Thailand is a country in South-East Asia with coasts on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. It borders Myanmar (Burma) to the north-west, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the south-east and Malaysia to the south.
With great food, a tropical climate, fascinating culture and, hey, great beaches, Thailand is a magnet for travellers the world over.
Thailand's 76 provinces can be conveniently divided into five geographic and cultural regions.
North - Chiang Mai, hill tribes, and the Golden Triangle
Isaan - the great undeveloped north-east - get off the beaten track and discover backcountry Thailand and some magnificent Khmer ruins
Central - Bangkok, lowlands and historic Thailand
East - beaches and islands within easy reach of Bangkok, and, oh yes, Pattaya
South - hundreds of kilometers of coastline and countless islands on both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, plus Phuket, Krabi, Ko Samui, Ko Tao and many more of Thailand's famous beach spots
Bangkok - Thailand's bustling, frenetic capital
Ayutthaya - a historical city, world heritage site and old capital of Thailand
Chiang Mai - the capital of the North and the heart of Lanna culture
Chiang Rai - gateway to the Golden Triangle
Hat Yai - largest city in the Southern region
Kanchanaburi - home of the Bridge over the River Kwai
Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) - main city in the Isaan region
Pattaya - one of the main tourist destinations
Sukhothai - Thailand's first capital
Islands & beaches:
Ko Chang - once quiet island undergoing major tourism development
Ko Lanta - sleepy island near Krabi
Ko Pha Ngan - site of the famous Full Moon Party with miles of quiet coastline
Ko Phi Phi - backpacker favorite where The Beach was filmed
Ko Samet - the nearest island beach escape from Bangkok
Ko Samui - hippie mecca gone upmarket
Ko Tao - where the world learns to scuba dive
Phuket - the original Thai paradise island
Rai Leh - stunning beach by the limestone cliffs of Krabi
Ang Thong National Marine Park - in Surat Thani Province
Khao Yai National Park - in Isaan
Ko Chang National Park - in Trat Province
Similan Islands - in Phang Nga province
Tarutao National Park - in Satun Province
Thailand is the most popular tourist destination in South-East Asia, and for a reason. You can find almost anything here: thick jungle as green as can be, crystal blue beaches that feel more like a warm bath than a swim in the ocean and food that can curl your nose hairs while tap dancing across your taste buds. Exotic, yet safe and largely hassle-free; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beach front backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential Thainess, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle. Many travelers come to Thailand and extend their stay well beyond their original plans and others never find a reason to leave. Whatever your cup of tea is, they know how to make it Thailand.
This is not to say that Thailand doesn't have its downsides, including the considerable growing pains of an economy where an agricultural laborer is lucky to earn 40 baht per day while the nouveau riche cruise past in their BMWs, and a highly visible sex tourism industry. Bangkok, the capital, is notorious for its traffic jams and rampant development has wrecked much of once-beautiful Pattaya and Phuket. In heavily touristed areas, some lowlifes have made scamming tourists into an art form.
A unified Thai kingdom was established in the mid-14th century. Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is the only South-East Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power, and fiercely proud of the fact. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. In alliance with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US ally following the conflict. After a string of military dictatorships and quickly toppled civilian Prime Minister, Thailand finally stabilized into a fair approximation of a democracy and the economy, hobbled by the 1997 Asian economic crisis, is booming once again. Above it all presides the King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world's longest-reigning monarch and a deeply loved and respected figure of near-mythic proportions.
In September 2006, a swift and bloodless military coup overthrew the previous democratically elected but widely criticized government, promising elections in late 2007. Although martial law still applies and political gatherings are restricted, there has been no violence, no curfews are in effect, there is no longer any significant military presence in public places, and all services are functioning normally.
Thailand is largely tropical, so it's hot and humid all year around with temperatures in the 28-35°C range (82-95°F), a degree of relief provided only in the mountains in the far north of Thailand. The careful observer will, however, note three seasons:
Cool: From November to the end of February, it doesn't rain much and temperatures are at their lowest, although you will barely notice the difference in the south and will only need to pack a sweater if hiking in the northern mountains, where temperatures can fall as low as 5°C. This is the most popular time to visit and, especially around Christmas and New Year's, finding flights and accommodation can be expensive and difficult.
Hot: From March to June, Thailand swelters in temperatures as high as 40°C (104°F). Pleasant enough when sitting on the beach with a drink in hand, but not the best time of year to go temple-tramping in Bangkok.
Rainy: From July to October, although it only really gets underway in September, tropical monsoons hit most of the country. This doesn't mean it rains non-stop, but when it does it pours and flooding is not uncommon.
There are local deviations to these general patterns. In particular, the south-east coast of Thailand (including Ko Samui) has the rains reversed, with the peak season being May-October and the rainy off season in November-February.
Thailand's people are largely Thais, although there are significant minorities of Chinese and assimilated Thai-Chinese throughout the country, Muslims in the south near the Malaysian border and hill tribes such as the Karen and the Hmong in the north of the country. The overwhelmingly dominant religion (95%) is Theraveda Buddhism, although Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and animist faiths also jostle for position.
Mainland Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand's Buddhists follow the Therevada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable thanks to their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous and becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men.
One pre-Buddhist tradition that still survives is the spirit house (ศาลพระภูมิ saan phraphuum), usually found at the corner of any house or business, which houses spirits so they don't enter the house and cause trouble. The grander the building, the larger the spirit house, and buildings placed in particularly unlucky spots may have very large ones. Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok, which protects the Erawan Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Erawan) - built in 1956 on a former execution ground - and is now one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the city.
Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country's best known indigenous sport.
In addition to the mainland Thai culture, there are many other cultures in Thailand including those of the "hill tribes" in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand (e.g., Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the southern Muslims, and indigenous island peoples of the Andaman Sea.
In addition to the Gregorian calendar, Thailand also uses the Thai solar calendar, which is 543 years ahead. Thus, Thai year 2550 corresponds to the Western year 2007. Thai dates in English are often written as B.E., short for "Buddhist Era".
Some Thai holidays are still calculated with the older Thai lunar calendar, so their dates change every year.
Thailand has a lot of holidays, mostly related to Buddhism and the monarchy. Nobody celebrates all of them, except for banks, which seem to be closed a lot.
Makha Bucha (มาฆบูชา) - falls on the full moon in of the fourth Lunar month, which usually falls in February or March, and commemorates the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 people before the Buddha, which led to their ordination and subsequent enlightenment. At temples in Bangkok and throughout Thailand, Buddhists carry candles and walk around the main shrine three times in a clockwise direction.
During Chinese New Year (ตรุษจีน), Chinese Thais, who are numerous in Bangkok, celebrate by cleaning their houses and offering food to their ancestors. This is, mainly, a time where feasts are abound. Visit Bangkok's Chinatown or Yaowarat to fully embrace the festivity.
Songkran (สงกรานต์) - undoubtedly the most fun holiday - is the celebration of the Thai New Year, sometime in April (officially April 13th to 15th, but the date varies in some locations). What started off as polite ritual to wash away the sins of the prior year has evolved into the world's largest water fight, which lasts for three full days. Water pistols and Super Soakers are advised and are on sale everywhere. The best places to participate are Chiang Mai, the Khao San Road area in Bangkok and holiday resorts like Pattaya, Ko Samui and Phuket. Be advised that you will get very wet, this is not a spectator sport. In recent years, the water-throwing has been getting more and more unpleasant as people have started splashing iced water onto each other. It is advisable to wear dark clothing, as light colors may become transparent when wet.
Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง) falls on the first full moon day in the twelveth month in Luna calendar, usually on November, when people head to rivers, lakes and even hotel swimming pools to float flower and candle-laden banana-leaf (or, these days, styrofoam) floats called krathong (กระทง). The krathong is meant as a thank you offering to the river goddess who gives life to the people. Thais also believe that this is a good time to float away your bad luck and many will place a few strand of hair or finger nail clippings in the krathong. According to tradition, if you make a wish when you set down your krathong and it floats out of sight before the candle burns out, your wish will come true. Some provinces have their own version of Loy Krathong, such as Sukhothai where a spectacular show takes place. To the North, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, have their own unique tradition of floating Kom or lit lanterns balloon. This sight can be breath-taking as the sky is suddenly filled with lights, rivaling the full moon.
Coronation Day (May 5) commemorates the crowning of the current King in 1950 (although his reign actually began on June 9 1946 - making him not only the longest-serving monarch in Thai history, but also the world's longest-serving current Head of State).
The King's Birthday (December 5) is the country's National Day and also celebrated as Father's Day, when Thais pay respect to and show their love for His Majesty the King. Buildings and homes are decorated with the King's flag (yellow with his insignia in the middle) and his portrait. Government buildings, as well as commercial buildings, are decorated with lights. In Old Bangkok (Rattanakosin) in particular, around the Royal Palace, you will see lavish light displays on trees, buildings, and the roads. The Queen's Birthday (August 12) is Mother's Day, and is celebrated similarly if with a little less pomp.
Tourism Authority of Thailand
Ordinary passport holders of most countries, including the United States, Canada, European Union countries, Russia, Japan and Australia, do not need a visa if their purpose of visit is tourism and if their stay does not exceed 30 days. Thai immigration requires visitors' passports to have a minimum of 6 months validity and at least one completely blank visa page remaining. Visa-on-arrival is available at certain entry points for passport holders of 20 other nations, including India and China. Check the latest scoop from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  By law, you must carry your passport with you at all times.
Proof of onward transit, long happily ignored by Thai immigration, has for unknown reasons been zealously enforced again since 2007. (Airlines, who have to pay for your return flight if immigration doesn't let you in, also check this.) A print-out of an e-ticket on a budget airline is sufficient to convince the enforcers, but those planning on continuing by land may have to get a little creative. Buying a fully refundable ticket and getting it refunded once in Thailand is also an option.
Overstaying in Thailand is dodgy. If you make it to Immigration and are less than 10 days over, you'll probably be allowed out with a fine of 500 baht per day. However, if for any reason you're busted overstaying by regular cops — and drug raids etc are fairly common — you'll be carted off to the notoriously unpleasant illegal immigrant holding pens and may be blacklisted from Thailand entirely. For most people it's not worth the risk: get a legal extension or do a visa run to the nearest border instead.
Bangkok is one of Asia's largest hubs; practically every airline that flies to Asia also flies to Bangkok, meaning competition is stiff and prices are low.
There are also international flights directly to/from Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Phuket, and Pattaya.
The national carrier is the well-regarded THAI Airways, with Bangkok Airways filling in some gaps in the nearby region. Bangkok Airways offers free internet access while you wait for boarding to start at your gate.
Many low-cost carriers serve Thailand - see Discount airlines in Asia for an up to date list.
For a full at-a-glance list of all Thai-based carriers, see the Thai airlines section (below).
 By road
Cambodia - six international border crossings. The highway from Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor via Poipet to Aranyaprathet, once the stuff of nightmares, is now merely bad and can usually be covered in less than 3 hours.
Laos - the busiest border crossing is at the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong between Nong Khai and the Lao capital Vientiane. It's also possible to cross the Mekong at Chiang Khong / Huay Xai, Nakhon Phanom / Tha Khaek, Mukdahan / Savannakhet, and elsewhere.
Malaysia and Singapore - driving up is entirely possible, although not with a rented vehicle. Main crossings (with name of town on Malaysian side in brackets) between Thailand and Malaysia are Padang Besar (Padang Besar) and Sadao (Bukit Kayu Hitam) in Songkhla province, Betong (Pengkalan Hulu) in Yala province, and Sungai Kolok (Rantau Panjang) in Narathiwat province. There are regular buses across the border, mostly to the southern hub of Hat Yai.
Mae Sai / Tachileik - foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here; no onward travel restrictions; to get to Tachileik or Kengtung from the rest of Myanmar, a domestic flight must be taken (eg from Heho).
Mae Sot / Myawaddy - foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; neither onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) nor overnight stays are possible. No visa needed; instead there's an entry stamp fee - USD10 if paid with USD notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency.
Three Pagodas Pass (Sangkhlaburi / Payathonzu) - foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) is not possible; entry/exit stamps are NOT issued here, and foreigners passports are held at the Myanmar checkpoint, where a fee is levied - USD10 if paid with USD notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency.
Ranong / Kawthoung - foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here; no onward travel restrictions (other than those that apply to everyone, no matter how they enter); access to/from Kawthoung is by sea (Mergui/Dawei & Yangon) and air (Mergui & Yangon). If entering without a visa, maximum stay is 3 days / 2 nights, travel beyond Kawthoung is not permitted, and there's an entry stamp fee - USD10 if paid with USD notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency.
Thailand's sole international train service links to Butterworth (near Penang) and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, continuing all the way to Singapore. Tickets are cheap even in first class sleepers, but it can be a slow ride; the 2-hour flight to Singapore will take you close to 48 hours by rail, as you have to change trains twice. The luxury option is to take the Eastern & Oriental Express , a refurbished super-luxury train that runs along the same route once per week, with gourmet dining, personal butler service and every other colonial perk you can think of. However, at around US$1000 one-way just from Bangkok to Butterworth, this is approximately 30 times more expensive than an ordinary first-class sleeper!
While you can't get to Laos or Cambodia by train, you can get very close, with railheads just across the border at Nong Khai (across the river from Vientiane) and Aranyaprathet (for Poipet, on the road to Siem Reap). There are plans to connect to both countries someday, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
There are no rail services to Myanmar, but the Thai part of the infamous Burma Death Railway is still operating near Kanchanaburi.
Ferries cross from Satun in southern Thailand to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, while over in Narathiwat province, a vehicular ferry shuttles between Tak Bai and Pengkalan Kubur, near Kota Bharu in Malaysia's Kelantan state.
There are also occasional cruises from Malaysia and Singapore to Phuket and Bangkok, the main operator being Star Cruises , but no scheduled services.
Thailand is a large country, and if sitting in a bus for 11 hours is not your idea of a fun time, you may well want to consider domestic flights. Never terribly expensive to begin with (at least by Western standards), the deregulation of the industry has brought in a crop of new operators: with a little research, it's possible to fly pretty much anywhere in the country for less than 2000 baht. Note that various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to "advertised" prices.
 Thai airlines
Bangkok Airways promotes itself as "Asia's Boutique Airline", and has a monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui, Sukhothai and Trat. Their Discovery Airpass with fixed per segment rates can be good value, especially if used to fly to Siem Reap (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang (Laos). Note that the Discovery Airpass can now only be purchased from abroad.
SGA Airline Now joint with Nok Air, is currently the only passenger carrier offering daily flights to/from Hua Hin Airport. New routes also between Chiang Mai-Pai, Chiang Mai-Mae Hong Sorn.
Nok Air took to the skies in 2004 sporting a lurid purple paint scheme with a bird's beak painted on the nose. Owned mostly by Thai Airways, they compete with Air Asia on price and, with a fairly comprehensive domestic network, are a pretty good choice overall.
One-Two-Go (part of Orient Thai Airlines) is a low-cost brand with 1-3 flights daily to a handful of domestic destinations. Their punctuality record is notoriously bad; the 747-100s they use are flying museum pieces (but mean there's usually room to spare); and their ticketing counters can be chronically congested (one-hour queues are not unusual, but if you just want to hop on the next flight, you can head to the express ticketing counter at check-in not less than 40 minutes before departure). One of their planes crashed in 2007, killing over 60 people.
PB Air flies domestically to Lampang, Nan, Mae Hong Son, Roi Et, Sakon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom, Buriram, Nakhon Si Thammarat, and also to Danang (Vietnam).
Thai AirAsia is a budget airline offering discounted tickets if booked well in advance, but prices rise steadily as planes fill up. They fly from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, as well as Cambodia, China and Macau, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, and Vietnam. Keep in mind the price displayed in your search results is only the base fare, additional "taxes and fees" mean the true price will be appreciably higher. On-line booking is straightforward but must be done at least twenty-four hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in desk close one hour before the departure time.
Thai Airways is the most reliable and frequent Thai airline, but also the most expensive. Unusually, little to no discount is given for flying return. Travel agents can usually sell only THAI Airways tickets; you can also book on-line.
State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has a 4000-km network covering most of the country, from Chiang Mai in the north all the way to (and beyond) the Malaysian border in the south. Compared to buses, most trains are relatively slow, but safer. Point-to-point fares depend on the type (speed) of the train and the class of the carriage. There are three main classes:
First class (chan neung) 2-berth sleeping compartments with individually regulated air conditioning are available on some trains, but prices are sometimes matched by budget airfares.
Second class (chan song) is a good compromise, costing about the same as 1st class buses and with a comparable level of comfort. Some 2nd class trains are air-con, others aren't; air-con costs a little more. Second class sleeper berths are comfortable and good value, with the narrower upper bunks costing a little less than the wider lower bunks. Food and WCs are basic. 2nd class Express Railcar trains have reclining seats and refreshments are included in the fare; unlike all other Thai passenger trains, they can match buses for speed, but cannot carry bicycles.
Third class (chan saam) is the cheapest way to travel in Thailand, with virtually nominal fares, and can be great fun. Sometimes packed with tuk-tuk drivers heading home with a sack of rice and a bottle of cheap whisky for company, as a farang (foreigner of European ancestry) you're guaranteed to be the center of attention - quite enjoyable in small doses, but 10 hours of this might be a bit much. Some 3rd class trains have wooden seats, others are upholstered; some services can be pre-booked, others cannot; refreshments are available from hawkers who roam the aisles.
Pre-booking is recommended, especially for sleeper berths. Many travel agencies will spare you the trouble of travelling to the station to buy tickets for a service fee (often 100 baht/ticket), or you can reserve with SRT directly by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org for a 200 baht/booking surcharge.
Thailand's roads are head and shoulders above its neighbors Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, but driving habits are still quite dangerous. Drunk driving, speeding and reckless passing are depressingly common, and bus and taxi drivers (especially for private companies) work inhuman shifts and often take drugs to keep themselves awake, with predictable and tragic results. It's common for motorbikes — even police! — to drive close to the curb on the wrong side of the road. Death tolls sky-rocket around major holidays, especially Songkhran, when bystanders often throw water on passing cars and bikes. Many drivers don't use headlights at night, multiplying risks, and it is wise to avoid or minimize overnight travel by road.
Note that unlike in its neighbours (except Malaysia), traffic moves on the left side of the road in Thailand and Thai cars are generally right-hand drive.
Buses travel throughout the country and the government's bus company BKS (บขส Baw Kaw Saw), known in English simply as the Transport Company, has a terminal in every town of any size.
Generally speaking, BKS buses are the best option for both price and comfort. There are also many private bus companies, who mainly compete on price and are less reliable in terms of amenities, schedules and safety. In particular, beware of non-government "VIP" buses, which may be nothing of the sort. A special subclass are the cheap Khao San Road buses, targeted at backpackers. These are the slimiest of the lot and you may find that your supposed VIP bus is in fact a cramped minivan - after paying in advance, that is.
The basic bus types are:
Local - relatively slow, can be cramped when full (nevertheless there's always room for one more), and stop at every village and cowshed along the way. Many are of larger songthaew flavour. Not suitable for long-distance travel, but may be the only cheap way to get around locally.
Express (rot duan) - skip some stops, but no other frills. Identifiable by their orange colour. Size varies, with the largest having around 65 seats (five seats per row) as well as an open space across the width of the bus by the back door for you to sling your rice / chickens / bicycle / backpack.
Second class (chan song) - skip more stops, but often take a less direct route than 1st class / VIP / S-VIP. Blue and white with an orange stripe, usually 45-48 seats per bus, air conditioned (some provide blankets, some do not), and most have no on-board toilet (however the frequent stops mean this isn't a problem).
First class (chan neung) - generally take the most direct routes and make very few stops. Blue and white in colour, air conditioned, blanket usually provided, fewer (larger, longer pitch) seats (typically 40, but some double-decker types seat 60+), snack and drinking water included. Most have a toilet on board (only very short haul services sometimes do not).
"VIP" - as per 1st class, but with only 32-34 seats, which have more leg room and recline further. Basic meal included and freshly laundered shrink-wrapped blanket provided. Also blue and white (or sometimes blue and silver) but usually signed "VIP".
"S-VIP" - Super-VIP is very similar to VIP, except there are only 24 seats, which are wider - the aisle is offset, each row having a pair of seats on the right and only a single seat on the left. Primarily used on overnight services.
Some buses may have TVs and sound systems blaring, so earplugs are well worth having, just in case.
On long-haul buses, if your ticket allocates you a front seat, you may have to switch seats if a monk boards.
A songthaew is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side. By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to someplace if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price of the ride before embarking.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose-built (eg the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). A relatively recent development is the four wheeled tuk-tuk (basically a microvan-songthaew) as found in Phuket.
Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok, but rare elsewhere in the country. When available, they are an excellent means of transport - insist on the meter. Beware of taxis which idle around touristy areas and wait for people. They are looking for a tourist who will take their taxi without using a meter. Always use the meter!
As is the case throughout virtually all of Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular type are the 100cc-125cc step-through models. These are very widely used as taxis, with fares starting from as low as 5 baht.
Motorcycles can be rented without difficulty in many locations. Rates start at around 150 baht/day for recent 100-125cc semi-automatic (foot operated gearchange, automatic clutch) step-through models, 200 baht/day for fully automatic scooters; larger capacity models can also easily be found, although the rates reflect the risks - up to around 2500 baht/day for the very latest model high capacity sport bikes, such as the Honda CBR1000RR. In all cases, lower prices will apply if paying upfront for more than a week or so; in some cases, long-distance travel may be prohibited. Motorcycle rentals do not include insurance, and both motorcycling accidents and motorbike thefts are common.
Many places will rent to you without requiring a license, but legally speaking you must have a valid Thai license or International Driver's Permit. Often a deposit will be required; sometimes a passport photocopy, or even the passport itself (don't do this- bargain to leave some baht instead), will be requested. Helmets are normally included, but are usually ultra-basic models with very flimsy chin-strap fasteners - if you're intending to travel by motorcycle and have a good quality helmet at home, then bring it with you. If supplied a helmet with a chin-cup (many cheap rental helmets are), slide the cup up the strap out of the way and securely fasten the bare strap directly under the jaw, as this is much safer.
Insurance is usually not included (or even available), so try to ensure in advance that the insurance you leave home with is going to cover you; alternatively, arrange cover with an insurance broker locally in Thailand. If you rent a vehicle without insurance and it's damaged or stolen, the bottom line is that you will be required to pay in full the cost of repairing or replacing it.
Motorcyclists (including passengers) are required to wear crash helmets and to keep their headlights switched on at all times. Enforcement varies widely, but in tourist areas spot checks for helmets and/or licences are commonplace. While the fines are light (typically 200 baht) the inconvenience can be considerable as offender's vehicle is impounded until the fine is paid, and the queue at the police station can be lengthy.
Some (but not all) border crossings allow motorcycles through. At those which do, documentation including proof of ownership must be produced (with the possible exception of day visits to Payathonzu, Myanmar via Three Pagodas Pass).
Driving your own car in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, and many rental companies can supply drivers at a very reasonable price. Prices without insurance for a self-driven car start from around 800 baht/day for small cars, and from as little as 600 baht/day for open-top jeeps; cars with insurance start at just under 1000 baht/day, and come down to around 5600 baht/week or 18000 baht/month.
Driving is (usually, but not always!) on the left hand side of the road. As of September 2007, fuel at large petrol stations is 27-30 baht/litre. Small kerbside vendors who pump by hand from drums and/or pour from bottles charge a few baht more.
Cars can be rented without difficulty in many locations. It's worth paying a little more than the absolute minimum in order to use one of the international franchises (eg Avis, Budget, Hertz) to minimize the risk of hassles, and to ensure that any included insurance is actually worth something.
More reputable agencies require that valid licences be produced: foreigners who do not have a Thai driving licence must carry a valid International Driving Permit. Even if you manage to rent a car without an IDP, not having one will invalidate the insurance and count against you in the event of an accident.
A common rental scam involves the owner taking a deposit, and then later refusing to refund it in full on the basis that the customer is responsible for previous damage; the Tourist Police (dial 1155) may be able to help. Another common scam involves the owner having someone follow the rented vehicle and later "steal" it, using a set of spare keys. Always report thefts: a "stolen" vehicle may mysteriously turn up as soon as the police become involved.
One of the Thais' many names for themselves is jao naam, the Water Lords, and from the river expresses of Bangkok to the fishing trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an indispensable way of getting around many parts of the country.
Perhaps the most identifiably Thai boat is the long-tail boat (reua hang yao), a long, thin wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long 'tail' stretching from the boat. This makes them supremely manouverable even in shallow waters, but they're a little underpowered for longer trips and you'll get wet if it's even a little choppy. Long-tails usually act as taxis that can be chartered, although prices vary widely - figure on 300-400 baht for a few hours' rental, or up to 1500 for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, long-tails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services as well as slower, sometimes overnight ferries also run from the mainland to popular islands like Ko Samui and the Phi Phi Islands. Truly long-distance services (eg. Bangkok to any other major city) have, however, effectively ceased to exist as buses, planes and even trains are faster. Safety measures are rudimentary and ferries and speedboats do sink occasionally, so avoid overloaded ships in poor weather, and scope out the nearest life jackets when on board.
Thailand's a big enough country that you can find a place to practice almost any outdoor sport. Some selections:
Golf - see the separate Golf in Thailand article
Rock climbing - the cliffs of Rai Leh in Krabi are arguably among the best in the world
Scuba diving - easily accessible Ko Tao (near Samui) draws the crowds, but also possible in Pattaya and Krabi, and the Similan Islands are worth the journey
Trekking - very popular up north around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
The official language of Thailand is Thai. There are dozens of small language groups in the tribal areas of the north, and a small number of places where Thai speakers are few and far between. Thai is a tonal language (think about the difference in your voice when saying "yes." versus "yes?" - that's tonal) which can make it tricky for Westerners to learn quickly, but despite this, everyone will appreciate any attempt you do make so pick up a phrase book and give it a go.
Public signage is generally bilingual, written in both Thai and English. There is also some prevalance of Japanese and Chinese signs. Where there is English, it is usually be fairly phonetic - for example "Sawatdee" (meaning hello) is pronounced just as it reads: sa-wat-dee. There is no universal agreement on how to transcribe Thai letters that don't have an English equivalent, so Khao San Road for example is also commonly spelt Kao Sarn, Kao Sahn, Khao San, Koh Saan, Khaosan, and many other variations. Maps with names in both Thai and English make it easier for locals to try and help you.
Most "front desk" people in the travel industry speak at least enough English to communicate, and many are relatively fluent; some also speak one or more other languages popular with their clientele, such as Chinese, Japanese, German, etc.
Many Thais have trouble pronouncing the consonant clusters of the English language. Common confusion comes from the fact that Thais often pronounce "twenty" as "TEH-wen-ty", making it sound like they're saying "seventy". Therefore it is a good idea to make use of the calculators that street vendors may offer you in order to avoid confusion about prices offered when buying goods.
The currency of Thailand is the baht (THB, ฿), written in Thai as บาท or บ. There are six coins and six notes:
25 and 50 satang (cent, copper colour) coins - nearly worthless and only readily accepted (and handed out) by supermarkets and 7-11s
1, 2 and 5 (silver colour) and 10 baht (silver/gold) coins
10 (brown - now very rare), 20 (green), 50 (blue), 100 (red), 500 (purple) and 1000 (grey-brown) baht notes
The most useful bills tend to be 20s and 100s, as many small shops and stalls don't carry much change. Taxi drivers also like to pull the "no change" trick; if caught, hop into the nearest convenience store and make a small purchase (or ask them for exchange).
ATMs can be found in all cities and large towns, and international withdrawals are not a problem. However, more remote areas (including smaller islands) don't have banks or ATMs, so cash or traveller's checks are essential. Many hotels and guest houses will change money for guests, but hefty commissions and poor rates may apply. US dollars in small bills (1s, 5s, and 20s) are invaluable for onward travel to neighbouring countries other than Malaysia, but are only useful in Thailand for exceptional purchases (eg paying visa fees for Cambodia).
Credit cards are widely accepted in the tourist industry, restaurant and shopping mall or widely used in Bangkok and major cities.
In a word, Thailand is cheap, and excellent value to boot: the combination of a weak currency, low labor costs and plenty of visitors means that everything a tourist could possibly want is both available and affordable. 800 baht will get a backpacker a dorm bed or cheap room, three square meals a day and leave enough for transport and sightseeing. Doubling that budget will let you stay in decent 3-star hotels, and if you're willing to fork out 4000 baht per day or more you can live like a king. Bangkok requires a more generous budget than upcountry destinations, but also offers by far the most competitive prices for shoppers who shop around. The most popular tourism islands such as Phuket and Ko Samui tend to have higher prices in general.
Thailand is a shopper's paradise and many visitors to Bangkok in particular end up spending much of their time in the countless markets and malls. Particularly good buys are clothing, both cheap locally produced streetwear and fancy Thai silk, and all sorts of handicrafts. Electronics and computer gear are also widely available, but prices are higher than in Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
A Thai speciality are the night markets found in almost every town, the largest and best-known of which include Suan Lum Night Bazaar in Bangkok and the Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai. Here a variety of vendors from designers to handicraft sellers have stalls selling goods which cannot normally be found in malls and day markets. Most night markets also have large open air food courts attached.
You can also find marvelously tacky modern clothing accessories. Witness pink sandals with clear plastic platform heels filled with fake flowers. Night markets along the main roads and Bangkok's Mahboonkrong (MBK) Mall, near the Siam skytrain stop, are particularly good sources.
Haggling is the norm and Thais will try to charge you as much as they think you can afford to pay. It's not uncommon to buy something, walk outside, and find somebody who bought the same item for half or one third what you paid (or even less). Try to figure out the item's rough value first — government-run fixed price shops and even hotel gift shops are a good starting point — and you'll find that prices drop drastically when the seller realizes you have some idea of what it costs.
See also: Electronics and entertainment shopping in Thailand
Thailand has a plethora of accommodation in every price bracket. Always take a look at the room (or better still several rooms) before agreeing a price.
Guesthouses are usually the cheapest option, costing under 200 baht per night (or less for a dorm bed). This gets you a room with a fan, a squat toilet (often shared) and not much else.
Thai hotels start around 200 baht and go up to around 800 baht. The upper end of this range will be air-conditioned, the lower end will not. The primary difference is that with a hotel room, your bathroom should be private, bed linen and towels should be provided, and there may be a hot shower.
Tourist hotels are generally around 1000 baht and offer the basics for a beach vacation: swimming pool, room service and colour TV.
Business and luxury hotels, 2000 baht and up, offer every modern amenity you can think of and are largely indistinguishable from hotels anywhere else in the world. Some, notably Bangkok's The Oriental and The Peninsula are among the world's best hotels. The most luxurious resorts also fall in this price category, with some of the very best and most private adding a zero to the price.
Teaching Certification in ESL (English as a Second Language)
The two main opportunities for work for foreigners are teaching English and dive instruction, but both are very competitive and dive masters in particular are paid a pittance. Finding any other kind of work in Thailand can be difficult, as wages are poor and a large number of occupations are legally off limits to non-Thais. Thai law requires foreigner to earn a quite high wage to be eligible for a work permit. Companies and school should assist their employees in obtaining the visa and work permit, but some school fear the extra work involved.
An excellent way to get to know and understand more of the country is to do some voluntary work. There are several organizations such as Thai-Experience and Travel to Teach that arrange work for international volunteers in Thailand and other countries in the region.
The food alone is really reason enough for a trip to Thailand. Curries, fruit shakes, stir fries, fresh fish made a zillion ways - and that's just the beginning. Food in Thailand can be as cheap and easy as 20 baht phat thai (Thai fried noodles) cooked at a street stall or as expensive and complicated as a $100 ten-course meal by a royal chef served in one of Bangkok's 5 star hotels.
Since most backpackers will be sticking closer to the first than the second, one of the great things about Thailand is that food from stalls and tiny sidewalk restaurants is usually quite safe. Unlike some Asian countries, travellers should worry more about overeating or too much curry spice than about unclean kitchens and bad food. In fact, street restaurants, where you can see what you'll get and everything is cooked on the spot (usually in a pool of germ- and diet-killing vegetable oil) can be a safe option.
Thai food is most commonly eaten with fork and spoon. Hold the spoon in your right hand and use it to eat, and reserve the fork for piling food onto your spoon. Chopsticks are only employed for noodle soups and Chinese-style dishes.
Thai food is meant for sharing. Everybody gets their own plate of rice and tiny soup bowl, but all the other dishes are laid out in the center of the table and you're free to eat what you wish. Though some people believe that taking the last piece from a shared plate is considered slightly unlucky, and you may hear people make wishes for others to compensate for their own misfortune — a popular wish is that "may my girl/boyfriend be beautiful"!
Thai cuisine is characterized by strong flavors, especially lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander, the combination of which gives Thai food its distinctive taste. In addition, Thai food has a deserved reputation for being spicy, with hot little torpedo-shaped chillies called phrik khii nuu (พริกขี้หนู, lit. "mouse shit chillies") making their way into many a dish. Thais are well aware that these can be more than Westerners can handle and will often ask if you like it hot (เผ็ด phet); answer "yes" at your own risk!
Thai dishes can be roughly categorized into central Thai food (around Bangkok), northern Thai food (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influence), north-eastern Thai food (from the Isaan region bordering with Laos) and southern Thai food (with heavy influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some better-known dishes; see Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
The Thai staple food is rice (ข้าว khao), so much so that in Thai eating a meal, kin khao, literally means "eat rice".
Khao suai (ข้าวสวย) or "beautiful rice" is the plain white steamed rice that serves as the base of almost every meal.
Khao phat (ข้าวผัด) is simple fried rice, usually with some pork (muu) or chicken (kai) mixed in.
Khao tom (ข้าวต้ม) is a salty and watery rice porridge served with condiments, quite popular at breakfast.
Khao nio (ข้าวเหนียว) or "sticky rice" is glutinous rice - usually eaten dry, traditionally by hand, with grilled/fried pork or chicken or beef.
Thais are great noodle eaters. The most common kind is rice noodles, served angel-hair (เส้นหมี่ sen mii), small (เส้นเล็ก sen lek), large (เส้นใหญ่ sen yai) and giant (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว kuay tio), but egg noodles (บะหมี่ ba mii), Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli (เกี๊ยว kio) and glass noodles made from mung beans (วุ้นเส้น wun sen) are also popular.
Unlike other Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a rack of four condiments, namely dried red chillies , fish sauce, vinegar and sugar which diners can add to their own taste.
Phat thai (ผัดไทย), literally "fried Thai", means thin rice noodles fried in a tamarind-based sauce. Ubiquitous, cheap and often excellent - and as an added bonus, it's usually chili-free!
Ba mii muu daeng (บะหมี่หมูเเดง) is egg noodles with slices of Chinese-style barbecued pork.
Kuai tio ruea (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ) is a rice noodle soup with a fiery pork blood stock and an assortment of offal. An acquired taste, but an addictive one.
Soups and curries
The line between soups (ต้ม tom, literally just "boiled") and curries (เเกง kaeng) is a little fuzzy, and many dishes the Thais call curries would be soups to an Indian. A plate of rice with a ladleful of a curry or two on top, known as khao kaeng (ข้าวเเกง), is a very popular quick meal if eating alone.
Tom yam kung (ต้มยำกุ้ง) is the quintessential Thai dish, a sour soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal. The real thing is quite spicy, but toned-down versions are often available on request.
Tom kha kai (ต้มข่าไก่) is the Thai version of chicken soup in a rich galangal-flavored coconut stock, with mushrooms and not a few chillies.
Kaeng daeng (เเกงเเดง, "red curry") and kaeng phet (เเกงเผ็ด, "hot curry") are the same dish and, as you might guess, this coconut-based dish can be spicy. Red curry with roast duck (kaeng pet yaang เเกงเป็ดย่าง) is particularly popular.
Kaeng khio-waan (เเกงเขียวหวาน), sweet green curry, is a coconut-based curry with strong accents of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Usually milder than the red variety.
Kaeng som (เเกงส้ม), orange curry, is more like tamarind soup than curry, usually served with pieces of herb omelette in the soup.
Thais like their mains fried (ทอด thot or ผัด phat) or grilled (yaang ย่าง). Fish, in particular, is often deep-fried until the meat turns brown and crispy.
Ka-phrao kai (กะเพราไก่), literally "basil chicken" is a simple but intensely fragrant stirfry made from peppery holy basil leaves, chillies and chicken.
About the only thing Thai salads (ยำ yam) have in common with the Western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. A uniquely Thai flavor is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chillies - the end result can be very spicy indeed!
Som tam (ส้มตำ), a salad made from shredded and pounded raw papaya is often considered a classic Thai dish, but it actually originates from neighboring Laos. However, the Thai version is less sour and more sweet than the original, with peanuts and dried shrimp mixed in.
Yam ponlamai (ยำผลไม้) is Thai-style fruit salad, meaning that instead of canned maraschino cherries it has fresh fruit topped with oodles of fish sauce and chillies.
Yam som-o (ยำส้มโอ) is an unusual salad made from pomelo (a mutant version of grapefruit) and anything else on hand, often including chicken or dried shrimp.
Yam wunsen (ยำวุ้นเส้น) is perhaps the most common yam, with glass noodles and shrimp.
Thais don't usually eat "dessert" in the Western after-meal sense, although you may get a few slices of fresh fruit (ผลไม้ ponlamai) for free at fancier places, but they certainly have a finely honed sweet tooth.
Khanom (ขนม) covers a vast range of cookies, biscuits, chips and anything else snackable, and piles of the stuff can be found in any Thai office after lunch. One common variety called khanom khrok (ขนมครก) is worth a special mention: these are little lens-shaped pancakes of rice and coconut, freshly cooked and served by street vendors everywhere.
Khao nio ma-muang (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง) means "sticky rice with mango", and that's what you get, with some coconut milk drizzled on top. Filling and delicious and an excellent way to cool the palate after a spicey Thai dish!
Waan yen (หวานเย็น), literally "sweet cold", consists of a pile of ingredients of your choice (including things like sweet corn and kidney beans) topped with syrup, coconut cream and a pile of ice, and is great for cooling down on a hot day or after a searing curry.
Vegetarians won't have too many problems surviving in Thailand, with one significant exception: fish sauce (น้ำปลา naam plaa) is to Thai cuisine what soy sauce is to Chinese food, and keeping it out of soups, curries and stir-fries will be a challenge.
That said, Thailand is a Buddhist country and vegetarianism is a fairly well-understood concept, especially among Chinese Thais (many of whom eat only vegetarian food during several festivals). Tofu is a traditional Thai ingredient and they aren't afraid to mix it up in some non traditional dishes such as omelettes (with or without eggs), submarine sandwiches, and burritos. Since Thai dishes are usually made to order, it's easy to ask for anything on the menu to be made without meat or fish. Bangkok features several fantastic veggie and vegan restaurants, but outside of big cities make sure to check that your idea of "veggie" matches the chef's.
Some key phrases for vegetarians:
phom kin je (m) / di-chan kin je (f) ผม(ดิฉัน)กินเจ "I eat only vegetarian food"
karunaa mai sai naam plaa กรุณาไม่ใส่น้ำปลา "Please don't use fish sauce"
Thailand has a large number of indigenous restaurant chains offering much the same fare as your average street stall, but with the added advantages of air conditioning, printed menus (often in English) and some semblance of hygiene. All the chains are heavily concentrated in Bangkok, but larger cities and popular tourist spots may have an outlet or two.
MK and Coca are near-ubiquitous chains specializing in what the Thais call suki, perhaps better known as "hotpot" or "steamboat". A cauldron boils in the middle of your table, you buy ingredients (10-30 baht a pop) and brew your own soup. The longer you spend, the better it tastes, and the bigger the group you're with, the more fun this is!
S&P  outlets are a bakery, a café and a restaurant all rolled into one, but their menu's a lot larger than you'd expect: it has all the Thai mainstays you can think of and then some, and most all of it is good. Portions are generally rather small, with prices mostly in the 50-100 baht range.
Yum Saap (signs in Thai; look for the big yellow smiley logo) is known for their Thai-style salads (yam), but they offer all the usual suspects as well. Quite cheap with mains around 50 baht.
Kuaitio Ruea (signs in Thai; look for the boat-shaped decor and hungry rat logo) does dirt-cheap noodles with prices starting at 25B. Portions aren't too generous, but at that price you can get two! No concessions to English speakers in menu or taste, so point & choose from the pictures and watch out for the spicier soups.
Fuji  and Zen specialize in surprisingly passable Japanese food at very cheap prices (at least compared to Japanese restaurants almost anywhere else); rice/noodle mains are less than 100 baht, and you can stuff yourself full of sushi for less than 500 baht.
And yes, you can find the usual McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Komalas etc if you insist. If you do end up at McD's, at least try the un-Maclike fried chicken with McSomTam (green papaya salad). For those craving American-style pizza, try the ubiquitous The Pizza Company, which is a less expensive and (arguably) tastier local chain.
Tap water is usually not drinkable in Thailand. Bottled water (น้ำเปล่า naam plao) is cheap and ubiquitous at 5-10 baht a bottle, and drinking water served in restaurants is always at least boiled (น้ำต้ม naam tom). Ice (น้ำแข็ง naam khaeng) in Thailand usually comes packaged straight from the factory and is safe; there is only reason to worry if you are served hand-cut ice.
Coconut water (น้ำมะพร้าว naam ma-phrao), iced and drunk directly from a fresh coconut is a cheap and healthy way to cool the body - available at restaurants and also from vendors that specialize in fruit juice.
Fruit juices, freezes and milkshakes of all kinds are very popular with Thais and visitors alike. Most cafés and restaurants charge 20-40 baht, but a bottle of freshly squeezed Thai sweet orange juice (น้ำส้ม naam som) - which really is orange in color! - can be sold on the street for 10 baht or less. Thais often add salt to their fruit juices-- an acquired taste that you might just learn to like. Thais also like to have basil seeds in their iced fruit juice sold on the road - which looks like small jelly balls down of the bottle.
Tea and coffee
One of Thailand's most characteristic drinks is Thai iced tea (ชาเย็น chaa yen, lit. "cold tea"). Instantly identifiable thanks to its lurid orange color, this is the side effect of adding ground tamarind seed (or, these days, artificial color) during the curing process. The iced tea is always very strong and very sweet, and usually served with a dash of condensed milk; ask for chaa dam yen to skip the milk.
Naam chaa and chaa jiin are weak and full-strength Chinese tea, often served in restaurants for free. Western-style black tea is chaa ron (ชาร้อน). Coffee (กาแฟ kaafae) is also widely available, and is usually served with condensed milk and lots of sugar. Ask for kaafae thung to get traditional filtered "bag" coffee instead of instant.
The Starbucks phenomenon has also arrived in Thailand, but for the moment local competitors Black Canyon Coffee and S&P still have the edge in marketshare. These are the places to look for if you want that triple-moccha latte with hazelnut swirl and are willing to pay 100 baht for the privilege.
Black Canyon Coffee  is Thailand's home-brewed Starbucks, but while coffee is their mainstay they also offer a limited meal menu. Try the chaa yen (lurid orange Thai iced tea with milk).
Thailand is the original home of the Red Bull brand energy drink - a licensed and re-branded version of Thailand's original Krathing Daeng (กระทิงแดง, "Red Bull"), complete with the familiar logo of two bulls charging at each other.
The Thai version, however, is syrupy sweet, uncarbonated and comes packaged in medicinal-looking brown glass bottles, as the target customers are not trendy clubbers, but Thailand's working class of construction workers and bus drivers in need of a pick-me-up. And a pick-me-up it most certainly is; the caffeine content is higher even than Western-style Red Bull, and packs a punch equivalent to two or three shots of espresso coffee. Krathing Daeng and its many competitors (including M150, Shark, .357 and the inevitable Karabao Daeng, "Red Buffalo") are available in any convenience store for 10 baht a pop, although in some places you can now buy imported European Red Bull for five times the price.
Drinking alcohol in Thailand, especially if you like Western tipples, is actually comparatively expensive - but still very affordable by Western standards.
The misnamed Thai whisky (lao) refers to a number of distilled rice liquors, the best known being the infamous Mae Khong ("Mekong") brand and its competitor Saeng Som. The only resemblances to whisky are the brown color and high alcohol content, and indeed many people liken the smell to nail polish remover, but the somewhat rum-like taste is not quite as bad, especially when diluted with cola or tonic water. This is also by far the cheapest way to get blotto, as a pocket flask of the stuff (available in any convenience store or supermarket) costs only around 50 baht.
Out in the countryside many villages distil their own moonshine (lao thuean), which is strictly speaking illegal, but nobody seems to mind very much. Especially when hilltribe trekking in the North you're likely to be invited to sample some, and it's polite to at least take a sip.
Beer (เบียร์ bia) is a bit of an upmarket drink in Thailand, with the price of a small bottle hovering between 50 and 100 baht in most pubs, bars and restaurants. For many years the only locally brewed beer was Singha (pronounced just Sing) but it has lost market to cheaper and stronger Chang. Two upmarket brands are available today, Heineken and Tiger, and longstanding minor brands Kloster and Leo enjoy some popularity. Thais like their lagers with relatively high alcohol content (around 6%), as it is designed to be drunk with ice, so the beer in Thailand may pack more of a punch than you are used to.
Imported liquors, wines and beers are widely available but prohibitively priced for the average Thai. A shot of any brand-name liquor is at least 100 baht, a pint of Guinness will set you back at least 200 baht and, thanks to an inexplicable 340% tax, even the cheapest bottle of wine will set you back over 500 baht. Note that, in cheaper bars (especially the go-go kind), the content of that familiar bottle of Jack Daniels may be something entirely different.
Thailand has more than its fair share of scams, but most are easily avoided with a modicum of common sense.
More a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by touts, taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait by important monuments and temples and waylay Western travellers, telling them that the site is closed for a "Buddhist holiday", "repairs" or a similar reason. The 'helpful' driver will then offer to take the traveller to another site, such as a market or store. Travellers who accept these offers will often end up at out-of-the-way markets with outrageous prices - and no way to get back to the center of town where they came from. Always check at the front gate of the site you're visiting to make sure it's really closed.
Avoid any tuk-tuks in Bangkok. Tuk-tuk drivers might demand much higher price than agreed, or they might take you to a sex show, pretending they didn't understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who propose their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Don't buy any sightseeing tours at the airport. If you do, they will phone several times to your hotel in order to remind you about the tour. During the tour, you will be shortly taken to a small temple, without a guide, and then one shop after another (they get commissions). They might refuse to take you back home until you see all the shops. On your way back, they pressure you to buy more tours.
Easily identified with practice, it is not uncommon in tourist areas to be approached by a clean cut, well dressed man who often will be toting a cellphone. These scammers will start up polite conversation, showing interest in the unsuspecting tourist's background, family, or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the meat of the scam. This may be something as innocuous as over-priced tickets to a kantok meal and show, or as serious as a gambling scam or (particularly in Bangkok) the infamous gem scam. Once identified, the wary traveller should have no trouble picking out these scammers from a crowd. The tell-tale well pressed slacks and button down shirt, freshly cut hair of a conservative style, and late-model cellphone comprise their uniform. Milling around tourist areas without any clear purpose for doing so, the careful traveller should have no difficulty detecting and avoiding these scammers.
Many visitors will encounter young Thai ladies armed with a clipboard and a smile enquiring as to their nationality, often with an aside along the lines of "please help me to earn 30 baht". The suggestion is that the visitor completes a tourism questionnaire (which includes supplying their hotel name and room number) with the incentive that they just might win a prize - the reality is that everyone gets a call to say that they are a "winner", however the prize can only be collected by attending an arduous time-share presentation. Note that the lady with the clipboard doesn't get her 30 baht if you don't attend the presentation; also that only English-speaking nationalities are targeted.
Another recurrent scam involves foreigners - sometimes accompanied by small children - who claim to be on the last day of their vacation in Thailand, and having just packed all their belongings into one bag in preparation for their flight home, lost everything when that bag was stolen. Now cash is urgently needed in order to get to the airport in a hurry and arrange a replacement ticket for his/her return flight in a few hours time.
Thailand's age of consent is 15 but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes. Thai penalties for sex with minors are harsh, and even if your partner is over the age of consent in Thailand, tourists who have sex with minors may be prosecuted by their home country. As far as ascertaining the age of your partner goes, all adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2531 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on January 1st 2007 (in the Thai calendar, AD 2007 is the year 2550).
Some prostitutes are "freelancers", but most are employed by bars or similar businesses, if hiring a prostitute from a bar or similar business, you will have to pay a fee for the establishment called a "bar fine". The prostitutes who work at bars may be deceptive to first-time travelers, as they are also often the bartenders, or as they are called there, "bargirls". Be wary of prostitutes: most are very poor and some are indentured sex slaves. They're far more likely to be interested in money you can give them than in any continuing relationship for its own sake. More importantly, Thailand has a high rate of STD infection, including HIV/AIDS, both among the general population and among prostitutes. Condoms can be bought easily in Thailand in all convenience shops and pharmacies but may not be as safe as Western ones.
Technically, some aspects of prostitution in Thailand are illegal (e.g. soliciting, pimping), however enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It's not illegal to pay for sex or to pay a "bar fine".
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of legal hot water. Possession and trafficking offenses that would merit traffic-ticket misdemeanors in other countries can result in life imprisonment or even death in Thailand. Police frequently raid nightclubs, particularly in Bangkok, with urine tests and full body searches on all patrons. Ko Pha Ngan's notoriously drug-fueled Full Moon Parties also often draw police attention.
Possession of cannabis (กัญชา ganchaa), while illegal, is treated less harshly and, if busted, you may be able to pay an "on the spot fine" to get out, although even this can set you back tens of thousands of baht. It's highly unwise to rely on this.
In 2004, long-simmering resentment in the southern-most Muslim-majority provinces burst into violence in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces. All are off the beaten tourist trail, although the eastern rail line from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok (gateway to Malaysia's east coast) passes through the area and has been disrupted several times by attacks.
Hat Yai (Thailand's largest city after Bangkok and its Nonthaburi suburbs) in Songkhla has also been hit by a series of related bombings, however the main cross-border rail line connecting Hat Yai and Butterworth (on the west coast) has not been affected, and none of the islands or the west coast beaches have been targeted.
In September 2006, three foreigners were killed in bombings in Hat Yai. Some rebel groups have threatened foreigners, but while targets have included hotels, karaoke lounges and shopping malls, westerners have not been singled out for attacks.
Being a tropical country, Thailand has its fair share of exotic tropical diseases. Malaria is generally not a problem in any of the major tourist destinations, but is endemic in rural areas along the borders with Cambodia (including Ko Chang in Trat Province), Laos and Myanmar. As is the case throughout South-East Asia, dengue fever can be encountered just about anywhere, including the most modern cities.
HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are common. Condoms are sold in all convenience stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.
Thais are a polite people and, while remarkably tolerant of foreigners gallivanting on their beaches and with their women, you'll find that you will get more respect if you in turn treat them and their customs with respect.
The traditional greeting known as the wai, where you press your hands together as is in prayer and bow slightly, is derived from the Hindu cultural influence from India, and still widely practised. Among Thais, there are strict rules of hierarchy that dictate how and when the wai should be given. In brief, inferiors salute superiors first. You should not wai service people or street vendors. The higher your hands go, the more respectful you are. You will also often see Thais doing a wai as they walk past temples and spirit houses. As a foreign visitor, you are not expected to know how to wai, nor to reciprocate when wai'd to; while you're unlikely to cause offense if you do, you may well look slightly ridiculous. If somebody makes a wai to you, a slight bow alone is more than sufficient for ordinary occasions, and for business most Thais will shake hands with foreigners instead of waiing anyway.
Personal appearance is very important in Thailand as a measure of respect to other people, so clothes should be neat, clean, and free from holes or tears. Traditionally, Thais are modest and conservative dressers, and thus clothing should avoid showing a lot of skin. Pants are preferable to shorts, blouses should have capped sleeves, and if tank tops are worn, the straps should be thick (i.e. not spaghetti straps). Thai men generally wear pants, and most Thais view an adult man wearing shorts as fairly ridiculous; shorts are primarily worn by laborers and schoolchildren. Shorts should be knee length or more, if worn at all. Swimsuits should not be revealing -- many Thais swim in full clothing. You will find that dressing appropriately means that you are shown more respect in return. This translates in many ways, even sometimes lowering initial offering prices at markets. While some allowance is made for the differing customs of foreigners, Thais respond more positively to well-dressed Westerners.
Remember that you will frequently need to remove your shoes when entering temples or homes, so wear shoes that slip on and off easily. Flip-flops, hiking sandals, and clog-type shoes are usually a good pragmatic choice for traveling in Thailand; only in the most top-end establishments are shoes required. Taking off one's shoes at temples and private homes is expected and mandatory, and this may even be requested at some shops.
It is best to play it safe with wats and other sacred sites in Thailand; your dress should be unambiguously modest. For men, ankle-length pants are mandatory; on top, t-shirts are acceptable, though a button-front or polo shirt would be best. Many recommend that women wear only full length dresses and skirts; you should make sure that your clothing covers at least your shoulders and your knees and some places may require that you wear ankle-length pants or skirts and long sleeved tops. Shorts and sleeveless shirts are highly inappropriate, as are short skirts. The rules are even more strict for foreign visitors, so even if you see a local in shorts it's not OK for everyone.
It's hard to find agreement on what dress is conservative enough for women. Women should never go topless on the beach, especially beaches in national parks, as this is illegal and most Thais consider it offensive in the extreme. Women are sometimes advised to wear a T-shirt over their swimming gear; this is more important at primarily-Thai beach resorts, and will be almost entirely ignored at the most heavily westernized areas. Outside of sacred sites or the beach normal western dress is generally acceptable.
Buddhist monks are meant to avoid the temptation of women, and in particular they do not touch women or take things from women's hands. Women should make every effort to make way for monks on the street and give them room so they do not have to make contact with you. Women should avoid offering anything to a monk with their hands. Objects or donations should be placed in front of a monk so he can pick it up, or place it on a special cloth he carries with him. Monks will sometimes be aided by a layman who will accept things from women merit-makers on their behalf.
The head is considered the holiest part of the body, and the foot the dirtiest part. Never touch or pat a Thai on the head, including children. If you accidentally touch or bump someone's head, apologize immediately or you'll be perceived as very rude. Similarly, do not touch people with your feet, or even point with them. If someone is sitting with outstretched feet, avoid stepping over them, as this very rude and could even spark a confrontation. Squeeze around them or ask them to move. Even if the person is sleeping, it is best to go around, as others are likely to notice. Take care when you sit in a temple to cross your legs under you "mermaid-style" so your feet do not point at any person or statue. Do not pose alongside a Buddhist statue for a photo and certainly don't clamber on them. It's OK to take photos of a statue, but everyone should be facing it. It is considered impolite and disrespectful to visibly sniff food before eating it, particularly when eating in someone's home (this is true even if the sniffing is done in appreciation). Do not audibly blow your nose in public. Also, as doorway thresholds are considered a sanctuary for spirits, it's important not to step on a raised threshold, but rather to step over it. Keep this in mind especially when visiting temples.
Physical affection is rarely if ever shown in public--even married Thai men and women do not touch in public. However, it is not uncommon for same sex close friends to hold hands as an expression of affection. You may see a Thai woman expressing affection physically in public with a foreign man, but often this means that the Thai woman is a prostitute.
In Thailand, expression of negative emotions such as anger or sadness is almost never overt, and it is possible to enjoy a vacation in Thailand without ever seeming to see an argument or an unhappy person. Thai people smile constantly, and to outsiders this is seen as happiness or friendliness. In reality, smiling is a very subtle way to communicate, and to those who live in Thailand, a smile can indicate any emotion--from fear, to anger, to sadness, to joy, etc. "Saving face" is a very important aspect of Thai culture and they will try to avoid embarrassment and confrontation.
It's illegal (lese-majeste) to show disrespect to royalty. Do not make any negative remarks about the King or any members of the Royal Family. Since the King is on the country's currency, don't burn, tear, or mutilate it - especially in the presence of other Thais. If you drop a coin or bill, do not step on it to stop it - this is very rude, since you are stomping on the picture of the King's head that is printed on the coin. Also, anything related to the stories and movies The King and I and Anna and the King is illegal to possess in Thailand. Almost all Thais, even ones in other countries, feel very strongly when it comes to any version of this story. They feel that it makes a mockery of their age-old monarchy and is entirely inaccurate. In 2007, a Swiss man was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for spraying graffiti on the King's portrait, although he later expressed remorse and was pardoned by His Majesty personally (quote: "It troubles Me when such harsh sentences are passed.") and deported.
In public places (such as large markets) the National Anthem is played over loudspeakers at 8 A.M. and 6 P.M. When this is played, everybody stops what they are doing and stands still, and you should do the same. The Royal Anthem is played in cinemas before the film, and everyone must stand. It lasts about a minute, then everyone will continue where they left off.
Bring an open mind and a sense of humour. Don't come with too many preconceived ideas about what Thailand is like, as media and friends’ experiences have a habit of distorting reality.
If you're sticking to major cities and tourist areas, don't worry too much about under-packing; you can get hold of any essentials you've forgotten. Essentials are a swimming costume, a day pack, an umbrella in rainy season and some warm clothes if traveling in October to December, as some areas get cool. Some sources say there is no point in bringing a raincoat during the warm rainy season because it is so hot and sticky your raincoat will be uncomfortable. You will only need a couple of changes of clothes as you can get washing done anywhere cheaply. Sandals for when your hiking shoes are too hot can be bought cheaply in Thailand, although large sizes for women are harder to come by. If female and anything above a size 2, busty, or tall, it is often difficult to find clothes that will fit you in any of the Thai shops. If you are male and have a waist more than 38" you will have trouble finding pants. You will largely be limited to backpacker gear (the omnipresent fisherman pants and "Same Same" t-shirts) or Western imports in Bangkok malls, for the same prices as back home or more. While laundry is cheap, it is useful to bring a few changes of clothes, as you may sweat your way through several outfits a day in the Thai weather.
Take enough padlocks for every double zipper to stop wandering hands and lock up your sacred belongings, even in your hotel room. Not that this does anything really since most double zipper bags can easily be opened even when padlocked just by spreading the zippers apart as far as they'll go with the lock and then pulling the material out through them. Go ahead, try it. Also the real danger is from razor-blade artists.
Take snorkeling gear or buy it on arrival if you plan to spend a lot of your time in the water. Alternatively put up a notice looking for gear from someone who is leaving. A tent for camping if you are a national park buff is a good idea, as is a compass. You might like to bring compact binoculars too if wildlife is your thing. A good map of Thailand is also handy.
Take earplugs for when you're stuck in a noisy room or want to sleep on the bus. Take a mirror for shaving, as often budget places won’t have any. String is very handy for hanging up washing. Cigarette papers can be difficult to find, except in tourist centres. Climbing shoes for rock climbing are useful as Thailand has some of the best cliffs in South-East Asia.
A spare pair of prescription glasses or contact lenses plus a copy of your prescription is a good idea. Bring a book you're prepared to swap. A personal music player is great as a huge range of cheap music is available everywhere.
Into the toiletries bag throw sun screen and insect repellent. Mosquito coils are also a good idea. A small pocket size torch / flashlight will come in handy when the electricity goes out or for investigating caves. Condoms, of course. Passport photos come in handy for visas.
If you plan to travel long distances by motorbike, purchase a good quality helmet, which you can do in Thailand. Last but not least, pack your stuff in plastic bags to stop them from getting wet, especially when travelling in the rainy season or on boats.
Aside from the above, the following are recommended:
Prescriptions for any prescription medications being brought through customs
Blood donor/type card
Details of your next of kin
A second photo ID other than your passport
Credit card plus a backup card for a separate account
Connectivity in Thailand is generally quite good.
To place an international call, you can buy a prepaid card (available for 300 baht at many convenience stores and guesthouses) to use with one of the bright yellow Lenso payphones. You should rarely have trouble finding either of these unless you're way out in the countryside. The international access code is 001.
For mobile phone users, Thailand has three GSM mobile service providers - AIS, DTAC and Truemove) - which may be useful if you have (or can afford!) a mobile phone that will work on either one or both of the GSM 900 or 1800 frequency bands (consult your phone's technical specifications). If you have one, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for any of the Thai carriers in any convenience store for as little as 200 baht and charge it up as you go. Most mobile providers lock the phone to their own SIM card when you first purchase the service, so if your phone refuses to work with another SIM card, the wizards at Bangkok's MBK shopping mall will be happy to solve this for less than 500 baht. If you need to buy a mobile phone, you can pick those up at MBK as well, as a huge selection of cheap secondhand mobiles can be found on the upper floors. International rates from a Thai carrier are surprisingly good - DTAC, for example, charges 10 baht/minute to call America (and, with DTAC, you can reduce rates even further - up to 5-6 times for some countries like Russia - by predialing 008 or 009 instead of + before the international country code - for instance, 008 0011 for America). Coverage is very good in Bangkok and at many tourist destinations, including resort islands.
Thai-SIM - Pre-paid Thailand nationwide SIM cards
GSM World - Thailand - list of networks, coverage maps, and frequency bands
Internet cafés are widespread and most are inexpensive - prices as low as 20 baht/hour are commonplace, and speed and reliability of connection is generally reasonable. Higher prices prevail in major package-tourist destinations (60 baht/hour is typical, 120 baht/hour is not unusual). Islands with multiple Internet cafés include Ko Phi Phi (Don), Ko Lanta (Yai), Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao, Ko Chang (Trat), Ko Samet (Rayong), Ko Si Chang (Chonburi), and of course Phuket. Many budget hotels and guesthouses ("mansions") now provide free or inexpensive Internet access by LAN or Wi-Fi, so bring your own laptop computer.
Keyloggers are all too often installed on the computers in cheap cafes, so be on your guard if using online banking, stock broking or even PayPal. Using cut and paste to enter part of your password may defeat some of them.
If you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself typing in Thai (or any other alien script) you've probably accidentally hit whatever key-combination the computer you're using has been configured to use for switching between languages (often Ctrl+spacebar). To change back, use the "Text Services and Input Languages" option (a quick-access menu is usually available via a "TH" icon visible on the taskbar - simply switch it to "EN").