Quick Tips: Things to Know Before Coming to Thailand
There is no doubt about it, Thailand is an amazing place. Whether you come to experience their centuries old history, majestic temples, gorgeous landscape, or delicious food, this country has more than enough to offer for both expats and those who are just passing through. However, if you are coming from the West, or any other place outside of Southeast Asia, there are some things that you should know beforehand. In order to make your journey through the land formerly known as Siam as smooth as possible, here are some tips to abide by.
BEFORE YOU ENTER
As an American, you don’t need a visa in order to enter the kingdom. North Americans and Europeans are given automatic entry and can stay in the country for up to 30 days with no questions asked. Well, not exactly. There is one question that you’ll come across. When you reach customs, you may be asked to show a return ticket. If you are on vacation or already have set plans, that shouldn’t be an issue. However, if you are a digital nomad or general country hopper, this can cause quite an issue. This was certainly the case for my friend Roshida who had to buy, then cancel, a ticket out of Thailand. Keep in mind that this was before she even boarded her flight and left Miami.
I found myself in the same predicament when I returned from my visa run in Laos. Despite all the research I had done before I left for Vientiane about how to cross and re-enter the country, no one had bothered to mention this possible bump in the road. You can imagine my look of sheer and utter confusion when the customs agent in Bangkok demanded a return ticket. Imagine now the feeling of panic that I began to feel as she asserted quite strongly that she would not allow me back into the country without one. In all the blog posts that I read, no one mentioned that I would come across this obstacle. So, I am telling you now.
Unlike Roshida, I did not have the money or resources to pick up a ticket out of the country right then and there. Instead, I just walked three feet down to another agent who let me in with no issue. But if I had to do it again, I would have bought a bus ticket to Malaysia or Cambodia for the following month before I left Thailand in the first place. The tickets are cheap and easily cancellable. Save yourself the trouble and do the same.
I can tell you from experience that being trapped in-between international lines is no fun. So, before you come in, have your ticket out secured.
Another thing to keep in mind, is what information you will need in order to enter. I relearned this the hard way when my mother came to visit me. Despite all the prep that I had done to get her ready for this journey, I forgot to tell her one simple, very important thing—the address of her Airbnb here in Thailand. Luckily, she had a very nice customs agent who worked to get her through. But unfortunately, she remained in limbo for at least 30 minutes working it out.
I was horrified that I had missed such a crucial step. So, here is what I should have told her: in order to fill out the immigration paperwork, you will need an exact address of the place where you are staying. If you don’t have this, you may not be allowed into the country. Again, living in limbo at the airport is not an experience that anyone wants to have. So, have it written down somewhere in easy reach so that you can pass through customs unscathed.
The exchange rate between the US dollar and the Thai baht is quite substantial. The rate is roughly 30 baht to a dollar. As an American, this is one of the main reasons that visiting Thailand so inexpensive. It is the ultimate place to ball out on a budget. But, of course, you still need to have the money in hand. But I hear what you are thinking: “How much money should I bring? And how much money, if any, should I take out of the ATM?”
While everyone has a different budget, here is some general advice in regards to money in Thailand.
Nearly all banks and in every country charges a fee to take money out of the ATM. At this point, paying a fee at a bank that is not yours should just be expected no matter where you are. That being said, Thailand has the highest bank fees that I have ever seen. Every time that you take money out of any ATM here, you will be charged a 220 baht fee—which is the equivalent of roughly 7 dollars.
When I first got here, I initially tried to circumvent this. I scoured travel blogs and websites for ways to get out of paying this fee. But, alas, it was no dice. I, you, and everyone else who uses a bank here will have to pay the fee. Every bank charges the same rate, so don’t think that that will make a difference.
If you prefer to just bring the amount with you that you would like to spend, that is up to you. Exchange places are plentiful and cheap, so you will also be guaranteed a great rate just about anywhere. Furthermore, Thailand is also quite safe, so you don’t have to worry about being robbed. Obviously, walking around with a large sum of money is not advisable, if you want to avoid the ATM fees bringing a reasonable sum of money with you is an option.
But what about credit cards? Don’t worry. Except for Mom and Pop shops, most places will take credit cards. Although, everyone, and I mean everyone, prefers cash here. If you’d still prefer to use your card, be aware that you will have to pay a 3% surcharge. Most of the time, it is cheaper to take the money out of the ATM than to pay the fee, but whatever you choose it up to you.
After living here for nearly 6 months, I can tell you that the best thing to do is to withdraw $200-300 dollars at a time. Depending on how you like to travel, $600 may last you the entire trip. Just something to keep in mind.
How do I know if I am getting ripped off?
Food in Thailand is in equal parts cheap and delicious. At a traditional place, you can expect to pay between 30 to 90 baht for a single rice and meat dish. Here, higher prices don’t lead to better quality food. Anything over 150, and you are starting to reach the realm of overpriced. Anything 200 and higher and you are truly paying for the ambiance more than the food.
Western dishes and fancy restaurants can cost a bit more, but generally speaking, paying more than 300 baht for a single dish of anything is getting into the level of obscenely overpriced faire. While the food may be good, keep in mind that supporting places like mean that you are, in effect, throwing off local economies. The average Thai person cannot and would not pay these prices, so neither should you.
The Nickel of Dime Effect
Speaking of, while Thailand is relatively cheap, as a foreigner, both tourist and expat, expect to be nickeled and dimmed at resorts, restaurants and apartments. While I have loved it here, one of the most frustrating acts about being in Thailand is that there always seems to be an added price on just about everything, for everything.
Be aware that for any service specifically geared towards foreigners, nothing will be the price that is written. After you gather the money, and present it for payment, the person who is receiving it, most likely add a price of 30 to 60 baht seemingly out of nowhere. Granted this is only $1-2, but it is annoying nonetheless. Just be ready for it. Tipping is also not mandatory here, so don’t worry about leaving one.
What to wear to the temples
For most people who choose to come to Thailand, there are generally two things that they want to experience: the beaches and the temples. One requires very little clothing, while the other won’t allow you entry without it. On the beaches, you can wear as much or as little as you want. However, those visiting from Europe should know that women do not generally go topless on Thai beaches. Here is a list of nude beaches for those who are interested. But everywhere else, keep your areolas covered.
As for the temples, modesty is the name of the game. For both men and women, there are no bare shoulders or knees allowed. Thailand is almost obscenely hot, so it is understandable that you would prefer to walk around with a tank top, shorts or even crop tops. But if you know that you would like to visit a temple while you are out, bring an extra shirt or wrap so that you can go inside.
The bigger and more touristy the temple, the higher likelihood of the availability of coverings to borrow before you enter. But smaller yet equally beautiful temples probably won’t be so well equipped, so bring a covering with you.
Just like a church, you can speak if you like inside the temple, but please do so in hushed tones. Also, if you choose to sit and meditate or pray, do not point the soles of your feet towards the “altar” or front of the temple. I learned this during my tour of the Grand Palace. My tour guide told us that we should never present the soles of our feet towards the Buddha. I suggest you take heed and if you ever enter the temple, do the same.
Thai streets are notoriously unsafe. More than once I’ve narrowly escaped disaster as a car, truck or motorbike sped by me narrowly missing disaster by a few millimeters. There are some crosswalks that allow you to press a button and will give you clearance to cross. But always wait a few seconds to ensure that the cars are going to stop before crossing. At other intersections, it will be a crap shoot, so try your best to make it across as quickly and safely as possible.
If you need a faster mode of transportation, you may want to consider renting a scooter. For many, this is one of the main reasons why they came to Thailand.
But keep in mind that tourists have a nasty habit of falling off these same scooters, so ride one at your own risk. I don’t think that I can even begin to count the number of skinned shins, calfs and broken wrists that I have seem over the past few months.
A tuk-tuk is also a good option, however, generally speaking now they are generally just for tourists and cost more than taxis. Take at least one during your trip, but don’t make it a habit. A better way to travel is with the use of the Grab app. Grab is the main transportation and food delivery service in SouthEast Asia. It is basically their version of Uber. They are quick, convenient, comfortable and generally the cheapest option to get from point A to point B here in Thailand. So, be sure to download it before you take off.
Take everything people say with a grain of salt.
Last but not least, don’t fall for people’s nonsense. As a tourist, it can be difficult to orient yourself and normally the locals can be of great help in this regard. Yet, no matter where you are, there will never any shortage of people trying to “help” you out of your time and/or money. Scams can be run on even the most seasoned travelers of travelers. And don’t get me wrong, I am in no way suggesting that the Thai are generally shady and are looking for any excuse to rip you off. But I just want to remind you to take what people say with a grain of salt. While culture can have an effect on much of how we view the world, bear in mind that generally, if something doesn’t make sense, it is probably because it doesn’t make sense. Along this journey there may be a lot of misinformation passed along to you, if possible, always get a second or even third opinion. Never take anybody’s word for anything.
I learned this the hard way. As my Mom and I were walking to the Grand Palace, someone stopped us and told us that it was closed. Disappointed, I declined her help and told her that I would just take pictures from the outside. She told me that the wall was too high and suggested instead that we take a boat trip along the river. Although I still believed that she was telling the truth about the Palace, I decided it was at least worth the effort to walk to the gates anyway. As we did we say throngs of people entering and departing the complex. All of whom seemed to be blissfully unaware that the complex that they were visiting was actually closed.
That will probably always remain as one of the strangest lies that anyone has ever told me. Initially, I believed her as I assumed that there must be some special holiday that I didn’t know about. The fact that there were so few people around seemed to prove her point. But the fact is that she was merely a hustler trying to see boat tickets. And I guess she assumed lying was the only way to fill her roster.
The second line of misinformation that we received wasn’t exactly a lie, yet, it had far more devastating consequences. We only had 3 days allotted to spend in the Phi Phi Islands and elected to spend one of them on a half-day boat tour traveling around the other islands. For some odd reason, when my mother booked the tour, the woman told us that this was merely a sight seeing trip. As she told us that we wouldn’t be allowed to snorkel, we left our bathing suits in our room. Imagine our surprise then when the boat stopped at the first island and the captain declared that we would be granted 25 minutes to swim and, you guessed it, snorkel.
Again, it boggles the mind how this type of miscommunication happens, but it taught me a lesson I’ll never forget—take everything people say her with a huge helping of salt. And always bring your bathing suit anyway.
So that is it, a list of some helpful tidbits I wish that I had known when I first landed in Bangkok. I hope knowing this will save you some grief and from being led away from amazing tights to take a boat tour.