Thailand is the ideal jump off point for backpacking through Southeast Asia. A travel hotspot, the country has well trodden backpacker trails, perfect for first-time travellers or those new to Asia. So you ask, “If the country is so easy to travel, why read a how-to guide?” Setting expectations and arming yourself with insider travel knowledge will save you both time and baht (money). We won’t bore you with details like the exchange rate or which power adapters you’ll need, we’ll give you the real deal type of advice you’d get from someone who has just been. Read on rookie Canadian traveller for tips to not only survive, but thrive in Thailand.
What’s with all the…
These zippy little vehicles are ubiquitous in Thailand. They operate much like a cab. If you’re in a Thai city (especially in Bangkok’s notorious backpacker ghetto Khao San Road) you may be offered an obscenely cheap fixed price tour. The reason? The driver will make a few pit stops along the way, typically depositing travelers in boutiques owned by vendors they know. In exchange for the foot traffic, drivers receive cash or are given fuel vouchers. Tolerant backpackers who play the part can enjoy a ride around the city while others who aren’t expecting the detours will likely find the whole thing scammy.
Inexplicably 7-11 convenience stores are found throughout Thailand. In Bangkok you’ll find them on most city blocks. They’re a great place to load up on name brand shampoo, conditioner, bottled water, exotic flavoured Pringles and cheap Sangsom rum. Grab a Big Gulp cup and mix your own to-go cocktail.
Beach pails or “buckets”
Mixed drinks are popularly consumed from a sand pail. See section on full moon parties below.
In Thailand, Red Bull truly gives you wings. Be careful when using it to mix drinks as it seems to have higher levels of stimulants than those regulated in Canada.
Gender bending in Thailand is increasingly visible to visitors, especially south of Bangkok. Katheoy or ‘lady boy’ is an ambiguous term that generally refers to a male representing himself in a fashion socially identified as female. Thailand is a particularly tolerant nation and lady boys are often well represented in entertainment. While traveling in the southern islands visitors can expect to see lady boys featured prominently in cabaret style shows. We advise you catch a performance and admire the beauty of these “transformed goddesses.”
How to Stay Safe
Promote personal safety
⋄ Travel with a buddy.
⋄ Ensure you lock your guest room door at all times.
⋄ Ensure windows are locked when you leave the room (especially if you are staying on the ground floor).
⋄ Watch your drink – especially if you’re drinking from a pail (more on that below!)
Bring a combination lock, preferably one where the ‘face’ of the dial can not be pried off. Many budget hostels and guest houses have lockers that can be rented (in-room safes are not common). For security you will want to provide your own lock.
Be wary of buses traveling from Khao San Road to the southern islands. Pack all valuables on your person. The ultra-cheap buses that run (typically overnight) from the capital to the southern islands have earned a bad reputation for theft. Bags are typically stowed below the passenger cabin and you can safely assumed that at some point during your trip they will be peeked into. Do not, in any circumstance, leave anything in your big pack that you would be upset to lose. In the world of overnight bus travel we’ve also heard of people crawling down the aisle while passengers are asleep, lifting items that have been stowed on the ground. Avoid that by packing a silk sleeping bag liner. Keep your carry-on bag within the liner and try to get some shut-eye.
Don’t bring valuables to the beach. Unless you have a friend who can watch your stuff while you take a dip, don’t dare leave anything of value unattended on the beach. This rookie mistake is made on beaches the world over.
Full moon parties are notorious for theft. Only bring what you need and only as much cash as you will spend.
Luggage locks tells thieves that you’re aware of petty theft but don’t think that they can’t easily be picked by professionals.
Demonstrate proper etiquette
⋄ Never rest your chopsticks upright in a dish of food. In many Asian cultures this is symbolic in a funerary context.
⋄ Never step on a coin to stop it from rolling. The royal family is revered and respected, and to step on the face of a runaway coin would be considered very offensive.
⋄ Never touch the head of a Thai person or pass an item directly above one.
⋄ Dress respectfully when visiting temples. Wear pants and cover the shoulders.
Q: Can I drink the tap water?
A: No. But don’t worry, affordable bottled water is available everywhere.
Q: Should I avoid ice?
A: You may have the impression that you shouldn’t consume ice in foreign countries from media or advertising. Blended ice drinks and iced coffee are common throughout Southeast Asia, and if you’re spending an extended length of time in the region we suspect you’ll become comfortable consuming it. The standard way to tell if ice has been made from filtered water is if the cube has a hole in it. Due to the fact that tap water is not potable, it makes no sense that local restaurants would make ice from it. At the end of the day, if you aren’t comfortable with consuming something (whether it be ice, meat or street food) then it’s quite simple – don’t.
Q: Are there laundromats? How will I clean my clothes?
A: Oh newbie backpacker, it’s so much better than you can imagine. Have your clothes laundered for you for about one dollar per pound.
Q: What’s the best place to learn to dive?
A: Koh Tao
Q: What should I do for cash?
A: ATMs are plentiful. Ask your bank in advance what type of fees you will incur each time you withdraw money. Advise them of your plans to travel, and don’t forget to call your credit card provider to set a travel note on your account. Failure to do so may freeze your card as a sudden, foreign transaction may appear fraudulent to the system.
Q: I only have two weeks, where should I go?
A: I answered this question in this post: 2 Weeks in Thailand – Where Should I go?
Q: How do I pronounce Phuket and Koh Phi Phi?
A: Poo-ket and Ko-pee-pee