The only country in Southeast Asia which has never been colonised, Thailand offers a fascinating and unique combination of historical and cultural attractions which might not have survived the reign of a foreign leader.
Thailand is situated in Southeast Asia and is almost equidistant from both India and China. Sharing borders with Myanmar in the west and north, Laos in the northeast, Cambodia in the east and Malaysia in the south, it is about the same size as France with an area of just over five hundred thousand kilometres and is home to over sixty million residents.
Originally called Siam, its name wasn’t changed to Thailand until 1939. The then Prime Minister, Phibun Songkhram, wanted to forget the country of the past and gave it a name which translates literally as ‘Land of the Free’. Despite the desire of Songkhram to disassociate his country from the past, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia which has never been colonized. This has resulted in more historical evidence of past native cultures than any other country in the region too. But, akin to countries around the world which have been colonized and because it has been invaded many times by many different groups, it is still home to a variety of different ethnic communities complete with the culture and tradition that comes with them. Its geographical location has made it a crossroads of the Southeast Asian region.
While the current Thai capital is Bangkok, the former capital between 1350 and 1767 was Ayutthaya which is situated about ninety kilometers north of Bangkok. During that period, Ayutthaya was regarded all over the world as the most glorious and unforgettable city on the planet which served as a centre of world class culture and commerce. In 1767, however, the city was invaded by its Burmese neighbours who conquered and destroyed the capital. The Siamese capital was moved to Bangkok which is now home to over nine million of the country’s population. Nevertheless, the ruins of Ayutthaya make for a fascinating visit and remain one of the most impressive and visited sights in Thailand.
Today, the country is divided into six principal regions. The north is the mountainous region of the country where you will see Thailand’s official symbol, the elephant, hard at work in the forests. The northeast is a vast plateau bordered by the Mekong. This is where evidence of the world’s oldest Bronze Age settlement has been discovered dating from over five thousand years ago. The central plain is one of the world’s most fertile areas for growing rice and fruit. The eastern coastal plain is where the country’s beaches, renowned all over the world, are to be found and is probably the main tourist region of Thailand. The south is home to a unique combination of breathtaking scenery and the all important tin mining and rubber cultivating industries. And finally, the western mountains where hydro electricity is the most prominent feature.
History has played a large role in the development of the Thai cuisine which exists today. Traditionally a nation of Buddhists meant that using large chunks of meat in dishes was frowned upon. Instead, large cuts of meat were shredded in order to make them more acceptable and this has remained the case throughout the centuries. Prior to the arrival of Chinese influence in Thailand, the cooking methods used were primarily stewing, baking or grilling. Now, however, you will also see the natives frying, stir-frying and deep-frying their dishes. Other nationalities which have also had a significant impact on the culinary traditions in Thailand include the Indian, French, Japanese and Dutch all of whom arrived since the 17th century. But, it is the Portuguese who have been credited with introducing the all-important chilli, an essential ingredient in so many Thai specialties.
Seasoning foods are another essential element of any traditional Thai meal. Either garlic, onion, ginger, basil, lemon grass, mint, lime or the aforementioned chili is included in every recipe. In most cases, however, it is usually a combination of at least three of these or other such flavourings which give your meal its unique sour, salty, hot and aromatic flavour. But, contrary to popular belief, and despite the liberal use of chilies when cooking, not all Thai food is particularly hot. Furthermore, if you are not a fan of food which makes your nose run and your eyes water, you will find a host of traditional Thai dishes to whet your appetite.
When eating a typical Thai meal, you will probably find it strange that all dishes, including soup, are served at the same time. And, while the soup is served individually all other dishes are served communally. Rice is given to each person and you can then sample every other dish on the table. It makes for an interesting meal but does give you the opportunity to sample several different specialties in one sitting.
If you’re wondering exactly what you should sample during your stay, the green curry is extremely popular and renowned around the world. Of course nothing quite compares to the real thing so this definitely comes highly recommended. Another favourite is som tam. A salad which usually accompanies most meals, this consists of grated papaya, tomatoes, garlic, dried shrimps, fish sauce and lemon juice and apparently it’s delicious. And for something to clear the sinuses, try the tom yam soup.
Thailand is served by three international airports which are located in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket. As well as these three terminals, however, connecting flights from Kuala Lumpur also take you to Hat Yai while flights from Singapore also fly to Hat Yai and Ko Samui as well as the aforementioned. The country has two domestic carriers, Thai Airways International (THAI) and Bangkok Airways which use the twenty six national and international airports around Thailand. As well as the native airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Canadian Airlines International, Quantas and British Airways are the most popular airlines offering direct flights to Thailand. Numerous other European and International carriers also fly direct too and quite often offer better deals than the bigger airlines so it is worth checking out before making any decisions.
Thailand can also be reached by train from Singapore and Malaysia. The Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTM) travels via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang eventually connecting with the country’s state railway network. The International Express travels between Penang to Hat Yai and Bangkok without any change of trains and for both services the border delays which used to be a big problem on trains are now much less frequent and shouldn’t cause too much inconvenience.
The only access by road is from Malaysia and there are occasional services between the town countries. All of these are operated by private owned companies and are far from frequent. If you do avail of this service, however, you will cross the border near betong in Yala Province and at Sungei Golok in Narathiwat Province.
The State Railway of Thailand provides efficient and regular connections from Bangkok to Chinag Mai in the north, Udon Thani in the northeast of the country, Pattaya in the east and and as far as the Malaysian border in the south where it connects with the aforementioned KTM. Fares are a little confusing as a double charge system is used. The first charge depends on the distance travelled between stations and the second is relative to the speed at which you travel and the level of comfort which you require. Either way, rail travel within the country need not be that expensive and is an excellent way to see the areas that are included on the rail network.
Bus travel throughout the county is also efficient, clean and reasonably comfortable for relatively short journeys. As well as this, air-conditioned buses are available on all major routes and they travel to the most remote and far flung destinations in Thailand. For the cheapest option avail of the government bus company, Bor Kor Sor. Its services are usually anywhere between thirty and seventy per cent cheaper than the independent companies. On the other hand, the latter quite often provide complimentary meals and transport from your place of accommodation to the bus terminal so you just have to decide which alternative is the best for you personally.
It is also worth noting that you should pay extremely close attention to your belongings on all bus and train trips, but particularly on overnight trips where you should try to avoid placing any valuables on the overhead luggage racks.
Grand Palace, Bangkok
This is the most important palace in Thailand today and is located in the same compound as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha which means that you can get fit two attractions into one excursion. Built in 1782, this remarkable structure was originally used as the official royal residence but now serves as a museum. Consisting of several different buildings each dating from different periods during the last two hundred years, it is a fascinating display of a unique combination of both traditional Thai and western style architecture. It is now one of the country’s top tourist attractions and should not be missed.
The Museum of Forensic Medicine, Bangkok
One of the country’s more unusual attractions and certainly not one for the faint hearted, this particular museum is home to the preserved bodies of several of Thailand’s infamous murderers. Among those on display are See-Uey, the Chinese child murderer who ate the children’s organs after he murdered them and another anonymous murderer who was originally imprisoned for rape and murder, was released and committed the same crime again on a child. There is also a bisected head with a bullet lodged in the brain on display. Visit it only if you think you can handle the aforementioned and worse.
Crocodile Farm, Bangkok
This is the world’s oldest and largest farm of its kind and is home to over sixty thousand crocodiles. While the highlight of the show is the crocodile wrestling, you can also see tigers, elephants, lions, monkeys and a number of poisonous snakes. To catch one of the shows you need to be at the farm at either 10.00am or 3.30pm. The wrestling is not to everyone’s taste but there is plenty to see besides. You can take a ride on an elephant or a camel, shop for authentic crocodile skin handbags or belts (a little cruel considering the location but anyway), relax in a pedal boat on the lake or just enjoy the spectacular scenery. A good place to spend a few hours and only ten kilometres from Bangkok city centre.
Bridge on the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi
The Bridge on the River Kwai is located just over 120 kilometres northwest of Bangkok. Originally built by prisoners of war and forced labourers during the Second World War, it is estimated that almost one hundred and twenty people died during the bridge’s construction. Envisioned by the Japanese as an important link between Thailand and Burma, the bridge has also been the subject of a world famous novel and movie of the same name. Today, a visit to this location will reveal a cemetery in which over seven thousand of the unfortunate victims of the bridge building are buried as well as several tribal villages buried in the hills and numerous magnificent waterfalls. There is also a festival which takes place in late November and early December where sound and light shows re-enact scenes from the bridge’s ill-fated construction.
Phi Phi Islands
A recent addition to Thailand’s most popular tourist attractions, the two islands which make up this group (Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Le) lie forty kilometres south west of Krabi and about the same distance from Phuket. And the reason for their increased popularity – they were the location selected for the recent Hollywood blockbuster, ‘The Beach’. Apart from this claim to fame, however, they are home to some of the best examples of natural beauty which the country has to offer. A combination of transparent seas, coral beds and breathtaking cliffs ensure that a trip to either of the two islands will be one you will treasure forever. While Phi Phi Don is quite populated, Phi Phi Le remains largely uninhabited and unspoiled and boats from the former bring visitors on one-day trips to see the famous Viking caves as well as the unique and edible swiftlet nests which are used in bird nest soup. Phi Phi Le also offers excellent snorkelling conditions well worth exploring.
Elephant Round-Up, Surin
Situated in the northeast of the country, Surin is home to one of the most exciting of all Thai events. Taking place just once a year, on the third weekend of November, Elephant Round-Up involves more than one hundred elephants from all over the country displaying their talents at soccer, tug-of-war and log carrying. The highlight of the festivities is a mock battle between two elephants displaying the talent and the strength of these magnificent animals. The round-up was once a state ceremony but it is now the most popular festival in the region and offers a rare chance to see Thailand’s national animal at its best.
Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival, Yasothon
Held in the second week of May of every year, this is one of the country’s oldest local festivals. In Thailand, the rainy season begins in May and the festival is thought to assist the supernatural powers that help the production of crops in the area. An ancient Thai legend states that there was once a rain god called Vassakan who loved to be worshipped with fire so the locals created a rocket to send to him with their requests. Today rockets are prepared for up to two months before the actual event and when the festival finally takes place there are numerous competitions for the biggest and highest flying rockets as well as the general mayhem which accompanies all the major Thai festivals.
Vegetarian Festival, Phuket
While the origins of this particular festival are unclear, it is thought that it began in China and didn’t actually make it to Phuket until 1825. And, for all you non-veggies out there, don’t worry. Even if you are partial to a bit of meat every now and then, you will find more than enough to entertain you during this highly unusual festival. It takes place at the end of September or the beginning of October depending on the Chinese lunar month and lasts for nine days. While the festival has strict Buddhist traditions which are carried out by the locals, there is also a whole host of events which appeal to tourists including traditional lion dancing, barefoot walking on hot coals, climbing ladders whose rungs are made of knives and numerous exhibitions of body piercing carried out on mediums who are placed in a trance. Interesting to say the least!
International Kite Festival, Bangkok
Kite flying has been a hobby enjoyed by the Thai people for centuries. In 1988 the first international kite festival was held in the country to promote Thai traditional games and culture. In the years since the first festival, the event has been attracting kite groups and enthusiasts from over twenty countries all across the globe. Each country’s kites have their own distinct design making the festival a unique display of creations of all colours, shapes and sizes and absolutely amazing to watch. And, as well as the kite flying there are numerous other events taking place from dawn till dusk ensuring an excellent couple of days.
Long Boat Racing Festival, Nationwide
Throughout the month of September the rivers and waterways in Thailand are awash with traditional vessels and oarsmen taking place in the annual boat racing festival. The best known festivals take place in Pichit, Phitsanulok and Narathiwat but others include Angthong, Ayutthaya, Pathum Thain, Surat Thani and Nan. This unique custom has been traced back to over six hundred years ago when the races were a way to keep young men healthy and fit in preparation for war but nowadays it is regarded as a national sport. Boats are carved from a single tree trunk and can hold up to sixty men dressed in brightly coloured attire. The boats themselves are also decorated with garlands and ribbons making the whole event extremely enjoyable to watch.
The currency used in Thailand is the Baht (B) and it is divided into 100 satang. Notes come in denominations of 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000B. There are also plans to phase out the 10B note and also to introduce a 10,000B note. The coins used in the country are 25 and 50 satang and 1, 5, and 10B.
The country’s official national language is Thai but English is widely understood, particularly in Bangkok. It is also spoken in most hotels and restaurants and in most major tourist destinations.
Thailand has a tropical climate which means that it is hot all year round. Summer takes place from March to May with average temperatures reaching 34ºC but with highs of up to 40ºC. The rainy or monsoon season lasts from June to September with the northeast receiving the least rain and the south becoming completely flooded during the summer months. During both periods it can also become unbearably humid as warm masses flow towards the north from the Indian Ocean. The best time to visit the country is during the cool season which lasts from October to February. During these months it is not quite as humid and average temperatures are between 18ºC to 32ºC making it somewhat more bearable for those of you who are not accustomed to hot weather.
Thailand is seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and fourteen hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time.
Shops in Thailand are generally open between 8.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday but many of the larger stores are open until around 7.00pm and also open on Saturdays. Office hours are between 8.30am and 4.30pm with many closing for lunch between 12.00pm and 1.00pm and banks are usually open between 8.30am and 3.30pm from Monday to Friday. Many of the smaller branches also close for lunch.
The electrical current in Thailand is 220V, 50Hz.
There is a value added tax (VAT) imposed on the sale of goods, the provision of services and the import of goods in to Thailand. While it was reduced from 10% to 7% in April 1999, it is due to be raised back to 10% from April 1st, 2001. Hotels charge a 10% service charge as well as VAT and most restaurants add 8.25% to their bill.
But, the good news for tourists is that since June 1st, 1999, all goods purchased which bear a label stating ‘VAT Refund for Tourists’ can receive VAT refunds before they leave Thailand. In order to do this you need to obtain an application form when making your purchase and present it at the tax refund counter in the departure halls of any of the following airports – Bangkok, Chiangmai, Phuket and Hat Yai. Refunds are immediate.
Citizens of most countries can stay in Thailand for a period of up to thirty days without a visa (ninety days for residents of Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and South Korea). While you are supposed to have a return ticket, this is rarely checked so all you need is a valid passport. For stays of over thirty days you can avail of a tourist visa which is valid for sixty days and costs about US$15. For stays which extend this period you will need to visit any immigration office in Thailand and whether or not you are granted a further visa is entirely at the discretion of the Thai immigration authorities. If you are in any doubt as to whether or not you are a national of a country which requires a visa or have any other queries you should contact the Thai Embassy in your home country well in advance of travelling to Thailand.
Tourist offices in Thailand are run by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) and there is an office at the international airport in Bangkok and another in the city centre. As well as this, there are numerous branches scattered throughout the country in the major towns and cities. These offices will provide you with information on any query which you may have and always have at least one person who can speak English.
The best place to exchange cash in Thailand is in any of the country’s banks which offer the best rates. In some of the larger towns and cities, as well as the more popular tourist destinations, you can also exchange foreign cash or traveller’s cheques in foreign exchange kiosks which are usually open from 8.00am until 8.00pm whereas most banks close at 3.30pm. These kiosks also offer competitive rates but the charge can be a little more expensive.
All major credit cards are accepted in the bigger hotels, restaurants and shops but in smaller businesses or the more remote areas you may have difficulty using this facility. You can also use bankcards which are members of the bigger international networks such as Plus or Cirrus in the larger towns and cities where the ATM states that they are acceptable.
The international code for Thailand is 66 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial your international calling code followed by 66, the local area code without the first 0 and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country replacing 66 with the destination country’s area code. You should also not that the outgoing code for Thailand is 001.
Some of the major area codes within the country include Bangkok: 02, Chian Mai: 053, Pattaya: 038, Phuket: 076, Koh Samui: 077 and Hat Yai: 074. When making international calls you need to dial 13 from Bangkok and 183 from all other places in order to speak to an English-speaking operator.
Tipping in Thailand is not necessary, particularly in restaurants where a service charge is already included. If you feel that the service which you received merits a further tip, then between 3 and 5% is sufficient. If there is no service charge included on your bill, then a tip of between 10 and 15% is acceptable. You don’t need to tip taxi drivers either but many people tell them to keep any small change. You should also carry small notes with you for the fare as very often they don’t carry change. It is worth noting, however, that at no time is tipping compulsory in Thailand. It is entirely at your own discretion.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Thailand they take place on January 1st, February 19th, April 6th and 13th to 16th, May 1st, 5th, 7th and 16th, July 5th and 16th, August 13th, October 23rd and December 5th, 10th and 31st. It is a good idea to check the particular region too as certain towns and areas also shut down during special events.