Many new backpackers begin traveling in Southeast Asia and need a few Thailand travel tips to get them started. The first weeks away from home are the toughest, and more often than not, those initial steps of a long trip begin in Bangkok.
Thailand is “easy” to travel, but because of its popularity, you’re going to have to run a gauntlet of scams and pitfalls. English is spoken in varying degrees of quality in all the tourist areas, so there is not much of a language barrier to deal with. Best of all, despite big price jumps over the last decade, Thailand is still a relatively cheap destination — especially when compared to East Asia (e.g., Japan, Korea, Taiwan, etc).
Many of the Thailand tips below can be applied to other Buddhist countries around Southeast Asia and to budget travel in general.
Update: This disorganized page of my own travel notes somehow mysteriously ended up so popular that I decided to dedicate an entire site to Thailand tips! Along with my own stuff, there are user-submitted tips.
Now, on to the tips!
Local Feelings (How to Not Make People Hate You)
- For Buddhists, the head is the highest and most sacred part on a person. Never touch someone’s head or ruffle their hair.
- The foot is the lowest and dirtiest part of a person. Never raise your foot over someone’s head or step over them.
- Try not to point your feet at anyone, doing so can be disrespectful.
- Always remove your shoes and leave them outside when going indoors; this includes shops, restaurants, bars, and homes.
- In general, Buddhists are conservative in dress and in contact between the sexes.
- Never, ever disrespect the King or Thailand in any way. Not only is disrespect punishable by death, but the Thai people love him!
Thailand Tips for Temple Etiquette
- Monks receive the highest wai (prayer-like gesture) when passing or in greeting.
- Remove your shoes at the bottom of steps in a temple or before approaching a Buddha statue.
- Many wats (temples) require long pants to go inside. Dress as conservative as possible when visiting the temples.
- Never turn your back on a Buddha statue — that includes to take selfies!
- Some monks do not eat after noon. Refrain from eating or snacking around them in the afternoon.
- If you take pictures inside a wat, leave a small donation in the metal box.
- Women should never touch a monk anywhere! When handing something to a monk, it must be passed through a man’s hands. Be mindful of brushing against monks in crowded spaces.
Thailand Tips for Eating and Drinking
- Most Thais eat with a spoon in the right hand and fork in the left. Push food onto the spoon with your fork. Chopsticks are typically provided just for noodles or a few other select dishes.
- You will almost always get a straw with every can or bottled drink that you buy. It seems like a big waste of plastic, but there is a reason: cans get dirty in Thailand! Cans are stored in areas where rats, dogs, and chickens roam freely. It’s best to pour your drink into a glass or use the straw.
- Don’t eat food that has touched the table or any other unclean surface.
- When choosing a restaurant, always look for a high volume of business. Busy places typically have fresher ingredients — that means less chance of getting a stomach problem.
- There is no need to tip in restaurants and bars in Thailand.
- Try to choose bottles of water containing minerals, rather than just the cheapest. As you sweat day and night, you will continue to lose energy due to low sodium and potassium (electrolytes) no matter how much water you drink. Gatorade is full of sugar; there are plenty of other healthier ways to replace electrolytes.
- Unlike in the West, it is OK to loiter in restaurants for hours as long as you have purchased at least something small.
- The hosts will almost always try to seat you in a high profile place towards the front of a restaurant to show off their business. Sometimes this will put you at a bad table near the street. Feel free to ask to be moved somewhere more quiet!
- Many restaurants in Southeast Asia will show movies and Western TV shows for customers. Shop around and find something that you want to watch!
- Western food such as burgers and pizza will almost always be an expensive letdown. You didn’t travel thousands of miles to eat something best enjoyed at home — eat local!
- When eating from street carts, choose an item that you saw come off the grill, not one that has been sitting in the sun for an undetermined amount of time.
- Don’t eat fruit without peeling it first. Washing will not always do the trick.
- Real Thai curries take much longer to prepare. If you are in a hurry, avoid ordering curry! Fortunately, they are well worth the wait.
- Take the opportunity to ask your waiter how to properly pronounce one word in Thai from your phrasebook, or some object on the table. You will pick up words quickly that way.