We never thought about going to Thailand until our son met and became engaged to a lovely young Thai woman and the wedding was to be held in her home town of Udon Thani. So Thailand rose to the top of the travel bucket list and four family members and the groom faced the 19 hour flight from Seattle. Our son had made this trip many times, but we were “newbies” and had a lot to learn. This visit was an amazing experience and we thought we’d share some unexpected things about Thailand.
1) Thailand is the land of happy smiles. These gentle, modest, happy people are a delight to meet and if you make an honest attempt to honor their religious beliefs, speak a little Thai, smile and be courteous, your trip will be amazing. Take off your shoes when entering a Temple, home or guesthouse. If you see a stack of shoes outside – this means you too. Remember that you are an ambassador for your country – smile and be nice!
2) Everything you thought you knew about a humid climate is just wrong. This is a whole new level of wet! If you carry a damp washcloth in a baggie you will have something with which to wipe your face and neck and cool down a little. Thankfully, the hotels have pretty good air conditioned rooms. Take lightweight cotton clothing – no polyester. Imagine what you would wear in a sauna. If you hand wash items, they might not be dry by the next day because of the high humidity and in spite of the soaring 95 degree heat!
3) Thais greet each other and say goodbye with a “wai” which is praying hands at chest level, a nod, and women say “Sah-wahdee-kah-ah” and men say “Sah-wah-dee-kop”.
Thank you is “kop-coom-Kah-ah” or “kop-coom-cop”. The wai is used as a gesture of respect to a customer, an elder, a parent, etc. So a greeter in a store will give you a wai and greeting, it is polite to nod and say it back but not a wai. If addressing a monk – you always use the wai but it is lifted to the bowed forehead.
4) In Bangkok and tourist areas, most everyone speaks some English. Thai people communicate to foreigners in English – not Russian, Chinese, or French. If you know a little English, you will go far. You cannot expect the Thais to speak every language. Be patient. Yelling or being impatient will get you no where and the Thais will be embarrassed for you.
5) At first, the driving will seem like a madhouse. People cut in front of each other, weave all over the road, and squeeze through impossibly small spaces. Thai drivers are very tolerant of each other and there is no road rage. Somehow it all works. It takes awhile to get used to this, so I wouldn’t recommend renting a car right off the bat. Take a taxi or tuk-tuk and watch how they drive. Tell the driver where you want to go and ask for a price or to use the meter.
6) Be prepared to haggle for a price from a street vendor. Brick and mortar shops are not so willing to cut a deal as they have to pay rent. If a silk scarf is 150 baht, ask how much for three? We were told that the average street vendor makes about $10 USD a day. Give them a break! Always smile in negotiations. If the price isn’t what you are willing to pay, say thank you (Kop-coom-kah or kop-coom-kap) and walk away.
7) The Thai people love their king and queen. You will see big paintings of them all over town. Disrespecting them in word or action in any way is a punishable offense. You can politely ask questions about them.
8) Everyone wants to see the temples! They are gorgeous places with amazing artwork, history, and national treasures. Temples are also places of worship. Take your shoes off, keep your voice low. Quiet photography is allowed, but do not use a flash. Bigger temples will have flowers or incense for sale. Watch what other people are doing and join in.
9) Everything is on “Thai Time” so expect tours, the scheduled taxi, and dinner reservations to be a little late. If you are impatient, argue, or chastise this behavior, you will lose face and get nowhere. Leave plenty of time to get to and from places and expect that it may not go smoothly. Go with the flow!
10) Used toilet paper goes in the little trash can and not in the toilet. In fact, many places have the TP dispenser near the sinks where you grab some before going into the stalls. This roll is also used to dry your hands afterwards. All toilets have a little sprayer to wash off #2.
11) Duty free shops have nice things but are really expensive. The deals are on the streets.
12) Most hotel coffee is instant Nescafe. Starbucks sells a single serve contraption where you pour through with hot water. Toss some in the suitcase before you leave home.
13) If you are a size 14 women’s (or larger) or a men’s large (or larger) very little clothing will fit. Bring your lightweight cotton from home. The only jacket you will need is one you can roll into a tiny ball and carry with you for the return trip.
14) Money is different colors and sizes, which is really a smart idea.
15) Cities have lots of smog. Smaller towns and the beaches are better.
Thailand has many contrasts. You will see soaring modern skyscrapers and a very modern landscape – dotted with ancient temples and architecture. You will also see extensive wifi coverage, brand new cars, cellphones, school children dressed in uniforms, and a very tech savy population. On the next corner you will see a motorbike with 3 people, no helmets and a baby. Thais happily bridge the gap between the new and the old with infinite patience and good humor, but the never-ending tourism wears them down. Smile – be very polite – have them help you with a little of their language and they brighten right up. We loved Thailand and now have a new family to visit. The cool (?) season is December – February. Then it really heats up!