoners (see Travelogues) or read the blogs at wthaiprisonlife.com to get the picture. The police actively look for tourists doing drugs, reportedly searching people regularly and randomly on Thanon Khao San, for example. They have the power to order a urine test if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion, and even a positive result for marijuana consumption could lead to a year’s imprisonment. Be wary also of being shopped by a farang or local dealer keen to earn a financial reward for a successful bust (there are setups at the Ko Pha Ngan full moon parties, for example), or having substances slipped into your luggage (simple enough to perpetrate unless all fastenings are secured with padlocks).
If you are arrested, ask for your embassy to be contacted immediately (see Gem scams), which is your right under Thai law, and embassy staff will talk you through procedures; the website of the British Embassy in Thailand also posts useful information, including a list of English-speaking lawyers, at wukinthailand.fco.gov.uk/en/help-for-british-nationals. The British charity Prisoners Abroad (wprisonersabroad.org.uk) carries a detailed survival guide on its website, which outlines what to expect if arrested in Thailand, from the point of apprehension through trial and conviction to life in a Thai jail; if contacted, the charity may also be able to offer direct support to a British citizen facing imprisonment in a Thai jail.
The duty-free allowance on entry to Thailand is 200 cigarettes (or 250g of tobacco) and a litre of spirits or wine.
To export antiques or newly cast Buddha images from Thailand, you need to have a licence granted by the Fine Arts Department (the export of antique Buddhas is forbidden). Licences can be obtained for example through the Office of Archeology and National Museums, 81/1 Thanon Si Ayutthaya (near the National Library), Bangkok (t02 628 5032), or through the national museums in Chiang Mai or Phuket. Applications take at least three working days in Bangkok, generally more in the provinces, and need to be accompanied by the object itself, some evidence of its rightful possession, two postcard-sized colour photos of it, taken face-on and against a white background, and photocopies of the applicant’s passport; furthermore, if the object is a Buddha image, the passport photocopies need to be certified by your embassy in Bangkok. Some antiques shops can organize all this for you.
International and domestic departure taxes are included in the price of all tickets.
Mains electricity is supplied at 220 volts AC and is available at all but the most remote villages and basic beach huts. Where electricity is supplied by generators and/or solar power, for example on the smaller, less populated islands, it is often rationed to evenings only. If you’re packing phone and camera chargers, a hair dryer, laptop or other appliance, you’ll need to take a set of travel-plug adapters with you as several plug types are commonly in use, most usually with two round pins, but also with two flat-blade pins, and sometimes with both options.
There are three main entry categories for visitors to Thailand; for all of them, under International Air Travel Association rules, your passport should be valid for at least six months. As visa requirements are subject to frequent change, you should always consult before departure a Thai embassy or consulate, a reliable travel agent, or the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at wmfa.go.th/web/2637.php. For further, unofficial but usually reliable, details on all visa matters, go to wthaivisa.com and especially their various moderated forums.
Most Western passport holders (that includes citizens of the UK, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) are allowed to enter the country for short stays without having to apply for a visa – officially termed the tourist visa exemption. You’ll be granted a thirty-day stay at an international airport but only fifteen days at an overland border; the period of stay will be stamped into your passport by immigration officials upon entry. You’re supposed to be able to somehow show proof of means of living while in the country (B10,000 per person, B20,000 per family), and in theory you may be put back on the next plane without it or sent back to get a sixty-day tourist visa from the nearest Thai embassy, but this is unheard of. You are also required to show proof of tickets to leave Thailand again within the allotted time. This is rarely checked by Thai immigration authorities, though there have been a few cases recently, mostly at the Cambodian border. However, if you have a one-way air ticket to Thailand and no evidence of onward travel arrangements, it’s best to buy a tourist visa in advance: some airlines will stop you boarding the plane without one, as they would be liable for flying you back to your point of origin if you did happen to be stopped.
If you’re fairly certain you may want to stay longer than fifteen/thirty days, then from the outset you should apply for a sixty-day tourist visa from a Thai embassy or consulate, accompanying your application – which generally takes several days to process – with your passport and one or two photos. The sixty-day visa currently costs, for example, £25 in the UK; multiple-entry versions are available, costing £25 per entry, which may be handy if you’re going to be leaving and re-entering Thailand. Ordinary tourist visas are valid for three months, ie you must enter Thailand within three months of the visa being issued by the Thai embassy or consulate, while multiple-entry versions are valid for six months. Visa application forms can be downloaded from, for example, the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
Thai embassies also consider applications for ninety-day non-immigrant visas (£50, in the UK for example, for single entry, £125 multiple-entry) as long as you can offer a reason for your visit, such as study, business or visiting family/friends (there are different categories of non-immigrant visa for which different levels of proof are needed). As it can be a hassle to organize a ninety-day visa, it’s generally easier to apply for a thirty-day extension to your sixty-day visa once inside Thai borders.
It’s not a good idea to overstay your visa limits. Once you’re at the airport or the border, you’ll have to pay a fine of B500 per day before you can leave Thailand. More importantly, however, if you’re in the country with an expired visa and you get involved with police or immigration officials for any reason, however trivial, they are obliged to take you to court, possibly imprison you, and deport you.
Border runs, extensions and re-entry permits
Setting aside the caveats about proof of funds and onward tickets (see Customs regulations), it’s generally easy to get a new fifteen-day tourist visa exemption by hopping across the border into a neighbouring country and back. Such tourist visa exemptions can be extended within Thailand for a further seven days, sixty-day tourist visas for a further thirty days, at the discretion of immigration officials; extensions cost B1900 and are issued over the counter at immigration offices (kaan khao muang; t1111 for 24hr information in English, wimmigration.go.th) in nearly every provincial capital – most offices ask for one or two photos as well, plus one or two photocopies of the main pages of your passport including your Thai departure card, arrival stamp and visa. Many Khao San tour agents offer to get your visa extension for you, but beware: some are reportedly faking the stamps, which could get you into serious trouble. Immigration offices also issue re-entry permits (B1000 single re-entry, B3800 multiple) if you want to leave the country and come back again while maintaining the validity of your existing visa.
Thai embassies and consulates abroad
For a full listing of Thai diplomatic missions abroad, consult the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website at wmfa.go.th/web/2712.php; their other site, wthaiembassy.org, has links to the websites of most of the offices below.
Australia 111 Empire Circuit, Yarralumla, Canberra ACT 2600 t02/6206 0100; plus consulate at 131 Macquarrie St, Sydney, NSW 2000 t02/9241 2542–3.
Burma 94 Pyay Rd, Dagon Township, Rangoon t01/226721.
Cambodia 196 Preah Norodom Blvd, Sangkat Tonle Bassac, Khan Chamcar Mon, Phnom Penh t023/726306–10.
Canada 180 Island Park Drive, Ottawa, ON, K1Y 0A2 t613/722-4444; plus consulate at 1040 Burrard St, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2R9 t604/687-1143.
Laos Vientiane: embassy at Avenue Kaysone Phomvihane, Saysettha District t021/214581–2, consular section at Unit 15 Bourichane Rd, Ban Phone Si Nuan, Muang Si Sattanak t021/453916; plus consulate at Khanthabouly District, Savannakhet Province, PO Box 513 t041/212373.
Malaysia 206 Jalan Ampang, 50450 Kuala Lumpur t03/2148 8222; plus consulates at 4426 Jalan Pengkalan Chepa, 15400 Kota Bharu t09/748 2545; and 1 Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman, 10350 Penang t04/226 9484.
New Zealand 110 Molesworth St, Thorndon, Wellington t04/476 8616.
Singapore 370 Orchard Rd, Singapore 238870 t6737 2158.
South Africa 428 Pretorius/Hill St, Arcadia, Pretoria 0083 t012/342 5470.
UK & Ireland 29–30 Queens Gate, London SW7 5JB t020/7589 2944. Visa applications by post are not accepted here, but can be sent to various honorary consulates, including those in Hull (w
thaiconsul-uk.com) and Dublin (wthaiconsulateireland.com).
US 1024 Wisconsin Ave NW, Suite 401, Washington, DC 20007 t202/944-3600; plus consulates at 700 North Rush St, Chicago, IL 60611 t312/664-3129; 611 North Larchmont Blvd, 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004 t323/962-9574; and 351 E 52nd St, New York, NY 10022 t212/754-1770.
Vietnam 63–65 Hoang Dieu St, Hanoi t04/3823-5092–4; plus consulate at 77 Tran Quoc Thao St, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City t08/3932-7637–8.
Gay and lesbian Thailand
Buddhist tolerance and a national abhorrence of confrontation and victimization combine to make Thai society relatively tolerant of homosexuality, if not exactly positive about same-sex relationships. Most Thais are extremely private and discreet about being gay, generally pursuing a “don’t ask, don’t tell” understanding with their family. The majority of people are horrified by the idea of gay-bashing and generally regard it as unthinkable to spurn a child or relative for being gay.
Hardly any Thai celebrities are out, yet the predilections of several respected social, political and entertainment figures are widely known and accepted. There is no mention of homosexuality at all in Thai law, which means that the age of consent for gay sex is fifteen, the same as for heterosexuals. However, this also means that gay rights are not protected under Thai law.
Although excessively physical displays of affection are frowned upon for both heterosexuals and homosexuals, Western gay couples should get no hassle about being seen together in public – it’s much more acceptable, and common, in fact, for friends of the same sex (gay or not) to walk hand-in-hand, than for heterosexual couples to do so.
Transvestites (known as katoey or “ladyboys”) and transsexuals are also a lot more visible in Thailand than in the West. You’ll find cross-dressers doing ordinary jobs, even in small upcountry towns, and there are a number of transvestites and transsexuals in the public eye too – including national volleyball stars and champion muay thai boxers. The government tourist office vigorously promotes the transvestite cabarets in Pattaya, Phuket and Bangkok, all of which are advertised as family entertainment. Katoey also regularly appear as characters in soap operas, TV comedies and films, where they are depicted as stereotyped but harmless figures of fun. Richard Totman’s The Third Sex offers an interesting insight into Thai katoey, their experiences in society and public attitudes towards them.
Thailand’s gay scene is mainly focused on mainstream venues like karaoke bars, restaurants, massage parlours, gyms, saunas and escort agencies. For the sake of discretion, gay venues are usually intermingled with straight ones. Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya have the biggest concentrations of farang-friendly gay bars and clubs, and Chiang Mai has an established bar scene. For a detailed guide to the gay and lesbian scene throughout the country, see the Utopia Guide to Thailand by John Goss, which can be ordered or downloaded as an e-book via wutopia-asia.com.
Thai lesbians generally eschew the word lesbian, which in Thailand is associated with male fantasies, instead referring to themselves as either tom (for tomboy) or dee (for lady). There are hardly any dedicated tom-dee venues in Thailand, but we’ve listed established ones where possible; unless otherwise specified, gay means male throughout this guide.
The farang-oriented gay sex industry is a tiny but highly visible part of Thailand’s gay scene. With its tawdry floor shows and host services, it bears a dispiriting resemblance to the straight sex trade, and is similarly most active in Bangkok, Pattaya, Patong (on Phuket) and Chiang Mai. Like their female counterparts in the heterosexual fleshpots, many of the boys working in the gay sex bars that dominate these districts are underage; note that anyone caught having sex with a prostitute below the age of 18 faces imprisonment. A significant number of gay prostitutes are gay by economic necessity rather than by inclination. As with the straight sex scene, we do not list commercial gay sex bars in the guide.
Information and contacts for gay travellers
Bangkok Lesbian wbangkoklesbian.com. Organized by foreign lesbians living in Thailand, Bangkok Lesbian hosts regular parties and posts general info and listings of the capital’s lesbian-friendly hangouts on its website.
Dreaded Ned’s wdreadedned.com. Guide to the scene in Thailand that’s most useful for its what’s-on listings.
Gay People in Thailand wthaivisa.com/forum/Gay-People-Thailand-f27.html. Popular forum for gay expats.
Utopia wutopia-asia.com and wutopia-asia.com/womthai.htm. Asia’s best gay and lesbian website lists clubs, events, accommodation, tour operators and organizations for gays and lesbians and has useful links to other sites in Asia and the rest of the world.
Although Thailand’s climate, wildlife and cuisine present Western travellers with fewer health worries than in many Asian destinations, it’s as well to know in advance what the risks might be, and what preventive or curative measures you should take.
For a start, there’s no need to bring huge supplies of non-prescription medicines with you, as Thai pharmacies (raan khai yaa; typically open daily 8.30am–8pm) are well stocked with local and international branded medicaments, and of course they are generally much less expensive than at home. Nearly all pharmacies are run by trained English-speaking pharmacists, who are usually the best people to talk to if your symptoms aren’t acute enough to warrant seeing a doctor. The British pharmacy chain, Boots, now has branches in many big cities (see wth.boots.com for locations). These are the best place to stock up on some Western products such as tampons (which Thai women do not use).
Hospital (rong phayabaan) cleanliness and efficiency vary, but generally hygiene and healthcare standards are good and the ratio of medical staff to patients is considerably higher than in most parts of the West. As with head pharmacists, doctors speak English. Several Bangkok hospitals are highly regarded (see Directory), and all provincial capitals have at least one hospital: if you need to get to one, ask at your accommodation for advice on, and possibly transport to, the nearest or most suitable. In the event of a major health crisis, get someone to contact your embassy (see Antiques) and insurance company – it may be best to get yourself transported to Bangkok or even home.
There have been outbreaks of Avian Influenza (bird flu) in domestic poultry and wild birds in Thailand (most recently in 2008) which have led to a small number of human fatalities, believed to have arisen through close contact with infected poultry. There has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission in Thailand, and the risk to humans is believed to be very low. However, as a precaution, you should avoid visiting live-animal markets and other places where you may come into close contact with birds, and ensure that poultry and egg dishes are thoroughly cooked.
There are no compulsory inoculation requirements for people travelling to Thailand from the West, but you should consult a doctor or other health professional, preferably at least four weeks in advance of your trip, for the latest information on recommended immunizations. In addition to making sure that your recommended immunizations for life in your home country are up to date, most doctors strongly advise vaccinations or boosters against tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis A and, in many cases, typhoid, and in some cases they might also recommend protecting yourself against Japanese encephalitis, rabies and hepatitis B. There is currently no vaccine against malaria. If you forget to have all your inoculations before leaving home, or don’t leave yourself sufficient time, you can get them in Bangkok at, for example, the Thai Red Cross Society’s Queen Saovabha Institute or Global Doctor.
Mosquitoes in Thailand spread not only malaria, but also diseases such as dengue fever and the very similar chikungunya fever, especially during the rainy season. The main message, therefore, is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. You should smother yourself and your clothes in mosquito repellent containing the chemical compound DEET, reapplying regularly (shops, guesthouses and department stores all over Thailand stock it, but if you want the highest-strength repellent, or convenient roll-ons or sprays, do your shopping before you leave home). DEET is strong stuff, and if you have sensitive skin, a natural alternative is citronella (available in the UK as Mosi-guard), made from a blend of eucalyptus oils; the Thai version is made with lemon grass.
At night you should sleep either under a mosquito net sprayed with DEET or in a bedroom with mosquito screens across the windows (or in an enclosed air-con room). Accommodation in tourist spots nearly always provides screens or a net (check both for holes), but if you’re planning to go way off the beaten track or want the security of having your own mosquito net just in case, wait until you get to Bangkok to buy one, where department stores sell them for much less than you’d pay in the West. Plug-in insecticide vaporizers, insect room sprays and mosquito coils – also widely available in Thailand – help keep the insects at bay; electronic “buzzers” are useless.
Thailand is malarial, with the disease being carried by mosquitoes that bite from dusk to dawn, but the risks involved vary across the country.
There is a significant risk of malaria, mainly in rural and forested areas, in a narrow strip along the borders with Cambodia (excluding Ko Chang), Laos and Burma (the highest-risk area, including the countryside around Mae Hong Son, but excluding, for example, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Kanchanaburi towns, and resorts and road and rail routes along the Gulf coast). Discuss with your travel health adviser which anti-malarial drugs are currently likely to be effective in these areas, as prophylaxis advice can change from year to year.
Elsewhere in Thailand the risk of malaria is considered to be so low that anti-malarial tablets are not advised.
The signs of malaria are often similar to flu, but are very variable. The incubation period for malignant malaria, which can be fatal, is usually 7–28 days, but it can take up to a year for symptoms of the benign form to occur. The most important symptom is a raised temperature of at least 38°C beginning a week or more after the first potential exposure to malaria: if you suspect anything, go to a hospital or clinic immediately.
Dengue fever, a debilitating and occasionally fatal viral disease that is particularly prevalent during and just after the rainy season, is on the increase throughout tropical Asia, and is endemic to many areas of Thailand, with over 115,000 reported cases in 2010. Unlike malaria, dengue fever is spread by mosquitoes that can bite during daylight hours, so you should also use mosquito repellent during the day. Symptoms include fever, headaches, fierce joint and muscle pain (“breakbone fever” is another name for dengue), and possibly a rash, and usually develop between five and eight days after being bitten.
There is no vaccine against dengue fever; the only treatment is lots of rest, liquids and paracetamol (or any other acetaminophen painkiller, not aspirin), though more serious cases may require hospitalization.
Rabies is widespread in Thailand, mainly carried by dogs (between four and seven percent of stray dogs in Bangkok are reported to be rabid), but also cats and monkeys. It is transmitted by bites, scratches or even occasionally licks. Dogs are everywhere in Thailand and even if kept as pets they’re often not very well cared for; hopefully their mangy appearance will discourage the urge to pat them, as you should steer well clear of them. Rabies is invariably fatal if the patient waits until symptoms begin, though modern vaccines and treatments are very effective and deaths are rare. The important thing is, if you are bitten, licked or scratched by an animal, to vigorously clean the wound with soap and disinfect it, preferably with something containing iodine, and to seek medical advice regarding treatment right away.
Other bites and stings
Thailand’s seas are home to a few dangerous creatures that you should look out for, notably jellyfish, which tend to be washed towards the beach by rough seas during the monsoon season but can appear at any time of year. All manner of stinging and non-stinging jellyfish can be found in Thailand – as a general rule, those with the longest tentacles tend to have the worst stings – but reports of serious incidents are rare; ask around at your resort or at a local dive shop to see if there have been any sightings of venomous varieties. You also need to be wary of venomous sea snakes, sea urchins and a couple of less conspicuous species – stingrays, which often lie buried in the sand, and stonefish, whose potentially lethal venomous spikes are easily stepped on because the fish look like stones and lie motionless on the sea bed.
If stung or bitten you should always seek medical advice as soon as possible, but there are a few ways of alleviating the pain or administering your own first-aid in the meantime. If you’re stung by a jellyfish, wash the affected area with salt water (not fresh water) and, if possible, with vinegar (failing that, ammonia, citrus fruit juice or even urine may do the trick), and try to remove the fragments of tentacles from the skin with a gloved hand, forceps, thick cloth or credit card. The best way to minimize the risk of stepping on the toxic spines of sea urchins, stingrays and stonefish is to wear thick-soled shoes, though these cannot provide total protection; sea urchin spikes should be removed after softening the skin with ointment, though some people recommend applying urine to help dissolve the spines; for stingray and stonefish stings, alleviate the pain by immersing the wound in hot water while awaiting help.
In the case of a venomous snake bite, don’t try sucking out the venom or applying a tourniquet: wrap up and immobilize the bitten limb and try to stay still and calm until medical help arrives; all provincial hospitals in Thailand carry supplies of antivenins.
Some of Thailand’s wilder, less developed beaches are plagued by sandflies, tiny, barely visible midges whose bites can trigger an allergic response, leaving big red weals and an unbearable itch, and possible infection if scratched too vigorously. Many islanders say that slathering yourself in (widely available) coconut oil is the best deterrent as sandflies apparently don’t like the smell. Applying locally made camphor-based yellow oil (see Coastal Chanthaburi) quells the itch, but you may need to resort to antihistamines for the inflammation. Leeches aren’t dangerous but can be a bother when walking in forested areas, especially during and just after the rainy season. The most effective way to get leeches off your skin is to burn them with a lighted cigarette, or douse them in salt; oily suntan lotion or insect repellent sometimes makes them lose their grip and fall off.
Worms and flukes
Worms can be picked up through the soles of your feet, so avoid going barefoot. They can also be ingested by eating undercooked meat, and liver flukes by eating raw or undercooked freshwater fish. Worms which cause schistosomiasis (bilharziasis) by attaching themselves to your bladder or intestines can be found in freshwater rivers and lakes. The risk of contracting this disease is low, but you should avoid swimming in the southern reaches of the Mekong River and in most freshwater lakes.
By far the most common travellers’ complaint in Thailand, digestive troubles are often caused by contaminated food and water, or sometimes just by an overdose of unfamiliar foodstuffs (see Food and drink and Desserts).
Stomach trouble usually manifests itself as simple diarrhoea, which should clear up without medical treatment within three to seven days and is best combated by drinking lots of fluids. If this doesn’t work, you’re in danger of getting dehydrated and should take some kind of rehydration solution, either a commercial sachet of ORS (oral rehydration solution), sold in all Thai pharmacies, or a do-it-yourself version, which can be made by adding a handful of sugar and a pinch of salt to every litre of boiled or bottled water (soft drinks are not a viable alternative). If you can eat, avoid fatty foods.
Anti-diarrhoeal agents such as Imodium are useful for blocking you up on long bus journeys, but only attack the symptoms and may prolong infections; an antibiotic such as ciprofloxacin, however, can often reduce a typical attack of traveller’s diarrhoea to one day. If the diarrhoea persists for a week or more, or if you have blood or mucus in your stools, or an accompanying fever, go to a doctor or hospital.
HIV and AIDS
HIV infection is widespread in Thailand, primarily because of the sex trade. Condoms (meechai) are sold in pharmacies, convenience stores, department stores, hairdressers and even street markets. Due to rigorous screening methods, Thailand’s medical blood supply is now considered safe from HIV/AIDS infection.
Canadian Society for International Health t613/241-5785, wcsih.org. Extensive list of travel health centres.
CDC t1-800/232 4636, wcdc.gov/travel. Official US government travel health site.
Hospital for Tropical Diseases Travel Clinic UK wthehtd.org.
International Society for Travel Medicine US t1-404/373-8282, wistm.org. Has a full list of travel health clinics.
MASTA (Medical Advisory Service for Travellers Abroad) UK wmasta.org.
NHS Travel Health Website UK wfitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk.
The Travel Doctor – TMVC t1300/658 844, wtmvc.com.au. Lists travel clinics in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Tropical Medical Bureau Ireland t1850/487 674, wtmb.ie.
Most visitors to Thailand will need to take out specialist travel insurance, though you should check exactly what’s covered. Insurers will generally not cover travel in Songkhla, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces in the deep south, as Western governments are currently advising against going to these areas unless it’s essential (see Travel warning). Policies generally also exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in Thailand this can mean such things as scuba diving, white-water rafting and trekking.
Internet access is very widespread and very cheap in Thailand. You’ll find traveller-oriented internet cafés in every touristed town and resort in the country – there are at least twenty in the Banglamphu district of Bangkok, for example. In untouristed neighbourhoods throughout the country you can always check your email at the ubiquitous online games centres, favourite after-school haunts that are easily spotted from the piles of schoolboy pumps outside the door. Competition keeps prices low: upcountry you could expect to pay as little as B20 per hour, while rates in tourist centres average B1 per minute.
Increasing numbers of budget guesthouses and cheap hotels, especially in Bangkok, offer wi-fi in all or parts of their establishment; all upmarket hotels have it, though rates are sometimes astronomical. Plenty of cafés, restaurants, bars and other locations across the country provide wi-fi, which is usually free to customers. For a list of hot spots nationwide, try wjiwire.com; for free locations, go to wstickmanweekly.com.
Guesthouses and cheap hotels all over the country run low-cost, same-day laundry services, though in luxury hotels, it’ll cost an arm and a leg. In some places you pay per item, in others you’re charged by the kilo (generally around B30–50 per kg); ironing is often included in the price.
Most major train stations have left luggage facilities, where bags can be stored for up to twenty days (around B30–80 per item per day); at bus stations you can usually persuade someone official to look after your stuff for a few hours. Many guesthouses and basic hotels also offer an inexpensive and reliable service, while upmarket hotels should be able to look after your luggage for free. There’s also left luggage at Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket international airports (B80–140 per day).
Living in Thailand
The most common source of employment in Thailand is teaching English, and Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the most fruitful places to look for jobs. You can search for openings at schools all over Thailand on wajarn.com, which also features extensive general advice on teaching and living in Thailand. Another useful resource is the excellent wthaivisa.com, whose scores of well-used forums focus on specific topics that range from employment in Thailand to legal issues and cultural and practical topics.
If you’re a qualified dive instructor, you might be able to get seasonal work at one of the major resorts – in Phuket, Khao Lak and Ao Nang and on Ko Chang, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, Ko Samui and Ko Tao, for example. Guesthouse noticeboards occasionally carry adverts for more unusual jobs, such as playing extras in Thai movies. A tourist visa does not entitle you to work in Thailand, so, legally, you’ll need to apply for a work permit.
Study, work and volunteer programmes
In addition to the programmes listed below, voluntary opportunities with smaller grassroots projects (see Travel essentials) and wildlife charity projects (see National parks) are available.
AFS Intercultural Programs Australia t02/9215 0077, Canada t1-800/361-7248, NZ t0800/600 300, South Africa t11/447 2673, US t1-800/AFS-INFO; wafs.org. Intercultural exchange organization with programmes in over fifty countries.
Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) US t1-207/553-4000, wciee.org. Leading NGO that organizes paid year-long placements as English teachers in schools in Thailand.
Phuket English teachers wphukethasbeengoodtous.org. Welcomes short- and longer-term volunteers to teach and assist on its Practical English Language programme at schools on Phuket. The aim of the foundation is to improve kids’ standards of English so that they can get the better-paid jobs in Phuket’s tourist industry.
Starfish Ventures wstarfishvolunteers.com. Paying volunteer and gap-year placements in Thailand in the areas of health, childcare, wildlife conservation, community development and teaching.
Volunteer Teaching in Thailand wvolunteerteacherthailand.org. Continuing the good work begun by the thousands of volunteers who came to Khao Lak to help rebuild lives and homes following the 2004 tsunami, this organization teaches English to Khao Lak kids and adults to enhance their future prospects in the local tourist industry. Teaching experience is appreciated but not essential.
Volunthai wvolunthai.com. Invites young volunteers to teach English in rural schools mostly in northeast Thailand. The minimal fees cover homestay accommodation.
Thai language classes The most popular places to study Thai are Chiang Mai and Bangkok, where there’s plenty of choice, including private and group lessons for both tourists and expats; note, however, that some schools’ main reason for existence is to provide educational visas for long-staying foreigners. The longest-running and best-regarded courses and private lessons are provided by AUA (American University Alumni; wauathailand.org), which has outlets in Bangkok, Pattaya, Rayong and Chiang Mai.
Overseas airmail usually takes around seven days from Bangkok, a little longer from the more isolated areas (it’s worth asking at the post office about their express EMS services, which can cut this down to three days and aren’t prohibitively expensive). Post offices in Thailand have recently been quite successfully privatized, and many now offer money-wiring facilities (in association with Western Union), parcel packing, long-distance bus tickets, amulets, whitening cream, you name it. They’re generally open Monday to Friday 8.30am to 4.30pm, Saturday 9am to noon; some close Monday to Friday noon to 1pm and may stay open until 6pm, and a few open 9am to noon on Sundays and public holidays. Almost all main post offices across the country operate a poste restante service and will hold letters for one to three months. Mail should be addressed: Name (family name underlined or capitalized), Poste Restante, GPO, Town or City, Thailand. It will be filed by surname, though it’s always wise to check under your first initial as well. The smaller post offices pay scant attention to who takes what, but in the busier GPOs you need to show your passport, pay B1 per letter or B2 per parcel received, and sign for them.
Post offices are the best places to buy stamps, though hotels and guesthouses often sell them too, usually charging an extra B1 per stamp. An airmail letter of under 10g costs B17 to send to Europe or Australia and B19 to North America; postcards and aerogrammes cost B15, regardless of where they’re going. The surface rate for parcels to the UK is B950 for the first kg, then B175 per kg; to the US B550 for the first kg, then B140 per kg; and to Australia B650 for the first kg, then B110 per kg; the package should reach its destination in three months. The airmail rate for parcels to the UK is B900 for the first kg, then B380 per kg; to the US B950 for the first kg, then B500 per kg; and to Australia B750 for the first kg, then B350 per kg; the package should reach its destination in one or two weeks.
For most major destinations, the maps in this book should be all you need, though you may want to supplement them with larger-scale maps of Bangkok and the whole country. Bangkok bookshops are the best source of these; where appropriate, detailed local maps and their stockists are recommended throughout the Guide. If you want to buy a map before you get there, Rough Guides’ 1:1,200,000 map of Thailand is a good option – and, since it’s printed on special rip-proof paper, it won’t tear. Reasonable alternatives include the 1:1,500,000 maps produced by Nelles and Bartholomew.
For drivers, the best atlas is Thailand Deluxe Atlas published by thinknet (wthinknet.co.th): at a scale of 1:550,000, it’s bilingual and fairly regularly updated, but costs B550. It’s available at most bookshops in Thailand where English-language material is sold. They also have a newer Thailand Handy Atlas at 1:1,000,000 for B270, and their mapping is available online at wmapguidethailand.com.
Trekking maps are hard to come by, except in the most popular national parks where you can usually pick up a free handout showing the main trails.
Money and banks
Thailand’s unit of currency is the baht (abbreviated to “B”), divided into 100 satang – which are rarely seen these days. Coins come in B1 (silver), B2 (golden), B5 (silver) and B10 (mostly golden, encircled by a silver ring) denominations, notes in B20, B50, B100, B500 and B1000 denominations, inscribed with Western as well as Thai numerals, and generally increasing in size according to value.
At the time of writing, exchange rates were around B30 to US$1, B45 to €1 and B50 to £1. A good site for current exchange rates is wxe.com. Note that Thailand has no black market in foreign currency.
Banking hours are Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 3.30 or 4.30pm, but exchange kiosks in the main tourist centres are always open till at least 5pm, sometimes 10pm, and upmarket hotels change money (at poor rates) 24 hours a day. The Suvarnabhumi Airport exchange counters also operate 24 hours, while exchange kiosks at overseas airports with flights to Thailand usually keep Thai currency.
Sterling and US dollar travellers’ cheques are accepted by banks and exchange booths in every sizeable Thai town, and most places also deal in a variety of other currencies; everyone offers better rates for cheques than for straight cash. Generally, a total of B33 in commission and duty is charged per cheque – though kiosks and hotels in isolated places may charge extra – so you’ll save money if you deal in larger cheque denominations. Note that Scottish and Northern Irish sterling notes may not be accepted in some places.
American Express, Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards are accepted at top hotels as well as in some posh restaurants, department stores, tourist shops and travel agents, but surcharging of up to seven percent is rife, and theft and forgery are major industries – try not to let the card out of your sight, always demand any carbon copies, and never leave cards in baggage storage. With a debit or credit card and personal identification number (PIN), you can also withdraw cash from hundreds of 24-hour ATMs around the country. Almost every town now has at least one bank with an ATM that accepts overseas cards (all the banks marked on our maps throughout the Guide have ATMs), and there are a growing number of stand-alone ATMs in supermarkets. However, Thai banks now make a charge of B150 per ATM withdrawal (on top of whatever your bank at home will be charging you); to get around this, go into a bank with your card and passport instead and ask for a cash advance, or check out waeon.co.th, the website of a Japanese bank that operates in Thailand, for locations of their ATMs – they don’t charge for ATM withdrawals from foreign bank accounts, though there have been reports of people not receiving cash from Aeon ATMs but having their accounts debited.
Opening hours and public holidays
Most shops open long hours, usually Monday to Saturday from about 8am to 8pm, while department stores operate daily from around 10am to 9pm. Private office hours are generally Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm and Saturday 8am to noon, though in tourist areas these hours are longer, with weekends worked like any other day. Government offices work Monday to Friday 8.30am to noon and 1 to 4.30pm, and national museums tend to stick to these hours too, but some close on Mondays and Tuesdays rather than at weekends. Temples generally open their gates every day from dawn to dusk.
Many tourists only register national holidays because trains and buses suddenly get extraordinarily crowded: although government offices shut on these days, most shops and tourist-oriented businesses carry on regardless, and TAT branches continue to dispense information. (Bank holidays vary slightly from the government office holidays given below: banks close on May 1 and July 1, but not for the Royal Ploughing Ceremony nor for Khao Pansa.) Some national holidays are celebrated with theatrical festivals. The only time an inconvenient number of shops, restaurants and hotels do close is during Chinese New Year, which, though not marked as an official national holiday, brings many businesses to a standstill for several days in late January or February. You’ll notice it particularly in the south, where most service industries are Chinese-managed.
Thais use both the Western Gregorian calendar and a Buddhist calendar – the Buddha is said to have died (or entered Nirvana) in the year 543 BC, so Thai dates start from that point: thus 2013 AD becomes 2556 BE (Buddhist Era).
Jan 1 Western New Year’s Day
Feb (day of full moon) Makha Puja. Commemorates the Buddha preaching to a spontaneously assembled crowd of 1250.
April 6 Chakri Day. The founding of the Chakri dynasty.
April (usually 13–15) Songkhran. Thai New Year.
May 5 Coronation Day
May (early in the month) Royal Ploughing Ceremony. Marks the start of the rice-planting season.
May (day of full moon) Visakha Puja. The holiest of all Buddhist holidays, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha.
July (day of full moon) Asanha Puja. The anniversary of the Buddha’s first sermon.
July (day after Asanha Puja) Khao Pansa. The start of the annual three-month Buddhist rains retreat, when new monks are ordained.
Aug 12 Queen’s birthday and Mothers’ Day
Oct 23 Chulalongkorn Day. The anniversary of Rama V’s death.
Dec 5 King’s birthday and Fathers’ Day. Also now celebrated as National Day (instead of Constitution Day).
Dec 10 Constitution Day
Dec 31 Western New Year’s Eve
Most foreign mobile-phone networks have links with Thai networks but you might want to check on roaming rates, which are often exorbitant, before you leave home. To get round this, most travellers purchase a Thai pre-paid SIM card – 1-2-Call (wais.co.th) is the biggest network with the best coverage – for their mobile phone (moe thoe). Available for as little as B50 (sometimes free at airports, for example with True Move) and refillable at 7-Elevens around the country, they offer very cheap calls, both domestically and internationally (especially if you use low-cost international prefixes such as 1-2-Call’s “005” or “009”). They also offer very cheap texting and are free of charge for all incoming calls; mobile internet and wi-fi packages are also generally available.
Even cheaper international calls – less than B1/minute to most countries – can be made with a Zay Hi phonecard (wzayhi.com), available in B300 and B500 denominations from post offices and branches of Family Mart. The cheapest option, of course, is to find a guesthouse or café with free wi-fi and Skype from your own device; Skype is also available on the computers in most internet cafés.
When dialling any number in Thailand, you must now always preface it with what used to be the area code, even when dialling from the same area. Where we’ve given several line numbers – eg t02 431 1802–9 – you can substitute the last digit, 2, with any digit between 3 and 9. For directory enquiries within Thailand, call t1133.
All mobile-phone numbers in Thailand have recently been changed from nine to ten digits, by adding the number “8” after the initial zero (you may still come across cards and brochures giving the old nine-digit number). Note also, however, that Thais tend to change mobile-phone providers – and therefore numbers – comparatively frequently, in search of a better deal.
One final local idiosyncrasy: Thai phone books list people by their first name, not their family name.
Most towns and all resorts have at least one camera shop where you will be able to get your digital pictures downloaded on to a CD for B100–150; the shops all have card readers. In tourist centres many internet cafés also offer CD-burning services, though if you want to email your pictures bringing your own cable will make life easier.
Thailand is in the same time zone year-round, with no daylight savings period. It’s five hours ahead of South Africa, seven hours ahead of GMT, twelve hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, three hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time and five hours behind New Zealand Standard Time.
It is usual to tip hotel bellboys and porters B20–40, and to round up taxi fares to the nearest B10. Most guides, drivers, masseurs, waiters and maids also depend on tips, and although some upmarket hotels and restaurants will add an automatic ten percent service charge to your bill, this is not always shared out.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand, or TAT (wtourismthailand.org), maintains offices in several cities abroad and has dozens of branches within Thailand (all open daily 8.30am–4.30pm, though a few close noon–1pm) plus counters at Suvarnabhumi International Airport. Regional offices should have up-to-date information on local festival dates and perhaps transport schedules, but none of them offers accommodation booking, and service can be variable. You can contact the TAT tourist assistance phoneline from anywhere in the country for free on t1672 (daily 8am–8pm). In Bangkok, the Bangkok Tourism Division is a better source of information on the capital (see Banglamphu). In some smaller towns that don’t qualify for a local TAT office, the information gap is filled by a municipal tourist assistance office, though at some of these you may find it hard to locate a fluent English-speaker.
TAT offices abroad
Australia & New Zealand Suite 2002, Level 20, 56 Pitt St, Sydney, NSW 2000 t02/9247 7549, wthailand.net.au.
South Africa Contact the UK office.
UK & Ireland 1st Floor, 17–19 Cockspur St, London SW1Y 5BL t020/7925 2511, e[email protected]
US & Canada 61 Broadway, Suite 2810, New York, NY 10006 t212/432-0433, e[email protected]; 611 North Larchmont Blvd, 1st Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004 t323/461-9814, e[email protected]
Travellers with disabilities
Thailand makes few provisions for its disabled citizens and this obviously affects travellers with disabilities, but taxis, comfortable hotels and personal tour guides are all more affordable than in the West and most travellers with disabilities find Thais only too happy to offer assistance where they can. Hiring a local tour guide to accompany you on a day’s sightseeing is particularly recommended: government tour guides can be arranged through any TAT office.
Most wheelchair-users end up driving on the roads because it’s too hard to negotiate the uneven pavements, which are high to allow for flooding and invariably lack dropped kerbs. Crossing the road can be a trial, particularly in Bangkok and other big cities, where it’s usually a question of climbing steps up to a bridge rather than taking a ramped underpass. Few buses and trains have ramps but in Bangkok some Skytrain stations and all subway stations have lifts.
Several tour companies in Thailand specialize in organizing trips featuring adapted facilities, accessible transport and escorts. The Bangkok-based Help and Care Travel Company (t081 375 0792, wwheelchairtours.com) designs accessible holidays in Thailand for slow walkers and wheelchair-users, as well as offering airport transfers and personal assistants. In Chiang Mai, Thai Focus (wthaifocus.com) is used to designing trips for disabled travellers and can provide wheelchair rental. Mermaid’s Dive Centre in Pattaya (t038 232219, wlearn-in-asia.com/handicapped_diving.htm) runs International Association of Handicapped Divers programmes for disabled divers and instructors (see Jomtien Beach and Buddha Hill).
Culture in Thailand
Tourist literature has marketed Thailand as the “Land of Smiles” so successfully that a lot of farangs arrive in the country expecting to be forgiven any outrageous behaviour. This is just not the case: there are some things so universally sacred in Thailand that even a hint of disrespect will cause deep offence.
It is both socially unacceptable and a criminal offence to make critical or defamatory remarks about the royal family. Thailand’s monarchy might be a constitutional one, but almost every household displays a picture of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit in a prominent position, and respectful crowds mass whenever either of them makes a public appearance. The second of their four children, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, is the heir to the throne; his younger sister, Princess Royal Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, is often on TV and in the English-language newspapers as she is involved in many charitable projects. When addressing or speaking about royalty, Thais use a special language full of deference, called rajasap (literally “royal language”).
Thailand’s lese-majesty laws are among the most strictly applied in the world, increasingly invoked as the Thai establishment becomes ever more uneasy over the erosion of traditional monarchist sentiments and the rise of critical voices, particularly on the internet (though these are generally quickly censored). Accusations of lese-majesty can be levelled by and against anyone, Thai national or farang, and must be investigated by the police. As a few high-profile cases involving foreigners have demonstrated, they can be raised for seemingly minor infractions, such as defacing a poster or being less than respectful in a work of fiction. Transgressions are met with jail sentences of up to 15 years.
Aside from keeping any anti-monarchy sentiments to yourself, you should be prepared to stand when the king’s anthem is played at the beginning of every cinema programme, and to stop in your tracks if the town you’re in plays the national anthem over its public address system – many small towns do this twice a day at 8am and again at 6pm, as do some train stations and airports. A less obvious point: as the king’s head features on all Thai currency, you should never step on a coin or banknote, which is tantamount to kicking the king in the face.
Almost equally insensitive would be to disregard certain religious precepts. Buddhism plays a fundamental role in Thai culture, and Buddhist monuments should be treated with respect – which basically means wearing long trousers or knee-length skirts, covering your arms and removing your shoes whenever you visit one.
All Buddha images are sacred, however small, tacky or ruined, and should never be used as a backdrop for a portrait photo, clambered over, placed in a position of inferiority or treated in any manner that could be construed as disrespectful. In an attempt to prevent foreigners from committing any kind of transgression the government requires a special licence for all Buddha statues exported from the country (see Customs regulations).
Monks come only just beneath the monarchy in the social hierarchy, and they too are addressed and discussed in a special language. If there’s a monk around, he’ll always get a seat on the bus, usually right at the back. Theoretically, monks are forbidden to have any close contact with women, which means, as a female, you mustn’t sit or stand next to a monk, or even brush against his robes; if it’s essential to pass him something, put the object down so that he can then pick it up – never hand it over directly. Nuns, however, get treated like ordinary women.
The Western liberalism embraced by the Thai sex industry is very unrepresentative of the majority Thai attitude to the body. Clothing – or the lack of it – is what bothers Thais most about tourist behaviour. You need to dress modestly when entering temples (see City of angels), but the same also applies to other important buildings and all public places. Stuffy and sweaty as it sounds, you should keep short shorts and vests for the real tourist resorts, and be especially diligent about covering up and, for women, wearing bras in rural areas. Baring your flesh on beaches is very much a Western practice: when Thais go swimming they often do so fully clothed, and they find topless and nude bathing offensive.
According to ancient Hindu belief, the head is the most sacred part of the body and the feet are the most unclean. This belief, imported into Thailand, means that it’s very rude to touch another person’s head or to point your feet either at a human being or at a sacred image – when sitting on a temple floor, for example, you should tuck your legs beneath you rather than stretch them out towards the Buddha. These hierarchies also forbid people from wearing shoes (which are even more unclean than feet) inside temples and most private homes, and – by extension – Thais take offence when they see someone sitting on the “head”, or prow, of a boat. Putting your feet up on a table, a chair or a pillow is also considered very uncouth, and Thais will always take their shoes off if they need to stand on a train or bus seat to get to the luggage rack, for example. On a more practical note, the left hand is used for washing after going to the toilet (see Vegetarians and vegans), so Thais never use it to put food in their mouth, pass things or shake hands – as a farang though, you’ll be assumed to have different customs, so left-handers shouldn’t worry unduly.
Thais rarely shake hands, instead using the wai to greet and say goodbye and to acknowledge respect, gratitude or apology. A prayer-like gesture made with raised hands, the wai changes according to the relative status of the two people involved: Thais can instantaneously assess which wai to use, but as a farang your safest bet is to raise your hands close to your chest, bow your head and place your fingertips just below your nose. If someone makes a wai at you, you should generally wai back, but it’s safer not to initiate.
Public displays of physical affection in Thailand are more common between friends of the same sex than between lovers, whether hetero- or homosexual. Holding hands and hugging is as common among male friends as with females, so if you’re caressed by a Thai acquaintance of the same sex, don’t assume you’re being propositioned.
Finally, there are three specifically Thai concepts you’re bound to come across, which may help you comprehend a sometimes laissez-faire attitude to delayed buses and other inconveniences. The first, jai yen, translates literally as “cool heart” and is something everyone tries to maintain: most Thais hate raised voices, visible irritation and confrontations of any kind, so losing one’s cool can have a much more inflammatory effect than in more combative cultures. Related to this is the oft-quoted response to a difficulty, mai pen rai – “never mind”, “no problem” or “it can’t be helped” – the verbal equivalent of an open-handed shoulder shrug, which has its basis in the Buddhist notion of karma (see The spread of Buddhism). And then there’s sanuk, the wide-reaching philosophy of “fun”, which, crass as it sounds, Thais do their best to inject into any situation, even work. Hence the crowds of inebriated Thais who congregate at waterfalls and other beauty spots on public holidays (travelling solo is definitely not sanuk), the reluctance to do almost anything without high-volume musical accompaniment, and the national waterfight which takes place during Songkhran every April on streets right across Thailand.
Although all Thais have a first name and a family name, everyone is addressed by their first name – even when meeting strangers – prefixed by the title “Khun” (Mr/Ms); no one is ever addressed as Khun Surname, and even the phone book lists people by their given name. In Thailand you will often be addressed in an anglicized version of this convention, as “Mr Paul” or “Miss Lucy” for example. Bear in mind, though, that when a man is introduced to you as Khun Pirom, his wife will definitely not be Khun Pirom as well (that would be like calling them, for instance, “Mr and Mrs Paul”). Among friends and relatives, Phii (“older brother/sister”) is often used instead of Khun when addressing older familiars (though as a tourist you’re on surer ground with Khun), and Nong (“younger brother/sister”) is used for younger ones.
Many Thai first names come from ancient Sanskrit and have an auspicious meaning; for example, Boon means good deeds, Porn means blessings, Siri means glory and Thawee means to increase. However, Thais of all ages are commonly known by the nickname given them soon after birth rather than by their official first name. This tradition arises out of a deep-rooted superstition that once a child has been officially named the spirits will begin to take an unhealthy interest in them, so a nickname is used instead to confuse the spirits. Common nicknames – which often bear no resemblance to the adult’s personality or physique – include Yai (Big), Oun (Fat) and Muu (Pig); Lek or Noi (Little), Nok (Bird), Noo (Mouse) and Kung (Shrimp); and English nicknames like Apple, Joy or even Pepsi.
Family names were only introduced in 1913 (by Rama Vl, who invented many of the aristocracy’s surnames himself), and are used only in very formal situations, always in conjunction with the first name. It’s quite usual for good friends never to know each other’s surname. Ethnic Thais generally have short surnames like Somboon or Srisai, while the long, convoluted family names – such as Sonthanasumpun – usually indicate Chinese origin, not because they are phonetically Chinese but because many Chinese immigrants have chosen to adopt new Thai surnames and Thai law states that every newly created surname must be unique. Thus anyone who wants to change their surname must submit a shortlist of five unique Thai names – each to a maximum length of ten Thai characters – to be checked against a database of existing names. As more and more names are taken, Chinese family names get increasingly unwieldy, and more easily distinguishable from the pithy old Thai names.
The media in Thailand
To keep you abreast of world affairs, there are several English-language newspapers in Thailand, though relatively mild forms of censorship (and self-censorship) affect all newspapers and the predominantly state-controlled media.
Newspapers and magazines
Of the hundreds of Thai-language newspapers and magazines published every week, the sensationalist daily tabloid Thai Rath attracts the widest readership, with circulation of around a million, while the moderately progressive Matichon is the leading quality daily, with an estimated circulation of 600,000.
Alongside these, two daily English-language papers – the Bangkok Post (wbangkokpost.com) and the Nation (wnationmultimedia.com) – are capable of adopting a fairly critical attitude to political goings-on and cover major domestic and international stories as well as tourist-related issues. The Nation, however, has recently adopted a split personality (and a more overt anti-red shirt stance) and now covers mostly business news. The Post’s Spectrum supplement, which comes inside the Sunday edition, carries investigative journalism. Both the Post and Nation are sold at most newsstands in the capital as well as in major provincial towns and tourist resorts; the more isolated places receive their few copies one day late. Details of local English-language publications are given in the relevant Guide accounts.
You can also pick up foreign magazines such as Newsweek and Time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the major resorts. English-language bookshops such as Bookazine and some expensive hotels carry air-freighted, or sometimes locally printed and stapled, copies of foreign national newspapers for at least B50 a copy; the latter are also sold in tourist-oriented minimarkets in the big resorts.
There are six government-controlled, terrestrial TV channels in Thailand: channels 3, 5 (owned and operated by the army), 7 and 9 transmit a blend of news, documentaries, soaps, sports, talk and quiz shows, while the more serious-minded PBS (formerly Thaksin Shinawatra’s ITV) and NBT are public-service channels, owned and operated by the government’s public relations department. Cable networks – available in many mid-range and most upmarket hotel rooms – carry channels from all around the world, including CNN from the US, BBC World from the UK and sometimes ABC from Australia, as well as English-language movie channels, MTV and various sports and documentary channels. Both the Bangkok Post and the Nation print the daily TV and cable schedule.
Thailand boasts over five hundred radio stations, mostly music-oriented, ranging from Virgin Radio’s Eazy (105.5 FM), which serves up Western pop, through luk thung on 95FM, to Fat Radio, which plays Thai indie sounds (104.5 FM). Chulalongkorn University Radio (101.5 FM) plays classical music from 9.30pm to midnight every night. Net 107 on 107 FM is one of several stations that include English-language news bulletins.
With a shortwave radio – or by going online – you can pick up the BBC World Service (wbbc.co.uk/worldservice), Radio Australia (wradioaustralia.net.au), Voice of America (wvoanews.com), Radio Canada (wrcinet.ca) and other international stations right across Thailand. Times and wavelengths change regularly, so get hold of a recent schedule just before you travel or consult the websites for frequency and programme guides.
Travelling with children in Thailand
Despite the relative lack of child-centred attractions in Thailand, there’s plenty to appeal to families, both on the beach and inland, and Thais are famously welcoming to young visitors.
Of all the beach resorts in the country, two of the most family friendly are the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Lanta. Both have plenty of on-the-beach accommodation for mid- and upper-range budgets, and lots of easy-going open-air shorefront restaurants so that adults can eat in relative peace while kids play within view. Both islands also offer many day-tripping activities, from elephant riding to snorkelling. Phuket is another family favourite, though shorefront accommodation here is at a premium; there are also scores of less mainstream alternatives. In many beach resorts older kids will be able to go kayaking or learn rock climbing, and many dive centres will teach the PADI children’s scuba courses on request: the Bubblemaker programme is open to 8- and 9-year-olds and the Discover Scuba Diving day is designed for anyone 10 and over.
Inland, the many national parks and their waterfalls and caves are good for days out, and there are lots of opportunities to go rafting and elephant riding. Kanchanaburi is a rewarding centre for all these, with the added plus that many of the town’s guesthouses are set round decent-sized lawns. Chiang Mai is another great hub for all the above and also offers boat trips, an attractive, modern zoo and aquarium, the chance to watch umbrella-makers and other craftspeople at work, and, in the Mae Sa valley, many family-oriented attractions, such as the botanical gardens and butterfly farms. Bangkok has several child-friendly theme parks and activity centres (see Bangkok for kids).
Should you be in Thailand in January, your kids will be able to join in the free entertainments and activities staged all over the country on National Children’s Day (Wan Dek), which is held on the second Saturday of January. They also get free entry to zoos that day, and free rides on public buses.
Hotels and transport
Many of the expensive hotels listed in this guide allow one or two under-12s to share their parents’ room for free, as long as no extra bedding is required. It’s often possible to cram two adults and two children into the double rooms in budget and mid-range hotels (as opposed to guesthouses), as beds in these places are usually big enough for two. An increasing number of guesthouses now offer three-person rooms, and may even provide special family accommodation. Decent cots are available free in the bigger hotels, and in some smaller ones (though cots in these places can be a bit grotty), and top and mid-range rooms often come with a small fridge. Many hotels can also provide a babysitting service.
Few museums or transport companies offer student reductions, but in some cases children get discounts. One of the more bizarre provisos is the State Railway’s regulation that a child aged 3 to 12 qualifies for half-fare only if under 150cm tall; some stations have a measuring scale painted onto the ticket-hall wall. Most domestic airlines charge ten percent of the full fare for under-2s, and fifty percent for under-12s.
Although most Thai babies don’t wear them, disposable nappies (diapers) are sold at convenience stores, pharmacies and supermarkets in big resorts and sizeable towns; for stays on lonely islands, consider bringing some washable ones as back-up. A changing mat is another necessity as there are few public toilets in Thailand, let alone ones with baby facilities (though posh hotels are always a useful option). International brands of powdered milk are available throughout the country, and brand-name baby food is sold in big towns and resorts, though some parents find restaurant-cooked rice and bananas go down just as well. Thai women do not breastfeed in public.
For touring, child-carrier backpacks are ideal. Opinions are divided on whether or not it’s worth bringing a buggy or three-wheeled stroller. Where they exist, Thailand’s pavements are bumpy at best, and there’s an almost total absence of ramps; sand is especially difficult for buggies, though less so for three-wheelers. Buggies and strollers do, however, come in handy for feeding and even bedding small children, as highchairs and cots are only provided in more upmarket restaurants and hotels. You can buy buggies fairly cheaply in most towns, but if you bring your own and then wish you hadn’t, most hotels and guesthouses will keep it for you until you leave. Bring an appropriately sized mosquito net if necessary or buy one locally in any department store; a mini sun tent for the beach is also useful. Taxis and car-rental companies almost never provide baby car seats, and even if you bring your own you’ll often find there are no seatbelts to strap them in with. Most department stores have dedicated kids’ sections selling everything from bottles to dummies. There are even several Mothercare outlets in Bangkok.
Even more than their parents, children need protecting from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. Consider packing a jar of a favourite spread so that you can always rely on toast if all else fails to please. As with adults, you should be careful about unwashed fruit and salads and about dishes that have been left uncovered for a long time. As diarrhoea could be dangerous for a child, rehydration solutions (see Worms and flukes) are vital if your child goes down with it. Other significant hazards include thundering traffic; huge waves, strong currents and jellyfish; and the sun – not least because many beaches offer only limited shade, if at all. Sunhats, sunblock and waterproof suntan lotions are essential, and can be bought in the major resorts. You should also make sure, if possible, that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies; keep children away from animals, especially dogs and monkeys, and ask your medical advisor about rabies jabs.
Information and advice
Nancy Chandler’s Family Travel wnancychandler.net/travelwkids.asp. Plenty of unusual ideas on Thai-style entertainment for kids, plus tips, links and Thailand-themed kids’ books.
Thailand 4 Kids wthailand4kids.com. Lots of advice on the practicalities of family holidays in Thailand.