The traveler in Thailand should above all else bring an open mind. Thai culture is radically different from the West and people who lose their head when they are solicited by a lady-boy or who can’t figure out how to use the local bathrooms make themselves look like fools. For many travelers, Thailand is the first Asian country and there’s more to take in than they realise.
One intelligent thing to do is to learn some basic Thai, as English is only spoken in the main tourist areas. Learning to say things like ‘hello’ (sa-wat-dee-krap_), ‘thank you’ (kap-koon-krap), or ‘How much?’ (tao-lie) helps the Thais see you’re not just another dumb falang and can open all kinds of doors for you.
Certain aspects of Thai culture should be respected by any traveler who doesn’t want to look like an ass. It’s impossible to overstate how much Thais love their king, for instance. Lick a stamp with his head on it or stamp on a coin with his likeness and expect a swift bamboo massage. A drunken Swede who painted a moustache on a poster of the king was lucky not to have been lynched though we imagine he suffered badly in jail until the Swedish embassy got him out.
Thais are also big on hierarchy. Not only should monks and the old be respected, even the head itself is given more importance than the feet. This means that touching someone’s head is the cultural equivalent of slipping your hand down someone’s trousers and if you ever touch anyone with your feet you should apologise at once. Naturally, stepping over anyone is out of the question as is wearing shoes indoors.
Travelers should also strive to ‘keep a cool heart’ in Thailand. Anyone who gets angry and shouts simply advertises their lack of education to the Thais who have no respect for a ‘hot heart’. Thais thrive on etiquette and while it takes years to really understand how to act
On first arrival for many new travelers, Thai bathrooms can be utterly confusing. The Thais look at toilet paper with disgust, preferring to use the ubiquitous ‘bum-guns’, or water hoses with a spray attachment. Many toilets throughout the country are of the squat variety, and it may take awhile for westerners to figure out the technique… Often, when there is no ‘bum-gun’, there will be a bucket of water and a small pail to clean off with.
Illegal drugs should be avoided. Drug laws are strict, and Thai prisons are infamous for their utter inhumanity. Drinking is a more common past-time, but in general Thai beer is not as good as others in the region. Singha is probably the best around. Thai whiskey, Koh Chang wine, and other local drinks abound, but the hangovers can be killer… Ironically, throughout most of the country, pharmacies will often give travelers drugs without a prescription.
Thailand is a country overrun with tourists, but there are still a lot of places where a traveler can venture off and find a more tranquil existence. Travelers hoping to ‘discover’ Thailand are about 40 years too late but peace and quiet can be found in some of the smaller towns and the remote countryside of the north and northeast. The far south is the least-touristy area in the country, with gorgeous ethnic Muslim women wearing colorful headscarves and many pristine, uninhabited islands dotting the sea.
The best of Thailand is perhaps in its nature. Hanging a hammock and mosquito net between two trees on a tropical island paradise or hiking into the mountainous jungle is the way to. Thailand is a safe country to wander around and the traveler can count on a friendly welcome fro the local Thais if he learns at least a few phrases of their tonal language.
It’s the touristy areas that bring you down. Places like Khao San Road, Phuket, Pattaya, or certain areas of Chiang Mai are bad for the soul, with drunken foreign teenagers stumbling around looking for a fight and transvestites selling their confused bodies. In many respects, the traveler is best off gong someplace not mentioned in the guidebooks.
Happiness and positive experiences in Thailand often come in unexpected forms. Some guesthouses in the small towns are really just family homes with a few extra rooms. After staying around for a few days the traveler might get lucky enough to be invited to a BBQ or to have a few drinks with the locals. Rarely will anyone be rude to a traveler, particularly if he is respectful and doesn’t try to impose his own culture on the Thais.