Whenever traveling to a foreign country it’s a good idea to read up on the culture, to see how it differs from your own in order to not offend the locals. Just about every guidebook for Thailand will inform travelers that you shouldn’t point your feet at a Buddha statue, but you should stand up when you hear the national anthem. You get the idea.
There are many other DOs and DON’Ts that the guidebooks may not cover, but which could save you from embarrassment, from wasting time and money, from losing your sanity, from bodily harm, or just from looking like a dumbass. This is no exhaustive list. It’s just a few bits of advice I wanted to pass along…
DON’T Pet the Tigers
Tigers are carnivores, and one of the few carnivores out there large enough to prey on humans. If you can get close enough to pet a tiger without getting hurt – something is wrong. There are a number of tiger-themed attractions located throughout Thailand that make money by getting tourists to pose for photos with these ferocious felines. No doubt you’ve seen at least one of your Facebook friends post a photo such as this. I’m guilty of this too, as you can see by this picture of my visit to the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi from 2009. So yes, I’m a hypocrite, but an honest one.
These places all claim to be helping out these giant cats – breeding and whatnot – but the fact is none of the tigers raised in captivity can ever be introduced to their natural environment. The real way to protect the future of the species is to take measures to stop poaching of tigers and their prey in the few national park areas where they still live in the wild. Efforts to this effect have been successful, with it recently being reported that Thailand’s wild tiger population is increasing for the first time.
The other knock on tiger attractions is the widespread claim that the tigers are drugged to make them sedate enough for tourists to play with them. I’ve seen no proof for or against this, but even if the big cats are drugged up and well-fed, they still manage to take the occasional bite out of an unsuspecting tourist. In the past few years, there have been incidents of tigers attacking tourists each in Pattaya, Phuket, and Chiang Mai. Sure, it’s rare, but is it really worth taking the risk just for the sake of a cliche travel photo?
DON’T Feed the Monkeys
The first few items on this list all deal with local wildlife, and – unlike tigers – monkeys are not in danger of becoming extinct anytime soon. Monkeys are tricky little bastards, and they have absolutely no trouble finding their own food. Despite their cute looks, monkeys can also be quite vicious and sport some serious fangs. I know because I got bit in the ass by one.
Many years ago I was visiting Lopburi to check out the Khmer style temple ruins. If you’ve ever been there, then you know that the place is absolutely infested with monkeys. Part of the problem is that everyone feeds them. This just encourages the monkeys to approach humans. In my case, I had no food, but nevertheless had 3 or 4 of the critters climb on me. I freaked out – as any normal person would – and with arms a’flailing to shake them off, one got a mouthful of my right cheek before scampering off.
I went to the hospital and got a shot of something…it was probably antibiotics, but I really should have been given the course of rabies vaccination. If it happened again I would insist on it. Luckily I didn’t get rabies because if I did I’d be dead. Rabies is an interesting disease in that once symptoms of infection appear it means the disease has progressed too far already, and you’re a goner.
So now I always take extra care to keep a good distance between myself and monkeys, and I sure as hell don’t hand out food to them.
DON’T Ride an Elephant
This bit of advice could save your life. Yes, elephants have been semi-domesticated for thousands of years – they were the battle tanks and construction machines of yesteryear – but they also account for hundreds of human deaths annually. Elephants are ridiculously strong. If one gets pissed off, you don’t stand a chance. With its trunk, it can flip you up in the air like a pancake. And with its tusks, it can spear you through the chest, as happened earlier this month on Koh Samui.
There have been several incidents in the past couple years of an elephant turning on its mahout, killing him, and then running off into the jungle with a group of frightened tourists still strapped to its back.
If you love elephants, don’t ride them.
DO Put on a Shirt, You Look Like a Douchebag
OK, I get it – the weather is hot and you want an even tan. But unless you’re at the beach or a swimming pool, you need to put on a shirt in public. Hey, I’ll even give you a pass if you’re jogging in the park. Other than that, you need to put on a shirt because you look like a total asshat.
Do you see any Thai men going around the city topless? No.
Nearly every day I see clueless foreign guys walking around Chiang Mai looking like they’re hoping to impress someone with their pecs. It’s like they think the entire country is one big beach. I got news for you – Thai people like to look proper. Personal appearance is very important in Thai culture, and when you chose to completely ignore the social norm it just makes you look like an idiot.
Many years back I was at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok to get a visa, and some backpacker type rolls up and tries to go inside shirtless. It’s a friggin’ embassy bro, have some class!
DO Wear Some Shoes, You Look Like a Homeless Bum
I know, footwear is an oppressive restriction forced upon you by society. You want your feet – and by extension your soul – to run free. Here’s the thing though – you’re fucking up the system for everyone else.
See, its not such a big secret that Thai people aren’t that keen on footwear either. They’ll take their shoes off the first chance they get…indoors.
The system is not a complicated one. Outside is dirty. Shoes get dirty outside. Shoes don’t get worn inside. Inside stays clean.
When you go barefoot everywhere, you fuck up the entire natural order of things by tracking dirt indoors with your filthy bare feet.
Slightly off the topic, but I’ve seen some bloggers make the claim that having dirty feet is part and parcel of living in Thailand. This simply isn’t the case. I’m not saying that these authors didn’t have dirty feet – I’m sure they did. But it doesn’t go hand-in-hand with life in Southeast Asia. Plenty of Thai folks wear flip-flops on the daily and they don’t have permanent black marks on their soles. So if you find that your feet are constantly filthy since moving to Thailand you’re either not sweeping your floor well enough, you’re going barefoot where you shouldn’t, or you’re simply neglecting to wash your feet when you take a shower.
DON’T Visit the Grand Palace, It’s Just Not Worth Fighting the Swarm of Chinese Tourists
Ten or even five years ago I would have listed a visit to the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha as a “must-see” experience on your first trip to Bangkok. Sadly that isn’t the case anymore. Yes, they are still beautiful cultural treasures, and anyone with a really keen interest in Thai culture should go to see them at some point.But if you’re just coming here on holiday, my advice would be to skip it.
These days the Grand Palace is overflowing with busload after busload of Chinese tour groups. Due to the sheer number arriving, it takes forever to first queue up to buy your ticket and then queue up to enter the grounds. Once inside, it doesn’t get any better, with thousands of people pushing and shoving to get in position for the best photos.
On top of this, the entrance fee has now increased to 1000 baht. Thais get in for free, but unlike some other dual-priced attractions the staff at the Grand Palace doesn’t care if you work here and pay taxes. If your skin is white, pay up.
DO Visit Some Excellent Lesser-Known Temples
The good news is, with all the tourists crowding to get a glimpse of the Emerald Buddha, it leaves many other temples relatively quiet. As long as you are respectful, you are generally welcome to pop your head in and take a peek at any temple you come across. If you go at the right time you might even be able to sit in the back and listen while the monks gather for morning or evening chanting.
One of my favorite temples in Bangkok is Wat Suthat, which is located right by the Giant Swing. It’s not totally off the tourist trail, as they also ask for a modest entrance fee from foreigners. But the majestic temple grounds are usually a peaceful escape from the bustling city.
The main hall houses arguably one of the most beautiful Buddha images in existence, a huge golden image that was moved here from the former ancient capital of Sukhothai.
The lanes around the temple are lined with shops that sell all sorts of Buddhist temple related paraphernalia – statues, bells, candles, incense, monk’s robes, etc.
DON’T Fall For the Gems Shop Scam
If you’re unfamiliar with the gems shop scam, here’s the way it usually works: A tuk-tuk driver will stand around by the entrance to the Grand Palace and tell you that the palace is closed today, but he can conveniently take you to some other nearby attractions. He then drives you to a shop full of over-priced gems where you will be hit by a barrage of high-pressure sales tactics. I’ve already told you to skip the Grand Palace, but if you insist on going then just pay no attention to these scum who hate their country.
I say they hate their country because if they really loved Thailand and were proud to call themselves “Thai”, then they wouldn’t be engaging in activities that give Thailand a bad image – especially in such a prominent location. There are even signs up along the wall of the Grand Palace warning visitors to not trust anyone telling them the place is closed, and yet no effort is made to physically remove these guys.
The Grand Palace is one of the first places that many visitors to Bangkok go to. Just think how many people over the years have gotten a bad first impression of Thailand because of this gems scam.
It works in other ways as well. When my parents visited, for example, we went on a canal tour that included van pick-up and drop-off from our hotel. The actual tour was pretty unimpressive other than spotting a few ginormous monitor lizards, but when it was over, instead of driving us straight to the hotel the van driver took us to one of these gems shops. Luckily I figured out what was up and came up with a plan: I told my parents to follow me when the van stopped, and instead of following the driver inside, we walked across the parking lot to the street, where it took all of 20 seconds to hail a taxi and make our escape.
DON’T Wai to Everyone You Meet
Many foreign visitors to Thailand get the wai wrong. If you don’t know it, a wai is the traditional Thai greeting gesture with palms pressed together. I see a lot of foreigners wai way too often because they don’t know the social hierarchy component to the wai.
The person who is younger or of lower social status is supposed to wai first. The older person or the one with higher social status can either return the wai or not, and if they return it their hands wouldn’t be raised higher than the first person’s. It is not rude to not return a wai, and returning one in the wrong situation just looks silly.
Example 1: A high school student runs into her teacher at the market. She give a wai with her hands up by her chin. The teacher gives a wai with his hands about chest level.
Example 2: A customer walks into a spa, and the receptionist greets them with a wai and “sawat-dii kha”. The customer smiles back, says “sawat-dii kha” but doesn’t wai, and then goes on to inquire about the treatment packages available.
There’s absolutely no need to wai to air hostesses, waitstaff, door greeters, receptionists, check-in counter staff, and all other manner of service personnel. They won’t feel bad when you don’t, but they might feel a little awkward when you do.
DON’T Pronounce ‘Phuket’ Like “Fuck It”
The correct pronunciation of Phuket sounds much more like “poo-get”. The Thai language has more sounds than the 26 letters of the English alphabet can fairly represent. Whenever you see “Ph”, “Kh”, or “Th” in a Thai word it means that the consonant is an aspirated one, or one that has a little bit of air to it. On the other hand, a standalone “P”, “K”, or “T” should sound very crisp and sharp.
You can’t follow this 100% of the time though, because there is no universally accepted standard form of transcribing Thai using Roman characters. That’s why, if you plan to be in Thailand for any length of time, you really should make an effort to learn to read Thai. It’s not as hard as you might think. A great starting point for those interested to learn would be to download my free Read Thai Alphabet app.
DON’T Visit Northern Thailand From Mid-February to Mid-April
Northern Thailand has an annual smoke and haze problem during the hot dry season. It can vary in intensity from year to year and week to week depending on factors such as the weather. The one certainty, however, is that at some point during the month of March the air will be so thick with suspended particles from the smoke of forest fires and agricultural burn-off that entire mountains completely disappear from view.
Besides being incredibly unhealthy, it’s just not an enjoyable time to be in the North. I wrote elsewhere about the smoke problem in Chiang Mai in March, so here I’ll just say that it’s really bad and I’d stick to visiting Central and Southern Thailand at that time of year.
DON’T Lose Your Cool, It Only Makes Things Worse
Government offices in Thailand – especially Immigration – can be ridiculously inefficient. It can be frustrating, but you’ve got to keep your cool. Losing your temper is a big no-no in Thailand. It never helps you get the desired result faster – in fact it will almost always just make things take longer.
DO Go to Chatuchak Weekend Market for Souvenir Shopping
If you find yourself in Bangkok on the weekend, definitely check out the Chatuchak Weekend Market. You’ll find a huge maze of stalls and should be able to get all your souvenir shopping done in one go.
It’s best to go as early as you can, before it gets too hot or crowded. Chatuchak (or “Jatujak”) market is easy to get to from many parts of the city by taking either the skytrain to Mo Chit station or the subway to Chatuchak Park station.
And while you’re wandering around the market, see if you can find the spinning Thai iced tea seller doing his thing.
DO Try Something Besides Pad Thai, Tom Yum Kung, and Green Curry
A lot of people don’t realize that Thai cuisine actually has a lot of variety. What’s more – the Thai food they know from Thai restaurants in their home country is nothing like the food in Thailand. The worst “Thai” food I’ve ever had has been from Thai restaurants in the US. It’s usually way too sweet. Real Thai food is more earthy, with plenty of fresh herbs and spices contributing to the overall flavor.
If you want to explore the full range of Thai food out there, you should check out the free AppeThai app that I helped develop.
DO Get Out of Bangkok ASAP
On my first visit to Thailand, I found Bangkok simply overwhelming. I remember walking along the street and feeling like I couldn’t handle the heat and humidity combined with the fumes coming at me from the various food vendors. The jet-lag probably didn’t help.
The city has a lot to offer, but it’s still a nightmare of traffic jams and concrete. If it’s your first trip to Thailand, get out of the city as soon as possible. Go to the beach, see some islands, go to the mountains up north.
DON’T Pose for Show-Off Yoga Selfies at Temples
If you’re an Instagram yogi, then posting yoga selfies is what you do. I’m not gonna try to talk you out of that. Just don’t pose for any yoga photos at a temple.
A temple is a place for the community to gather. It’s a place to make merit for a better rebirth. It’s a place to be reminded of the truth of the Dharma that the Buddha discovered 2500 years ago.
A temple is not the place for you to stroke your ego by using it as a picturesque backdrop to make your yoga selfies look more “spiritual”.
Go ahead and take photos. Take lots of photos. Take photos of Buddhas and selfies on temple staircases. But don’t try to show off by doing handstands next to pagodas. It’s just straight up disrespectful.
DO Pack a Hoodie for the AC
Thailand is a tropical country. For most parts of the country and most of the year you will be perfectly fine in just a T-shirt. You should still pack a comfy hoodie or pullover because Thais like to go overboard with the use of air-conditioning.
The overnight buses can be the worst. If you don’t come prepared with something long-sleeved you could be in for a long uncomfortable ride.
Shopping malls and movie theaters are a couple other places notorious for blasting the AC as cold as it can go.
DON’T Hate on Western Men for Preferring Thai Women
A common attitude among western feminists is that men who go off to live in Asia do so because they are losers who can’t attract a mate back in their home country. And if the guy has a wife or girlfriend younger then himself, then he must really be up to no good.
The funny thing about this is Thai women tend to display more “feminine” traits than their feminist counterparts. I think it’s mostly just a case where guys have figured out what they’re really attracted to and go after it (though I will concede Thailand does attract its fair share of scumbags and weirdos).
Foreign women expats may complain that the local dating scene is hopeless due to foreign guys being exclusively interested in Thai women. But this is a little bit like going to Vegas and complaining that everyone is gambling, or going to the beach and complaining that everyone is eating seafood.
The worst though is when you hear someone criticize somebody’s Thai girlfriend for being “tiny”, as if having a healthy, slender figure was somehow a bad thing. Being overweight has become so normalized in American society that many people have forgotten what an average human being is supposed to look like. Millions of years of evolution have been undone by a couple generations’ over-consumption of highly-processed foods.
That being said, if you’re interested in meeting Thai women…
DO Make Sure That Gorgeous Woman You Met is Really a Woman
Thailand is somewhat famous for it’s “ladyboy” transvestites, who – due to favorable genetics and affordable plastic surgery – can pass for real women much easier than their western counterparts. Many ladyboys are active on dating apps and websites, where they’ll usually get listed under “women”. From their profile photos you really might not be able to tell, but you can always tell in person.
If you have to ask yourself if you’re dealing with a real woman, then you probably aren’t. There’s always something a little off that gives it away. There are many things you can notice like the waist-to-hips ratio, Adam’s apple, size of the hands, etc. The one sure-fire giveaway is supposed to be the elbow test.
The theory is that when a male extends his arm, the elbow doesn’t bend back past 180 degrees. The female skeletal structure is slightly different, and their elbow should naturally be able to extend about 5 degrees or so beyond a straight line.
Of course, if you’re into ladyboys, then just go for it.
DON’T Get a Lobster Red Sunburn
Thai people think white foreigners are crazy for laying out in the sun. We also think Thais are crazy for swimming in the sea wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I’d say we’re both right.
The beaches frequented almost exclusively by Thai tourists – places like Cha-am and Bang Saen – are notable for having a canopy of umbrellas covering almost the entire beach. Thais might take avoiding the sun to the extreme, but a lot of white people are just as strange in their seeming desire to get burned.
If you come from the northern latitudes, you may not realize how strong the tropical sun can be. It doesn’t take long at all to get rosy skin depending on your complexion. Take reasonable precautions just for the sake of your own comfort. I can’t imagine it’s much fun to spend half of your trip in constant pain just because you neglected to apply any sunblock while you laid out on the beach one afternoon.
DO Keep a Packet of Tissues Handy
You never really know what you’re going to get when entering a Thai bathroom. Some toilet stalls have toilet paper, some have just a spray hose (also known as the “bum gun””), and some just have a basin of water and bucket.
The spray hose gets you cleaner than anything else, but it helps to have some tissues to dry off with. You can get packs of tissues for 5 baht at any 7-Eleven. They’re usually right up at the counter.
Speaking of 7-Eleven…
DO Buy Something Cheap at 7-Eleven to Break a 1000 Baht Bill
1000 baht bills can be a pain in the ass to use. Many small shops simply won’t have the change and don’t want to take them. It’s always a good idea to have a mix of smaller bills in your wallet, and if you find yourself with a lack of small bills, the one place that you can always rely on to break a 1000 note is good old 7-Eleven. Simply buy something small that you’ll use anyway like a bottle of water, and you’re set.
DON’T Do Anything That May Result in an Ambulance Ride, You’ll Die Stuck in Traffic
I hope that I never have to ride in an ambulance anywhere in the world, but for Thailand especially – if getting to the hospital quickly is the difference between life and death, you’ll probably end up dead.
Thailand has a very selfish driving culture. Emergency vehicles don’t get the respect they should. I’ve seen many times where an ambulance is stuck waiting at a red light because cars coming from the other direction don’t stop to let it go first. It’s also rare to see cars move over to the side so that the ambulance can pass them. But hey, mai pen rai, it was probably that guy’s karma to die stuck in traffic, right?