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10 essential pieces of advice for travelers to Thailand
Having recently spent a couple of great weeks in Thailand, here are my 10 pieces of advice, in no particular order (this is practical advice, not destination suggestions):
1. Don't bring a lot of clothes. You can get a simple wash, dry and fold for about $1 per kg (20-50 baht is what I saw; the more touristy the area, the higher the price). You drop off one day, pick it up the next day. 4-5 days' worth of clothing is plenty. I literally had a messenger bag (for my computer) and a medium-sized duffel bag. That was it, and with about $3 spent on laundry 3 times, I was good.
2. Don't bother with tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks stink, are slow, and the drivers will drive you to where they want to take you (shops that sell junk, so they get a kick-back). Most importantly, air-conditioned taxi cabs cost the same amount of money! Avoid the tuk-tuks and take a cab. AND...before you step into the cab, ask the driver if he has a meter and if it works. If they pretend it doesn't, get out of the cab. It's not too hard to find a fair cab driver. (And, cab rides are remarkably inexpensive there) When in Bangkok, take the SkyTrain and boat taxis - both are a real treat.
3. Don't be afraid of street food. Use good judgment, but if something is cooked in a wok in front of you, and the ingredients look reasonably fresh, then you're fine. I know of 2 people who've gotten sick there, and they ate dairy products, so avoid those.The street food is fantastic in Thailand (even for vegetarians like me) and dirt-cheap.
4. Thais are remarkably prompt. Even though it's a developing country and tropical, Thais are pretty industrious and they mind the time well. If a tour operator, like for a snorkeling/scuba trip, says they'll be at your hotel at 7:35am, that means anywhere between 7:33 and 7:37. Buses leave on time, as do planes, tours, etc. This is very, very different from my experience in the Middle East and Latin America.
5. Don't dare insult the royal family or Buddha. The Thais are renowned for their peacefulness, but insulting the Thai royal family or the Buddha can literally get you the death penalty. I'm not joking. Don't point at either with your foot (considered unclean) and never raise yourself to be higher than them (statue, poster, etc). A couple of years ago, a mentally-ill person started attacked a Buddha statue. Passerbys beat him to death.
6. Massage. Do you want clean or sleazy? Both are readily available, and both types will call out to you as you walk down the street. Clean massage women are older, heavier, and wear polo shirts. Sleazy ("sexy massage", "special massage") massage women are younger, sexier, and have low-cut tank tops and short-shorts. Price range is about 120 baht per hour ($4!) that we paid in a Chiang Mai temple, to 400 baht per hour ($12) in the ritzy Silom district of Bangkok. They pretty much all do the standard "Thai massage" routine, which is pretty rigorous and involves a lot of stretching and contortion but feels good (but is not like the Swedish style most Westerners are used to). Scented oils are optional.
7.Haggling at markets. Expected, and you should know what you're doing. They will often ask 10 times as much as it's worth. Shake your head in disbelief, and they'll often hand you a calculator. Enter in 1/10 what they asked. They'll shake their head in disbelief, tell you it's a really good price, the product is of excellent, authentic quality, etc. and then drop 10% of the price. If you're lucky, you'll get it for 30-50% of their original asking price. You should be able to get it for lower, but you generally won't (they are too good at bargaining, and there are a dozen tourists ready to buy right behind you). And once they agree to a price you proposed, you're obligated to buy it. Don't just haggle to practice. Be sure to try the night markets in Bangkok - they are amazing.
8. Avoid the scams. If someone approaches you and tells you that whatever tourist place you're visiting is closed today, or opening much later, ignore them. Especially if they tell you they can get you a really great discount on a hand-made suit. Most of the scammers are pretty transparent, but for an ominous (and, frankly, a bit funny) record of tourists' accounts, take a look at Bangkok Scams.
9. Be prepared for the heat and mosquitoes. Thailand is hot and tropical almost all year round, it is very warm and humid. Mosquitoes are everywhere (although, in most areas, thankfully malaria-free). You can get sunscreen fairly readily almost everywhere, but mosquito repellent, not as easily. I suggest getting a long-lasting kind that microencapsulates the DEET (or other repellent) to limit absorption and disperse the repellent over 12 hours. Get a small bottle of Ultrathon or Cutter. A small bottle will last you longer than you think. For the heat, remember to drink cold bottled water often and stay out of the sun (unless you're used to it) during the peak hours of the day.
10.Don't only enjoy the antiquity of Thailand. There are countless temples (wat), palaces, museums and the like in Thailand. But I really believe it's somewhat patronizing to act as if the country's best is behind it, and there's nothing worth seeing or experiencing what regular Thais do today. How Thais adapt to, assimiliate, or ignore, global trends in music, fashion, shopping, food, cinema, etc is fascinating.Two treats in Bangkok that you shouldn't miss: Siam Paragon, and Bed Supperclub. Siam Paragon is an enormous, luxury mall (it even has a Lamborghini dealership inside!) but has remarkably good and cheap food in its impressive food court. Bed Supperclub is just really cool. The drinks and food are great, and lounging around on beds (yes, beds) to ambient beats and drag performances in a soft pinkish glow puts you in a uniquely mellow mood.