GENERAL :- GEOGRAPHY CLIMATE FLORA AND FAUNA PEOPLE RELIGION
LANGUAGE CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE HEALTH SAFETY AND CRIME
WHEN TO GO
WHAT TO DO
GUIDE BOOKS AND MAPS
INTERNET INFORMATION SOURCES
The purpose of this page is to provide specific information to independent travellers intending to visit Thailand. It is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to the country nor an FAQ. If, after consulting the general notes and information sources detailed below you have any questions about particular locations, internal transport, accommodation etc. please e-mail me and I will do my best to help. I can also give advice and suggestions on travel from Thailand to other countries in south-east Asia. Please note this is not a commercial site; I have to earn a living elsewhere so allow me time to reply. I will endeavour to answer within a week, hopefully within three days. I try to check the links every month or so but if any of the web sites or other locations have altered or disappeared please let me know and I will update the page. Also if any of the text information has changed, is just plain wrong (sorry) or if you can add further info e-mail me and I'll incorporate it.
The information given here and via e-mail is taken from a large number of references sources. As far as possible I try to ensure it is both current and accurate but I cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracy or omission. Any opinions expressed are personal and subjective and are not intended to denigrate any individual, company or organisation. I have no beneficial financial connection with any individual or business mentioned.
Conrad Bentley email@example.com
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Thailand has a land area of approximately 518,000 square kilometres. On its north-south axis the longest distance is approx 1,700 kilometres and on the east-west axis it is 800 kilometres. However at one point 250 kilometres south of Bangkok the Burmese border is only 20 kilometres from the Gulf of Thailand . The country can be divided into four distinct regions. The central region is a low-lying plain dominated by the Chao Phraya river and its network of tributaries and canals. As well as being the most fertile region of the country it is also the most populated, containing the capital Bangkok, with its six million inhabitants. The north is a mainly mountainous area containing the country's highest peak, Don Inthanon, rising to a height of 2,590 metres. Chiang Mai, Thailand's second largest city with a population of 170,000, is situated in the midst of this region. The northeast of the country is generally flat and scenically is the least attractive of the four regions. This area is the least visited by tourists. Economically it is the most depressed region of the country with a mainly agricultural workforce making the best use they can of the poor soil and erratic rainfall. To the east is Cambodia and to the north Laos across the Mekong river. As these countries hopefully open up to trade and tourism in the near future the fortunes of this region should improve. Southern Thailand which extends to the border with peninsular Malaysia is sandwiched between the Gulf of Thailand to the east and the Andaman sea, a branch of the Indian ocean, to the west. The terrain for the most part is mountainous with the flatter land along the coastal strip. Although the hills are not as high as in the north the scenery is still spectacular, especially in the area of Khao Sok national park not far from Phuket, the largest island and the destination of many visitors to the south. Stretching along the coast from Burma in the north to Malaysia in the south are dozens of islands with some of the best beaches in Asia. Off the east coast are more islands including Koh Samui. Many of these are at present far less developed than Phuket and are ideal for those seeking a tranquil beach holiday.
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Thailand can be thought of as having three distinct seasons, hot, 'cool' and wet. Because of the long north-south distance and the influence of the monsoons in the south these seasons vary in length. As a general rule the cool season lasts from November to February, the hot season from March to May and the rainy season from May to November. Rain tends to come in short torrential downpours rarely lasting more than a couple of hours and should not deter the visitor from coming to Thailand during the wet season when the vegetation and waterfalls can be seen at their best. Temperatures in the south show less variation. In the hot season these average 34 º Centigrade, in the cool season 31º C. Further north the corresponding temperatures are 36º C and 29 º C respectively. Note that these are average temperatures, cool seasons in the north can easily drop to 15º C or less at night whilst hot season temperatures often top 40 º C, especially in the north-east plain.
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FLORA AND FAUNA
In the early part of this century Thailand had 70% of its land area forested. By the 1970s this was reduced to 25%. Following a policy of reforestation, a logging ban and the creation of a network of national parks (over 60 to date) the government hopes to raise the percentage to at least 40% within 50 years. From the isthmus of Kraa northwards the forests are predominantly of deciduous trees which shed their leaves in the dry season to conserve water. In the south they are replaced by evergreens that take advantage of the longer wet season and increased total rainfall. However there is no clear demarcation line and only in the extreme north and south are the two types of vegetation easily distinguished. Thailand is particularly abundant in bird life, with around 900 species either resident or migrants, about 10% of the total world bird species. Mammals are not so apparent to the average visitor but number around 280 species ranging from the tiny mouse deer through several species of bears and monkeys to the few remaining tigers and wild elephants. Insects are, of course, very numerous with dozens of species of butterflies many of which are extremely large and very beautiful. The most evident of the the 300 plus reptile species the visitor may see are the small spatulate footed lizards which inhabit virtually all buildings and perform a useful function consuming flies, cockroaches etc. Snakes, fortunately in my view, are far less in evidence. Of the numerous species only about six are venomous including the common and king cobra. I have spent a lot of time in the countryside and forests, day and night, all over Thailand and have never encounted a snake of any description. The national parks cover more than 10% of the land area of Thailand, a greater percentage than in most other countries yet very few visitors make the effort to explore even one during their stay. Many are easily accessible, have accommodation available in government owned bungalows or in privately managed guest houses near the park, and most have information centres and guides.
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There is ample evidence that large tracts of what is now Thailand were settled at least 10,000 years ago by people classified linguistically as 'austro-thai' a group widespread throughout Asia. It is thought that rice was being cultivated as early as 4,000BC and archaeological research at Ban Chiang in the north-east indicates a bronze working industry dating from 3,000BC. Both these developments predate their respective emergence in China and the middle east and demonstrate that this area was important in human development. The first recognisably Thai territory was established in the 13th century by 'austro-thai' speaking people believed to have migrated from what is now southern China. Several centuries of conflict with the Burmese and the Khymers of Cambodia culminated in the sacking of the Thai capital of Ayuthaya, north of Bangkok in 1782 by the Burmese. However the invaders could not consolidate their hold on the country and a new capital was established at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya river, soon to migrate across the river to Bangkok. Since that time Siam, as the country was known until 1939, has managed to avoid any major external conflict and even more remarkably, despite some territorial concessions to French Indochina and British Malaya, has also escaped colonisation by western powers, the only country in the region to do so. Since 1935 Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy with the monarch having no official powers. However His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej ( Rama IX ) who has reigned since 1946 is held in the highest regard by the Thais. An extremely erudite man he has devoted his life to the improvement of the poorest sections of the community , particularly the agricultural sector and the hill tribes. He has established an agricultural research station in the grounds of his palace, is an accomplished musician and during the political upheavals and military backed coups that plague the country has proved a voice of reason and stability that has endeared him to his subjects beyond mere tradition and loyalty.
The population of Thailand numbers approximately 60 million, of which 78% can be described as ethnic Thai. The largest minority group, as in many countries of south-east Asia, is Chinese, accounting for 11% and Malays, virtually all living in the south, form 3%. The remainder are composed of tribal groups ranging from the hill tribes in the north, the 'chao ley' (sea gypsies) in the south and peoples from Burma, Laos and Cambodia many of whom are refugees from the conflicts in their home countries. The number of people of non Asian origin with Thai nationality is negligible. The vast majority of non Asians are ex-patriots living mostly in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and resort areas such as Pattaya, Hua Hin and Phuket. Considering the diverse mix of peoples there is surprisingly little racial tension. This is probably not unconnected to the fact that 95% of Thais are Buddhists, a tolerant, pacifist religion. About a million Muslims live in the south bordering Malaysia. Christians of various denominations are concentrated in Bangkok and in the north the hill tribes follow mainly animist beliefs.
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It will soon become apparent to any visitor that Buddhism is an integral part of everyday life in Thailand. There are about 32,000 temples, known as wats, and 250,000 monks. Nearly every Thai male spends some time as a monk, usually three months during his adolescence. This is not only thought of as a character building period but is a source of great pride and religious merit to his family. The creating of merit is a central tenet of Buddhism. It is the only major religion that does not have a deity at its head. The Buddha ('enlightened one') was a wealthy prince named Siddhartha Guatama who was born in what is now southern Nepal around 563 B.C. Rejecting his privileged lifestyle he spent the rest of his life meditating and teaching what he believed to be the path to salvation. This was 'The Middle Way' lying between self denial and self gratification. Incorporating the Hindu concepts of rebirth and Kharma, Buddhism teaches that only individual effort results in enlightenment thus sparing the person the cycle of death and rebirth, ultimately allowing entry into the state of Nirvana (literally nothingness). It is the Buddhist's aim to be reborn further along the road to Nirvana and actions in this life determine one's Kharma or destiny. For this reason the most obvious aspect of Buddhism to the visitor in Thailand is to observe 'tham bun', making merits. These can take the form of early morning donations of food to monks, attending festivals, donating to the upkeep of the local temple and the popular ritual of buying and releasing caged birds or fish to demonstrate concern for living creatures. Monks are forbidden to eat after midday and may only eat what is given to them, hence the dawn processions of usually young novices with their saffron robes and bowls passing from house to house in every village and town. Buddhists do not have a day set aside for worship as in the Christian Sabbath. Thais tend to visit their local temple at any time, often on the day of the week they were born. Apart from specific events such as Songkran ( the new year in April ) and the celebration of the birth of Buddha on the date of the new moon in May worship is a solitary experience, one of the few occasions Thais partake in any activity that is not directly shared with community or family. Monks, particularly in the countryside, are often the most educated of the local population and serve as teachers, doctors, counsellors and social workers. In recent years many monks have become politicised, leading local and national protests particularly on conservation issues. There are Buddhist nuns, known as 'mae chii', but they are few in number and not held in the same high esteem as their male counterparts. In most temples there is no concession made to the Western visitor and it is therefore difficult to learn about the origins and meaning of what is on view. However many of the monks speak English and will usually be pleased to practise their English and show off their knowledge of the temple artefacts and explain the rituals. Visitors, providing they adhere to a few rules of behaviour, are welcome to enter any temple. Aside from a few of the most touristed temples there is no admission charges. However a small donation towards the upkeep is always appreciated, especially in the poorer rural areas. For information on conduct in temples refer to the section on customs and etiquette. Although the majority of Thais would claim to be devout Buddhists they nevertheless maintain a parallel faith in astrology and the spirit world. The belief in spirits influencing one's actions and future goes against the Buddhist tenet of individual responsibility but its practise and acceptance in Thai society is wide spread. These rituals can be traced back to ancient Hindu and animist beliefs. Buddhist philosophy does not overly concern itself with the rites of birth, marriage and death and thus ceremonies for these occasions have maintained their Hindu origins. Spirits, particularly the roaming unhappy ones known as 'phis' must be appeased with offerings of food, drink or flowers if one is to have good health, a successful business, high marks in an exam or even a win in the national lottery !. Outside virtually every building in Thailand will be a spirit house for the guardian spirit of the plot to live in. These can resemble an elaborate bird table or in the case of a large hotel a structure the size of a small bungalow. What they all have in common is a location in the best position unshaded by the main building and a daily offering to placate the spirits who have been displaced. If a hotel has another floor added or a house is extended the spirit house will also be added to.
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When travelling in Thailand and having to make one's own arrangements with regard to transport, food and accommodation it will usually be possible to find someone who speaks at least some English. It is extremely rare to encounter a Thai who speaks any non Asian language except English. Obviously for a guest house, hotel, restaurant or tour company it is advantageous to have English speaking employees as travellers gravitate towards any establishment that is going to make life easier. However for the traveller who has acquired even a very basic vocabulary there are many advantages. Everything from hotel rooms to souvenirs can be obtained at a lower cost. This is not only because it will be assumed that someone speaking Thai ( even if rather badly ) is familiar with prices but also because it frees the visitor from having to rely on the popular places to stay , shop and eat. Most important of all it shows an interest in and respect for the country and its people. The modern Thai language is thought to be derived from the Mon and Khymer dialects of what is now Burma and Cambodia with many words taken from Indian Sanskrit and Pali, the latter still used by Buddhist monks. In common with Chinese and other Asian languages it is tone sensitive. For Westerners the latter is the most difficult aspect of the language to master. The same word can have up to five different meanings depending on the tone used when pronouncing it - flat, high, low, falling or rising. That's the bad news but it's probably no worse than English speakers inflicting pronunciations such as 'rough', 'though', 'through', 'cough' and 'bough' on the rest of the world. The good news is that Thai has no genders, articles, plurals or irregular verbs. Despite what well meaning guide and phrase books tell you it is far more important for a short term visitor to acquire a working vocabulary than worry overmuch about the use of tones. You are only going to be using simple phrases and in most cases you will be understood by the context. In my opinion a vocabulary of 150 to 200 words and a good phrase book to help you out is quite sufficient for basic travel requirements. The Thai alphabet employs a non-Roman script consisting of 44 consonants and 24 vowels. Writing proceeds from left to right and there are no spaces between the words. For the short term visitor there is no need for any knowledge of Thai script. All railway stations, town signs, main streets, most information in public buildings and transport timetables are displayed in Thai and English. The better guide books include Thai script on maps, places of interest and in the food and drink section to enable the reader to point to the appropriate word if all else fails.
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CUSTOMS AND ETIQUETTE
Thais are a very tolerant people and will accept a great deal of the type of the thoughtless or rude behaviour by tourists that is sadly all too common. However with regard to the twin foundations of Thai society, the monarchy and Buddhism it is extremely important not to give offence. The king is held in the utmost reverence by all Thais who will not countenance any criticism of the royal family, at least not in public and certainly not from foreigners. The national anthem is played on the radio every day at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. and is relayed by loudspeakers in government buildings, railway and bus stations and even in the streets of some towns. Everyone, including foreigners, are expected to stop whatever they are doing and stand still. The unrestricted access to temples in Thailand seems to lead some people to think they can dress and behave as they wish and this is the prime cause of complaint about tourists by Thais. I am told that westerners are not the worst offenders, Hong Kong Chinese and Japanese taking that dubious honour. The cardinal rule is to always remove one's shoes on entering any building containing a Buddha image. Men should wear long trousers and a shirt , women a long skirt and with their shoulders covered. Tank tops and shorts are not acceptable. At important sites such as the royal temple complex in Bangkok entry will certainly be refused to those improperly dressed. All Buddha images of any size, type, condition and in any location are sacred and should not be climbed on, sat upon or used as the background for a portrait photograph. Apart from posing with Buddha images it is acceptable to take photographs of the images in isolation or, indeed, anywhere in temples. The one exception I have come across is in Wat Phra Kheow next to the Grand Palace in Bangkok which forbids photography in the bot or sanctum containing the Emerald Buddha which is in effect the king's private temple. When seated before a Buddha image do not point your feet forwards, either kneel or fold your legs under. Spiritually as well as physically the feet are the lowest part of the body and must not be used to point to or touch a person or object. By the same criteria the head is the most sacred part of the body being the seat of the 'kwan' or life force. Incidentally the Thai government does not allow Buddha images of any description to be taken out of the country. This is not only to stop valuable and sacred objects being exported but also because of the improper use they may be put to such as conversion into table lamps or paperweights. Monks of any age must be treated with respect. If seated they should not be stood over which implies superiority. When passing by it is considered polite to bow ones head. On public transport seats are always reserved for monks, On buses these are usually at the back or near the door. Women must not touch a monk or even hand him anything directly. If it is necessary to pass an offering to a monk a woman places it on the floor before him. Although few people adhere to it the type of dress suitable for temple visits ought to be the norm for all areas of the country outside of beach resorts. Shorts, halter necks, swim-wear etc. should be kept for the beach. Whilst on the subject of dress, or rather the lack of it, nudity is forbidden on all beaches in Thailand. This is strictly enforced by local and tourist police who seem to abandon their usual lack of enthusiasm for law enforcement when pouncing on unsuspecting sunbathers. Thais rarely shake hands. Instead they use a prayer-like gesture called a 'wai'. The height the hands are raised towards the face and the depth of bow of the head indicates the relative status of the individuals - the lesser movement showing superiority. Status is defined in Thai society by age, occupation, wealth and position within the family. Thais know instinctively the correct form of address. The mere fact that you are a westerner will confer a high degree of superiority ( you must have led a good previous life to be reborn as a rich tourist ! ). If you receive a wai it is probably best if you do not return the gesture despite the advice given in many guide books. It is not expected of foreigners and a slight nod of the head and a smile is sufficient acknowledgement. If you are in a situation where you feel a wai is called for, like you're trying to convince immigration officers to give you a visa extension, use what is known as the stranger's wai where the hands are raised to chin level and the head is not inclined. This is a neutral gesture when the relative status is either equal or not ascertained. This idea of status may make the visitor feel uncomfortable. To the Thai way of thinking, however, the knowledge that he or she has a definite and unique place in society is a source of contentment. When Thai people enquire about your age, occupation, salary, marital status and number of children they are not being rude or intrusive but merely attempting to define your position so as to accord you the correct level of deference. On every trip there are bound to be problems arise, taxis take you to the wrong hotel, the shower or fan fails to work or the tour bus fails to materialise. Losing your temper, shouting or threats will get you absolutely nowhere. Suggesting there has been a misunderstanding, smiling and keeping calm works wonders. As in many parts of Asia saving face is all important. Both parties must be seen to address the problem and solve it by joint effort. Winning the argument and apportioning blame does not enter into it. Remember that the vast majority of Thais are honest and genuinely try to help. They are proud of their country, understand how important tourism is to the economy and want to give a good impression. Problems are more often than not due to linguistic and cultural differences than any deliberate attempt to cheat or mislead.
For those interested in reading more about Thai culture and how to deal with it from a foreigner's view point look for 'Culture Shock - Thailand' by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper and 'Thai Ways' and 'More Thai Ways' by Denis Segaller. The authors are long term residents of Thailand and the books are written with a wry humour whilst at the same time being very informative.
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The general notes that follow should not be regarded as exhaustive. They are based on advice I have received and precautions that I have taken but everyone has their own level of resistance to infection and to climatic and nutritional changes. The emphasis should be on obtaining the correct medication and level of immunisation prior to travel and to take sensible measures during your trip. Thailand is not a particularly hazardous country to visit from a health standpoint, certainly I have never had any serious problems.
It is important you consult your doctor well before the departure date, six months would be ideal but certainly not less than eight weeks. Make sure your vaccinations for tetanus and polio are up to date. Although there no immunisation requirements for entry to Thailand (except yellow fever if you are coming from an infected area) you will be advised to have typhoid and hepatitis 'A' vaccinations. The latter is now administered over a six month period involving three injections but if there is insufficient time to complete the course before leaving the first two provide protection for the intervening period. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise you of any other precautions necessary. This is especially important with regard to anti-malarial prophylactics as the recommended types change regularly in an attempt to avoid the parasites developing a resistance to a particular drug. Probably you will be prescribed two types to be commenced at least a week before departure and continued for four to six weeks after returning. If you are intending to visit the border areas near Burma or Cambodia where there are highly resistant strains of malaria ask about Larium (Mefloquine) and Doxycycline. Your doctor may be sceptical regarding the latter as this is an antibiotic but it is very effective against otherwise resistant strains of malaria. Larium has been alleged to cause severe psychological disturbances in some people and there is some concern about it's continued use; personally I won't take it. Don't let anyone persuade you that if your travels are confined to urban or coastal areas anti-malarial precautions are not required. If you are taking any prescribed medicine on a long term basis take twice as much as required in separate containers preferably carried by a companion as well as a copy of the prescription with the generic (chemical) name underlined. Most drugs can be obtained at pharmacies or the larger hospitals but may be known by a different brand name. Anti-malarial drugs are by no means 100% effective and the best course of action is to try to avoid being bitten in the first place. The best repellent I have come across is 'Jungle Formula' which comes as a spray, roll-on or liquid, available from any major chemist. Mosquito nets should be provided in areas of high risk but if you are intending to spend a lot of time in basic accommodation in these areas it is wise to carry your own. Buy a net in Thailand, they are a fraction of the price charged in Western travel supply shops . Malaria carrying mosquitoes are only active at night but the day varieties can carry dengue fever, not so serious but which will lay you low for a week or so with 'flu like symptoms. Another reason to avoid getting bitten is that bites can easily become infected in tropical regions.
For stomach problems try either 'Immodium' or 'Lomotil' , the latter now being only available on prescription in the U.K. I take one Immodium a day regardless, upping the dosage to normal if required. By all means take your favourite basic toiletries and medicines with you but if keeping the weight of your luggage down is important these or near equivalents will be obtainable in any town. Have a check-up at the dentist before you go and if a spectacle wearer take a spare pair and also your prescription, good quality spectacles can be bought in most large towns at reasonable prices . Finally make sure you have adequate medical cover on your travel insurance policy.
For the first few days after arriving take it easy in order to acclimatise and recover from jet-lag. I once made the mistake of catching an overnight train to Chiang Mai the same day I arrived in Bangkok after a twelve hour flight and felt decidedly groggy for several days. If you must lay in the sun avoid the middle of the day and don't forget in the tropics sunburn can occur very quickly even through cloud cover. Bottled water is available everywhere for about 25 cents a litre so do not drink tap water under any circumstances, Thais do the same if they can afford it. Tea and coffee are ok as the water is boiled. The slightly brown water on the restaurant table will have been boiled with a few tea leaves to show it is safe but I would still insist on a sealed bottle. Bottled soft drinks are a safe bet. The local brands tend to be too sweet but Coca Cola, Pepsi, Sprite and Fanta are widely available in cans and bottles. Ice is a problem, hard to resist in a hot climate but best avoided except in more expensive bars and restaurants where it will have been made from purified water. Street vendors tend to pour drinks from the bottle into a plastic bag containing crushed ice and these should definitely be regarded with suspicion. One of the great delights of a trip through Thailand is the quality and variety of the food encountered. A good tip for selecting a place to eat is to look for a place full of local people irrespective of how down at heel it may appear. Thais take eating very seriously and it is the quality of the food that is important, not the surroundings. I prefer to eat at the open air stalls. You can see the food prepared, it is cooked to order and cheaper than a restaurant. Whilst these places may not be the ultimate in cleanliness if you select food that is cooked at a very high temperature in a wok it is generally safe. Take care with salad vegetables especially leafy ones such as lettuce which retains water after washing and stick to fruit that can be peeled like bananas and oranges unless you wash them yourself in purified water.
Even small cuts and blisters can easily become infected so it is a good idea to carry some antiseptic cream. As sea urchin spines and cuts from coral are a hazard on beaches, wearing sandals or flip-flops is advisable.
Probably the major cause of serious injury to visitors in Thailand is motorbike accidents. This is due to several reasons. Road maintenance often leaves a lot to be desired as do the driving habits of the average Thai. Might is right on Thailand's roads and a motorcyclist is well down the pecking order. The lack of a crash helmet and wearing shorts and tee-shirt are not going to give any protection in a spill but this attire seems to be 'de rigeur' with visitors. Unfamiliarity with the bike and an over familiarity with the local alcohol all add to the toll. And to cap it all your medical insurance almost certainly won't cover you for any vehicle other than public transport. My advice is not to hire a bike at all, especially if you aren't an experienced rider. If you must, restrict yourself to the 'step-through' sub 100 cc. models, don't ride at night and wear some form of protection, preferably a helmet but at least jeans and a jacket.
Whilst the most sophisticated medical facilities are concentrated in Bangkok and a few other large towns, all provincial capitals have at least one general hospital and clinics, public and private, are located in every town of any size. Doctors are well trained and most will speak adequate English. A consultation and prescription for a minor complaint should not cost more than a few dollars. If it's more serious and expensive make sure you have all the receipts and a note of the diagnosis for your insurance company. They must also be informed, read the policy for full details.
It is not possible to discuss health risks in Thailand these days without mentioning sexually transmitted diseases ( S.T.D ), particularly HIV infection. Hardly a week goes by without a report in the media regarding Aids and/or prostitution in Thailand. Most unaccompanied men visiting Thailand go either specifically for sex or at least patronise the bars, massage parlours and brothels at some stage during their stay. After some initial reticence on the Thai government's part they are now very open in acknowledging the problem and its extent. A massive campaign to encourage public awareness has been running since the early 1990s and a consequent drop in the number of cases of S.T.D. is evidence that the safe sex message is getting through. The government minister in charge of the campaign, Meechai Verivadhya, used to walk around Bangkok handing out condoms to passers by and such was the publicity that 'meechai' is now a slang word for condoms in Thailand. Infection rates are far higher in rural areas where people are less well informed, prostitutes have no health checks and the use of condoms is unpopular with the exclusively Thai clientele. Workers in the 'go-go' bars and massage parlours in Bangkok and tourist resorts such as Pattaya have regular checks for S.T.D. including H.I.V. and without a health certificate are supposedly forbidden to work. Nevertheless anybody having any sexual contact should ensure condoms are used and safe sex procedures followed. If you intend to patronise the bars, coffee shops and massage parlours read the section below on safety and crime, check out the information on Thai prostitution at the World Sex Guide and if you can't be good, be careful.
On your return continue to take the anti-malarial tablets for the prescribed period. Your digestion system will probably take some time to readjust to a western type diet so try to avoid too much in the way of dairy products. If, at any time during the succeeding six months or so, you develop any illness that has no obvious cause, especially a high temperature, nausea or severe headaches consult your doctor immediately and tell him or her that you have recently returned from Thailand and that you may have been exposed to malarial infection. Diagnosed early enough malaria is relatively easy to cure but left undiagnosed can be serious and in some cases fatal.
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SAFETY AND CRIME
Thailand is by no means a dangerous country to visit. Violent crime directed at foreigners is extremely rare and attacks resulting in death even more so. I feel a lot safer in Bangkok than in many cities I have visited in the U.K. and Europe. Most crimes perpetrated against foreigners are acts of stealth such as pickpocketing and burglary, scams with credit cards or confidence tricks involving fake goods or gemstones. Pickpockets and their equally adept cousins, the razor artists who will slit open your pocket or bag to remove valuables, operate in crowded areas. Particularly notorious locations are the giant weekend market in the north of Bangkok and the main railway station, Hualamphong. Always keep you baggage with you. This may sound obvious but many times I've seen backpackers wander off to get a drink or a ticket leaving their packs unattended. In many respects backpackers are more vulnerable than package-deal tourists. They tend to stay either in dormitory accommodation or cheap guest houses where safety deposit boxes are not available and they are on the move frequently, using public transport. For these reasons they are more likely to have all their valuables with them and thus become a prime target for thieves. Always carry your money, travellers cheques, credit cards etc. in a neck pouch, money-belt or wallet that attaches to a belt and is tucked into your clothing. If your hotel has safety deposit boxes, use them. On the other hand do not leave valuables in the general hotel safe. There have been many cases of theft or fraudulent use of credit cards by hotel staff with access to the safe. I always travel with two credit cards. One stays with me at all times, the other is secreted in my room together with some money - behind a ceiling panel is a good place. In an emergency you can use it for essential purchases - just don't check out and leave it behind !. Credit cards can be a mixed blessing. They are widely accepted, even by small businesses, are easy to conceal and useful for unforeseen expenses. The drawback is that credit card fraud is rife in Thailand. When making a purchase never let the card out of your sight, the vendor could run off extra blank receipts to be filled in later and forge your signature as he has the original. The best course of action if you need some extra money is to get a cash advance from a bank using your credit card. Most banks will supply this service, just look for the appropriate Visa or Mastercard sign outside and have your passport handy for identification purposes. Many banks also have ATM facilities but I am reluctant to use them in case the card is kept for some reason. They will charge you the usual 1.5 % levied on cash advances but this works out about the same as the commission for buying and changing travellers cheques. Make photocopies of all your documents including the first pages of your passport, airline ticket, insurance policy and the emergency contact number, traveller cheques serial numbers and credit card details. Preferably swop yours with those of your travelling companion or at least keep them separate from the originals.
Be wary of anyone touting for business in the street. This can take the form of taxi drivers offering to take you to a good hotel, bar, shop or massage parlour where they happen to be on a commission. In Patpong, the best known of Bangkok's night life areas, touts badger you to visit one of the sex shows in the upstairs bars where you will be charged an extortionate fee for drinks and 'entertainment'. This never happens in the downstairs 'go-go' bars and outdoor beer bars and as far as I know not in the other bar areas such as Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy or the coastal resorts of Pattaya and Phuket. Even the first time visitor to Thailand will have no difficulty obtaining any service or purchasing any item they wish without the help of touts. When travelling in more remote parts of the country take care, especially at night outside of the large towns. This particularly applies to border areas such as the Burmese border in the west and the 'Golden Triangle' in the north. Insurgent groups operating in Burma have bases inside Thailand and there is occasional military activity and cross border raids. Smuggling of everything from drugs to timber and motorbikes is rife and foreigners are regarded with suspicion. Take local tips as to the advisability of travel in any particular area. As in most countries of south-east Asia the penalty for possession of even a small amount of drugs is very severe, almost always resulting in a custodial sentence. Whatever your vice is at home don't indulge it whilst in Thailand. The pros and cons of various types of public transport is a major item of discussion amongst travellers but from a safety point of view the train comes out best. Not only do you see the scenery better but your luggage is with you at all times, robberies are rare, armed guards travel on the train in potentially dangerous areas and the Royal State Railways have a good safety record. Buses seem to suffer more mishaps, especially on the privately run long distance services. This is because their reputation depends on their quickness and cost, leading to accidents caused by speeding and having solo drivers working long hours. These services also attract the more wealthy traveller, Thai or foreigner, and are therefore favourite targets for any bandits. Women travellers will find that Thailand is a relatively safe country. Problems arise because you are viewed as a rich and/or gullible foreigner, not because of your gender. Unlike Islamic countries you will not be pestered by local males wherever you go and will be treated with respect. I have encounted some solo female travellers but most say they feel more secure with a travelling companion and prefer to stay in small family run guest houses where there is less anonymity and therefore less chance of being hassled by staff or fellow guests. An excellent book which has been recommended by several women I have spoke to is Women Travel, published by Rough Guides. There is a web site that addresses issues facing women travellers, see the section below on Internet Information Sources.
If the information I have given in this section has led you to think that perhaps a fortnight in Switzerland may be a safer option let me try and reassure you. I have spent many months in Thailand, travelling thousands of miles on all sorts of public transport, usually on my own and carrying expensive photographic equipment. I have stayed in all manner of accommodation; jungle huts, beach bungalows, guest houses and hotels of varying degrees of price and seediness and eaten anything I fancy from roadside stalls and restaurants. At no time have I had anything stolen, felt threatened in any way or suffered a serious illness or mishap. No form of public transport I have travelled on has been involved in an accident or indeed suffered any serious breakdown or lengthy delays.
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The constraints imposed by the academic year or employers limits the choice for many people but if I could visit Thailand any time it would be in mid to late November. Although the climate is not as cool as the months of December to February it is much more pleasant than the hot months of March to May. The rains are usually over by November and the countryside is at it's most luxuriant, the rivers are high and waterfalls at their most spectacular. The main tourist season does not get into full swing until mid December so there will no problem finding accommodation even in the popular destinations and discounts will often still be available to those prepared to bargain. Unless you are particularly adverse to extreme heat or the odd soaking there is no real reason not to visit Thailand anytime. Most of my trips have, by necessity, been taken in May and June when the temperatures have barely cooled and the rainy season has just begun. Sometimes boats to the islands in the south are cancelled due to rough seas, rivers are too low to allow river transport to progress, the odd road is blocked by landslips but it's not a major problem. The main disadvantage incurred by visiting in the 'off ' season, especially for the solo traveller is lack of customers often leads to advertised tours such as raft trips and treks being curtailed.
Up until the early 1990s air fares to Bangkok increased dramatically in the main tourist seasons of December - February and August, perhaps by as much as 30% from Europe. However in the last few years the increased capacity of flights to south-east Asia and the world recession has reduced the differential to 10-15% and in some cases nil.
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WHAT TO DO
Pretty much anything you would want do on a vacation you can do in Thailand; well, ok there's a shortage of snow so skiings off the agenda.... but aside from that there's something for everyone.
For those who don't wish to indulge in too much activity there are a vast number of beach resorts to suit all tastes. These range from the highly touristed and somewhat over developed resorts of Pattaya, Patong bay on Phuket, Chaeweng and Lamai beaches on Koh Samui to resorts that consist of a few beach side huts and a couple of restaurants. Even on the popular islands of Phuket and Koh Samui it is perfectly possible to find smaller, quieter beaches to spend the day returning to the main resorts for the wide choice of accommodation and entertainment. As a rough guide the younger backpacker crowd tend to head for Koh Samui and the smaller islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Older travellers and ' all-in package' tourists head for Phuket, Pattaya and to a lesser extent Hua Hin and Cha-am, the latter two resorts also appealing to ex-pats due to their proximity to Bangkok.
For those looking for more active aquatic activity Thailand is one of best and most accessible areas of the world for scuba diving. The Surin and Similan islands in the Andaman sea, a few hours from the mainland are well known by experienced divers but virtually any island and resort has dive-shops. The mostly calm seas, good climate, easy access to reefs with abundant marine life and availability of reasonably priced dive training by fully qualified PADI instructors makes it an ideal destination for the beginner. The main dive centres are at Pattaya, Phuket and the island of Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand near Koh Samui.
In the last few years sea canoe trips around the myriad islands and caves of Phang-Nga bay near Phuket have become increasingly popular. Phuket Speciality Tours and Sea Canoe International are the two main companies with a www prescence.Thailand is not considered to be a major surfing venue although the west coast of Phuket has suitable conditions during the monsoon season from June to October. For further information on watersports and other activities check out Pattaya's on-line information service.
Away from the coast among the most popular activities are raft trips along the rivers of Kanchanabuli province west of Bangkok and walking and/or elephant treks through the mountains and hill tribe villages of the north and north-west. These last from one to ten days with three to five days being the most popular. Although living conditions on these treks are rather spartan and the walking can be fairly strenuous any reasonably fit person should be able to cope. For those with less time and inclination many of the larger National Parks have shorter guided trips arranged either through the park rangers or private operators who provide food and accommodation. Try to avoid the weekends when the more popular parks are packed with Thai picnickers.
Bangkok is usually the first destination for visitors. To see most of the major attractions at a comfortable pace will take six or seven days although if time is short the 'must see' places can be covered in three days. The temples are the major attraction but river trips, the royal palace and markets should definitely be on the itinerary.
Anyone interested in Thai art and architecture should make a visit to the National museum in Bangkok where there are numerous examples of the many styles and periods reflecting Indian, Burmese, Chinese and Khymer influences over the past one thousand years . After a period of neglect the Thai Fine Arts Department has, over the last decade, taken the lead in creating regional museums and Historical Parks based around archeological sites that have gone a long way to maintaining, promoting and protecting the finds. Most of the exhibits are statuary and religious architecture, very little pre-19th painting survives. There are now over forty museums and parks, well worth a visit if you are in the vicinity.
Although it is often convenient to take overnight trains and buses on longer trips consider travelling by day in one direction if possible. The train especially is a wonderful way to see the countryside, experience the everyday life of the Thais and try the variety of food offered by the various vendors as they hop on and off the train at every opportunity. A journey I would recommend would be the day train either to or from Chiang Mai. The twelve hour trip is not too long, most is in daylight and passes through some spectacular and varied scenery.
For Thais entertainment almost invariably means eating, always in a group of family or friends. Being on one's own is anathema to Thais and if forced to eat alone they always seem very ill at ease. Venues range from cheap roadside foodstalls, through vast restaurants ( the largest in the world is in Bangkok ) to expensive nightclubs. In smaller towns the traveller will find little to do but eat in the evenings and often places will close around 9pm. However in any of the tourist resorts, large towns and cities there is a full range of entertainment to suit all tastes. Bars stay open till the early hours and range from the quiet and sedate to the rowdy and decidedly seedy. Restaurants cater for every type of local and international cuisine. Discos feature predominately western music usually with excellent sound and lighting systems. Beach 'raves' are a feature of many backpacker areas, especially Koh Samui where the famous 'full moon' rave takes place. Often the best place to seek out live music is in the bars and restaurants close to universities and patronised by the students. Many local bands play excellent cover versions of western rock standards and some of the solo artists are very good, blues and folk being popular. Also popular is jazz, many of the best musicians being Phillipino.
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You will be able to find an adequate room in a guest house or hotel anywhere in Thailand for $5 or less. This will have a fan and probably a small sink.You will have to share a bathroom in many cases especially in popular destinations and in Bangkok but in smaller towns you may well find an attached bathroom for this price. There is no such thing as a single room as we know it in the west; a single room in Thailand means one double bed for two people. Pay $10-15 and you will certainly have an attached bathroom and in some places air-conditioning. For $15-30 you will find a vast choice of accommodation with air-conditioning, TV, refrigerator etc. Paying more than this is totally unnecessary anywhere in Thailand. I do not like air-conditioning (too noisy and chill-inducing) and in Bangkok I pay around $12 for a room with attached bathroom. In Patong beach on Phuket the $12 will get me the same plus a TV and the use of a swimming pool. Don't forget these prices are for two people. If you eat at a combination of foodstalls and small restaurants meals should work out to about $6 a day. Public transport costs have not changed a great deal in the last ten years. A long distance journey of, say, 500 kilometres by air-conditioned bus or second class rail will cost around $8-10 plus $4 if you want a sleeping berth on the train. Third class trains or ordinary buses will cost 40-50% less. Taxis, in Bangkok at least, now have meters and most journeys in the centre of the city should be under $4. The fare from the airport to central Bangkok is around $10, book at the public taxi desk by the exit. Sadly alcohol prices in Thailand are comparatively high due to government tax. In a modest bar a small bottle of beer will cost around $2, a large bottle from a store about the same. Probably the best alcohol / $ ratio is to drink the local Mekong whiskey, about $1.50 a shot with Coke although a bottle can be bought in a store for less than $4.
Overall the cost conscious traveller can budget on around $18-20 a day , double that and you can live really well.
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THAILAND TRAVEL INFORMATION
GUIDE BOOKS AND MAPS
There are any number of so-called guide books about Thailand. Most are useless as practical travel guides although many have excellent photography, historical and cultural information. The problem with any guide book is the time lag between the research / writing and publication which can be as much as two years, so make sure you have the latest edition. Fortunately things change slowly in Thailand including transport schedules so this shouldn't be too much of a problem. In my opinion, for the independent traveller there are really only three choices of guide book .
Lonely Planet Publications 'Thailand- a travel survival kit' is the one you'll see most travellers poring over in temples, guest houses, railway and bus stations. LP guides have been the backpacker's bible for over two decades but nowadays cater for the more affluent traveller as well. Some of LP's guides have attracted criticism regarding accuracy but I have always found the Thailand edition to be accurate and comprehensive. When I first visited Thailand in the 1980's the LP guide was a slim volume of 200 pages which has now grown to a hefty tome exceeding 750 pages. The primary author, Joe Cummings, is an expert on south-east Asia and can read, write and speak Thai fluently and this is reflected in the excellent section on Thai language. The use of Thai script and transliteration in conjunction with the English text for important destinations, places of interest and food and drink is very useful, if all else fails you can at least point to the word. This guide is the one I always take with me. The author has also also written the LP ' Thailand Phrase Book', a cheap shirt-pocket sized book that is indispensable to the traveller intending to venture away from the more touristed areas. I always carry a couple of copies as locals are so impressed with it I often end up giving a copy away!. The prolific Mr. Cummings also writes the Lonely Planet 'Bangkok City Guide'. However unless you only intend to visit the capital it is not worth buying in addition to the main guide as most of the information is duplicated.
Moon Publications Thailand Handbook' entered the market in 1992 and is almost equal to the LP guide in its coverage and, in my opinion, has a better layout making it easier to pick out information. My main criticism concerns the lack of Thai script placed alongside the names of towns, places of interest and food and drink as in the LP guide. Moon Publications also publish a separate 'Bangkok Handbook' but again the same remarks apply as above.
Rough Guides 'Thailand' also first published in 1992 is firmly aimed at the younger backpacker market. Whilst the layout is as good as the Moon Publications guide the coverage is not as extensive as either of the above publications, particularly regarding accommodation. Another aspect that irritates me is its habit of giving precise distances to various places such as national parks, describing the route in detail but omitting in many cases the method of getting there on public transport.
Thailand Oracle by Jim Rickman, first published in Jan. 2001 (ISBN 0-9539531-0-6) is a new addition to the selection of guides to Thailand aimed squarely at the independent traveller. Jim has been travelling to Thailand since 1975 and the book is interspersed with extracts from postcards he has sent home from previous trips. It lacks the historical and cultural details of the above publications but more than makes up for this by the emphasis on the practicalities of travel and accommodation. Virtually every town, city or location a traveller would want to visit has an entry with simple but effective maps, lists of accommodation (with prices, number of rooms and map reference) attractions in and around the area and comprehensive details of all public transport to, within and onward from the location. The author has a web-site where updates (mostly public transport changes) are posted - an excellent idea.
Books dealing with specific destinations within Thailand, such as Chiang Mai in the north and the islands of Phuket and Koh Samui are best bought either in the locality or in the many excellent bookshops in Bangkok, details of which are given in all the above guides.
Maps featuring in any of the above guide books should be adequate for all locations except for Bangkok and the city of Chiang Mai. Maps are best obtained locally but for a general map of the whole country probably the best one for the short term visitor is published by 'Nelles Verlag' available at any good bookshop. I have never seen a good street map for Bangkok outside Thailand despite several excellent ones available locally for less than $2. Make sure they have a street index and just as important that they list both the bus routes and river taxi access points. The most comprehensive street index and tourist information is supplied by 'Bangkok Guides Tourist Map' at $2 but the cheaper ( $1.50) 'Tour n Guide Map' is easier to read, has a list of cheap accommodation and a useful map of the whole country on the reverse.
A travel bookstore with a web site is World Traveller Books and Maps , worth checking out for those hard to find publications.
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INTERNET INFORMATION SOURCES
In this section I intend to restrict the reference sources to around thirty. By doing so hopefully I can keep a track as they evolve or disappear. Some of the sites may be commercial but are included because they offer general information in addition to their commercial services. Entering Thailand into my favourite search engine from those wonderful people at Digital results in nearly 180,000 references. There are a vast number of companies eager to sell any kind of tour all of which are totally unnecessary as the excellent public transport infrastructure and availability of cheap and plentiful accommodation in every area of the country makes this an ideal destination for the independent traveller.
The best place to look for current information is the rec.travel.asia newsgroup. As the name implies it covers the whole of Asia but the majority of postings concern south-east Asia and Thailand in particular simply because of its popularity with travellers and Bangkok being an ideal hub to reach other destinations in the area. Although not specifically aimed at travellers two other newsgroups may be of interest. Bit.listserve.seasia-l features mainly political discussions and articles on south-east Asia forwarded from the local news media . Soc.culture.thai frequently has useful FAQs and less formal discussions on all aspects of Thai life. The FAQs are usually posted monthly and include travel, culture, language, technical and statistical sections. The current copy of the FAQs can also be viewed at NECTEC.
Some Thai universities have excellent sites with lots of useful information for the traveller.
Mahidol University in Bangkok has a lot of General information about travel in Thailand
Assumption University Their tourism home page has information covering the whole country.
Chiang Mai University Information for Northern Thailand at their gopher site.
Khon Kaen University Information for North-East Thailand.
Koh Samui Information This is a non commercial site maintained by Eric Rongle and lists most activities, rates bungalows and resorts and encourages visitors to supply feedback of their experiences to update the site.
Phuket Traveller's Net and Phuket Information These sites are mostly concerned with promoting tourist orientated businesses on the island but also provide a lot of general information.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Magazine This is the online version of the free magazine available at hotels in the area. Updated monthly it includes information on trekking in the area, public transport, lists of hotels and guest houses and has some basic maps.
KMIT Institute of Technology has a searchable database. Although not specifically aimed at travellers there is a lot of interesting general information on the country. However one page that is useful to travellers is Thailand Train Information . This is described as an unofficial guide but is accurate and well constructed. Under construction as of September, 1996 is an additional timetable covering local trains in the Bangkok metropolitan area. Hopefully this will be useful for travelling to and from the airport, easily the cheapest and most pleasant method but at present rather confusing to work out the schedule.
NECTEC As you would expect from the National Electronic and Computer Technology centre this site is very well constructed with a great deal of travel related information and links to other sources.
The Tourist Authority of Thailand home page supplies all the usual general information ,most of which is not specific enough to be of practical help for the independant traveller. The exception is the section is on internal travel featuring air, bus and train schedules.
Infohub www Travel Guide Infohub's guide is a free service that provides practical information for visitors to many countries particularly regarding visa requirements, health, currency exchange and travel to the destination. For the page dealing with Thailand click here
World Travel Guide Similar to Infohub's site. For information specific to Thailand click here
Lonely Planet Publications The guide book company has a feature on their web site called Thorn Tree which enables travellers to post short articles commenting on, adding to or correcting information given in the LP guides, an excellent idea. Click here for the feedback section on south-east Asia.
The Travel Connection This is a site dealing with issues of concern to women travellers. There is also a Travel Forum where articles can be submitted.
Internet Thailand Database This database has been set up by Thailands largest ISP and includes its own search engine for key word enquiries.
Index of Thailand is a business directory compiled by the curiously named Only The Best but it does have lots of tourist information divided into regional sections on the Travel Thailand page.
At a later date I will be adding a selection of images of Thailand from my own collection to complement this page. In the meantime take a look at the excellent images on Douglas Manns home pages.
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I monitor the rec.travel.Asia newsgroup so it's possible you may receive an e-mail from me if you have already posted a request. If posting to the newsgroup please put a meaningful phrase in the subject heading. The people on this forum are generally very helpful but there's a lot of traffic and a heading that just says "info please" will likely be ignored. Equally a general question along the lines of " I'm going to Thailand for a vacation, where do I go, what do I see ? " is also unhelpful.
When requesting infomation try to include some or all of the following details; when you are going, for how long, how many people, what you are interested in doing, the standard of accommodation you expect and your budget. Please limit your enquiry to a few questions at a time. I will be happy to follow up a query if you need further information.
Thank you for visiting my web site. I hope it has been of some use to you and if you decide to visit Thailand have a great trip.
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