Your experience traveling through Thailand depends greatly on the amount of research you do before you venture overseas. It is a very nuanced country whose culture is full of etiquette do’s and dont’s and tricks of the trade as far as avoiding getting caught up in local tourist traps and scams (both of these I’ll talk about in this entry). There are also definite places to see vs. places to skip, but I’ll save that topic for a different day’s work. Once you understand the basics, Thailand is a beautiful and picturesque backdrop to, quite possibly, the best vacation of your life!
Perhaps the easiest and most fundamental key to traveling in Thailand is to avoid being around, possessing, talking about, asking about, or even alluding to anything drug-related. While this rule may be a good one to abide by in any foreign land, it rings especially true in Thailand. Over the years, the country has been getting increasingly overzealous in its anti-drug campaign – and because much of Thailand’s borders are burdened with drug smuggling this issue is exasperated. Even though Thailand is generally a laid back place, the local police have begun to randomly drug test travelers in bars and arrest travelers for possession or positive tests. This tid-bit of information is not meant to scare anyone away, nor should it be reason to avoid Thailand. Just be smart…and maybe watch Brokedown Palace.
The people of Thailand are some of the friendliest people you will encounter on your travels, which I guess is why the country is sometimes referred to as, “the land of smiles.” Nevertheless, here are some social norms that, if followed, should keep em smiling: keep the PDA’s to a minimum – you may see Westernized Thai teens holding hands, but generally, that is the extent; keep your shirt on – no topless sunbathing ladies; Thailand is a deeply religious culture, so respect it – while it is OK to wear shoes around the grounds of Buddhist temples, once you enter a building men and women should remove their shoes and make sure their legs and shoulders are covered – also, don’t go strutting around sans shirt in the town’s streets, bars or restaurants; keeping with religious values, Thai’s consider the head as the highest part of the body, literally and figuratively and they don’t approve of touching anyone on the head, even as a friendly gesture; along the same line of thought, Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch (or be touched) by a woman, or to accept anything from the hand of one; don’t point the sole of your foot at anyone – it’s considered rude – so try to avoid doing this when sitting opposite someone and don’t use your foot to point at things. Lastly, the Thailand culture has no tolerance for confrontation…if any misunderstanding does arrise, demur and settle it with a smile.
In the Thai culture, they don’t shake hands, instead using the traditional greeting, the “Wai,” which is used instead of a handshake, but also as a means of saying sorry, thank you, or to pay respect. A Thai person will often Wai as he approaches a temple, Buddha image, or other item of religious significance. When you are introduced to someone who Wais you, it is polite to return the Wai. As you are walking through towns and villiages, small children will often Wai as you pass by – they love it if you return the gesture with a big smile. (Note: If you receive a “thank you” Wai from a hotel employee or after tipping a waitress it is inappropriate to return the Wai, but a smile is always welcome!)
Most of Thailand is gracious and welcoming, but, as in any culture, there are some people out to make a buck any way that they can. Taking a few precautions will save you money in the long fun. If you get into a taxi and the driver refuses to turn on the meter, even if they use the language barrier as an excuse, simply thank them with a smile and get out to find another one.
Local Thais, mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings, will offer to act as your local guide to show you the “local” sights that many tourists miss out on. While many of these offers are genuine and allow you to see a side of Thailand that would otherwise be skipped over, some want to make off with your money and leave you high and dry. Often times, the legitimate ones will photocopy your passport and leave it with someone. It’s best to listen to your gut instinct or visit travel forums to get specific names of guides – although locating them once in Thailand can be tricky.
Overall, Thailand has much to do, is accommodating to travelers, and is full of cultural, religious, and artistic sights. Be prepared for hot and humid weather and venture out to see what Thailand has to offer you!