Tips for Traveling to Thailand: What to Know Before You Go

I’ve been in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the last two+ weeks before I head to Indonesia. It’s my second time in Thailand and my first in Chiang Mai, which is in the North of Thailand just over an hour away from Bangkok by air. Chiang Mai is pretty isolated and feels secluded within the surrounding forest. It’s perfect if you’re looking for nature-related activities and a break from big cities. Save for some traffic jams, it’s very peaceful and the slower pace is growing on me (New Yorker, here!). The vibe keeps me wondering when I’m going to run into a beach. Maybe it’s all the flip flops.

I’m here for a month, and like many others, I chose it for a long-term stay due to its developed tourism infrastructure (easy transportation ftw!), consistently warm weather, and budget-friendliness; You can eat and sleep well and still include activities on a budget of $50/day here, and in Thailand in general (though it’s a bit harder–but still doable–in the capital city of Bangkok).

I’m sharing my tips from my time here to help you prepare for your own trip to Thailand. Note that most costs I’ve cited are based on Chiang Mai prices — expect to pay more in a larger city, like Bangkok.

Hanging out after an unforgettable (and food-coma-inducing) cooking class at A Lot of Thai in Chiang Mai!

Visas

Fortunately, a 30-day tourist visa (for the US and citizens of many other countries) is free and easy to get upon arrival at the airport. Compared to experiences in some other countries, clearing immigration was a breeze for me. Depending on the immigration agent and your country of origin, you may need to show proof of onward travel (a ticket out of Thailand). This time, I was not asked–the agent and I spent our quick exchange talking about his favorite local food (thanks, dude!).

What if you don’t have an exit flight? The Thai government is on top of preventing over-stays and illegal immigration, so attempting to enter without proof of onward travel is a risky strategy. If you’re asked to and can’t show proof of onward travel, you may be required to buy a plane ticket on the spot–or even denied entry. Needless to say, not the way you want to start your visit.

This kind of puts a hamper on plans for those who want more flexibility and haven’t decided how long they want to stay. If you don’t want to buy your flight just yet, you can try buying an inexpensive bus ticket to a neighboring country online, but I have read that some immigration officials will only accept air travel as proof.

There are also services that will let you ‘rent’ an itinerary for 24-48 hours; the service purchases a refundable ticket with your name, emailed to you and then voided after a pre-determined time frame.

Apply for an extended visa after you arrive. This is easy to do in cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Simply go to the immigration office with copies of your passport and exit card (filled out when receiving your entry visa), fill in the required documentation, and pay the extension fee. The cost to extend beyond 30 days is 1900 Baht (around $57 USD).

Alternatively, you can make a border run. Sounds very Indiana Jones, right? This is pretty easy to do, especially if you’re in a flight hub like Bangkok. Lots of expats here do a long weekend trip a neighboring country and renew their free visa upon re-arrival to Thailand. Technically, you could leave and come back in a shorter period of time–you just need to exit and return. Depending on your budget and what you may have already booked, it might be more cost-effective to extend your visa.

Apply for a longer-term visa in advance. Visit a Thai embassy in your home country and apply for a visa longer than 30 days there. The fee will depend on the duration. Allow several days’ turnaround for this before your departure for Thailand.

Culture

Basic Greetings/Hello: How to Properly Wai

Thai culture is one that strongly values respect–for the late King and the royal family, images of the Buddha, elders, temple monks, etc. It’s one aspect of the culture that’s endeared me to the country, and it’s important to show the proper level of respect, especially when greeting someone.

The formal greeting of Thailand is the Wai (pronounced ‘why’). Generally, only the verbal greeting is used, but someone may offer you a full Wai–a greeting with hands brought together at the chest, head bowing slightly.

The verbal part of a Wai is the greeting ‘sa-wat-dee’. This is followed with an article denoting respect, which differs by gender.

  • For women, ‘sa-wat-dee’ is followed by the article ‘ka’: sa-wat-dee-ka.
  • Men add the article, ‘krup’: sa-wat-dee-krup.

Phonetically spelled, it sounds like ‘sah-wah-dee-kah’ for a woman or ‘sah-wah-dee-crop’ for a man. In speaking Thai or listening to a conversation, you will often hear the words ‘ka’ or ‘krup’, a gender-specific article used as a show of respect.

There are three different levels of bows associated with this greeting.

The highest is used when greeting a monk: If greeting a monk (before a monk chat, for example), greet them and lower your head to touch your forehead (between your eyebrows) to your thumbs.

You can read about my monk chat experience at Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai here.

From my afternoon at the monk chat program.

The second highest is for respected authorities and elders, like a professor or your grandparent. In this case, lower your head to touch the tip of your thumbs to your nose.

In all other cases if greeting someone you believe to be older than you, touch the tip of your thumbs to your chin. 

Not everyone will bow, but it’s important to return a Wai if greeted with one, otherwise it’s considered rude.

Temple Etiquette

Some of the most beautiful sites in Thailand are the buddhist temples. The word for temple is ‘wat’, and there are hundreds in some cities. When visiting a temple, these are good rules of thumb:

  • Avoid pointing your feet directly at images of the Buddha (the feet are the least respected part of the body, as opposed to the head)
  • Modest dress is required on the grounds and especially in a temple. If you’re wearing shorts, tight pants, or a sleeveless top, you can cover up with a shawl that’s easily stored in your daypack or tied to your bag. Some temples offer a shawl for rent if you don’t have your own.
  • Remove your shoes before entering the temple–don’t worry, they’ll be there when you get back!
  • Some temples may ask for a small donation (ex. 20 Baht), applied towards maintenance expenses.
WatPanSao
An ancient chit at Wat Pan Sao
Temple grounds at Wat Phra Singh

Packing Tips & What to Expect

Bugs and Other Nasties

Bring. Mosquito. Repellant. You can buy insect repellent at any drugstore (DEET and non-DEET versions), but often times I have found that the kind sold here with DEET are only somewhat effective since they have low DEET percentages. Unless you’re using pure citronella, the natural ones don’t offer much defense, either, so I recommend stocking up before you arrive.

In my travel medicine kit I’ve packed a 1-ounce bottle of pure Citronella oil, which has come in handy so I can cook in peace in my outdoor kitchen here, or when I’ve run out of bug spray. The best bug spray I’ve used (and bought after lots of research) is this Sawyer Premium Picaridin Repellent. It’s like wearing a anti-mosquito force field. A few sprays lasts 8 hours and I wish I had packed a ton more of this.

Locals have also recommend using Tiger Balm as natural mosquito defense. You can find it EVERYWHERE, and it’s a great all-purpose medicinal salve.

Mosquitos breed around water and like dark colors, warmth, and shade where they’re less exposed. For these reasons, they’re most active around sunrise and sunset, in dark places, and around warm, sweaty people. To protect yourself, wear loose, light-colored clothing, and always carry repellent.

If you’re really stretching a budget and will be staying at spots without AC, pack a mosquito net to help you sleep comfortably. Spots with AC are less hospitable to mosquitos. In general, mosquito levels are worst in the evenings and around sources of water, where they breed.

You can eat fried crickets for 20 Baht at the Sunday Night Market. They taste kind of shrimpy! I don’t think the seller thought I was actually going to eat them…

When it comes to other bugs, wear closed-toed shoes as an extra precaution if walking around soil exposed to livestock, in rainwater, or in streams; As with other sub-tropical countries, there are many kinds of parasites.

For the extra-adventurous, you can eat all kinds of bugs at the night markets!

Converters

Most of the places I’ve stayed had outlets that fit multiple plugs, but bring at least one converter as a safe bet. I have this Kikkerland UL03-A Universal Travel Adapter, which I like because it collapses flat and doesn’t take up a lot of space; It’s easy to throw in a daypack packet. It does not have a USB port, but I packed a backup that does.

Currency

The currency of Thailand is the Baht (pronounced ‘bot’), currently $1 USD to about 33 Baht, and it’s easy to find ATMs. Many places accept credit cards but just in case, always carry cash.

Where I am in Chiang Mai, street food costs 20-70B per meal (per person), a casual restaurant costs 100-250B per meal (not including alcohol), and a cappuccino from a moderately-priced cafe is 45-65B.

Drinking Water

Thai drinking water is not safe for consumption but bottled water is very easy to find. A large bottle goes for around 13-15 Baht (~$0.45 USD), and it’s recommended that you use bottled water for brushing your teeth. If you’re trying to limit plastic waste, you can find several portable filter options online or at your local outdoor gear store.

If you’re staying long-term, your landlord or host may be able to help arrange for regular drinking water delivery. Many cities have filtered water pump stations where you can refill your own containers for a small fee. However, because the water is heavily filtered and stripped of minerals, the water pH can tend to be acidic, so you might consider taking alkalizing supplements if staying for a long time.

Packing Cubes

Having packed and re-packed my gear a few dozen times now, I understand now why lots of travelers (long or short-term) rave about packing cubes. If you’re not familiar, they’re like zip-able, compressible compartments for travel and are useful regardless of how long you’ll be on the road. I have this set of Gonex Packing Cubes. The idea of having to root around in all my stuff to find something quickly without these makes me sweat. They help me stay organized and fit my 7 tops, two dresses, two pairs of pants, skirt, scarf, underwear, and socks compressed and taking up as little space as possible in my [already small] 40L pack. Future post to come on how to choose a backpack!

Sunblock and Skin Care

I recommend packing as much sunblock and lotion as you’ll need since it can be difficult to find skin care products without whitening agents, and sunblock (especially beach towns) can be much more expensive than back at home. If you’re strapped, you can find skin products without whitening agents in some very large convenience stores or supermarkets.

Tipping

Though not expected, it is a general practice to tip a small amount to drivers, bag handlers, and wait staff. For a meal, it is common to leave behind 20 Baht at a casual spot–more at more expensive restaurants.

For taxis, the rule of thumb is to round up.

Massages and salon services are different.

For salons and manicures, tip around 20%.

A rule of thumb for massages is to tip 100 Baht per hour–more if your massage was excellent. So if your massage is 200 Baht per hour, you’d tip 150 for a 90-minute massage costing 300 Baht (about $5 for a ~$10 massage). Keep in mind that often times a massage therapists’ income is tied to the number of clients and potentially exclusively from tips depending on the house’ pay structure.

For reference, in Chiang Mai, massages start around 200 (~$ USD) Baht/hr at a casual, no frills massage house and around night markets. Spas and Thai massage healers charge anywhere from 500 Baht and up. A luxury spa with the works runs 1,000+/hr ($30 USD).

Toilet Paper

In 2008 I went to China as an alumni with my former high school’s orchestra. I will never forget seeing my group flee their first Chinese toilets in shock and amazement when they found there was no toilet paper–not to mention their total confusion about how to use a squat toilet (I love pre-travel research).

By comparison, Thai restrooms (which have western toilets) will frequently have TP, but there will be times where it’s run out or not provided at all. You don’t want to be caught paperless. I’ve used several public restrooms where there was no toilet paper and suspicious lime halves were hanging out on the top of the toilet. I don’t even want to imagine what they were for… Seriously, always carry a small pack of tissues. You can buy a pack of 6 for 15 Baht (~$0.45 USD) at convenience shops.

Medical Needs & Immunizations

Immunizations

Don’t make the mistake I did and wait until a few weeks before your trip to get immunized! I was fortunate my doctor could squeeze me in at the last minute (though not without a lecture). The point of getting immunized is to build up a resistance before you get to areas of risk, and some vaccines require a series of shots.

If you’re traveling short-term, you might decide to forgo a vaccinations check up, but if you’re traveling for a while it’s highly recommended to be up to date on certain immunizations, and some countries will require proof of certain ones before you’re granted entry. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) website is a good resource to research immunization requirements.

If you do end up getting sick, you can read about my experience and tips for what to do if you become ill abroad here.

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I’ll be here for another couple weeks and am excited to share my favorite spots to find Khao Soi–Chiang Mai’s famous regional dish–in a coming post, and another about the best cooking class you can’t miss in Chiang Mai!

 

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