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.
Now, on to the tips for backpacking in Thailand!
(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 people — including foreigners — have been locked up for Facebook posts!
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 temples in Thailand.
- Never turn your back on a Buddha statue — that includes to take selfies!
- Some Theavadamonks do not eat after noon. Refrain from eating or snacking around them in the afternoon.
- Unless there is a sign indicating otherwise, taking photos inside temples in Thailand is generally OK. If you take pictures, consider leaving a small donation in the metal box.
- Women should never touch a monk anywhere! Even their own mothers can’t touch them. 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.
- Cans get dirty in Thailand! Cans are often stored in areas where rats, dogs, and chickens roam freely. A pack provides a nice square surface for them to rest on. It’s best to pour your drink out of a can and into a glass (or consider getting a reusable, stainless steel straw to carry).
- Bacteria is faster than you! Don’t eat food that has touched the table or any other unclean surface. The “three second rule” doesn’t actually work anywhere, including Thailand.
- 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. Cultural mutation is happening as more and more uninformed Westerners are tipping.
- 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 (assuming they still have seats) as long as you have purchased at least something small. Businesses actually want to look busy — it attracts more business.
- 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!
- Western food such as burgers and pizza will almost always be a pricier letdown. Unless you’re willing to take a big chance, stick to Thai food!
- Yes, street food is safer than guidebooks claim. But the food from carts in high-traffic tourist areas (e.g., Khao San Road) is often low effort and dirty. Try to eat at street carts where you see locals eating rather than just where tourists go to “experience” street food.
- When eating from street carts, try to choose items cooked in front of you, not ones that have been sitting out for an undetermined amount of time.
- The bottles of “fresh” juice for sale in tourist areas are almost always cut with water (if you’re lucky) or cheap, sweet drink mixes from the supermarket. Just because the seller is pressing fruit right there doesn’t mean the bottle you get is pure juice. Real, fresh fruit juice is fairly pricey due to the amount of fruit required.
- 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 (food or some object on the table). Your vocabulary will expand daily that way.
Thailand Tips for Money and Budget
- Nearly every price is negotiable — ask for a discount! Fixed prices include prices in chain supermarkets, most department stores, drinks, and some transportation tickets. You will get a feel for when you can negotiate. Never take the first price! You can even negotiate inside of shopping malls such as MBK.
- Always expect to pay more in touristy areas. Negotiation will be much tougher as well because short-term tourists generally do not negotiate prices correctly.
- ATM fees in Thailand keep going up! They are currently around US $8 per transaction on top of whatever your bank charges. Take a lot of money at once so you don’t incur multiple fees.
- Large-denomination banknotes can be very difficult to change or spend. Unfortunately, you’ll get many from ATMs. When entering an amount at the ATM, choose a number that ensures at least a few smaller bills (e.g., 2900 baht as opposed to 3,000 baht ensures that you get a 500 and four 100s rather than three 1,000-baht notes).
- Large denominations such as 1,000s can generally be changed at supermarkets, mini-marts (7-Eleven), fast-food places, busy bars, and for transportation tickets without much hassle. You can also save them to pay your guesthouse. Otherwise, don’t give large denominations to poor street vendors or in places that will struggle to make change for the rest of the day.
- The most trustworthy currency exchange kiosks are run by the SuperRich group in Thailand. There are some impostors now. Look for the orange-color exchanges around Bangkok.
- Do not accept torn banknotes or ones that are too faded to read — they may be difficult to spend.
- Many taxis and vendors may claim to have no change so that they can keep the difference in price. Try to have smaller bills in your pockets at all times. But play the change game and see if someone will accept the larger banknotes first!
- In markets, the first sale of the day for a vendor is the “lucky sale” and you have much more negotiation power then. Arrive early to markets as vendors are setting up and start negotiating.
- ALWAYS negotiate a price first before getting inside of transportation without a meter, especially in tuk-tuks. Try to find an honest taxi driver who will turn on the meter — it will save you money. Don’t believe when people tell you that the meter is broken or that traffic is the reason they can’t turn it on. There is always traffic in Bangkok!
- Choose to use ATMs in well-lit areas, preferably inside of or attached to bank branches. Doing so reduces the chances of a card skimmer stealing your number. Also, you may have a better chance of recovering your card if it gets eaten by the machine.
- If using traveler’s checks (most people no longer bother), carry larger denominations such as $50 or $100. You will be charged a fee per check when cashing them and this can add up if you have a lot of small notes.
- If you are going to be in an area for a few days, buy a large five-liter bottle of water and use it to refill smaller bottles. This saves money and contributes a little less to the growing mountains of discarded plastic. Look into getting a Trash Hero bottle to refill in your area.
- Never ask a taxi driver for accommodation or restaurant recommendations. They will always plug a friend or family member’s business. Never let them talk you into changing your original destination; many times they get a commission and you get to pay the difference!
- Farang (people who are not Thai) will usually pay a higher price for services and goods in markets. Expect to pay entrance fees at places free for locals.
- Life in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, moves at a different speed. Don’t be in a hurry! Buses and even trains breakdown frequently. Traffic in Bangkok is horrendous. Don’t lose your cool, remember — mai pen rai!
- T.A.T. is not a helpful government agency. They are there for one reason: to make money! Book tickets directly yourself and save a bundle. Or book through your friendly guesthouse; they can use the money more than T.A.T.
- Always settle on a price to a destination before getting inside a taxi.
- Taxis in the queue directly in front of the airport or an event will always be more expensive than flagging ones on the street yourself. You’ll usually have to pay an additional surcharge (50 baht) for using coupon-based taxis from the airport. You will also be required to pay any tolls.
- A taxi mafia controls much of the transportation in Bangkok. Flag drivers yourself rather than taking the ones parked in tourist areas. Pay attention to the driver’s attire: professional drivers will almost always be wearing dressier clothing. Mafia drivers wear shorts, sleeveless shirts, and generally dress like tourists. Mafia drivers will inevitably charge more (because they pass money upward) and will hassle you the most.
- Look for and use the yellow-and-green taxis first. The worst are often pink, orange, or other colors.
- Try the ridesharing service Grab if you’re tired of the hassle from taxi mafia drivers. Real taxi drivers drive for the service, too, and you can pay in cash.
- To hitchhike, you point at the ground in front of you with fingers together and palm facing downward. Wag your palm downward like in a petting motion. Don’t stick your thumb out; no one will stop!
- When hiring a motorbike, be sure to point out any defects or scratches before you take it. Snap a few pictures while parked in front of the rental office. Sometimes a stiff inspection follows after you return a bike and you may be charged for damage.
- Don’t agree to allow your tuk-tuk driver to stop at shops in exchange for a really cheap tour. This is a very old scam.
- Keep your knees and elbows tucked in tight when riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi! Real motorcycle taxi drivers have to wear an orange vest.
- Always wear sunglasses when driving a motorbike. Doing so will help keep the masses of insects from hitting your eyes at high speeds. Thailand has one of the highest traffic fatality rates in the world; wear your helmet!
- Don’t pay for tourist maps. If you don’t have a guidebook or smartphone, search for the town name on https://images.google.com and print maps for 10 baht in the internet cafes.
- Night trains are a cheap (and enjoyable) way to get from A to B. You save a night’s accommodation price and wake up at your destination. Top bunks are smaller but cheaper. Beware of extremely expensive food and drinks! The attendants work mostly for commission so they can be pushy. Take your own snacks and fruit to survive.
- When choosing your seat on the bus, take into consideration which direction you are traveling and which side of the bus the sun will be hitting. The closer you are to an axle, the bumpier the ride; sit in the middle. If there is air conditioning, count on it being cold enough to snow inside; keep something warm handy.
- Theft on night buses has been a “thing” for decades. Don’t put anything you care about in the bus luggage hold. An attendant will crawl inside and rummage through bags as you move down the road. They’ll even steal razor blades, sunscreen, USB chargers, and other pricey items that are easy to miss until you need them.
- Don’t pay extra for “VIP” buses. Pretty well all tourist buses in Thailand are labeled as “VIP.”
- Don’t lose your booking tickets from travel agencies. There is no common network; getting another printed could be impossible. Refunds for lost tickets never happen.
- ALWAYS use your motorbike lock chain that was provided when parking overnight. You don’t want to have a bike rolled away.
Thailand Tips for Staying Alive
- Don’t believe what guidebooks say: ice in tourist bars and restaurants is usually as safe as it is at home (mold and contamination are common everywhere).
- Even small scrapes and cuts can become easily infected in a dirty and humid tropical environment. Popping blisters allows bacteria inside; don’t open them until you are home and clean. Carry a small bottle of liquid bandage to quickly apply to cuts and small scrapes.
- Remove plasters at night to let a wound get some air and heal without a damp bandage against it. Cover wounds during the day to avoid additional contamination.
- Only take anti-diarrhea medication if you will be on the move or absolutely have to do so. Loperamide traps bacteria inside your gut rather than allowing it to be flushed out. You can control minor stomach fluctuations by eating bananas (to slow down) or drinking green coconut water (to speed up).
- Unless you’re in Singapore or can guarantee that tap water is safe, don’t drink it. If local water is brown or smells funny, brush your teeth with bottled water. But ordinarily you can use bottled water to brush without worry.
- TD (traveler’s diarrhea) is normal for the first week or two when you change bacteria zones around the world. You can get your stomach back to normal by eating several bananas a day along with yogurt. Avoid spicy food, no matter how tempting, until your stomach settles.
- HIV and prostitution are rampant problems in parts of Thailand.
- Many local-brand condoms have a high failure rate because of poor storage techniques in the hot weather.
- Sunblock prices and deodorant choices aren’t great in Thailand because locals don’t wear much of either. Beware of products that contain whitening agents — many do!
- When swimming in the ocean, be conscious of drainage ditches and pipes. Many times they may contain raw sewage. Don’t swim in local rivers or streams if you have an open cut or wound.
- There is no vaccination for dengue fever, a serious problem in Southeast Asia. Be smart: take precautions to avoid daytime bites (dengue mosquitoes typically bite during the day). You’ll receive the most bites under the tables when eating at dusk. Always use your mosquito net.
- Turn your lights off when leaving home to avoid attracting extra insects. Check your mosquito netting for holes before going to bed. You can spray holes with DEET. Gecko lizards are noisy but eat other insects, so let them stay inside your bungalow!
- If you are refilling a plastic water bottle, avoid touching the cap or the threads. Smell your bottle first before drinking, and change it out every few days to avoid bacteria buildup.
- Ginger is a great natural preventative for motion sickness. Dramamine works but can also double as a sleeping pill (not always bad on long trips) due to the drowsy side effects.
- ALWAYS carry toilet paper in your pocket. It will rarely be available in public toilets. And never, ever flush it! Put paper into the bucket or can with a lid near the toilet.
Good to Know
- Don’t take expensive sandals or flip-flops. Often someone will “swap” with you in the pile of shoes left outside entrance ways.
- Be mindful about using public Wi-Fi hotspots or shared computers. Consider getting a VPN service (this is an affiliate link, but I use them) to protect your data and identity.
- If you pay to have your laundry done, check for missing items before you walk away. Clothing often gets mixed up between travelers. Doing laundry at your guesthouse rather than at a public laundromat is usually safer for recovering lost items.
- Plan on your laundry taking over 24 hours to dry in the humid weather. In other words, don’t wash laundry the night before a long bus trip in the morning.
- You can save loads of money by learning your numbers, how to ask prices, and negotiate in Thai. Vendors will almost always give you a smile (and a better price) when you try their language. Don’t worry about the tones at first. The numbers aren’t that hard to learn!
- Leave the price tag on your books for more bargaining power later when you trade them at bookstores or with other travelers.
- Memorize your passport number or have it written on something handy — you will use it a lot when checking in. Don’t make a scene digging it out of your “secret” money belt in front of everyone!
- Be careful when approached to buy drugs from locals. Not only are drugs illegal in Thailand, but sometimes sellers work in pairs with police officers who will then relieve you of the drugs and your money! (in the form of a bribe)
- Try to look at a room before you check in. Only pay for the first day, then renew later if it turns out to be OK. In the islands, check the beach at different times; you may have been checking in during high tide which would hide an unpleasant rocky sea floor.
- Cheap international calls can be made via Skype from internet cafes. WhatsApp is another useful app for making free calls. (See more about calling home from abroad).
- Keep a journal of your trip from the beginning, you will be forever glad that you did. Better yet, start a travel blog and share your adventure with everyone (that isn’t just social media)!
- When uploading your pictures from public computers or other travelers’ laptops, always set the write-protect switch on your memory card to protect yourself from the viruses. iPods and smartphones can become infected while connected, too, if they open as an external storage device.
- If you can, always return to support the same businesses. They will get to know your face, provide better service, and sometimes give you discounts for repeat business.
- The best travel advice comes from other travelers — talk to everyone! Don’t ask Yelp or TripAdvisor; ask that person sitting next to you if they know of a good restaurant! If you show yourself friendly, you will make new backpacker friends faster than you can add them on Facebook.
I hope these Thailand travel tips will come in handy. Now go read about how to travel Thailand cheap!