10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to Thailand

After spending a couple of weeks exploring Bangkok and the surrounding areas, I noticed quite a few things about Thai culture and customs that I felt were worth mentioning. Especially because American (or western) culture differs so much from many Asian cultures. Here are my top 10 things I believe you should know before you go to Thailand.

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1.  Do not touch people on the tops of their heads.

First things first, I know it is not common for people to walk around touching strangers heads. But this is a good custom to take note of. The primary religion in Thailand is Buddhism. Buddhism focuses on personal enlightenment. Since God is above you, nothing should come between you and God. So placing your hand over someone’s head (even children) to play with their hair or anything else is considered deeply disrespectful.

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2. Shoes are not allowed inside…private spaces.

One of my favorite things to do is run around barefoot. Imagine my surprise when I found out that shoes are hardly ever worn in Thailand! Feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body – to the point that it is considered rude to point at things with your feet or use your foot to pick something up. Like most places around the world, shoes are taken off at the door of a home. Thailand goes one step further and many hostels will not allow shoes to be worn even in the lobby area. In the Buddhist temples, shoes must be taken off at the door and either left there or placed in a plastic bag. No shoes = no problem for me.

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3. Do not flush toilet paper down the toilet.

In America, I think people try to flush just about anything down a toilet that will fit. Toilet paper is a common thing to use and flush away. But in Thailand, the pipes are much too small for anything other than natural waste to go down. Don’t worry too much about this one, there’s signs in just about every bathroom reminding you of this bathroom quirk.

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4. Always tell the taxi driver to use the meter, and be prepared to be denied a ride.

I always figured money made is money earned (woo capitalism!). In Thailand, there’s times you will tell the taxi driver where you want to go, and they will say it is too far for them to drive or it’s too short. Sometimes they will not take you because it is rush hour. I have yet to have a problem with a taxi driver in the smaller neighborhoods but if you’re in the city center of Bangkok or any tourist area, drivers may be more selective on who they want to give a ride to. Always always always tell them you want the meter on. If you do not, they will try to charge you so much more for the ride than it is worth. Sometimes taxis will say “no meter”, if this is the case, close the door and move on. That taxi driver will be more of a headache to deal with than he’s worth.

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5. Scams are everywhere, so be cautious of tourist areas.

Let’s talk scams. Other than the taxi trying to scam you out of precious money, you’ll have tuk tuk drivers, taxi drivers, boat drivers, or even some “tour guides” try to scam nice-looking foreigners. First example is above with taxi drivers wanting to not use the meter. Second, drivers will tell you things are closed to try and take you to another place (probably a place their friend owns). Once, a couple of girls I was staying with went to the Grand Palace, as they were looking for the entrance, a man went up to them and told them it was closed but they could go somewhere around the corner. Before they knew it they were swept up in a tuk tuk and taken to a temple they had no intention of seeing. They were then taken to the river and charged for a boat to get across and when they were across, a lady told them there was a “landing” fee. Just for reference the Grand Palace is open every day from 8:30 am – 3:30 pm unless there is a big national event (and you’ll know if this is happening). The key to avoid being scammed is to do your research to make sure when and if something is open. And don’t be afraid to firmly tell someone no and to leave you alone. No one can force you to do something you do not want to do.

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6. Don’t be afraid to try as much street food as possible.

The food in Thailand is amazing. There’s so many different combinations of vegetables, meats, rice, and noodles. I have yet to eat any Thai food that wasn’t delicious. The benefit of staying and volunteering in Thailand means I get to eat homemade authentic Thai food for lunch every day. And the fact I never had a meal repeated in two weeks tells you a lot about what you can do with even only a few items. Street food can be off-putting because, well, it’s cooked on a cart in the street (unlike in a kitchen in a restaurant). But many of these carts will have tables set up around them so you can sit and eat there. It’s so cheap it’s hard to pass up and it’s so tasty you won’t regret stopping.

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7. Spicy…means SPICY.

Spicy in Thai is phet. If there’s no other word you learn other than Sawadee (hello), it should be mai phet (no spicy). Unless you’ve grown up shoveling chili powder into your mouth the way the Thais do, it’s better to tell all those street food venders mai phet until you know how much spice you can really handle.

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8. Negotiations are key.

10 baht for a stick of meat? Sure. 40 baht for a tuk tuk ride around the corner? Alright. 200 baht to get from Wat Pho to Khao San Road? No thank you. 

Street venders will try to sell you anything and everything but never feel like full price is the only price (unless it is a large store with set prices). Negotiations with tuk-tuk drivers are even necessary. Markets expect to haggle with customers. Once, a girl I was with needed her phone fixed. The first price quoted to her was 3000 baht, after some negotiations, a price of 1300 baht was offered. We went to another stand and got it done for 1000 baht. When purchasing your first pair of elephant pants, know that for the very thin kind you see all over the place, you should not pay more than 100 baht for them. Which means, the more you negotiate, the better you’ll become at it. It’s a life skill people go to business college to obtain and you can practice it daily just a hop-skip-and jump away in Thailand.

 

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9. Motorcycles rule this country.

In Thailand, budgets are tight for the average earner (Probably why they are so eager to scam you). It’s MUCH more affordable to own a motorcycle than to buy a car. It’s also easier to get around the city in one. It’s impossible that you will turn a corner in Thailand and not see a motorbike (whether it’s a scooter, moped, or motorcycle). These motorcyclists drive weaving through cars, on sidewalks, and virtually anywhere their bike will fit through. They are always at the start of the line a a light and will be the first to jump out in front of you. There’s even motorbike taxis that will eagerly take you to your destination for a negotiated price. If you are to take a ride from someone on a motorcycle (that isn’t a friend), make sure they are wearing an orange vest that indicates they are a licensed driver and make their living driving people around. Anyone else, might try to scam you.

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10. It’s hot…like really hot. And bug spray will become your long lost BFF.

The coolest season in Thailand will still feel hot to most visitors. Their cool season will only vary a couple of degrees less than their regular seasons. Because of all the rivers, jungles, and oceans along with the hot and humid air, it’s a natural breeding ground for all things insects. Although you won’t find monster insects like you see in the horror stories about Australia, mosquitos are everywhere. Every morning before I go out I put on my traveler’s perfume and lotion myself up with bug repellent. So far, every time I wear it on all my exposed skill, I haven’t had any bites. Don’t let the bugs and the heat dissuade you from taking a trip to Thailand though – every part of this country is amazing to see and it’s worth smelling like bug spray for a few hours a day (plus you don’t notice it after the first five minutes, promise!)

 

Bonus! Thai people are some of the friendliest and nicest people you’ll meet.

While in Kanchanaburi, a couple of girls and I were lost trying to find the bus station. We stopped a man in the street to ask for directions. Instead of brushing us off and saying “I don’t know”. He went to a shop keeper, asked them for directions, so he could help us. Another time, when I went to pay my taxi driver, I set my phone down and ended up leaving it. I had crossed the street to go to the 7-11 before I noticed. I counted the phone as lost and was thinking of how to get a new one, when *bam* the taxi driver was in front of me honking at me and waving me down. He had turned around to give me my phone back and then gave me his business card in case I ever needed another ride.

I know I talked a lot about scams. There are people that will try to take advantage, but don’t let those few bad apples spoil your whole time. Everyone in Thailand will smile at you (a fairly agreeable custom) and those that speak English will do their best to chat with you and give you tips. Help and a smile are easy to find in this country.

 

If you have any travel tips of your own for Thailand (or quirky customs you noticed), leave them in the comments below!

Until next time, happy travels everyone!

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