I’m on the plane for another ten hours from Taipei to Los Angeles, so I might as well take the time to write a meaty post. A friend is planning to take her whole family to Thailand next summer, so I thought I’d post a few Thai travel tips.
I’m not an expert but after this third visit, I’ve spent a combined nine weeks in Thailand – seven of which have been in Bangkok. Most of what I’ll write applies to Bangkok, but seems to hold true for other towns, like Chiang Mai and Krabi.
To begin with, Thailand is an amazingly easy and cheap place to travel. People are friendly, the food is excellent, you have access to massive amounts of ancient and contemporary culture, the shopping is out of the world, and there are deep jungles, rugged mountains, and warm inviting beaches. There are really only two main difficulties with traveling in Thailand: It is always hot and the flight over usually costs about $1000 US.
The heat is bearable, but make no mistake, it gets hotter than you have probably ever experienced. The peak season is winter: November, December and January, but Thai winter is still hot by anybody else’s standards, it’s just more mild than the rest of the year. I’m flying home after two weeks of visiting in January and I had to jump in the pool several times a day to keep my temp down. Starting in February it gets increasingly hotter until it peaks in April. I’ve been in Bangkok in April – there are fewer tourists, but expect to have a gleam of sweat on your brow 24/7. Then May, June, and July are the rainy season. The rain breaks up the heat, but it will feel steamy. August, September, and October is considered monsoon season, but depending on the year this can mean more or less the same amount of rain as rainy season. Rainy season is not necessarily a bad time to visit, because the rain generally comes in passing storm bursts. Keep in mind though that during rainy season your feet will get wet and that brings the slightly higher chance of getting worms.
The heat is a little more difficult to deal with because of Thai cultural propriety, meaning that women (and often men too) generally keep their shoulders covered. Women usually wear knee-length skirts or pants. While this rule can be more relaxed at the beach or when in an area frequented by lots of fareng (foreigners), it is must for entering temples and royal palaces. I see lots of fareng wearing tank tops, and even some young Thai hipsters, but if you are looking to be respectful, you’ll want to dress more like the Thai.
What to Bring
For men, it’s easy: longer shorts and t-shirts fit the bill. For women, the best way to keep cool is to bring or buy thin short-sleeved cotton blouses; the thinner and lighter the better. Very light India cotton, which happens to be popular right now, works very well. A light, flouncy skirt or cotton capris work well for bottoms. You may want to bring one pair of lightweight full-length pants and one lightweight long-sleeve top purely for mosquito protection and for the remote possibility of a cool night. Jeans don’t work: too hot and heavy.
For shoes, you will want at least one pair of flip flops or open toe shoes. The Thai, especially in Bangkok, tend to be stylish and dress up, so you will rarely see women wearing flip-flops unless they are street vendors, but I find them the easiest. Thai sidewalks are a treacherous, uneven lot and you will probably be walking a lot so your footwear needs to be sturdy. Sturdy shoes are the one thing that might be difficult or expensive to buy in Thailand, so choose what you bring carefully.
That said, bring as little as you can possibly manage. Really. I mean, 2-3 tops and 2 bottoms, five pairs of underwear, 2 bathing suits, one pair long pants, one long-sleeve shirt, your camera, and your toiletries. You can buy whatever your heart desires in Thailand and for very, very cheap. Clothes are available at every street market and start at 99 baht a piece ($3 a shirt etc). Right now the Thai are mourning the passing of the king’s sister (until March sometime) so the markets are flooded with black and white clothes. The rest of the time, those same stalls might have the ever-popular yellow polo shirt, which is worn to show love for the king. Polo shirts are a popular style, but unfortunately not one that suits me.
And more on what to bring: if you are visiting somebody in Thailand it would be nice to bring them a bottle of red wine. The wine in Thailand is very expensive – it must not be the right kind of weather to grow grapes. I bought my wine at Costco and packed it in my luggage which was considerably cheaper than picking it up at duty-free.
What to Eat
Fruit is plentiful and cheap in Thailand all times of the year. Street vendors will sell pineapple, guava, watermelon, green mango, and more, all peeled, sliced and ready to eat for 10-30 baht (.25-$1)
Probably because it’s too hot to cook most of the time, Thai people love to eat out, and that does not mean anything fancy. Some of your best meals will be got for under a dollar from a street vendor: pad thai, noodle soups, chicken satay, banana pancakes, roast duck and rice, anything you want. Most vendors will include rice and some green vegetable (usually steamed morning glory) with a take-away dish. Often even the street vendors will whip out a folding table and a plastic stool if you are staying to eat.
Slightly more conventional are the little restaurants on every street corner; they sometimes hard to distinguish from the street vendors because the “kitchen” is at the front of the restaurant on the sidewalk, but there will be tables and plastic stools inside a building.
Basically I watch which places have the most Thai customers eating and then watch a few people order. If they don’t speak English I point to what the last customer got.
7-Elevens abound and are good places to pick up coconut yogurts, a quick ice cream, or a drink – although drinks are sold (in plastic bags, not cups) on the street as well. It’s also a good place to break larger bills. ** Carry lots of small bills of shopping and eating on the soi (street).
There are, of course, regular restaurants with air-conditioning too. Expect to pay slightly more, but still less than in the US. If you are craving western food, expect to pay western prices.
Also, most malls have extensive and delicious food courts.
The BTS (the sky train) gets you around with air-conditioned speed. Buy a pass and learn the map; it’s easy and there are only two lines.
For local jaunts there are tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis. The tuk-tuks are fun for short rides; they are basically three-wheeled golf carts. Motorcycle taxis are useful if you have nerves of steel and want to get somewhere fast. Motorcycle taxi drivers can be distinguished by their orange vests. Ask the price FIRST, as there is no meter system for either tuk-tuks or motorcycles.
The river boat is the most fun – you can get on down at Saphan Taksin and ride all the way up to Wat Pho. It’s very cheap, but you have to move fast to hop on and off. A ticket collector will get your ticket once the boat has started moving.
There are taxis too, but Bangkok has notoriously bad traffic, so they are not always the best way to get around. Of course you need them to get to some places, like the airport (250 baht plus the highway toll 65 baht) and Chinatown.
Learn to count in Thai and plan to haggle with every street purchase. You’re a fool if you pay the price they ask.
You will stumble across an open-air market at practically every BTS station. Victory Monument has a big one that goes on all night too.
MBK is huge air-conditioned mall with a stall-like feel and prices inside. It is very geared towards tourists. There will not be much haggling here. Food court is on the top floor.
Chatachuk is the granddaddy of all outdoor markets. It is MASSIVE. It’s only open on the weekends. It will be hot and crowded but you can get anything from live chickens to porcelain vases there. It’s at the end of the BTS line at Mo Chit – you’ll have to shuffle along with the crowds, but you won’t want to miss it.
Suan Lum Night Bazaar is nice because it’s cooler in the evening. It is smaller and slightly more upscale than Chatachuk.
The famous Thai massage style is traditionally called Wat Pho style – and you can go to the actual temple/massage school and get a massage there or take a class if you like. However, I’ve never had a massage I didn’t like in Thailand. Usually your feet will be washed and you will be given loose clothing to wear. A standard massage right now costs 300 baht ($10) and lasts 1 1/2 hours. Get one as soon as you arrive; I believe it helps you acclimate.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any Thai massages this time around; Thai massage focuses heavily on the legs and feet and there are many acupressure points that stimulate labor, so pregnant women don’t get massaged… (That’s a lie; Sue treated me to a scalp massage, but it wasn’t quite the same…)
What to See
Buy a Lonely Planet Guide. My first trip I did the main temples, Jim Thompson House, Aruttaya, rode an elephant, trekked, kayaked, etc. All of it was good, but these days I prefer to stay away from the more touristy things. I prefer wandering the streets to get to a good restaurant on a tip or shopping for some arcane thing…