Thailand is an extremely fun and easy country to visit, even as a first time traveler. In fact, it was my first trip overseas and I loved it so much I stayed for almost two years! While the tourist trail is quite well-worn, and Thailand has an amazing travel infrastructure to make things super simple, culture shock can still hit.
To make the most of your time, I’ve suggested a few travel tips for Thailand below.
1) Maintain respect for the King and royal family.
It isn’t just polite, it is the law. In the beginning of movies in the theatre, a short clip about his life will play, and twice a day his song will play in the train stations. Always stand and show respect at these times. By the same token, never step on money or treat it disrespectfully, as it contains the image of the King. Never make jokes or speak ill about any of the royal family —it could land you in jail!
2) Be careful about touch.
Heads are sacred, so don’t touch anyone on the head. This includes if someone is sitting on a bus seat, and you want to hold on. Grab a hand rail that won’t require you to become in contact with the back of someone’s head. Resist the urge to goodnaturedly ruffle a child’s hair, even in a lighthearted and affectionate manner.
Further, you should never touch your feet to anything, as they are considered lowly. Don’t put them on the seat in front of you or on a low table, keep them on the ground and don’t use them to point.
Women should never touch male monks, even to give a donation. It should either be placed in a bowl or given to a male to give to the monk.
3) Modest clothing is required sometimes, even in the heat.
If you are visiting a temple or even a government office (like immigration or to renew your visa), you need to dress nicely and modestly. Wearing tank tops, shorts, or dressing in a messy or careless manner is disrespectful at best, and will get you barred from entrance at worst.
For visiting a temple, you need to cover yourself from your elbows to your knees (it is so hot; you might want to bring a lightweight wrap or scarf to cover your shoulders and upper arms). A good rule of thumb is to dress as if you were going to your house of worship at home.
4) Remember that food service is different than in the West.
When ordering multiple dishes in a group, they will all come out at different times, some substantially later than others. In Thailand, this is not seen as a problem, as dishes are generally ordered for the whole group and shared amongst everyone. Either adjust your expectations, or adapt to the Thai way and share your dishes.
5) Bad directions don’t equal bad intentions.
At some point, you will be trying to reach a destination, and you WILL be pointed in as many different directions as the number of people you consult.
This is not trickery or a joke; the Thais you ask genuinely want to help you, so even if they do not know where you are trying to get, they will attempt to help by giving a direction, even though it might not be accurate.
6) Always bargain if the prices aren’t listed.
Whether at MBK in Bangkok (a huge shopping mall) or at a vendor on the street, you should always offer a lower price than first stated. The point of bargaining is NOT to rip the seller off, but rather to come to a price that is mutually beneficial. Be courteous in your bargaining and never disrespectful.
7) Never take a parked cab.
Parked cabs are waiting to prey on gullible tourists. Always hail a cab that is driving down the road with the red sign in the lower right hand windshield illuminated. Do this by outstretching your arm with your palm pointing down, and when the cab pulls over, open the front door to state your destination and ask to use the meter. If you’re insecure about where you’re going, having someone from your hotel or school write your destination in Thai can be very helpful.
8) Mind your temper.
Raising your voice, and showing your anger, is never, ever suggested. Always remember to stay calm and collected, shouting is unattractive and will do more harm than good, and may even spur a similar reaction or physical confrontation. In Thailand, “saving face” is very important, and this means that you should never insult or get rude with anyone else. A good lesson to remember in life as well!
9) Learn a bit of Thai.
If you’ll be in Thailand for more than a week or two, a few Thai phrases will get you really far and will be greatly appreciated by the people around you. Take just ten minutes to learn simple (and useful) words like yes, no, hello, thank you, numbers, and directions. Most guidebooks have this information in the back, or you can check here.
Overall, remember that Thai society is a polite one, and Buddhist mentality tends to rule. Treat others as you would like to be treated, and even if you make a cultural taboo, apologize politely and take notes for next time.
Words by Stephanie Kempker Edri