It has been described as a tropical beach paradise, a bastion of rich cultural heritage and an idyllic throwback to traditional, pastoral life. Thailand is not called the ‘land of smiles’ without reason; its people believe in the importance of ‘sà-nùk’ (pronounced sa-nook) – fun.
The four main regions of Thailand – northern, northeast, central Thailand and southern – are all contrastingly different to one another, understandably then eliciting such varying descriptions. The country is populated by just over 67 million people who are found over a land mass of 513 000 sq km (198 000 sq miles), converging predominantly in the capital, Bangkok, and the fertile inner central region.
Formerly known as Siam, in 1939 the change in name to Prathet Thai or Thailand came as a result of the political transition. The famous 1956 musical and later film The King and I, is reminiscent of Siam in the 1860s. There is still a district in the centre of Bangkok called Siam, and hours of high-end shopping can be done here.
Where is Thailand?
Thailand is the neighbour of Myanmar – formerly Burma – in the north, Laos in the northeast whose border is the famous Mekong River, and Cambodia in the south. It is located between India and China, in Southeast Asia, and without having ever been colonised by any European nation, is proud to have retained its distinct culture.
The Thai flag, the ‘thong trai rong’, is representative of Thai culture as the three colours of the flag – red, white and blue – indicate the fundamental pillars of Thai society, namely the nation, the three forces of Buddhism and the monarchy respectively.
Theravada Buddhism is the religion that over 90% of the Thai population practice, with Chinese and Indian religions, such as Hinduism forming a large part of the remaining population. Whilst huge significance is placed on the monarchy – pictures and statues of the King and Queen line the streets of Bangkok – Buddhism and its institutions also garner legitimacy, even in the legal system.
According to an August 2015 article in the Bangkok Post, tourism accounts for approximately 20% of Thailand’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Following alleged terrorist attacks in the country’s capital, extra security measures have been taken throughout Bangkok and neighbouring cities in the wake of these and global attacks.
The media have, however, generally reported locals expressing these attacks as extraordinary in Thailand.
The Thai Baht, the country’s recognised currency, is fairly weak against most other currencies even countries in the global south. For instance, South Africans will pay about one Rand for three Baht and one Euro equates to about 40 baht, making Thailand one of the least expensive holidays for the traveller on a tight budget.
The official language of the country is, of course, Thai and depending on where the English-speaking traveller is, one may want to consult Google or a guidebook before asking a local as many Thais are not proficient in the language. Usually, the young school going children can speak some English as they are taught in school as a second language.
Most countries in Southeast Asia experience monsoon weather, Thailand being no exception. In the Kingdom of Thailand, monsoons govern the life cycle of rice and the people that harvest it, the ‘chao na’ or rice farmers.
During the rainy season, from May to November, rice is planted and rituals for prosperous harvests conducted. While it may be deemed as putting a damper on a sunny holiday, travellers may want to consider the merits a cold afternoon shower has after a hot, humid day.
Visas and Health
Conveniently only a passport is needed for travel to Thailand and a 30-day travel visa is given on arrival. Before travelling to Thailand, it is important to get a Hepatitis A injection and for the precautious traveller, vaccinations for typhoid, malaria and Japanese encephalitis, can also be taken. Malaria in Thailand is fairly rare, however special precautions must be taken.
Must see places Thailand:
There are three international airports in Thailand, Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, Chiang Mai International Airport and Phuket International Airport. Bangkok is an ideal place to start at if you have the energy for the hustle and bustle of a large high-speed city.
Chatuchak Weekend Market
Visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market held every week between 9 am and 6 pm and can be found next to Chatuchak Park. This is among the largest markets in the world with close to 8 000 traders each day. Whether it is authentic pad thai (noodles with fresh sprouts and meat of your choice) or vintage clothing, you won’t walk out of here empty handed. And remember to bargain!
Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun
Visiting the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and Wat Arun can all be done in one day as they are found not more than one kilometre (0.6 miles) apart, near to the Old City and the Chao Phraya River (‘Mae Nam Chao Phraya). The Grand Palace is the residence of the former Thai monarch, with many buildings and shrines found on the grounds, The Emerald Buddha being the most sought-after attraction.
Wat Pho – Buddhist temple
About 500 meters south towards the Chao Phraya River is Wat Pho. A wat is a Buddhist temple; the term being used in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The enormous 46 meter Reclining Buddha is what brings tourists to visit this wat. Wat Pho continues to be a functioning temple, with a school of medicine still on its premises, which speaks to it being one of the earliest public education centres in Thailand.
Chao Phraya River
Another kilometre (mile) south will take the by-now thirsty traveller to the docks of the Chao Phraya River where food and cold beverages can be bought at the bars along the river or the street vendors. Take a colourful traditional long boat ferry from Tha Tien across the river to the Temple of Dawn or Wat Arun. It forms the last of the holy trinity of wats, including Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, which is found within the Grand Palace. Its 82 meter (0.06 miles) high ‘phrang’ or tower is what will draw your attention once on the water.
Khao San Road
For nighttime adventures, Khao San Road is sure to excite the traveller who wants to have a good time. From reggae bars to ping pong shows to street vendors selling fried tarantulas, this stretch of Bangkok will make your night difficult to forget.
A tamer version of Bangkok, but still the second largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is known for its more laid-back lifestyle and café culture. Be sure to try out a green papaya salad at any of the in-house eateries, but be careful of the bite!
Most Thai food is spicy and made with fish or oyster sauce so this is something to consider when ordering traditional. You can cool your tongue down by buying freshly cut fruit or squeezed fruit juice on the street corner, with dragon fruit and durian being Thailand’s most famous.
Thai people love their coffee as much as the rest of the world, and your caffeine fix can be had at Akha Ama, a café which sells only fair trade local hill tribe coffee, and can be found near Wat Phra Singh. For a cuppa in the artsy Artisan, take a walk to Mengraimassmee Road opposite the YMCA. As part of the traveller’s culinary experience in Thailand, a good way to get your hands dirty so to speak is to take part in a cooking course.
Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School
Take home some recipes made the true Thai way by spending a day at Chiang Mai’s first cookery school (Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School) just outside the city centre in a more rural setting. It is run by television chef Sompon Nabnian.
If you can spend some time outside of Chiang Mai, take a three-hour minibus ride to the little town of Pai northwest of Chiang Mai in the Mae Hong Son province. In a picturesque setting, the valley in which Pai sits is full of tradition found among its rice farmers and hill tribe people, as well as a newer more bohemian lifestyle in the main centre of town along the Walking Street Market.
For any traveller needing to take a time-out from the hustle and bustle of the big city, Pai offers a breath of fresh air.
Live music is always a favourite attribute to any setting, particularly when it is local Thai musicians. Whether it is at the Hard Rock Café on Loi Khroh Road or a local pub on Nimmanhaemin Road, a well-deserved Chang beer or cocktail with lively tunes in the background is a perfect way to end your evenings in Chiang Mai.
Famous for its white, sandy beaches and turquoise coloured ocean, Phuket is the ‘water-baby’s’ and sunbathers’ paradise. The easiest way to get there is by an inexpensive domestic flight from either Chiang Mai or Bangkok airport; if you would prefer land travel, a 12-hour bus ride is a good alternative.
Found in the southern part of Thailand, the island of Phuket and 32 other smaller islands form part of the Andaman Coast. For those looking for more adventure diving and snorkelling sites are abundant off most of the islands, where you can get up close with reef sharks, tropical fish and delicate corals.
‘The pearl of the Andaman’ as Phuket is known is a tailor-made getaway, which sees many travellers jetting in on expensive holiday packages. However, for those travelling on a budget or simply wanting to get away from the buzz of big hotels, there are boutique guest houses and many backpacker lodges. Patong is Phuket’s biggest and loudest town, with the busiest beach.
Surfing, kiteboarding and yachting can be experienced at most of the beaches around Phuket. If you are looking for a rental company, Phuket Surf rents at 500 Baht per hour and gives surfing lessons to beginners at 1500 Baht.
You can find them at the south of the bay of Kata. Staying out of the water is no less fun. Contact Amazing Bike Tours for a day trip around Khao Yao Noi and the waterfalls of Thai Muang in the nearby Phuang Na province. This will set you back a mere 1600 Baht.
In the Old Town district of the town of Phuket, the traveller can get a sense of the island’s history before it became the well-beaten path of tourists. Gentrification of old Sino-Portuguese buildings is turning Old Town into a hip area for art, music and food that attracts a younger crowd that wants to get away from the rowdy nightclubs that Phuket is generally known for.
Visit Suay Cooking School for 1800 Baht to be taught by chef Noy Tammasak, who will lead you through the local market to pick out your ingredients before combining them into a delicious dish.
Thailand Travel tips:
- Take mosquito repellent ointment and sun cream.
- Only drink bottled water.
- Bargain with traders at the market, particularly if no price is stated on the given item. This goes for tuk-tuks too.
- Ensure the meter is on when travelling in a formal taxi.
- Refrain from disrespecting the King and Queen as Thai people hold them in high honour.
- Avoid conflict. This is the land of smiles!
- The head is considered sacred and should not be touched.
- A monk too, should not be touched or sat higher than.
- In the same vein, the feet are considered dirty and therefore, should the soles should not be faced towards deities, the monarchs or other Thai people generally.
- When entering into shrines or ‘wats’ wear modest clothing that covers the legs and arms.
- Ka – this is placed at the end of the sentence by a female speaker.
- Krap – this is placed at the end of the sentence by a male speaker.
- Hello – saw-wat-dee.
- Goodbye – lahh-khohn.
- Thank you – kaap-koohn.
- English? – pah-sah-ahn-greet?
- Yes – chai.
- No – mai-chai.