Thailand - Accommodation
Places to stay are abundant, varied and reasonably priced in Thailand.
Guesthouses, Hostels & YMCA/YWCA's
Guesthouses are generally the cheapest accommodation in Thailand and are found in most areas where travellers go in central, north and south Thailand, and are spreading slowly to the east and northeast as well. Guesthouses vary quite a bit in facilities and are particularly popular in Bangkok and Chiang Mai where stiff competition keeps rates low. Some are especially good value, while others are mere flophouses. Many serve food, although there tends to be a bland sameness to meals in guesthouses wherever you are in Thailand.
There is a Thai Youth Hostels Association (25/2 Phitsanulok Road, Sisao Theves, Dusit, Bangkok, 10300) with member hostels in Bangkok (one), Chiang Mai (three), Chiang Rai (one), Phitsanulok (one), Kanchanaburi (one), Ko Phi Phi (one) and Rayong (one).
Thai Youth Hostels range in price from 30 Baht for a dorm bed to 150 Baht for a room and there are discounts for International Youth Hostel Federation (IYHF) cardholders. Most Thai hostels offer inexpensive meals and are a source of reliable travel information.
YMCA/YWCAs cost a bit more than guesthouses and hostels (average 200 Baht and above) and sometimes more than local hotels, but are generally good value. There are Y's in many provincial capitals.
The standard Thai hotels, often run by Chinese-Thai families, are the easiest accommodation to come by and generally have very reasonable rates (average 50 to 80 Baht for rooms without bath and air-con, or 80 to 150 Baht with bath). They may be located on the main street of town and/or near bus and railway stations.
The most economical hotels to stay in are those without air-con; typical rooms are clean and include a double bed and a ceiling fan. Some have attached Thai-style bathrooms (this will cost a little more). Rates may or may not be posted; if not, they may be increased for the farang, so it is worthwhile bargaining. It is best to have a look around before agreeing to check in, to make sure the room is clean, that the fan and lights work, etc. If there is any problem request another room or a good discount. If possible, always choose a room off the street and away from the front lounge to cut down on ambient noise.
Some of these hotels may double as brothels; the perpetual traffic in and out can be a bit noisy but is generally bearable. The best (cheapest) hotels have Thai or Chinese names posted in the scripts of both languages (newer hotels may have the name in Romanised script as well), but you will learn how to find and identify them with experience. Many of these hotels have restaurants downstairs; if they don't, there are usually restaurants and noodle shops nearby.
National Park Accommodation/Camping
Thailand has 53 national parks and nine historical parks. All but 10 of the national parks have bungalows for rent that sleep as many as 10 people for rates of 300 to 1,000 Baht, depending on the park and the size of the bungalow. Camping is allowed in all but four of the national parks (Nam Tok Phliu in Chantaburi Province, Doi Suthep-Pui in Chiang Mai Province, Hat Chao Mai in Trang Province and Thap Laan in Prachinburi Province) for only 5 Baht per person per night. A few parks also have reuan thaew or long houses, where rooms are around 150 to 200 Baht for two, and/or tents on platforms for 50 to 60 Baht a night. Go to National Parks section for more information.
A few of the historical parks have bungalows with rates comparable to those in the national parks, mostly for use by visiting archaeologists.
College and university campuses may be able to provide inexpensive accommodation during the summer vacation (March to June).
There are universities in Chiang Mai, Nakhon Pathom, Khon Kaen, Mahasarakham and Songkhla. Outside Bangkok there are also teachers' colleges (withayalai khruu) in every provincial capital that may offer accommodation during the summer vacation.
Tourist Class & Luxury Hotels
These are found only in the main tourist destinations: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya, Ko Samui, Songkhla, Phuket and Hat Yai Prices start at around 400 Baht outside Bangkok and Chiang Mai and proceed to 1,000 Baht or more - genuine-tourist class hotels in Bangkok start at 500 Baht or so and go to 2,000 Baht for standard rooms, and up to 5,000 Baht for a suite. These will all have air-con, western-style toilets and restaurants.
Added to room charges will be an 11% government tax, and some hotels will include an additional service charge of 8% to 10%.
The Oriental in Bangkok, rated as the number one hotel in the world by several executive travel publications, starts at 3,100 Baht for a standard single and tops off at 20,000 Baht for a deluxe suite.
If you are a Buddhist or can make a good show of it, you may be able to stay overnight in some temples for a small donation. Facilities are very basic though and early rising is expected. They are usually for men only, unless the wat has a place for laywomen to stay.
Bathing in Thailand
Upcountry the typical Thai bathroom consists of a tall earthen water jar fed by a spigot and a plastic or metal bowl. You bathe by scooping water out of the water jar and sluicing it over the body. It's very refreshing during the hot and rainy seasons, but takes a little stamina during the cool season if you're not used to it. If the 'bathroom' has no walls, or if you are bathing at a public well or spring in an area where there are no bathrooms, you should bathe while wearing the phaakhamaa or phaasin; bathing nude would offend the Thais.
Thailand - Alcohol
Drinking in Thailand can be quite expensive in relation to the cost of other consumer activities in the country. The Thai government has placed increasingly heavy taxes on liquor and beer, so that now about 30 Baht out of the 40 Baht to 45 Baht that you pay for a large beer is tax. Whether this is an effort to raise more tax revenue (the result has been a sharp decrease in the consumption of alcoholic beverages for perhaps a net decrease in revenue) or to discourage consumption (if that's the case it works), drinking can wreak havoc with your budget. One large bottle (630 ml) of Singha (pronounced 'Sing', forget the 'ha') beer costs more than half the minimum daily wage of a Bangkok worker (73 Baht) as of 1987.
Four brands of beer are brewed in Thailand: Singha, Khun Phaen, Amarit and Kloster. Singha is by far the most common beer in Thailand, with Kloster a close second. Khun Phaen and Amarit are hard to find, though Khun Phaen is worth asking for since it costs about 5 to 10 Baht less per bottle than Singha and tastes almost exactly the same (I can't tell the difference). Amarit is also fairly similar, perhaps a little less bitter, with no price difference. Kloster is quite a bit lighter in taste than Singha and generally costs 5 Baht more, but it is a good-tasting brew. Boon Rawd Breweries, makers of Singha, have introduced a new lighter beer called Singha Gold in an effort to compete with Kloster, which is becoming increasingly popular in Thailand. At this writing the Gold only comes in small bottles; most people seem to prefer either Kloster or regular Singha to Singha Gold, which is a little on the bland side.
Rice whisky is a big favourite in Thailand and somewhat more affordable than beer for the average Thai. It has a sharp, sweet taste not unlike rum, with an alcoholic content of 35%. The two major liquor manufacturers are Suramaharas Co and the Surathip Group. The first produces the famous Mekong (pronounced Mae-khong) and Kwangthong brands, the second the Hong (swan) labels such as Hong Thong, Hong Ngoen, Hong Yok, Hong Tho, etc. Mekong and Kwangthong cost around 90 to 95 Baht for a large bottle (called klom in Thai) or 50 to 55 Baht for the flask-sized bottle (called baen). An even smaller bottle, the kok, is occasionally available for 25 to 30 Baht. The Hong brands are considerably less expensive.
In March of 1986, the two liquor giants met and formed a common board of directors to try to end the fierce competition brought about when a government tax increase in 1985 led to a 40% drop in Thai whisky sales. This may result in an increase in whiskey prices but probably also in better distribution - Mekong and Kwangthong have generally not been available in regions where the Hong labels are marketed and vice versa. A third company, Pramuanphon Distillery in Nakhon Pathom, has recently begun marketing a line of cut-rate rice whisky under three labels: Maew Thong (Gold Cat), Sing Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya Lion) and Singharat (Lion-King).
One company in Thailand produces true rum, that is, distilled liquor made from sugar cane, called Sang Som. Alcohol content is 40% and the stock is supposedly aged, drawn from the leftovers of a rum called Tara that was popular in the '70s. Sang Som costs several Baht more than the rice whiskeys, but for those who find Mekong and the like unpalatable, it is an alternative worth trying.
A cheaper alternative is lao khao, or 'white liquor', of which there are two broad categories: legal and contraband. The legal kind is generally made from sticky rice and is produced for regional consumption. Like Mekong and its competitors, it is 35% alcohol, but sells for 40 to 45 Baht per klom, or roughly half the price. The taste is sweet and raw and much more aromatic than the amber stuff - no amount of mixer will disguise the distinctive taste.
The illegal kinds are made from various agricultural products including sugar palm, coconut milk, sugar cane, taro and rice. Alcohol content may vary from as little as 10% to 12% to as much as 95%. Generally this lao theuan (jungle liquor) is weaker in the south and stronger in the north and northeast. This is the choice of the many Thais who can't afford to pay the heavy government liquor taxes; prices vary but 10 Baht worth of the stronger concoctions will intoxicate three or four people. These types of homebrew or moonshine are generally taken straight with pure water as a chaser. In smaller towns, almost every garage-type restaurant (except, of course, Muslim restaurants) keeps some under the counter for sale. Sometimes roots and herbs are added to jungle liquor to enhance flavour and colour.
Currently herbal liquors are fashionable throughout the country and can be found at roadside vendors, small pubs and in a few guesthouses. Soaking various herbs, roots, seeds, fruit and bark in lao khao to produce a range of concoctions called yaa dong, make these liquors. Many of the yaa dong preparations are purported to have specific health-enhancing qualities. Some of them taste fabulous while others are rank. One well-known herbal liquor pub just outside Bangkok is Pak Kraya Chok (Beggars Union) near Wat Phra Si Mahathat in Bangkhen.
Thailand - Climate
Thailand basically has three more or less distinct seasons: hot (March to June); rainy (July to October); and cool and dry (November to February). Some people say the rainy season begins in June, some say it begins in July. However, although 'officially' the rains begin in July, the truth is, it depends on the monsoons in any given year. It rains more and longer in the south, which is subject to two monsoons, so that the wet season effectively lasts through January. The temperature is more even year-round in the south, when it is 35°C in Bangkok it maybe only 32°C in Phuket. The hot season is the hottest along the northeast plain, easily reaching 39°C in the daytime and only a few degrees less at night.
Most of Thailand is very humid, the mountains in the north being the exception. The temperature can drop to 13°C at night during the cool season in Chiang Mai and even lower in Mae Hong Son - if you're visiting the north during the cooler months; long-sleeved shirts and pullovers would be in order.
In central Thailand it rains most during August and September, though there may be floods in October since the ground has reached full saturation by then. If you are in Bangkok in early October don't be surprised if you find yourself in hip-deep water in certain parts of the city. In 1983, when the floods were reputed to be the worst in 30 years, it was that deep in every part of the city! It rains a little less in the north, August being the peak month. The northeast gets less rain and periodically suffers droughts. In Phuket it rains most in May (for an average 21 out of 30 days) and in October (for an average of 22 out of 30 days), undergoing two monsoons. Generally, travelling in the rainy season is not unpleasant at all, but unpaved roads may close down occasionally.
The best overall time to visit Thailand vis-à-vis climate would be between November and February - during these months it rains least and is not so hot. See the south during the coolest months, December and January, the north in February when it begins warming up, elsewhere (Bangkok included) in November. Of course, if you can't choose your time so carefully, come anytime, but be prepared to roast in April and to do some wading in October - probably the two worst months weather wise.
On the other hand, there are more tourists about in December and August. Avoid these months if you want to avoid crowds of farang vacationers. The least crowded months are June and September.
Thailand - Conduct
The TAT put out a useful publication on do's and don'ts in Thailand, starting with the warning that the monarchy is held in considerable respect in Thailand (they are) and visitors should be respectful too. One of Thailand's leading intellectuals, Sulak Sivarak, was arrested in the early '80s for lese-majesty when he called the king 'the skipper' (a passing reference to his fondness for sailing).
Correct behaviour in temples entails several guidelines, the most important of which is to dress neatly and take your shoes off when you enter the inner compound or buildings. At the temple on Doi Suthep near Chiang Mai you can see a whole snapshot photo gallery of 'inappropriately dressed' visitors. Buddha images are sacred objects, don't pose in front of them for pictures and definitely do not clamber upon them.
Thais greet each other not with a handshake but with a prayer-like palms-together gesture known as a wai. If someone wais you, you should wai back (unless waied by a child). The feet are the lowest parts of the body (spiritually as well as physically) so don't point your feet at people or point at things with your feet. In the same context, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body; so don't touch Thais on the head either. Thais are often addressed by their first name with the honorific Khun or a title preceding it.
Beach attire is not considered appropriate for trips into town and is especially counterproductive if worn to government offices (e.g. when applying for a visa extension). As in most parts of Asia, anger and emotions are rarely displayed and generally get you nowhere. In any argument or dispute, remember the paramount rule is to keep your cool.
Nudity on Beaches
Regardless of what the Thais may (or may not) have been accustomed to centuries ago, they are quite offended by public nudity today. Bathing nude at beaches in Thailand is illegal. If you are at a truly deserted beach and are sure no Thais may come along, there's nothing stopping you - however, at most beaches travellers should wear suitable attire. Likewise, topless bathing for females is frowned upon in most places except on tourist islands like Phuket, Samui, Samet and Phangan. Many Thais say that nudity on the beaches is what bothers them most about foreign travellers. These Thais take nudity as a sign of disrespect on the part of the travellers for the locals, rather than as a libertarian symbol or modem custom. Thais are extremely modest in this respect (despite racy billboards in Bangkok) and it should not be the traveller's intention to 'reform' them.
Most Thai are very forgiving about social mistakes, but trying to honor Thai standards, shows the Thai that the traveler has respect for their values. Here are some important taboos whose observance is prudent, if one does not want to be thought of as "bad mannered". These are a few things that tourists should keep in mind.
- Temper. However frustrating the situation, never lose your temper. The person who loses his temper loses face. Be Thai and just keep calm and smile.
- Sensitivity. The Thai are extremely self-conscious, and hate to be teased, especially in front of their friends.
- Criticism. Never criticize a Thai or anything Thai. The Thai are a proud people, and proud of their country. Criticizing the King or a member of his family could result in you being hospitalized.
- Patience. The Thai are extremely patient, and will wait hours for a bus or train without complaint. They just don't understand Westerners preoccupation with the time. Don't expect Thais to be punctual - they rarely are. It is practically impossible to get into an argument with a Thai. They just smile back and wait for the storm to pass.
- Modesty. Most Thais are extremely modest about nudity, and when undressing will wrap a towel around them to slip off their trousers. The towel will not be removed until the firmly tucked up under the sheets. Some more experienced Thais have learnt that many Farang walk around a hotel room stark naked, but this can and does embarrass many Thais. Most Thais are part horrified and part fascinated by Farang men on the beach disporting themselves in thong style swim wear, and women going topless.
- English. Many Thais can read or write English better than they can speak it. If you don't understand each other, write it down.
- Touching. Never, never, touch the top of someone's head, even someone you are sleeping with. The head is the most sacrosanct part of the body. Likewise, the Thai will be astounded if you touch their feet, as feet are considered dirty and lowly. Once the relationship is established, you can ask permission to do these things. Never touch any part of woman in public, not even holding her hand. You will see modern young straight Thai lovers holding hands, but they are imitating Western styles. It is perfectly OK. for two men or women to hold hands, but no assumptions should be made as to their sexuality.
- Fingers and Feet. Never point at anybody. The feet, being dirty (even if yours are not) should never be used to point at anything, to stop a rolling coin, to move something aside, or be placed on furniture, even on the back of the seat in front of you in the bus or train. Feet should be kept firmly pointing at the ground, even when sitting. Don't step over anyone - ask them to move, even if they are sleeping on the pavement..!
- Cleanliness & Attire. The Thai, however poor, are almost always smartly turned out and well scrubbed. Westerners strolling into public places wearing beach clothes, being unshaven or otherwise unkept, cause either amusement or consternation. If visiting a temple or Royal Palace, shorts and sleeveless shirts or blouses are taboo as they would most likely in your country. Including when you are walking on the street.
- Demeanor. Try to avoid being too high, either in height or manner. When walking past a group of people sitting down, bow your head, and walk, if possible, behind them.
- Shoes. Shoes are always removed before entering someone's home or a temple.
- Kissing. Polite Thais never kiss in public, not even in a restaurant, bar, so wait until you get behind closed doors.
Thailand - Costs
Food and accommodation outside Bangkok is generally quite inexpensive and even in Bangkok it's fairly low, especially considering the value vis-à-vis other countries in South and South-East Asia.
Outside Bangkok, budget travellers should be able to get by on 200 Baht per day if they really keep watch on their expenses. This estimate includes basic accommodation, food, non-alcoholic beverages and local transport, but not souvenirs, tours or vehicle hire. Add another 40 to 45 Baht per day for every beer you drink. Expenses vary, of course, from place to place; where there are high concentrations of budget travellers, accommodation tends to be cheaper and food more expensive. With experience, you can travel in Thailand for even less, if you live like a Thai of modest means and learn to speak the language. Average low-to-middle income Thais certainly don't spend 200 Baht a day when travelling in their own country.
In Bangkok there's almost no limit to the amount you could spend, but if you live frugally, avoid the tourist ghettos and ride the public bus system you could get by on the same or just a bit more. Where you stay in Bangkok is of primary concern, as accommodation there has generally become a good deal more expensive than upcountry accommodation since the tourist boom of 1987. Typically, the traveller spends well over 150 Baht per day in Bangkok just for accommodation - this is generally the absolute minimum for air-con (in a shared double room). On the other hand, if you can do without air-con, accommodation can be found in Bangkok for as little as 40 Baht per person. But the noise, heat and pollution in Bangkok may drive many budget travellers to seek more comfort than they might otherwise need upcountry.
Food is somewhat more expensive in Bangkok than in the provinces. However, in Thonburi (Bangkok's 'left bank'), many dishes are often cheaper than they are upcountry, due to the availability of fresh ingredients. This is also true for the working-class districts on the Bangkok side, like Makkasan. Bangkok is the typical 'primate city' cited by sociologists, meaning that most goods produced by the country as a whole end up in Bangkok. The glaring exception is western food, which Bangkok has more of than anywhere else in the kingdom but charges the most for it. Eat only Thai and Chinese food if you're trying to spend as little as possible. After all, why go to Thailand to eat steak and potatoes?
Good bargaining, which takes practice, is another way to cut costs. Anything bought in a market should be bargained for, as well as accommodation. Some more specific suggestions concerning costs can be found in the Accommodation and Things to Buy sections of this chapter.
Transportation between cities and within them is very reasonable; again, bargaining (when hiring a vehicle) can save you a lot of Baht. Follow these links for information on air travel, bus travel, local transport, motorcycling, train travel, and trekking.
Thailand - Culture & Arts
Sculpture & Architecture
The following scheme is the standard one used to categorise historical styles of Thai art, principally sculpture and architecture (since very little painting prior to the 19th century has survived).
- Dvaravati style - 6th to 11th century
- Srivijaya style - 8th to 13th century
- Lopburi style - 1lth to 14th century
- U Thong style - 12th to 15th century
- Sukhothai style - 13th to 15th century
- Chian Saen style - 12th to 20th century
- Ayuthaya style - 15th to late 18th century
- Bangkok style - late 18th century to present
A good way to acquaint yourself with these styles, if you are interested, is to visit the National Museum in Bangkok, where works from each of these periods are on display. Then as you travel upcountry and view old monuments and sculpture you'll know what you're seeing, as well as what to look for.
In 1981, the Thai government made restoration of nine key archaeological sites part of their 5th National and Economic Development Plan (1982-86). As a result, the Fine Arts Department, under the Ministry of Education, has developed nine Historical Parks (Uthayaan Prawatisaat):
- Sukhothai Historical Park in Sukhothai Province
- Phra Nakhon Si Ayuthaya Historical Park in Ayuthaya Province
- Phanom Rung Historical Park in Buriram Province
- Si Thep Historical Park in Phetchabun Province
- Phra Nakhon Khiri Historical Park in Phetburi Province
- Si Satchanalai Historical Park in Sukhothai Province
- Phimai Historical Park in Nakhon Ratchasima Province
- Muang Singh Historical Park in Kanchanaburi Province
- Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park in Kamphaeng Phet Province
These Parks are administered by the Fine Arts Department to guard against theft and vandalism and to protect tourists from bandits at more remote sites. In 1988 they even managed to get the famous Phra Narai lintel returned to Prasat Phanom Rung from the Art Institute of Chicago Museum.
Additional areas of historical interest for art and architecture are Thonburi, Lamphun, Nakhorn Pathom, Nan, Ratburi, Lopburi, Chaiya, Sawankhaloke, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Chiang Saen and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Some of the monuments at these sites have also been restored by the Fine Arts Department and/or by local interests.
Some recommended books are Arts of Thailand by A B Griswold and A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam by Reginald Le May. Several good English-language books on various aspects of Thai art are for sale at the National Museums around Thailand (particularly at the Bangkok National Museum) and at the Muang Boran office on Ratchadamnoen Road in Bangkok.
For information about the export of antiques or objects of art from Thailand, see the Customs section.
Every Thai house or building has to have a spirit house to go with it - a place for the spirits of the site, or Phra Phum, to live in. Without this vital structure you're likely to have the spirits living in the house with you and that can cause all sorts of trouble. Spirit houses look rather like a birdhouse-sized Thai temple mounted on a pedestal. At least your average spirit house does - a big hotel may have a spirit house as big as an average house.
How do you ensure that the spirits take up residence in your spirit house rather than in the main house with you? Mainly by making the spirit house a better place to live than the main house. Most important, it should have the best location and should not be shaded by the main house. Thus the spirit house's position has to be planned from the very beginning. The spirit house has to be installed with due ceremony and if your own house is improved or enlarged then the spirit house should be as well.
From a western perspective, traditional Thai music is some of the most bizarre on the planet and is an acquired taste for most of us. It is well worth the effort! The classical, central Thai music is spicy, like Thai food, and features an incredible array of textures and subtleties, hair-raising tempos and pastoral melodies. The classical orchestra is called the piphat and can include as few as five players or more than 20.
Among the more common instruments is the pi, a woodwind instrument that has a reed mouthpiece and is heard prominently at Thai boxing matches. The pi is a relative of a similar Indian instrument, as is the pin, a banjo-like string instrument descended from the Indian vina. A bowed instrument similar to ones played in China and Japan is aptly called the saw. The ranaat ek is the wooden percussion instrument resembling the western xylophone. An instrument of tuned gongs arranged in a semi-circle is the gong wong yai. There are also several different kinds of drums, some played with the hands, some with sticks.
The piphat ensemble was originally developed to accompany classical dance-drama (khon) and shadow theatre (nang) but can be heard in straightforward performance these days, in temple fairs as well as concerts. One reason classical Thai music may sound strange to the western ear is that it does not use a tempered scale as we have been accustomed to hearing since Bach's time. The standard scale does feature an eight-note octave but it is arranged in seven full intervals, with no 'semi-tones'.
In the north and northeast several types of reed instruments with multiple bamboo pipes, functioning basically like a mouth organ, are popular. Chief among these is the khaen, which originated in Laos and when played by an adept musician sounds like a rhythmic, churning calliope. The funky luuk thung, or 'country' style, which originated in the northeast, has become a favourite throughout the country.
Popular Thai music has borrowed much from western music but still retains a distinct flavour of its own, despite the fact that modem Thai musicians play electric guitars, saxophones, drum kits, electronic keyboards, and so on. Although Bangkok bar bands can play fair imitations of everything from Hank Williams to Olivia Newton-John, there is a growing preference among Thais for a blend of Thai and international styles. The best example of this is Thailand's famous rock group, Carabao. Carabao is by far the most popular musical group in Thailand at this writing and has even scored hits in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines with songs like 'Made in Thailand' (only the chorus is in English). This band and others have crafted an exciting fusion of Thai classical and luuk thung forms with heavy metal. Cassette tapes of Thai music are readily available throughout the country in department stores, cassette shops and from street vendors. The average price for a Thai music cassette is 50 to 60 Baht. Western tapes are cheaper (about 30 Baht each) if bootlegged, but the days of pirate tapes in Thailand are numbered now that the US music industry is enforcing on international copyright laws.
If you're interested in learning how to play traditional Thai instruments, contact the Bangkok YMCA (tel. 0 2286 1542 or 0 2286 2580) to enquire about their weekly classes taught by Mr. Pranai Navarat.
Some recommended books are The Traditional Music of Thailand by David Morton and Thai Music by Phra Chen Duriyanga.
Thailand - Customs
Like most countries, Thailand prohibits the import of illegal drugs, firearms and ammunition (unless registered in advance with the Police Department) and pornographic media. 'A reasonable amount of clothing for personal use, toiletries and professional instruments' are allowed in duty-free, as are one still or one movie/video camera with five rolls of still film or three rolls of movie film or videotape. Up to 200 cigarettes can be brought into the country without paying duty, or for other smoking materials up to 250 grams total. One litre of wine or spirits is allowed in duty-free.
Electronic goods like personal stereos; calculators and computers can be a problem if the customs officials have reason to believe you're bringing them in for resale. As long as you don't carry more than one of each, you should be OK. Occasionally, customs will require you to leave a hefty deposit for big-ticket items (e.g. a laptop computer or midi-component stereo) that is refunded when you leave the country with the item in question. If you make the mistake of saying you're just passing through and don't plan to use the item while in Thailand, they may ask you to leave it with the Customs Department until you depart the country.
Upon leaving Thailand, you must obtain an export licence for any antiques or objects of art you want to take with you. An antique is any 'archaic movable property whether produced by man or by nature, any part of ancient structure, human skeleton or animal carcass, which by its age or characteristic of production or historical evidence is useful in the field of art, history or archaeology'. An object of art is a 'thing produced by craftsmanship and appreciated as being valuable in the field of arts. Obviously these are very sweeping definitions, so if in doubt go to the Department of Fine Arts for inspection and licensing.
Application can be made by submitting two front-view photos of the object(s) (no more than five objects to a photo) and a photocopy of your passport, along with the object(s) in question, to one of three locations in Thailand: the National Museum in Bangkok, the Chiang Mai National Museum, or the Songkhla National Museum. You need to allow three to five days for the application and inspection process to be completed.
Thailand has special regulations for taking a Buddha or other deity image (or any part thereof) out of the country. These require not only a licence from the Fine Arts Department but a permit from the Ministry of Commerce as well. The one exception to this is the small Buddha images (phra phim) that are worn on a chain around the neck; these may be exported without a licence as long as the reported purpose is religious.
Thailand - Dangers & Annoyances
Dangers & Annoyances
Since the 1920s and 1930s several insurgent groups have operated in Thailand - the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) with its tactical force, the People's Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT) in rural areas all over Thailand, as well as Malay separatists and Muslim revolutionaries in the extreme south. These groups have been mainly involved in propaganda activity, village infiltration and occasional clashes with Thai government troops. Very rarely have they had any encounters with foreign travellers. Aside from sporadic terrorist bombings - mostly in railway stations in the south and sometimes at upcountry festivals - 'innocent' people have not been involved in the insurgent activity.
In 1976, the official government estimate of the number of active guerrillas in Thailand was 10,000. By the end of the '70s however, many CPT followers had surrendered under the government amnesty programme. In the '80s new military strategies, as well as political measures, reduced the number to around two to three thousand. In the south, traditionally a hot spot, communist forces have been all but limited to Camp 508 in a relatively inaccessible area along the Surat Thani-Nakhon Si Thammarat provincial border.
In the north and northeast, the government claims that armed resistance has been virtually eliminated and this appears to be verified by independent sources as well as my own recent travel experience through former CPT strongholds. Part of the reason for the CPT's severely curtailed influence stems from the 1979 split between the CPT and the Chinese Communist Party over policy differences regarding Indo-Chinese revolution - CPT cadres used to get training in Kunming, China. New highways in previously remote provinces such as Nan and Loei have contributed to improved communications, stability and central (Bangkok) control. This means that routes in these provinces closed to foreigners in the '70s, are now open for travel, e.g. Phitsanulok to Loei via Nakhon Thai. Within the next two years or so, travellers should be able to travel from Nan to Loei by bus, and from Chiang Rai to Nan via Chiang Muan. A new road between Phattalung and Hat Yai has cut travel time between those two cities considerably.
Whether this signals a long-lasting trend or not is difficult to say. Battles are between government and anti-government forces. As long as you are not directly associated with either side there is little danger in travelling through guerrilla territory. Most observers do not expect Communist guerrilla activity to flare again anytime in the foreseeable future. This seems especially true in the light of the great economic strides Thailand has made during the last decade, which have simply made Marxism a less compelling alternative for most of the population.
Probably the most sensitive areas in Thailand now are the border areas. Most dangerous is the Thai-Cambodian border area, especially since the Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime has instituted its 'K-5' plan to seal the border with heavy armament, land mines and booby traps. Most of the latter are planted inside Cambodian territory, so it is imperative that you stay away from this border. The armed guards, booby traps and mines make it impossible to safely visit the Phra Viharn ruins just inside Cambodia near Ubon. Anyway, you would probably be stopped by Thai troops at Kantharalak on approach.
The Thai-Lao border is not nearly as dangerous, but you should avoid walking along the Maekhong River at night, as this is when Thai and Lao troops occasionally trade fire. During the last three years, relations between Laos and Thailand have improved considerably and it is very likely that tourists will soon be allowed to cross overland between the two countries. The Australian government has even promised to build a bridge over the Maekhong River from Nong Khai Province. As with Cambodia, it is not a good idea to try and cross into Laos illegally - you might very well be accused of espionage and end up in prison or worse.
The Burmese border is fairly safe in most places, but there is occasional shelling between Mae Sot and Mae Sarieng coming from Burmese troops in pursuit of Karen rebels. The rebels are trying to maintain an independent nation called Kawthoolei along the border with Thailand. If you cross and are captured by the Burmese, you will automatically be suspected of supporting the Karen. If you are captured by the Karen you will probably be released, though they may demand money.
In the Three Pagodas Pass area, there is also occasional fighting between the Karen and Mon armies, who are competing for control over the smuggling trade between Burma and Thailand. And along the Burmese-Thai border in northern Mae Hong Son and Chiang Rai provinces, the presence of Shan and KMT armies make this area dangerous if you attempt to travel near opium trade border crossings - obviously these are not signposted, so take care anywhere along the border in this area.
The Betong area of Yala Province on the Thai-Malaysian border was until recently the tactical headquarters for the armed Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). Thai and Malaysian government troops occasionally clashed with the insurgents, who from time to time hijacked trucks along the Yala-Betong road. But in December 1989, in exchange for amnesty, the CPM agreed 'to terminate all armed activities' and to respect the laws of Thailand and Malaysia. Nevertheless, for a year or two, until things cool down, travellers are advised to take care when travelling outside Betong, especially at night.
Although Thailand is in no way a dangerous country to visit if you stay away from the hot spots mentioned above, it's wise to be a little cautious in general, particularly if you're a solo woman traveller. In that case take special care on arrival at Bangkok Airport, particularly at night. Don't take one of Bangkok's often very unofficial taxis by yourself - better the THAI bus, or even the public bus. Women in particular, but men also, should ensure their rooms are securely locked and bolted at night. Inspect cheap rooms with thin walls for strategic peepholes. Take care with the police, reported several women travellers
Take caution when leaving valuables in hotel safes. Many travellers have reported unpleasant experiences with leaving valuables in Chiang Mai guesthouses while trekking. On return to their home countries, they received huge credit-card bills for purchases (usually jewellery) charged to their cards in Bangkok while the cards had, supposedly, been secure in the hotel or guesthouse safe! Organised gangs in Bangkok specialise in arranging stolen credit card purchases - in some cases they pay 'down and out' foreigners to fake the signatures. Make sure you obtain an itemised receipt for property left with hotels or guesthouses - note the exact quantity of travellers' cheques and all other valuables. You might consider taking your credit cards with you if you go trekking - if they're stolen on the trail at least the bandits won't be able to use them.
On trains and buses, particularly in the south, beware of friendly strangers offering cigarettes, drinks or sweets (candy). Several travellers have reported waking up with a headache sometime later to find their valuables have disappeared. One letter reported how a would-be druggist considerably overdid it with what looked like a machine-wrapped, made-in-England Cadbury's chocolate. His girlfriend spat it out immediately; he woke up nine hours later in hospital having required emergency resuscitation after his breathing nearly stopped. This happened on the Surat Thani to Phuket bus.
Travellers have also encountered drugged food or drink from friendly strangers in bars and from prostitutes in their own hotel rooms. Thais are also occasional victims, especially at the Moh Chit Bus Terminal and Chatuchak Park, where young girls are drugged and sold to brothels. Conclusion - don't accept gifts from strangers.
Keep zippered luggage secured with small locks, especially while travelling on buses and trains. This will not only keep out most sneak thieves, but also prevent con artists posing as police from planting contraband drugs in your luggage. That may sound paranoid, but it happens.
A warning about the possibility of armed robbery. It appears to be on the increase in remote areas of Thailand.
In 1988, two UK women were robbed and killed on the island of Ko Chang in Trat Province while hiking across the island at night. Another woman was attacked and killed near Tham Lot in Mae Hong Son Province the previous year while hiking alone and I've heard a similar report from Ko Tarutao. A lone male motorcyclist was shot several times (he survived) on the road to Sangkhlaburi in Kanchanaburi Province in '87 and another man was shot on Ko Samui while walking back to his bungalow at night. Armed bandits attacked two boats carrying tourists on the Kok River in Chiang Rai the same year. A male New Zealander lagged behind his trekking group in Mae Hong Son and was shot dead during a robbery attempt.
Approximately eight million people travelled through Thailand in 1987 and 1988 and these are the only incidents of extreme violence I've heard of, so the risk of armed robbery should be considered fairly low. On the other hand, the clear message here is that the safest practice in remote areas is not logo out alone at night and, if trekking in north Thailand, always walk in groups. More information on hill trekking is given here.
Thailand - Dialling Codes
Domestic Dialling Codes
Since the beginning of 2002 Thailand no longer uses domestic area codes. These have all now been incorporated into the telephone number so even when calling within the local area, the area code must be dialed. Some confusion exists regarding the first (0) digit; if you try dialing without it and you can't get through then dial again with it.
You will still find many telephone numbers in the old format, Bangkok & environs: 7 digits, provinces: 6 digits. To help you convert to the new country-wide number format of 8 digits here are the old area codes for some of the major cities around Thailand. Remember to also add the optional zero if at first you don't succeed.
|Mae Hong Son
||Nakhon Si Thammarat
|Nong Bua Lumphu
||Prachuap Khiri Khan
|Si Sa Ket
International Dialling Codes
International Access code is: 001
|British Virgin Islands
|Central African Republic
||Korea - North
|Korea - South
|Midway & Wake Islands
|Papua New Guinea
||Sao Tome & Principe
|St. Christopher & Nevis
||St. Pierre & Miquelon
|Trinidad & Tobago
|Turks & Caicos
|United Arab Emirates
|US Virgin Islands
||Wallis & Futuna Islands
Thailand Direct Dial Service
Thailand Direct Service allows Thais abroad to contact an operator in Thailand directly to make a call. Calls are charged at Thailand overseas operator rates.
||United Kingdom (BTI)
|United Kingdom (MCI)
|United Arab Emirates
Home Direct Service
Home Direct allows visitors to Thailand an easy way to contact an operator in their own country. It is especially helpful for those who do not speak Thai and those making collect calls. Calls are charged at the destinations overseas operator rate.
||United Kingdom (BTI)
|United Kingdom (MCI)
|United Arab Emirates
Thailand - Economy
During the '80s, Thailand maintained a steady GNP growth rate that by 1987 exceeded 10% per annum. Suddenly Thailand has found itself on the threshold of attaining the exclusive rank of NIC or 'newly industrialised country', which experts' forecast will be fulfilled within the next five to ten years. Soon, they say, Thailand will be joining Asia's 'little dragons', also known as the Four Tigers - South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore - in becoming a leader in the Pacific Rim economic boom.
By 1992, it is expected that more than half of Thailand's labour force will be engaged in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. Currently, about 66% of Thai labour is engaged in agriculture, 10% each in commerce and services, and 8% in manufacturing. Thailand's major exports are rice, tapioca, sugar, rubber, maize, tin, cement, pineapple, tuna, textiles and electronics. Manufactured goods have become an increasingly important source of foreign exchange earnings and now account for 60% of all Thailand's exports.
In 1987, tourism became the leading earner of foreign exchange, out-distancing even Thailand's largest single export: textiles. Nearly five million tourists spent 57 billion Baht (over US$2 billion) in 1988. The government economic strategy remains focused, however, on export-led growth through the development of light industries such as textiles and electronics, backed by rich reserves of natural resources and a large, inexpensive labour force. Observers predict that such a broad-based economy will make Thailand a major economic competitor in Asia in the long term. Thailand also has the lowest foreign debt in South-East Asia, just 20% of the gross domestic product.
Average per capita income by the end of the '80s was US$880 per year. Regional inequities, however, mean that local averages range from US$300 in the northeast to US$2300 in Bangkok. The current inflation rate is about 4% per annum. As in most countries, prices continue to rise.
The northeast of Thailand has the lowest inflation rate and cost of living. This region is poorer than the rest of the country and doesn't get as much tourism; it therefore offers excellent value for the traveller and is in dire need of your travel dollar. Hand-woven textiles and farming remain the primary means of livelihood in this area. In the south, fishing, tin mining and rubber production keep the local economy fairly stable. Central Thailand grows fruit (especially pineapple); sugar cane and rice for export, and supports most of the ever-increasing industry (textiles, food processing and cement). North Thailand produces mountain or dry rice (as opposed to 'water-rice', the bulk of the crop produced in Thailand) for domestic use, maize, tea, various fruits and flowers, and is very dependent on tourism. Teak and other lumber was once a major product of the north, but since early 1989 all logging has been banned in Thailand in order to prevent further deforestation.
Some say that Thailand is growing faster than its infrastructure can handle. Incoming ships have to wait a week before they can get a berth at busy Khlong Toey port. Two new seaports along the eastern seaboard and one on the southern peninsula were completed in the early '90s, but even these may be inadequate to cope with projected demand. Transport and telecommunications systems are in dire need of upgrading.
One of the biggest dilemmas facing the economic planners is whether to acquire a larger foreign debt in order to finance the development of an infrastructure that is capable of handling continued high growth, or whether to allow growth to slow while the infrastructure catches up. Continued rapid growth will probably result in a disproportionate development of the more relatively industrialised central and southern regions, leaving the agricultural north and northeast behind.
Advocates of a slow-growth approach hope for better distribution of wealth around the country through a combination of agribusiness projects and welfare programmes that would bring a higher standard of living to poor rural areas. This makes good sense when one considers the relative differences between Thailand and the Four Tigers (e.g. the proportion of rural to urban dwellers and the high fertility of the land).
According to the statistics of the Tourist Authority of Thailand, the country is currently averaging about five million tourist arrivals per year, up from 2.8 million in 1986 and 2.2 million in 1983. Figures are expected to continue to rise for at least the next few years.
In 1987, when total arrivals hit 3.5 million, nearly two-thirds of the visitors came from East Asia and the Pacific, with Malaysians leading the way at around 765,000, followed by the Japanese (341,000), Singaporeans (240,000), and Taiwanese (195,000). Europeans as a whole made up 794,320 of the total, with Britons at the top (184,000), West Germans second (148,000), and the French third (132,000). The Americas, including Canada and all Latin American countries, totalled about 292,000, made up primarily of Yanks (236,000) and Canadians (44,000). South Asians chalked up around 217,000 while Australians totalled 111,000 and the Middle East sent roughly 118,000.
The prize for longest average length of stay goes to Germans and Scandinavians. The average for West Germans was 12 nights, followed by the Swiss (11.1), Austrians (10.5), Swedes (10.26), Danes (10.22), Norwegians (10) and Fins (9.9). In contrast, the average stay for Australians was only 8.2 nights, Britons 7.5 nights, Americans 6.6 and the Japanese 4.2.
Surprisingly, the biggest spenders were the Taiwanese, who averaged a daily per capita expenditure of 3,331 Baht, followed closely by the Japanese at 3,268 Baht. Scandinavians spent an average of 2,916 Baht per day/ person, US visitors 2,744 Baht, Italians 2,251 Baht, Canadians 2,220 Baht, Britons 2,185 Baht, French 2,119 Baht, Australians 2,205 Baht, Swiss 1,903 Baht, and the frugal West Germans 1,511 Baht.
Thailand - Film & Photography
Film & Photography
Print film is fairly inexpensive and widely available throughout Thailand. Slide films, especially Kodachrome, can be hard to find outside Bangkok and Chiang Mai, so be sure to stock up before heading upcountry. Film processing is generally quite good in the larger cities in Thailand and also quite inexpensive. Kodachrome must be sent out of the country for processing, so it can take up to two weeks to get it back.
Pack some silica gel with your camera to prevent mould growing on the inside of your lenses. A polarising filter could be useful to cut down on tropical glare at certain times of day, particularly around water or highly polished glazed-tile work. Hill-tribe people in some of the more-visited areas expect money if you photograph them, while certain Karen and Akha will not allow you to point a camera at them. Use discretion when photographing villagers anywhere in Thailand, as a camera can be a very intimidating instrument. You may feel better leaving your camera behind when visiting certain areas.
Thailand - Food
Some people take to the food in Thailand immediately while others don't; Thai dishes can be pungent and spicy - a lot of garlic and chilies are used, especially phrik khii nuu, or 'mouse-shit peppers' (these are the small torpedo-shaped devils which can be pushed aside if you are timid about red-hot curries). Almost all Thai food is cooked with fresh ingredients, including vegetables, poultry, pork and some beef. Plenty of limejuice, lemon grass and fresh coriander leaf are added to give the food its characteristic tang, and fish sauce (generally made from anchovies) or shrimp paste to make it salty. Rice is eaten with most meals.
Other common seasonings include 'laos' root (khaa), black pepper, ground peanuts (more often a condiment), tamarind juice (nam makhaam), ginger (khing) and coconut milk (kati). The Thais eat alot of what could be called Chinese food, which is generally, but not always, less spicy. In the north and northeast 'sticky', or glutinous rice, is common and is traditionally eaten with the hands.
Where to Eat
Restaurants or food stalls outside Bangkok usually do not have menus, so it is worthwhile memorising a standard 'repertoire' of dishes. Most provinces have their own local specialities in addition to the standards and you might try asking for 'whatever is good', allowing the proprietors to choose for you. Of course, you might get stuck with a large bill this way, but with a little practice in Thai social relations you may get some very pleasant results.
The most economical places to eat and the most dependable are noodle shops and night markets. Most towns and villages have at least one night market and several noodle shops. The night market(s) in Chiang Mai have a slight reputation for overcharging (especially for large parties), but on the other hand I have never been over-charged for food anywhere in Thailand. It helps if you speak Thai as much as possible. Curry shops are generally open for breakfast and lunch, and are also a very cheap source for nutritious food.
What to Eat
Thai food is served with a variety of condiments, including ground red pepper (phrik bon), ground peanuts (thua), vinegar with sliced chilies (nam som phrik), fish sauce with chilies (nam plaa phrik), a spicy red sauce called nam phrik si raachaa (from Si Racha, of course) and any number of other special sauces for particular dishes. Soy sauce (nam sii-yu) can be requested, though this is normally used as a condiment for Chinese food only.
Except for the 'rice plates' and noodle dishes, Thai meals are usually ordered family-style, which is to say that two or more people order together, sharing different dishes. Traditionally, the party orders one of each kind of dish, e.g. one chicken, one fish, one soup, etc. One dish is generally large enough for two people. One or two extras may be ordered for a large party. If you come to eat at a Thai restaurant alone and order one of these 'entrees', you had better be hungry or know enough Thai to order a small portion. This latter alternative is not really too acceptable socially; Thais generally consider eating alone in a restaurant unusual - but then as a farang you're an exception anyway.
A cheaper alternative is to order dishes 'over rice' or raat khao. Curry (kaeng) over rice is called khao kaeng; in a standard curry shop khao kaeng is only 20 to 30 Baht a plate.
Thais eat with a fork and spoon, except for noodles, which are eaten with spoon and chopsticks (ta-kiap) and sticky rice, which is rolled into balls and eaten with hands, along with the food accompanying it.
The following list gives standard dishes in Thai script with a transliterated pronunciation guide and an English translation and description.
International restaurants can be found in the tourist areas of Thailand. Click for a list of some of the international cuisines available.
Thailand - General Information
Thailand - Post
Thailand has a very efficient postal service and within the country it's also very cheap. Bangkok's GPO on Charoen Krung (New) Road is open from 8 am to 8 pm Monday to Friday and from 9 am to 1 pm weekends and holidays. There is a telephone and telegram service 24 hours a day. Outside of Bangkok, most post offices close at 4.30 pm on weekdays and only the larger ones are open a half day on Saturday.
The poste restante service is also very reliable, though during high tourist months (December and August) you may have to wait inline at the Bangkok GPO. There is a fee of 1 Baht for every piece of mail collected. As with many Asian countries, confusion at poste restante is most likely to arise over given names and surnames. Ask people who are writing to you to print your surname clearly and to underline it. If you're certain a letter should be waiting for you and it cannot be found, it's always wise to check it hasn't been filed under your given name. You can take poste restante at almost any post office in Thailand now.
The American Express office, Suite 414, Siam Center, Rama IV Road, will also take mail on behalf of AMEX cardholders. The hours are from 8.30 am to 12 midday and 1 pm to 4 pm, Monday to Friday.
Parcels shipped by surface post vary from 174 Baht for 1 kg up to 800 Baht for weights of up to 15kg.
Thailand - Telephone
The telephone system in Thailand is quite efficient and from Bangkok you can usually direct dial most major centres with little difficulty. The opposite may not always apply, and in smaller centres it's often best to go to the local telephone office (usually located at the central post office) and make calls from there. You can make international long-distance calls from government telephone offices or from large hotels; it is always cheaper to call abroad from a telephone office. There are also private long-distance telephone offices but these are not for international calls, only for calls within Thailand.
There are two kinds of public pay phones in Thailand, 'red' and 'blue'. The red phones are for local city calls and the blue are for long-distance (within Thailand) calls. Local calls from pay phones cost 1 Baht. Although there is three different 1 Baht coins in general circulation, only the middle-sized coin fits the coin slots.
Thailand - Electricity
Electric current is 220 volts, 50 cycles.
Thailand - Time
Thai time is seven hours ahead of GMT (London). Thus 12 noon in Bangkok is 3 pm in Sydney, 1 pm in Perth, 5 am in London, 1 am in New York and 10 pm the previous day in Los Angeles.
Thailand - Business Hours
Most government offices are open from 8.30 am to 4.30 pm, Monday to Friday, but closed from 12 noon to 1 pm for lunch. Banks are open from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm Monday to Friday, but in Bangkok in particular several banks have special foreign exchange offices which are open longer hours (generally until 8 pm) and every day of the week.
Businesses usually operate between 8.30 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday and sometimes Saturday morning as well. Larger shops usually open from 10 am to 6.30 or 7 pm but smaller shops may open earlier and close later.
Thailand - Weights & Measures
The metric system was officially introduced by a law passed on December 17, 1923. However, old Thai units are still in common use, especially for measurements of land which is often quoted using the traditional Thai system of waa, ngaan and rai. Old-timers in the provinces will occasionally use the traditional Thai system of weights and measures in speech, as will boat-builders, carpenters and other craftsmen when talking about their work. Here are some conversions to use for such occasions:
|1 square waa
||4 square metres
|1 ngaan (100 square waa)
||400 square metres
|1 rai (4 ngaan) (1 sq sen)
||1600 square metres
|1 taleung¹ (4 baht)
|1 chang (20 taleung)
|1 haap (50 chang)
|1 kheup (12 niu)
|1 sawk (2 kheup)
|1 waa (4 sawk)
|1 sen (20 waa)
|1 yoht (400 sen)
||1,000 liters (2 ban=1 kwien)
||20 liters (50 sat=1 ban)
||1 liter (20 tannan=1 sat)
Thailand - Geography
Thailand has an area of 517,000 square km, making it slightly smaller than the state of Texas in the USA, or about the size of France. Its longest north-to-south distance is about 1,860 km but its shape makes distances in any other direction a lot less. Its shape on the map has been compared to the head of an elephant, with its trunk extending down the Malay Peninsula, but it looks as if someone had squeezed the lower part of the 'boot' of Italy, forcing the volume into the top portion while reducing the bottom. The centre of Thailand, Bangkok, is at about 14° north latitude, putting it on a level with Madras, Manila, Guatemala and Khartoum.
The topography varies and can be divided into four main regions: the fertile centre region, dominated by the Chao Phraya river network; the north-east plateau, the kingdom's poorest region (thanks to 'thin' soil plus occasional droughts and floods), rising some 300 metres above the central plain; northern Thailand, a region of mountains and fertile valleys; and the southern peninsular region, which extends to the Malaysian frontier and is predominantly rainforests. The southern region receives the most annual rainfall and the northeast the least, although the north has less general humidity. Thailand's climate is ruled by monsoons, resulting in three seasons: rainy (June to October); cool and dry (November to February); and hot (March to May). See our climate page for more information on climate.
For administrative purposes, Thailand is divided into 74 changwat or provinces. Each province is subdivided into a number of amphoe or districts, which are further subdivided into tambon (precincts), and muu baan (villages). Municipal zones are called thetsabaan. The capital of a province is an amphoe muang; it takes the same name as the province of which it is capital.
Thailand - Getting There Air
Getting There - Air
The expense of getting to Bangkok per air km varies quite a bit depending on your point of departure. However, you can take heart in the fact that Bangkok is one of the cheapest cities in the world to fly out of, due to the Thai government's loose restrictions on airfares and the close competition between airlines and travel agencies. The result is that with a little shopping around, you can come up with some real bargains. If you can find a cheap one-way ticket to Bangkok, take it, because you are virtually guaranteed to find one of equal or lesser cost for the return trip once you get there.
From most places around the world your best bet would be budget, excursion or promotional fares - when enquiring from airlines ask for the various fares in that order. Each carries its own set of restrictions and it's up to you to decide which works best in your case. Fares are going up and down with regularity these days, but in general they are cheaper from September through to April than during the rest of the year.
Fares listed here should serve as a guideline - don't count on them staying this way for long (they may go down!).
Regular one-way economy fare from Australia to Bangkok is A$1600 from Sydney or Melbourne, A$1333 from Perth. There are one-way and return advance purchase fares that must be booked and paid for 21 days in advance. Two seasons apply to advance purchase tickets, the peak is 10 December to 10 January, and all the rest of the year is off-peak.
One-way advance-purchase fares are A$831 from Sydney or Melbourne (A$984 peak), A$609 from Perth (A$722 peak). The return excursion fares are around A$1000 from Sydney or Melbourne (A$1200 peak), A$860 from Perth (A$935 peak). Through travel agents specialising in discount tickets you should be able to knock a bit off these fares, although you will still need to book in advance.
London 'bucket shops' will have tickets to Bangkok available for around £180 one-way or £360 return. It's also easy to stopover in Bangkok between London and Australia, with fares for around £380 to the Australian east coast. Good travel agents to try for these sorts of fares are Trailfinders on Earls Court Road or STA on Old Brompton Road. Or you can simply check the travel ads in Time Out or the News & Travel Magazine.
To/From North America
If you can fly from the West Coast, you can get some great deals through the many bucket shops (who discount tickets by taking a cut in commissions) and consolidators (agencies that buy airline seats in bulk) operating in Los Angeles and San Francisco. One of the oldest and most established of these is Overseas Tours (formerly OC Tours) at 475 El Camino Real, Room 206, Millbrae, CA 94030. Toll-free from outside California is now (tel. (800) 227-5988), inside California, (tel. (800) 323-8777). Overseas Tours is a Chinese-operated corporation that mainly serves the heavy Asian traffic between San Francisco and the Far East. They put out a yearly booklet listing their various fares - give them a call and they'll send it to you. Overseas Tours' return (round-trip) airfares to Bangkok from any of 12 different West Coast cities start at US$640. Another good discounter in the San Francisco area is Omi Tours.
While the airways themselves can rarely match the prices of the discounters, they are worth checking if only to get benchmark prices to use for comparison. Tickets bought directly from the airlines may have fewer restrictions and/or less strict cancellation policies than those bought from discounters as well (though this is not always true).
Cheapest from the West Coast are: Thai Airways International (THAI), China Airlines, Korean Airlines, Pan Am and CP Air. Each of these has a budget and/or 'super Apex' fare that costs around US$900 to US$1100 round-trip from Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle. THAI is the most overbooked of these airlines from December to March and June to August and hence their flights during these months may entail schedule delays (if you're lucky enough to get a seat at all). Several of these airlines also fly out of New York, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta - add another US$100 to US$200 to their lowest fares.
There are regular flights to Bangkok from every major city in Asia and it's not so tricky dealing with inter-Asia flights as most airlines offer about the same fares. Here is a sample of current estimated fares:
|Singapore to Bangkok
|Hong Kong to Bangkok
|Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok
|Taipei to Bangkok
|Calcutta to Bangkok
|Kathmandu to Bangkok
|Colombo to Bangkok
|New Delhi to Bangkok
|Manila to Bangkok
|* Varies according to airline
ASEAN Promotional Fares (round-trip from any city, e.g. a Bangkok/Manila/Jakarta fare is good for Manila/Jakarta/Bangkok/Manila, or Jakarta/Bangkok/Manila/Jakarta, or Bangkok/Manila/Jakarta/Bangkok):
Tickets in Bangkok
Although other Asian centres are now competitive with Bangkok for buying discounted airline tickets, this is still a good place for shopping around. Note, however, that some Bangkok travel agents have a shocking reputation. Taking money and then delaying or not coming through with the tickets, providing tickets with very limited time life or severe use restrictions are all part of the racket. There are a lot of perfectly honest agents, but beware of the rogues.
Some typical fares being quoted out of Bangkok include:
|Australia & New Zealand
|Sydney or Melbourne
|Darwin or Perth
|Athens, Amsterdam, Rome, Paris, London, Frankfurt
|San Francisco/Los Angeles
During the past couple of years the booking of flights in and out of Bangkok during the high season (December to March) has become increasingly difficult. This is of course due in part to increased demand for seats but is also due to a continuing attempt by THAI to maintain a semi monopoly on international as well as domestic air traffic in Thailand. In spite of the fact that almost every seat on every flight during the high season is booked, and many of their own flights are overbooked and flying under heavy delays, the government-owned THAI has refused to allow additional airlines permission to add much-needed service through Bangkok. In addition, THAI has refused to join a regional computer-reservation system called Abacus that is used by Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific to boost reservations efficiency.
This same attitude has so far also precluded any other Thailand-based airlines from flying domestically, though this may change if Bangkok Airways (owned by Sahakol Air) ever receives permission to fly to destinations in the south and northeast not served by THAI.
Airport departure tax is 200 Baht for international flights and 20 Baht for domestic. There is no longer a tax exemption for passengers in transit.
Thailand - Getting There Boat
Getting There - Boat
Frequent boats go between Perlis (Kuala Perlis) in Malaysia (departure point for Langkawi Island) and Satun, Thailand. The trip takes about one to 1½ hours and costs M$4 or 30 Baht. Be sure to go to the Immigration Office in Satun to have your passport stamped - there is no office at the pier itself.
Thailand - Getting There Overland
Getting There - Overland
Trains, buses and taxis enter Thailand from Malaysia at the western point of entry, Padang Besar, or either of two eastern crossings at Sungai Kolok and Tak Bai. There is also limited public transport via much less-frequented Betong, near the centre of the Thai-Malaysian border. The crossing at Sungai Kolok is scheduled to be replaced or superseded eventually by the new crossing at Tak Bai in Narathiwat Province, which shortens the road link between Thailand and Malaysia by at least 60 km. Tak Bai was opened in September 1987 and has a boat jetty and ferry dock for boat service across the Kolok River, as well as customs and immigration offices. So far both continue in full operation - it's hard to conceive of Sungai Kolok closing, since it has long been a significant shopping and entertainment destination for Malaysian tourists.
There is currently no land passage between Burma and Thailand (legally) and likewise Cambodia and Laos, although we can look for Laos to open in the near future at the Vientiane crossing.
Thailand - Health
As when travelling anywhere in the world a good travel insurance policy is a very wise idea. A motorcycle accident can make an expensive and nasty end to your travels. 'After paying the hospital bills, damage to the bike I hit and goodwill contribution to the local police,' wrote one traveller, 'I wished I had been insured'.
If you undergo medical treatment in Thailand, be sure to collect all receipts and copies of the medical report, in English if possible, for your insurance company.
For basic first aid, it's recommended to carry the following:
- Large self-adhesive bandages and band-aids to help protect ordinary cuts or wounds from infection
- Butterfly closures for cuts that won't close on their own
- Anti-bacterial ointment and powder to treat or prevent infection of wounds
- Immodium, Lomotil, or Pattardium to mitigate the symptoms of diarrhoea
- Antibiotic eye ointment for all-too-common eye infections
- Scissors, tweezers & a thermometer
- Aspirin/acetaminophen/paracetamol for headaches, fever
- Re-hydration mixture for treatment of severe diarrhoea
- Insect repellent, sun block, suntan lotion, Chap Stick and water purification tablets
The best book on health maintenance in Asia is Disk Schroeder's Staying Healthy in Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Stanford, California: Volunteers in Asia, 1988). In fact, you might want to make this handy little book part of your first aid kit as it clearly describes symptoms and recommended treatment for illnesses common in Thailand (and elsewhere in Asia).
When seriously ill or injured, you should seek medical attention from a qualified doctor, clinic or hospital if at all possible; employ self-treatment only as a last resort.
Make sure you're healthy before you start travelling, and if you are embarking on a long trip make sure your teeth are OK. If you wear glasses bring a spare pair and your prescription. Losing your glasses can be a real problem, although in many places you can get new spectacles made up quickly, cheaply and competently.
If you require a particular medication, take an adequate supply, as it may not be available locally. Take the prescription, with the generic rather than the brand name, which may be unavailable, as it will make getting replacements easier. It's a wise idea to have the prescription with you to show you legally use the medication, it's surprising how often over-the-counter drugs from one place are illegal without a prescription or even banned in another.
There are no health requirements for Thailand in terms of required vaccinations unless you are coming from an infected area. Travellers should have a cholera immunisation prior to arriving and a tetanus booster would be a good idea as well in case you injure yourself while travelling. You should also check if any countries you are going to after visiting Thailand require vaccinations. A Japanese encephalitis vaccination is a good idea for those who think they may be at moderate or high risk while in Thailand (see the Japanese encephalitis section for more information). Your doctor may also recommend booster shots against measles or polio.
Plan ahead for getting your vaccinations since some of them require an initial inoculation followed by a booster while some vaccinations should not be given together.
Care in what you eat and drink is the most important health rule; stomach upsets are the most likely travel health problem, but the majority of these upsets will be relatively minor. Don't become paranoid - trying the local food is part of the experience of travel after all.
The number one rule is don't drink the water, and that includes ice. If you don't know for certain that water is safe always assume the worst. Reputable brands of bottled water or soft drinks are generally fine, although in some places refilled bottles are not unknown. Take care with fruit juice, particularly if water may have been added. Milk should be treated with suspicion, as it is often un-pasteurised. Boiled milk is fine if it is kept hygienically and yoghurt is always good. Tea or coffee should also be OK since the water should be boiled.
Salads and fruit should be washed with purified water or peeled where possible. Ice cream is usually OK if it is a reputable brand name, but beware of ice cream from street vendors and ice cream that has melted and been refrozen. Thoroughly cooked food is safest, but not if it has been left to cool or if it has been reheated. Take great care with shellfish or fish and avoid undercooked meat.
If a place looks clean and well run and the vendor also looks clean and healthy then the food is probably safe. In general, places that are packed with travellers or locals will be fine, empty restaurants are questionable.
If you're travelling hard and fast and therefore missing meals, or if you simply lose your appetite, you can soon start to lose weight and place your health at risk.
Make sure your diet is well balanced. Eggs, tofu, beans, lentils and nuts are all safe ways to get protein. Fruit you can peel (bananas, oranges or mandarins for example) are always safe and a good source of vitamins. Try to eat plenty of grains (rice) and bread. Remember that although food is generally safer if it is cooked well, overcooked food loses much of its nutritional value. If the food is insufficient it's a good idea to take vitamin and iron pills.
Make sure you drink enough, don't rely on feeling thirsty to indicate when you should drink. Not needing to urinate or very dark yellow urine is a danger sign. Always carry a water bottle with you on long trips. Excessive sweating can lead to loss of salt and therefore muscle cramping. Salt tablets are not a good idea as a preventative but in places where salt is not used much, adding additional salt to food can help.
Food & Water
As with any Asian country, care should be taken in consuming food or drink. Besides malaria, really serious diseases are not too common in Thailand.
Thai soft drinks are safe to drink, as is the weak Chinese tea served in most restaurants. Most ice is produced under hygienic conditions and is therefore theoretically safe. During transit to the local restaurant, however, conditions are not so hygienic (you may see blocks of ice being dragged along the street), but it's very difficult to resist in the hot season. In rural areas, villagers mostly drink collected rainwater. Most travellers can drink this without problems, but some people can't tolerate it. It is best to buy fruit that you can peel and slice yourself (cheaper, too), but most fare at food stalls is reasonably safe.
The simplest way of purifying water is to thoroughly boil it. Technically this means for 10 minutes, something that happens very rarely! Remember that at high altitudes water boils at a lower temperature, so germs are less likely to be killed.
Simple filtering will not remove all dangerous organisms, so if you cannot boil water it should be treated chemically. Chlorine tablets (puritabs, steritabs or other brand names) will kill many, but not all pathogens. Iodine is very effective in purifying water and is available in tablet form (such as Potable Aqua), but follow the directions carefully and remember that too much iodine can be harmful.
If you can't find tablets, tincture of iodine (2%) or iodine crystals can be used. Two drops of tincture of iodine per litre or quart of clear water is the recommended dosage, and the water should then be left to stand for 30 minutes. Iodine crystals can also be used to purify water, but this is a more complicated process, as you have to first prepare a saturated iodine solution. Iodine loses its effectiveness if exposed to air or damp so keep it in a tightly sealed container. Flavoured powder will disguise the taste of treated water and is a good idea if you are travelling with children.
A normal body temperature is 98.6°F or 37°C, more than 2°C higher is a 'high' fever. A normal adult pulse rate is 60 to 80 per minute (children 80 to 100, babies 100 to 140). You should know how to take a temperature and a pulse rate. As a general rule the pulse increases about 20 beats per minute for each °C rise in fever.
Respiration rate (breathing) is also an indicator of illness. Count the number of breaths per minute, between 12 and 20 is normal for adults and older children (up to 30 for younger children, 40 for babies). People with a high fever or serious respiratory illness (like pneumonia) breathe more quickly than normal. More than 40 shallow breaths a minute usually means pneumonia.
Many health problems can be avoided by taking care of your self. Wash your hands frequently; it's quite easy to contaminate your own food. Clean your teeth with purified water rather than straight from the tap. Avoid climatic extremes; keep out of the sun when it's hot. Avoid potential diseases by dressing sensibly. You can get worm infections through bare feet, or dangerous coral cuts by walking over coral without shoes. You can avoid insect bites by covering bare skin when insects are around, by screening windows or beds or by using insect repellents. Seek local advice; if you're told the water is unsafe due to jellyfish, etc, don't go in. In situations were there is no information, discretion is the better part of valour.
Medical Problems & Treatment
Potential medical problems can be broken down into several areas. First there are the climatic and geographical considerations - problems caused by extremes of temperature, altitude or motion. Then there are diseases and illnesses caused by insanitation, insect bites or stings, animal or human contact. Simple cuts, bites or scratches can also cause problems.
Self-diagnosis and treatment can be risky, wherever possible seek qualified help. An embassy or consulate can usually advise a good place to go. So can five-star hotels, although they often recommend doctors with five-star prices. This is when that medical insurance really comes in useful! In some places standards of medical attention are so low that for some ailments the best advice is to get on a plane and go somewhere else.
Climatic & Geographical Considerations
In the tropics you can get sunburnt surprisingly quickly even through cloud. Use a sunscreen and take extra care to cover areas that don't normally see sun - your feet for example. A hat provides added protection and use zinc cream or some other barrier cream for your nose and lips. Calamine lotion is good for mild sunburn.
Prickly heat is an itchy rash caused by excessive perspiration trapped under the skin. It usually strikes people who have just arrived in a hot climate whose pores have not yet opened sufficiently to cope with greater sweating. Keeping cool by bathing often, using a mild talcum powder, or even by resorting to air-con may help until you acclimatise.
Dehydration or salt deficiency can cause heat exhaustion. Take time to acclimatise to high temperatures and make sure you get sufficient liquids. Salt deficiency is characterised by fatigue, lethargy, headaches, giddiness and muscle cramps and in this case salt tablets may help. Vomiting or diarrhoea can deplete your liquid and salt levels. Anhidrotic heat exhaustion, caused by an inability to sweat, is quite rare and unlike the other forms of heat exhaustion is likely to strike people who have been in a hot climate for some time, rather than newcomers.
This serious, sometimes fatal, condition can occur if the body's heat regulating mechanism breaks down and the body temperature rises to dangerous levels. Long, continuous periods of exposure to high temperatures can leave you vulnerable to heat stroke and you should avoid excessive alcohol or strenuous activity when you first arrive in a hot climate.
The symptoms are feeling unwell, not sweating very much or at all, high body temperature (39 to 41°C). Where sweating has ceased the skin becomes flushed and red. Severe, throbbing headaches and lack of coordination will also occur and the sufferer may be confused or aggressive. Eventually the victim will become delirious or convulse. Hospitalisation is essential, but meanwhile get the victim out of the sun, remove clothing and cover them with a wet sheet or towel and then fan them continually.
Hot-weather fungal infections are most likely to occur on the scalp, between the toes or fingers (athlete's foot), in the groin (jock itch or crotch rot) and ringworm on the body. You get ringworm (which is a fungal infection, not a worm) from infected animals or by walking on damp areas, like shower floors.
To prevent fungal infections, wear loose, comfortable clothes, avoid artificial fibres, wash frequently and dry carefully. If you do get an infection, wash the infected area daily with a disinfectant or medicated soap and water and rinse and dry well. Apply an anti-fungal powder like the widely available Tinaderm. Try to expose the infected area to air or sunlight as much as possible and wash all towels and underwear in hot water and change them often.
Eating lightly before and during a trip will reduce the chances of motion sickness. If you are prone to motion sickness, try to find a place that minimises disturbance - near the wing on aircraft, close to amidships on boats, near the centre on buses. Fresh air usually helps; reading or cigarette smoke doesn't. Commercial anti-motion-sickness preparations, which can cause drowsiness, have to be taken before the trip commences; when you're feeling sick it's too late. Ginger is a natural preventative and is available in capsule form.
Diseases of insanitation
Traveller's diarrhoea, which can be caused by viruses, bacteria, food poisoning, stress, or simply a change in diet, may strike some visitors who stay for any length of time outside Bangkok, but usually subsides within a few days. A few rushed toilet trips with no other symptoms are not indicative of a serious problem. Moderate diarrhoea, involving half a dozen loose movements in a day, is more of a nuisance.
Dehydration is the main danger with any diarrhoea, particularly for children, so fluid replenishment is the number one treatment. Weak black tea with a little sugar, flat soft drinks diluted with water or soda water are good. With severe diarrhoea a re-hydrating solution is necessary to replace minerals and salts. You should stick to a bland diet (rice or noodle soups are good) and cut out all alcohol and caffeine as you recover.
Lomotil or Imodium can be used to bring relief from the symptoms of diarrhoea, although they do not actually cure them. Only use these drugs if absolutely necessary. If you must travel; for children, Imodium is preferable. Do not use these drugs if you have a high fever or are severely dehydrated. Antibiotics can be very useful in treating severe diarrhoea, especially if nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps or mild fever accompanies it. Three days treatment should be sufficient and an improvement should occur within 24 hours.
If these don't help and/or your stools contain substantial blood and mucus, you may have amoebic dysentery, which can be serious if left untreated - in this case you should see a doctor.
This intestinal parasite is present in contaminated water and the symptoms are stomach cramps, nausea, bloated stomach, watery, foul-smelling diarrhoea and frequent gas. Giardia can appear several weeks after you have been exposed to the parasite, the symptoms may disappear for a few days and then return; this can go on for several weeks. Metronidazole known as Flagyl is the recommended drug, but should only be taken under medical supervision - antibiotics are no use.
This serious illness is caused by contaminated food or water and is characterised by severe diarrhoea, often with blood or mucus in the stool. There are two kinds of dysentery. Bacillary dysentery is characterised by a high fever and rapid development; headache, vomiting and stomach pains are also symptoms. It generally does not last longer than a week, but it is highly contagious.
Amoebic dysentery is more gradual in developing, has no fever or vomiting but is a more serious illness. It is not a self-limiting disease but will persist until treated and can recur and cause long-term damage.
A stool test is necessary with dysentery, but if no medical care is available tetracycline is the prescribed treatment for bacillary dysentery, metronidazole for amoebic dysentery.
Cholera vaccination is not very effective, but outbreaks of cholera are generally widely reported so you can avoid such areas. The disease is characterised by a sudden onset of acute diarrhoea with 'rice water' stools, vomiting, muscular cramps and extreme weakness. If you contract cholera you need medical help, but treat for dehydration (which can be extreme) and, if there is an appreciable delay in getting to hospital, begin taking tetracycline. This drug should not be given to young children or pregnant women and it should not be used past its expiry date.
Bacteria do not cause this but, as the name suggests, a virus and is characterised by stomach cramps, diarrhoea, sometimes vomiting, sometimes a slight fever. All you can do is rest and drink lots of fluids.
Hepatitis A is the most common form of this disease and is spread by contaminated food or water. The symptoms are fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting abdominal pain, dark urine, light coloured faeces, jaundiced skin and the whites of the eyes may turn yellow. In some case you may feel unwell, tired, have no appetite, experience aches and pains and the jaundiced effect. You should seek medical advice, but in general there is not much you can do apart from rest, drink lots of fluids, eat lightly and avoid fatty foods. People who have had hepatitis must forego alcohol for six months after the illness, as hepatitis attacks the liver and it needs that amount of time to recover.
Hepatitis B, which used to be called serum hepatitis, is spread through sexual contact, especially male homosexual activity, through skin penetration, for example dirty needles and blood transfusions. Avoid having your ears pierced, tattoos done or injections where you have doubts about the sanitary conditions. The symptoms and treatment of type B are much the same as type A but gamma globulin as a prophylaxis is only effective against type A.
Typhoid Fever is another gut infection that travels the fecal-oral route, i.e. contaminated water and food are responsible. Vaccination against typhoid is not totally effective and it is one of the most dangerous infections, so medical help must be sought.
The early symptoms are like so many others, you may feel like you have a bad cold or flu on the way, with a headache, sore throat and fever which rises a little each day until it is around 40°C or more. The pulse is often slow for the amount of fever present and gets slower as the fever rises, unlike a normal fever where the pulse increases. There may also be vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation.
In the second week the high fever and slow pulse continue and a few pink spots may appear on the body, along with trembling, delirium, weakness, weight loss and dehydration. If there are no further complications, the fever and symptoms will slowly go during the third week. However you must get medical help before this. Common complications are pneumonia (acute infection of the lungs) or peritonitis (burst appendix) and typhoid is very infectious.
Keeping them cool should treat the victim's fever and dehydration should also be watched for. Chloramphenicol is the recommended antibiotic but there are fewer side effects with ampicillin.
These parasites are most common in rural, tropical areas and a stool test when you return home is not a bad idea. They can be present on unwashed vegetables or in undercooked meat and you can pick them up through your skin by walking in bare feet. Infestations may not show up for some time, and although they are generally not serious, if left untreated they can cause severe health problems. A stool test is necessary to pinpoint the problem and medication is often available over the counter.
Diseases Spread by People & Animals
This potentially fatal disease is found in undeveloped tropical areas and is difficult to treat but is preventable with immunisation. Tetanus occurs when a germ that lives in the faeces of animals or people infects a wound; so clean all cuts, punctures or animal bites. Tetanus is known as lockjaw and the first symptom may be discomfort in swallowing, stiffening of the jaw and neck, then painful convulsions of the jaw and whole body.
Rabies is found in many countries and is caused by a bite or scratch from an infected animal. Dogs are a noted carrier. Any bite, scratch or even lick from a mammal should be cleaned immediately and thoroughly. Scrub with soap and running water, and then clean with an alcohol solution. If there is any possibility that the animal is infected, medical help should be sought immediately. Even if the animal is not rabid, all bites should be treated seriously as they can become infected or can result in tetanus. A rabies vaccination is now available and should be considered if you are in a high-risk category, e.g. cave explorers (bat bites) or people working with animals.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexual contact with an infected sexual partner spreads these diseases and while abstinence is the only 100% preventative, use of a condom is also effective. Gonorrhoea and syphilis are the most common of these diseases and sores, blisters or rashes around the genitals, discharges or pain when urinating are common symptoms. Symptoms may be less marked or not observed at all in women.
The symptoms of syphilis eventually disappear completely but the disease continues and can cause severe problems in later years. Treatment of gonorrhoea and syphilis is by antibiotics.
There are numerous other sexually transmitted diseases for most of which effective treatment is available. There is no cure for herpes and there is also currently no cure for AIDS, which is most commonly spread through male homosexual activity, but is becoming more common amongst heterosexuals in Thailand. Abstinence or the use of condoms is the most effective preventative.
AIDS can also be spread through infected blood transfusions or by dirty needles - vaccinations, acupuncture and tattooing can potentially be as dangerous as intravenous drug use if the equipment is not clean.
Ask 10 doctors around the world about malaria prevention and you may get 10 different opinions. Malaria, a mosquito-carried disease, is on the increase all over Asia and unfortunately most of the strains in Thailand are chloroquine-resistant, including the deadly Plasmodium falciparum. Hence, taking a malaria prophylactic may have little effect as a preventive and will most certainly contribute to an increase in resistance to these drugs, which are also used in the treatment of the disease.
There is much controversy surrounding the use of certain malarial prophylactics, in particular Fansidar. Before leaving, it is wise to get in contact with an infectious diseases hospital or other relevant government health body in your country to find out the latest information regarding malarial prophylactics. Armed with this information, consult a general practitioner for a prescription if you decide to take chemical suppressants. Factors such as your length of stay and the areas you plan to visit are relevant in prescribing anti-malarials. All commonly prescribed malarial suppressants (e.g. chloroquine) have the potential to cause side effects. In particular, persons allergic to sulphonamides should not take Fansidar.
In fact, the use of Fansidar as a prophylactic has been associated with severe and, in some cases, fatal reactions among travellers who have used the drug in multiple doses (i.e. two to five doses of Fansidar). For this reason there is now a move by many medical authorities away from the prescription of Fansidar as a malarial prophylactic, even for those travelling in areas where the disease is chloroquine-resistant. Although the incidence of severe reaction is not high, lack of information about the drug suggests that other malarial prophylactics should be used before considering Fansidar.
Further information can be found in the article, Revised Recommendations For Preventing Malaria in Travellers to Areas with Chloroquine-Resistant Plasmodium falciparum, (published by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Atlanta Georgia, April 12 1985, Volume 34/No 14).
Most recently the CDC reports that various strains of malaria in Thailand are now chloroquine and Fansidar-resistant. Instead they are recommending a daily dose of 100mg doxycycline (doxycycline is also said to prevent or suppress bacillary dysentery).
Rather than load up on drugs that may do you more harm than good, you can take a few other simple precautions that can greatly reduce your chances of contracting any kind of malaria. First of all, apply a good mosquito repellent to skin and clothes whenever and wherever mosquitoes are about. The best repellents are those which contain more than 30% DEET (N, N-diethyl-metatoluamide) - for maximum protection, use a 100% DEET preparation if you can find it. A fairly good mosquito repellent called Skeetolene is sold in Thailand (manufactured by the British Dispensary in Bangkok). For those with an allergy or aversion to synthetic repellents, citronella makes a good substitute. Mosquito coils (yaa kan yung baep jut) do an excellent job of repelling mosquitoes in your room and are readily available in Thailand. Day mosquitoes do not carry malaria, so it is only in the night that you have to worry - peak biting hours are a few hours after dusk and a few hours before dawn.
According to the Malaria Centre Region II in Chiang Mai, there is virtually no risk of malaria in urban areas. Since malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles) only bite from early evening to early morning, you should sleep under a mosquito net (if possible) when in rural areas, even if you see only a few mosquitoes. If you are outside during the biting hours, use an insect repellent. Even in a malarial area, not every mosquito is carrying the parasite responsible for the disease. Hence, the most important thing is to prevent as many of the critters from biting you as possible, to lessen the odds that you will be 'injected' by one carrying the parasite.
Once the parasites are in your bloodstream, they are carried to your liver where they reproduce. Days, weeks, or even months later (some experts say it can take as long as a year or more in certain cases), the parasites will enter the bloodstream again from the liver and this is when the symptoms first occur. Symptoms generally begin with chills and headache, followed by a high fever that lasts several hours. This may be accompanied by nausea, diarrhoea and more intense headaches. After a period of sweating the fever may subside and other symptoms go into remission. Of course, a severe flu attack could produce similar symptoms. That is why if you do develop a high fever and think you may have been exposed to the disease, it is imperative you get a blood check for malaria. Virtually any clinic or hospital in Thailand can administer this simple test.
Early treatment is usually successful in ridding the victim of the disease for good. If untreated or improperly treated, the symptoms will keep returning in cycles as the parasites move from liver to bloodstream and back.
Like many other tropical diseases, malaria is frequently misdiagnosed in western countries, If you should develop the symptoms after a return to your home country, be sure to seek medical attention immediately and inform your doctor that you may have been exposed to malaria.
In some areas of Thailand there is a risk, albeit low, of contracting dengue fever via mosquito transmission. This time it's a day variety (Aedes) you have to worry about. Like malaria, dengue fever seems to be on the increase throughout tropical Asia in recent years. Dengue is found in urban as well as rural areas, especially in areas of human habitation (often indoors) where there is standing water.
Unlike malaria, a virus causes dengue fever and there is no chemical prophylactic or vaccination against it. In Thailand there are some six strains of dengue and once you've had one you develop an immunity specific to that strain. The symptoms come on suddenly and include high fever, severe headache and heavy joint and muscle pain (hence its older name 'break bone fever'), followed a few days later by a rash that spreads from the torso to the arms, legs and face. Various risk factors such as age, immunity and viral strain may mitigate these symptoms so that they are less severe or last only a few days. Even when the basic symptoms are short-lived, it can take several weeks to fully recover from the resultant weakness.
In rare cases dengue may develop into a more severe condition known as dengue haemorrhagic fever (DHF), which is fatal. DHF is most common among Asian children under 15 who are undergoing a second dengue infection, so the risk for DHF for most international travellers is very low.
The best way to prevent dengue, as with malaria, is to take care not to be bitten by mosquitoes. The only treatment for it is bed rest, constant re-hydration and acetaminophen (Tylenol, Panadol).
A few years ago this viral disease was practically unheard of. Although long endemic to tropical Asia (as well as China, Korea, Japan and eastern USSR), there have been recent rainy season epidemics in north Thailand and Vietnam that increase the risk for travellers. A night-biting mosquito (Culex) is the carrier for JE and the risk is said to be greatest in rural zones near areas where pigs are raised or rice is grown, since pigs and certain wild birds, whose habitat may include rice fields, serve as reservoirs for the virus.
Persons who may be at risk of contracting JE in Thailand are those who will be spending long periods of time in rural areas during the rainy season (July to October). If you belong to this group, you may want to get a Japanese encephalitis vaccination. At this writing, the vaccine is only produced in Japan but is available in most Asian capitals. Check with the government health service in your home country before you leave to see if it's available; if not, arrange to be vaccinated in Bangkok, Hong Kong or Singapore, where the vaccine is easy to find.
Timing is important in taking the vaccine; you must receive at least two doses seven to 10 days apart. The USA Center for Disease Control recommends a third dose 21 to 30 days after the first for improved immunity. Immunity lasts about a year at which point it's necessary to get a booster shot, then it's every four years after that.
The symptoms of Japanese encephalitis are sudden fever, chills and headache, followed by vomiting and delirium, a strong aversion to bright light, and sore joints and muscles. Advanced cases may result in convulsions and coma. Estimates of the fatality rate for JE range from 5% to 60%.
As with other mosquito-borne diseases, the best way to prevent JE (outside of the vaccine) is to avoid being bitten.
Cuts, Bites & Stings
Cuts & Scratches
In hot, humid climates like that of Thailand throughout most of the year, even small wounds can become infected easily. Always keep cuts and scrapes scrupulously clean, especially those on the lower extremities, and you can avoid unnecessary trips to the doctor. If a small wound does become infected, clean it regularly with sterilised water and bandage it with an antibiotic balm or powder. If it's serious, you may have to take a course of antibiotic medication. If the infection is on the legs or feet, stay prone as much as possible until the infection subsides.
Many people who spend lengthy periods of time on the beaches, particularly Ko Samui, end up with infected coral cuts on their feet. Coral formations break the skin and coral particles enter the wound - these cuts are very difficult to keep clean when you're in and out of the water all the time, If a cut becomes infected, stay out of the water until it clears up. Light shoes designed for water sports, e.g. Nike's 'Aqua Socks', provide effective protection against coral as well as sea urchins.
To minimise your chances of being bitten always wear boots, socks and long trousers when walking through undergrowth where snakes may be present. Don't put your hands into holes and crevices and be careful when collecting firewood.
Snakebites do not cause instantaneous death and anti-venoms are usually available. Keep the victim calm and still, wrap the bitten limb tightly, as you would for a sprained ankle, and then attach a splint to immobilise it. Then seek medical help, if possible with the dead snake for identification. Don't attempt to catch the snake if there is any remote possibility of being bitten again. Tourniquets and sucking out the poison are now comprehensively discredited.
Local advice is the best way of avoiding contact with these sea creatures with their stinging tentacles.
Bedbugs & Lice
Bedbugs live in various places, particularly dirty mattresses and bedding. Spots of blood on bedclothes or on the wall around the bed can be read as a suggestion to find another hotel. Bedbugs leave itchy bites in neat rows. Calamine lotion may help.
Lice cause itching and discomfort and make themselves at home in your hair (head lice), your clothing (body lice) or in your pubic hair (crabs). They get to you by direct contact with infected people or through the sharing of combs, clothing and the like.
Powder or shampoo treatment will kill the lice, and infected clothing should then be washed in very hot water.
Leeches & Ticks
Leeches maybe present in damp rainforest conditions and attach themselves to your skin to suck your blood. Trekkers often get them on their legs or in their boots. Salt or a lighted cigarette end will make them fall off. Do not pull them off, as the bite is then more likely to become infected. An insect repellent may keep them away.
Vaseline, alcohol or oil will persuade a tick to let go. You should always check your body if you have been walking through a tick infested area as they can spread typhus.
Poor diet, lowered resistance due to the use of antibiotics for stomach upsets and even contraceptive pills can lead to vaginal infections when travelling in hot climates. Keeping the genital area clean, wearing cotton underwear and skirts or loose-fitting trousers will help to prevent infections.
Yeast infections, characterised by a rash, itch and discharge can be treated with a vinegar or even lemon juice douche or with yoghurt. Nystatin suppositories are the usual medical prescription. Trichomonas is a more serious infection with a discharge and a burning sensation when urinating. Male sexual partners must also be treated and if a vinegar-water douche is not effective medical attention should besought. Flagyl is the prescribed drug.
Most miscarriages occur during the first three months of pregnancy so this is the most risky time to travel. The last three months should also be spent within reasonable distance of good medical care as quite serious problems can develop at this time. Pregnant women should avoid all unnecessary medication, but vaccinations and malarial prophylactics should still be taken where possible. Additional care should be taken to prevent illness and particular attention should be paid to diet and nutrition.
There are several good hospitals in Bangkok and Chiang Mai:
- Bangkok Christian Hospital (tel. 0 2233 6981-9), 124 Silom Road
- Bangkok Adventist Hospital (tel. 0 2281 1422), 430 Phitsanulok Road
- Samrong General Hospital (tel. 0 2393 2131-5), Soi 78, Sukhumvit Road
- Samitivej Hospital (tel. 0 2392 0010-9), 133 Soi 49, Sukhumvit Road
- Chiang Mai:
- McCormick Hospital (tel. 0 5324 1107), Nawarat Road
- Ariyawongse Clinic, Changmoi Road
- Chiang Mai Hospital, Suan Dawk Road
- Malaria Center, 18 Boonruangjit Road
Members of Alcoholics Anonymous who want to contact the Bangkok Group or others who are interested in AA services can call 0 2253 0305 from 7 am to 7 pm or 0 2253 8422 from 7 pm to 7 am for information.
Thailand - History
The history of the geographical area now known as Thailand reaches far back into 'hoary antiquity'. World-renowned scholar Paul Benedict (author of Austro-Thai Language & Culture) found that modern linguistic theory, which ties numerous key items in ancient Chinese culture to an early Thai linguistic group, taken together with recent archaeological finds in Thailand, enable us to establish South-East Asia 'as a focal area in the emergent cultural development of homo sapiens. It now seems likely that the first true agriculturists anywhere, perhaps also the first true metal workers, were Austro-Thai speakers'. These proto-Thais seem to have proliferated all over South-East Asia, including the islands of Indonesia, and some may have settled in south and south-west China, later to 're-migrate' to northern Thailand to establish the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century.
With no written records or chronologies it is difficult to say with certainty what kind of cultures existed in Thailand before the Christian era. However, by the 6th century AD an important network of agricultural communities was thriving as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala, and as far north and northeast as Lamphun and Muang Fa Daet (near Khon Kaen). Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India's Ashokan Period, in the 2nd or 3rd centuries BC, when Indian missionaries were said to have been sent to a land called Suvarnabhumi - 'Land of Gold'. Suvarnabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Burma, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in the central river basin have long been called Suphanburi, 'City of Gold', and U Thong, 'Cradle of Gold'.
This loose collection of city-states was given the Sanskritic name Dvaravati, or 'place having gates', the city of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The French art historian George Coedes discovered the name on some coins excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area, which seems to have been the centre of Dvaravati culture. The Dvaravati Period lasted until the 11th or 12th centuries AD and produced many fine works of art, including distinctive Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temples and in caves, some architecture (little of which remains intact), some exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and other miscellaneous sculpture.
Dvaravati may have been a cultural relay point for the pre-Angkor cultures of ancient Cambodia and Champa to the east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as T'o-lopo-ti, located between Sriksetra (North Burma) and Tsanapura (Sambor Prei Kuk-Kambuja). The ethnology of the Dvaravati peoples is a controversial subject, though the standard decree is that they were Mons or Mon-Khmers. The Mons themselves seem to have been descended from a group of Indian immigrants from Kalinga, an area overlapping the boundaries of the modern Indian states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dvaravati Mons may have been an ethnic mix of these people and people indigenous to the region (the original Thais). In any event, the Dvaravati culture quickly declined in the 11th century under the political domination of the invading Khmers who made their headquarters in Lopburi. The area around Lamphun, then called Haripunchai, held out until the late 12th century or later, as evidenced by the Dvaravati architecture of Wat Kukut in Lamphun.
The Khmer conquest brought Khmer cultural influence in the foam of art, language and religion. Some of the Sanskrit terms in Mon-Thai vocabulary entered the language during the Khmer or Lopburi Period between the 11th and 13th centuries. Monuments from this period located in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and many locations throughout the northeast, were constructed in the Khmer style and compare favourably with architecture in Angkor. Elements of Brahmanism, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism intermixed, as Lopburi became a religious centre, and some of each remains to this day in Thai religious and court ceremonies.
While all this was taking place, a distinctly Thai state called Nan Chao (650 to 1250) was flourishing in what later became Yunnan and Sichuan in China. Nan Chao maintained close relations with imperial China and the two neighbours enjoyed much cultural exchange. The Mongols, under Kublai Khan, conquered Nan Chao in 1253, but long before they came, the Thai people began migrating southward, homesteading in and around what is today Laos and northern Thailand. They 'infiltrated' South-East Asia in small groups, assimilating the peoples they encountered. Some Thais became mercenaries for the Khmer armies in the early 12th century, as depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat. The Thais were called 'Syams' by the Khmers, possibly from the Sanskrit syam meaning 'swarthy', because of their relatively deeper skin colour. This may have been how the Thai kingdom eventually came to be called Syam or Siam.
Southern Thailand, the upper Malay Peninsula, was under the control of the Srivijaya Empire, the headquarters of which were in Sumatra, between the 8th and 13th centuries. The regional centre for Srivijaya was Chaiya, near the modern town of Surat Thani. Srivijaya art remains can still be seen in Chaiya and its environs.
Several Thai principalities in the Mekong Valley united in the 13th and 14th centuries, and Thai princes took Haripunchai from the Mons to form Lan Na, and the Sukhothai Region from the Khmers, whose Angkor government was declining fast. The Sukhothai Kingdom declared its independence in 1238 and quickly expanded its sphere of influence, taking advantage not only of the declining Khmer power but the weakening Srivijaya domain in the south. Sukhothai is considered by the Siamese to be the first true Thai kingdom. It lasted until Ayuthaya annexed it in 1376, by which time a national identity of sorts had been forged.
The second Sukhothai king, Ram Khamheng, organised a writing system that became the basis for modem Thai, and also codified the Thai form of Theravada Buddhism, as borrowed from the Singhalese. Many Thais today view the Sukhothai Period with sentimental vision, seeing it, as a golden age of Thai politics, religion and culture - an egalitarian, noble period when everyone had enough to eat and the kingdom was unconquerable. Under Ram Khamheng, Sukhothai extended as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, and to Pegu in southern Burma. For a short time (1448-86) the Sukhothai capital was moved to Phitsanulok.
The Thai kings of Ayuthaya became very powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries, taking over U Thong and Lopburi, former Khmer strongholds, and moving east in their conquests until Angkor was defeated in 1431. Even though the Khmers were their adversaries in battle, the Ayuthaya kings incorporated Khmer court customs and language. One result of this was that the Thai monarch gained more absolute authority during the Ayuthaya Period and assumed the title devaraja (god-king) as opposed to the then traditional dhammaraja (dharma king).
In the early 16th century Ayuthaya was receiving European visitors, and a Portuguese embassy was established in 1511. The Dutch in 1605, the English in 1612, the Danes in 1621 and the French in 1662 followed the Portuguese.
In the mid-16th century Ayuthaya and the independent kingdom in Chiang Mai came under the control of the Burmese, but the Thais regained rule of both by the end of the century. Ayuthaya was one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia, a thriving seaport envied not only by the Burmese but also by the Europeans who, by their early accounts, were in great awe of the city. It has been said that London, at the time, was a mere village in comparison.
A rather peculiar episode unfolded in Ayuthaya when a Greek, Constantine Phaulkon, became a very high official in Siam under King Narai from 1675 to 1688. He kept out the Dutch and the English but allowed the French to station 600 soldiers in the kingdom. The Thais, fearing a takeover, forcefully expelled the French and executed Phaulkon. Ironically, the word for a 'foreigner' (of European descent) in modern Thai is farang, an abbreviated form of farangset, meaning 'French'. Siam sealed itself from the west for 150 years following this experience with farangs.
The Burmese again invaded Ayuthaya in 1765 and the capital fell after two years of fierce battle. This time the Burmese destroyed everything sacred to the Thais, including manuscripts, temples and religious sculpture. The Burmese, despite their effectiveness in sacking Ayuthaya, could not maintain a foothold in the kingdom, and Phya Taksin, a Thai general, made himself king in 1769, ruling from the new capital of Thonburi on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, opposite Bangkok. The Thais regained control of their country and further united the disparate provinces to the north with central Siam. Taksin eventually came to regard himself as the next Buddha and was deposed and executed by his ministers who did not approve of his religious fanaticism.
Another general, Chao Phya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 under the title Rama I. He moved the royal capital across the river to Bangkok and ruled as the first king of the Chakri Dynasty - the present king of Thailand is Rama IX and it has been prophesied that this dynasty will only have nine kings. In 1809, Rama II (son of Rama I) took the throne and reigned through to 1824. Both monarchs assumed the task of restoring the culture so severely damaged by the Burmese decades earlier. Rama III, or Phra Nang Klao (1824-51), went beyond reviving tradition and developed trade with China while increasing domestic agricultural production.
Rama IV, commonly known as King Mongkut (Phra Chom Klao to the Thais), was one of the more colourful and innovative of the early Chakri kings. He originally missed out on the throne in deference to his half-brother Rama III and lived as a Buddhist monk for 27 years. During his long monastic term he became adept in the Sanskrit, Pali, Latin and English languages, studied western sciences and adopted the strict discipline of local Mon monks. He kept an eye on the outside world and when he took the throne in 1851 he immediately courted diplomatic relations with European nations, while avoiding colonisation.
In addition he attempted to align Buddhist cosmology with modern science to the end of demythologising the Thai religion (a process yet to be fully accomplished), and founded the Thammayut monastic sect, based on the strict discipline he had followed as a monk. The Thammayut remains a minority sect in relation to the Mahanikai, who comprise the largest number of Buddhist monks in Thailand.
King Mongkut loosened Thai trade restrictions and many western powers signed trade agreements with the monarch. He also established Siam's first printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines.
His son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868 to 1910), continued Mongkut's tradition of reform, especially in the legal and administrative realm. Thailand further benefited from relations with European nations and the USA; railways were designed and constructed, a civil service established and the legal code restructured. Though Siam still managed to avoid colonisation, it lost some territory to French Laos and British Burma around this time. King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25), during his rather short reign, introduced compulsory education as well as other educational reforms and further 'westernised' the nation by making the Thai calendar conform to western models.
While Vajiravudh's brother, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1925-35), ruled, a group of Thai students living in Paris became so enamoured of democratic ideology that they mounted a successful coup d'état against absolute monarchy in Siam. This bloodless revolution led to the development of a constitutional monarchy along British lines, with a mixed military-civilian group in power. Phibul Songkhram, a key military leader in the 1932 coup, maintained an effective position of power from 1938 until the end of WWII. Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol), a nephew of Rama VII, ascended the throne in 1935 but was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in 1946. His brother Bhumibol Adulyadej succeeded him as Rama IX.
Under the influence of Phibul's government, the country's name was officially changed from Siam to Thailand in 1949 - rendered in Thai as Prathet Thai. ('Prathet' is derived from the Sanskrit pradesha or 'country'; 'thai' is considered to have the connotation of 'free', though in actual usage it simply refers to the Tai races, which are found as far east as Tonkin, as far west as Assam, as far north as south China, and as far south as north Malaysia.)
World War II & Post War
The Japanese outflanked the Allied troops in Malaya and Burma in 1941 and the Phibul government complied with the Japanese in this action by allowing them into the Gulf of Thailand; consequently the Japanese troops occupied Thailand itself. Phibul then declared war on the USA and Great Britain (in 1942) but Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, refused to deliver the declaration. Phibul resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance and after V-J Day in 1945, Seni became premier.
In 1946, the year King Ananda was assassinated, Seni and his brother Kukrit were unseated in a general election and a democratic civilian group took power for a short time, only to be overthrown by Phibul in 1948. In 1951 power was wrested from Phibul by General Sarit Thanarat, who continued the tradition of military dictatorship. However, Phibul somehow retained the actual position of premier until 1957 when Sarit finally had him exiled. Elections that same year forced Sarit to resign, go abroad for 'medical treatment' and then return in 1958 to launch another coup. This time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament and banned all political parties, maintaining effective power until his death in 1963 of cirrhosis. From 1964 to 1973 the Thai nation was ruled by army officers Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien, during which time Thailand allowed the USA to develop several army bases within her borders in support of the American campaign in Vietnam.
Reacting to political repression, 10,000 Thai students publicly demanded a real constitution in June 1973. In October of the same year the military brutally suppressed a large demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but General Krit Sivara and King Bhumibol refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand. An elected, constitutional government ruled until October 1976 when students demonstrated again, this time protesting the return of Thanom to Thailand as a monk. Thammasat University again became a battlefield and a new right-wing government was installed with Thanin Kraivichien as premier. This particular incident disillusioned many Thai students and older intellectuals not directly involved, the result being that numerous idealists 'dropped out' of Thai society and joined the insurgents in the forests. In October 1977 another coup ousted Thanin and installed Kriangsak. In 1980 the military-backed position changed hands again, leaving Prem Tinsulanonda at the helm.
If you get the idea that the coup d'état is popular in Thailand you're on the right track: There have been 15 successful or attempted coups since 1932 (an average of almost three per decade!), not counting election-forced resignations. There have also been 10 'permanent' constitutions enacted since the first. However, even the successful coups rarely have resulted in drastic change and the Thai commoner will tell you that things never change - it depends on how closely you observe politics. On the other hand, it's very difficult to observe Thai politics over the last ten years or so and not recognise some real, functional changes emanating from non-coup sources.
Prem served as prime minister through 1988 and is credited with the political and economic stabilisation of Thailand in the post-Vietnam war years (only one coup attempt in the '80s!). The major accomplishment of the Prem years was a complete dismantling of the Communist Party of Thailand through an effective combination of amnesty programmes (which brought the students back from the forests) and military action. His administration is also considered responsible for a gradual democratisation of Thailand that culminated in the 1988 election of his successor, Chatichai Choonhavan.
It may be difficult for new arrivals to Thailand to appreciate the distance Thailand has come in the last 10 to 15 years. Between 1976 and 1981, freedom of speech and press were rather curtailed in Thailand and there was a strict curfew in Bangkok. Anyone caught in the streets past 1 am risked spending the night in one of Bangkok's mosquito-infested 'detention areas'. Under Prem, the curfew was lifted and dissenting opinions began to be heard publicly more often.
Traditionally every leading political figure in Thailand, including Prem, has had to receive the support of the Thai military, who are generally staunch reactionaries. Considering Thailand's geographic position it was difficult not to understand, to some extent, the fears of this ultra-conservative group. But with Prime Minister Chatichai, who is widely recognised as a particularly 'business-oriented' leader, this has begun to change. Approximately 60% of his Cabinet was former business executives rather than ex-military officers, as compared to 38% in the previous Cabinet.
High-ranking military officers are naturally disappointed with this coup d'argent and complain that Thailand is now being run by a plutocracy. Whereas government leadership during the '60s and '70s exploited the threat of invasion from bordering Marxist countries, Chatichai's plan is to incorporate Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma in a grand economic scheme in which Thailand will serve as broker to the rest of the world. Whether this will come to pass remains to be seen. Without a doubt, however, Thailand is entering a new era in which an inter-relationship between the country's current economic boom and democratisation will be interesting to observe.
Before 1917 the Thai flag was red with a white elephant, an emblem of the absolute monarchy. It was changed by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in 1917 when Siam entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Today's flag consists of five horizontal bands of red, white and blue. The three colors represent the three pillars of the Thai nation. The outer red bands stand for the country, white for Buddhism and blue for the monarchy.
National Anthem (Phleng Chaat)
The national anthem is played on all ceremonial occasions of national importance and while the national flag is being raised and lowered. Its music was composed in 1932 by Professor Phra Jenduriyang (1883-1968), while the lyrics, as presently constituted, were written in 1939 by Colonel Luang Saranuprabhandh (1896-1954).
|Pra thet thai ruam luad nu'a chat chu'a thai
||Thailand embraces in its bosom all people of Thai blood
|Pen pra cha rat pha thai kho'ng thai thuk suan
||Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais
|Yu dam rong khong wai dai thang muan
||It has long maintained its sovereignty,
|Duay thai luan mai rak sa mak khi
||Because the Thais have always been united
|Thai ni rak sa ngop
||The Thai people are peace-loving,
|tae thu'ng rop mai khalt
||But they are no cowards at war
|Ek ka rat ha mai hai khrai khom khi
||They shall allow no one to rob them of their independence, nor shall they suffer tyranny
|Sa la luat thuk yat pen chat phli
||All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
|Tha loeng pra thet chat thai tha wi mi chat chai yo
||For the nation's safety, freedom and progress.
|Kha wora Phutta Chao
||I, slave of the Lord Buddha
|Ao mano lae sira kran
||Prostrate my heart and head
|Nop Phra-pumi ban boonya direk
||To pay homage and give great blessings
|Ek barroma Chakarin
||To the protector of the land
||One of the Great Chakri Dynasty
|Phra Yodsa ying yong
||Head of the Thai people
|Yen sira pruo Phra bariban
||Supreme in rank
|Pon Phra kunta raksa
||I know comfort from your protection
|Praung pracha pen sooksarn
||Because of your gracious care
||All the people are happy and peaceful
|Ta prasong dai
||We pray that whatever you wish for
||Fate will grant you
|Dang, wang, wora hareutai
||According to your heart's desire
|Dutja tawai chai chaiyo
||To bring you prosperity, we salute you
The Thai national and royal symbol is a Garuda, a mythical half-bird half-human figure (steed of the Hindu god Vishnu) that adorns King Bhumibol Adulyadej's scepter and royal standard. Many ministries and departments have incorporated the Garuda into their insignias. Moreover, the Garuda symbolizes 'By Royal Appointment' and is awarded, at the personal discretion of His Majesty the King, as a sign of royal approval to companies that have rendered outstanding economic and charitable services to Thailand. Such an award is rarely bestowed and is considered a great honour.
Thailand - Holidays & Festivals
Holidays & Festivals
The number and frequency of festivals and fairs in Thailand is incredible - there always seems to be something going on, but especially during the cool season between November and February.
10 to 12 January
Chaiyaphun Elephant Round-up - a rather recently established event that focuses on re-enactment of medieval elephant-back warfare. Much smaller and less touristy than the Surin round up in November.
24 to 31 January
Don Chedi Memorial Fair - commemorates the victory of King Naresuan of Ayuthaya over Burmese invaders in 1592. The highlight of the fair is dramatised elephant-back duelling. At the Don Chedi memorial in Suphanburi Province.
1st week of February
Flower Festival in Chiang Mai - colourful floats and parades exhibiting Chiang Mai's cultivated flora.
Magha Puja (Makkha Buchaa) - held on the full moon of the third lunar month to commemorate the preaching of the Buddha to 1,250 enlightened monks who came to hear hint 'without prior summons'. A public holiday throughout the country: culminating in a candle-lit circumambulation of the main chapel at every wat.
1st week of March
Barred Ground Dove Fair - large dove-singing contest held in Yala that attracts dove-lovers from all over Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
14 to 21 March
Phra Buddhabaht Fair - annual pilgrimage to the Temple of the Holy Footprint at Saraburi, 236km north north east of Bangkok. Quite an affair: with music, outdoor drama and many other festivities. The shrine is worth visiting even in the 'off-season', if you're in the area.
Chakri Day - public holiday commemorating the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, Rama I.
13 to 15 April
Songkran Festival - the New Year's celebration of the lunar year in Thailand. Buddha images are 'bathed', monks and elders receive the respect of younger Thais by the sprinkling of water over their hands and a lot of water is tossed about for fun. Songkran generally gives everyone a chance to release their frustrations and literally cool off during the peak of the hot season. Hide out in your room or expect to be soaked; the latter is a lot more fun.
Phanom Rung Festival - a newly established festival to commemorate the restoration of this impressive Angkor-style temple. Involves a daytime procession to Khao Phanom Rung and spectacular sound-and-light shows at night. Be prepared for very hot weather.
Coronation Day - the King and Queen preside at a ceremony at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, commemorating their 1946 coronation. Public holiday.
May (Full Moon)
Visakha Puja (Wisakha Buchaa) - falls on the 15th day of the waxing moon in the 6th lunar month, which is considered the date of the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and parinibbana, or passing away. Activities are centred round the wat, with candle-lit processions, much chanting and sermonising, etc. Public holiday.
2nd week of May
Royal Ploughing Ceremony - to kick off the official rice-planting season, the King participates in this Brahman ritual at Sanam Luang (the large field across from Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok. Thousands of Thais gather to watch, and traffic in this past of the city reaches a standstill.
2nd week of May
Rocket Festival - all over the northeast, villagers craft large skyrockets of bamboo that they then fire into the sky to bring rain for rice fields. This festival is best celebrated in the town of Yasothon, but also good in Ubon and Nong Khai.
Asanha Puja - full moon is a must for this holiday, too, commemorating the first sermon preached by the Buddha. Public holiday.
Mid to late July
Khao Phansaa (beginning of Buddhist 'lent') - the traditional time of year for young men to enter the monk hood for the rainy season and for all monks to station themselves in a single monastery for the three months. A good time to observe a Buddhist ordination. This is a public holiday.
Mid so late July
Candle Festival - in the northeast they celebrate Khao Phansaa by carving huge candles and parading them on floats in the streets. This festival is best celebrated in Ubon.
Queen's birthday - this is a public holiday. Ratchadamnoen Avenue and the Grand Palace are festooned with coloured lights.
Thailand International Swan-Boat Races - takes place on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok near the Rama IX Bridge.
Narathiwat Fair - an annual weeklong festival celebrating local culture with boat races, dove-singing contests, handicraft displays, traditional southern Thai music and dance. The King and Queen almost always attend.
Late September to early October
Vegetarian Festival - a nine-day celebration in Trang and Phuket during which devout Chinese Buddhists eat only vegetarian food. There are also various ceremonies at Chinese temples and merit-making processions that bring to mind Hindu Thaipusam in its exhibition of self-mortification.
Mid-October to mid-November
Thawt Kathin - a one-month period at the end of 'lent' during which new monastic robes and requisites are offered to the Sangha.
Chulalongkorn Day - a public holiday in commemoration of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
Loi Krathong - on the proper full-moon night, small lotus-shaped baskets or boats made of banana leaves containing flowers, incense, candles and a coin are floated on Thai rivers, lakes and canals. This is a peculiarly Thai festival that probably originated in Sukhothai and is best celebrated in the north. In Chiang Mai, residents also launch hot-air paper balloons into the sky. At the National Historical Park in Sukhothai, there is an impressive sound and light show.
Third weekend in November
Surin Annual Elephant Round up - pretty touristy these days, but no more so than the 'running of the bulls' in Pamplona, Spain.
Late November to early December
River Kwai Bridge Week - sound and light shows every night at the Death Railway Bridge in Kanchanaburi, plus historical exhibitions and vintage train rides.
King's birthday - this is a public holiday, which is celebrated with some fervour in Bangkok.
31 December & 1 January
New Year's - a rather recent public holiday in deference to the western calendar.
Note: The official year in Thailand is reckoned from 543 BC, the beginning of the Buddhist Era, so that 2000 AD is 2543 BE.
Thailand - Language
During your travels in Thailand, meeting and getting to know Thai people can be a very rewarding experience. I would particularly urge travellers, young and old, to make the effort to meet Thai college and university students. Thai students are, by and large, eager to meet their peers from other countries. They will often know some English, so communication is not as difficult as it may be with merchants, civil servants, etc., plus they are generally willing to teach you useful Thai words and phrases.
Learning some Thai is indispensable for travelling in the kingdom; naturally, the more language you pick up, the closer you get to Thailand's culture and people. Foreigners who speak Thai are so rare in Thailand that it doesn't take much to impress most Thais with a few words in their own language. Don't let laughter at your linguistic attempts discourage you; this amusement is an expression of their appreciation.
Thai is one of the oldest languages in East and South-East Asia; according to linguist/anthropologist Paul Benedict it may even pre-date Chinese, at least in its prototypical form. Many of the so-called 'loan words' thought to be borrowed from Chinese by the Thais actually have an Austro-Thai origin. At any rate, Chinese and Thai have many similarities, since both are monosyllabic tonal languages.
In Thai the meaning of a single syllable may be altered by means of five different tones (in standard central Thai): level or mid tone, low tone, falling tone, high tone and rising tone. Consequently, the syllable mai, for example, can mean, depending on the tone, 'new', 'burn', 'wood', 'not?' or 'not'.
This makes it rather tricky to learn at first, for those of us who come from more or less non-tonal-language traditions. Even when we 'know' what the correct tone in Thai should be, our tendency to denote emotion, verbal stress, the interrogative, etc, through tone modulation, often interferes with speaking the correct tone. So the first rule in learning to speak Thai is to divorce emotions from your speech, at least until you have learned the Thai way to express them without changing essential tone value.
The Thai script, a fairly recent development in comparison with the spoken language (King Ram Khamheng introduced the script in 1283), consists of 44 consonants (but only 21 separate sounds) and 48 vowels and diphthong possibilities (32 separate signs) and is of Sanskrit origin. Written Thai proceeds from left to right, though vowel signs may be written before, above, below, 'around' (before, above and after), or after consonants, depending on the sign. Though learning the alphabet is not difficult, the writing system itself is fairly complex, so unless you are planning a lengthy stay in Thailand it should perhaps be foregone in favour of learning to actually speak the language. Where possible, place names occurring in headings are given in Thai script as well as in Roman script, so that you can at least 'read' the names of destinations at a pinch, or point to them if necessary.
The following is a brief attempt to explain the tones. The only way to really understand the differences is by listening to a native or fluent non-native speaker. The range of all five tones is relative to each speaker's vocal range so there is no fixed 'pitch' intrinsic to the language.
The level or mid tone is pronounced 'flat', at the relative middle of the speaker's vocal range. Example: dii means good.
The low tone is 'flat' like the mid tone, but pronounced at the relative bottom of one's vocal range. It is low, level and with no inflection. Example: baat means Baht (the Thai currency).
The falling tone is pronounced as if you were emphasising a word, or calling someone's name from afar. Example: mai means 'no' or 'not'.
The high tone is usually the most difficult for westerners. It is pronounced near the relative top of the vocal range, as level as possible. Example: nii means 'this'.
The rising tone sounds like the inflection English speakers generally give to a question - 'You like soup?' Example: saam means 'three'.
Words in Thai that appear to have more than one syllable are usually compounds made up of two or more word units, each with its own tone. They may be words taken directly from Sanskrit or Pali, in which case each syllable must still have its own tone. Sometimes the tone of the first syllable is not as important as that of the last, so for these I am omitting the tone mark.
Here is a guide to the phonetic system that has been used in this website when transcribing directly from Thai. It is based on the Royal Thai General System of transcription (RTGS), except that it distinguishes between vowels of short and long duration (e.g. 'i' and 'ii'; 'a' and 'an'; 'e' and 'eh'; 'o' and 'oh'), between 'o' and 'aw' (both would be 'o' in the RTGS) and between 'ch' and 'j' (both 'ch' in the RTGS).
||as the 't' in 'tea'
||as the 'p' in 'put' (never as the 'ph' in 'phone')
||as the 'k' in 'kite'
||similar to 'g' in 'good', or k in 'cuckoo' but un-aspirated and unvoiced
||as the 't' in 'forty' - un-aspirated (no accompanying puff of air); similar to 'd' but unvoiced
||as the 'p' in 'stopper', unvoiced, un-aspirated (not like the 'p' in 'put')
||as the 'ng' in 'sing'; used as an initial consonant in Thai - practice by saying 'sing' without the 'si'
||similar to the 'r' in 'run' but flapped (tongue touches palate) - in everyday speech often pronounced like 'l'
|All the remaining consonants correspond closely to their English counterparts.
||as the 'i' in 'it'
||as the 'ee' in 'feet'
||as the 'i' in 'pipe'
||as the 'a' in 'father'
||half as long as aa
||as the 'a' in 'bat' or 'tab'
||as the 'e' in 'hen'
||as the 'a' in 'hate'
||as the 'u' in 'hut' but more closed
||as the 'u' in 'flute'
||as the 'oo' in 'food', longer than u
||as the 'eu' in French 'deux', or the 'i'm sir'
||as the 'ow' in 'now'
||as the 'aw' in 'jaw'
||as the 'o' in 'bone'; exception ko, pronounced 'kaw'
||as the 'o' in 'toe'
||diphthong, or combination, of eu and a
||as 'ee-ya', or as the 'ie' in French rien
||as the 'ou' in 'tour'
||as the 'ewy' in 'Dewey'
||as the 'ew' in 'yew'
||as the 'io' in 'Rio' or Italian mio or dio
|There are several other vowel combinations that are relatively rare.
Words & Phrases
When being polite the speaker ends their sentence with khrap (for men) or kha (for women). It is the gender of the speaker that is being expressed here; it is also the common way to answer 'yes' to a question or show agreement.
Your first attempts to speak the language will probably meet with mixed success, but keep trying. When learning new words/phrases, listen closely to the way the Thais themselves use the various tones - you'll catch on quickly.
For expanding your travel vocabulary, recommended is Robertson's Practical English-Thai Dictionary since it has a phonetic guide to pronunciation, with tones and is compact in size. Published by Charles E Tuttle Co, Suido 1-chome, 2-6, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, it may be difficult to find.
For more serious language-learners there is Mary Haas' Thai-English Student's Dictionary and George McFarland's Thai-English Dictionary (the cream of the crop), both published by Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.
Thai Language Study
Several language schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai offer courses for foreigners in Thai language. Tuition fees average around 250 Baht per hour. Some places will let you trade English lessons for Thai lessons, or if not you can usually teach English on the side to offset tuition costs. There are three recommended schools in Bangkok:
- Union Language School, (tel. 0 2233 4482), 109 Surawongse Road, Bangkok.
- Generally recognised as the best and most rigorous course. Employs a balance of structure-oriented and communication-oriented methodologies.
- AUA (American University Alumni) Language Center, (tel. 0 2252 8170), 179 Rajadamri Road, Bangkok.
- AUA runs one of the largest English language teaching institutes in the world so this is a good place to meet Thai students. On the other hand, farangs who study Thai here complain that there's not enough interaction in class because of an emphasis on the so-called 'Natural Approach', which focuses on the teacher rather than the student AUA also has a branch in Chiang Mai.
- Nisa Thai Language School, (tel. 0 2286 9323), 27 Sathon Tai Road, Bangkok.
- This school has a fairly good reputation, though teachers may be less qualified than at Union or AUA language schools. In addition to all the usual levels, Nisa offers a course in preparing for the Baw Hok or Grade 6 examination, a must for anyone wishing to work in the public school system.
Chulalongkorn University, the most prestigious university in Thailand, has recently begun offering an intensive Thai studies course called 'Perspectives on Thailand'. The programme runs four weeks and includes classes in Thai language, culture, history, politics, and economics. Classes meet six hours a day, six days a week (Saturday is usually a field trip) and are offered twice a year, January to February and July to August. Students who have taken the course say they have found the quality of instruction excellent. Tuition is US$1000.
Room and board on campus is available though it's much less expensive to live off campus. For further information write to Perspectives on Thailand, 7th floor, Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.
The YMCA's Sin Pattana Thai Language School (tel. 0 2286 1936), 13 Sathon Tai Road, Bangkok, gives Thai language lessons as well as preparation for the Baw Hok exam.
Thailand - Literature
The best bookshops in Bangkok are Asia Books, on Sukhumvit Road near Soi 15, and DK Books on Surawongse Road near the infamous Patpong Road area. Asia and DK also have smaller branches in some of the larger tourist hotels in Bangkok and street branches in tourist towns like Chiang Mai and Phuket.
In Chiang Mai, Surawongse Book Centre on Si Donchai Road is also very good. All of these bookshops specialise in English-language publications and offer a wide variety of fiction and periodicals as well as books on Asia.
Two travel guides with some good stuff on history, culture, art, etc are Nagel's Encyclopedia-Guide to Thailand, an expensive little book published in Switzerland and Guide to Thailand by Achille Clarac, edited and translated by Michael Smithies.
The Insight Guide to Thailand (Apa Productions, Singapore) is beautifully presented and well written although it's a little hefty to carry around as a travel guide - a worthy item for travel guide collectors at any rate.
If you can get hold of a copy of Hudson's Guide to Chiang Mai & the North you'll learn a lot about this area that is unknown to the average traveller. Much of the information is out of date (since the book is long out of print) but it makes interesting reading and has one of the best Thai phrase sections ever published - 218 phrases with tone marks. (Phrase sections without tone marks are next to worthless.) In 1987, Roy Hudson published the minuscule Hudson's Guide to Mae Hong Son that you may come across in the north.
Recently a number of locally produced Thai guidebooks have emerged. The Shell Guide to Thailand is basically a directory of hotels, restaurants and service stations but provides many useful addresses and phone numbers and has some good maps.
If this is your first trip to Asia, you might want to have a look at Before You Go to Asia by John McCarroll (Laurel Publications, San Francisco). This book weighs the pros and cons of going on your own versus going with a tour group (the author comes out strongly in favour of going on your own) and lists references for further information on Asian travel.
If you are interested in detailed info on hill tribes, get The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand by Gordon Young (Monograph No 1, The Siam Society). Young was born of third-generation Christian missionaries among Lahu people, speaks several tribal dialects and is even an honorary Lahu chieftain with the highest Lahu title, the 'Supreme Hunter'. The monograph covers 16 tribes, including descriptions, photographs, tables and maps.
From the Hands of the Hills by Margaret Campbell also has lots of beautiful pictures.
The recently published Peoples of the Golden Triangle by Elaine and Paul Lewis is also very good, very photo-oriented and expensive.
Additional serious reading is: The Indianized States of South-East Asia by George Coedes - a classic work on South-East Asian history; The Thai Peoples by Erik Seidenfaden; Siam in Crisis by Sulak Sivaraksa, one of Thailand's leading intellectuals (available at DK Books in Bangkok) and Political Conflict in Thailand: Reform, Reaction, Revolution by David Morrell and Chai-anan Samudavanija, probably the single best book available on modern Thai politics.
Culture Shock! Thailand & How to Survive It by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper is an interesting outline on getting along with the Thai way of life. Letters from Thailand by Botan (translated by Susan Fulop) can also be recommended for its insights into traditional Thai culture. Cooking Thai Food in American Kitchens by Malulee Pinsuvana is 'great because it has pictures and diagrams so you can identify your meals'!
For insights into rural life in Thailand, the books of Pira Sudham are unparalleled. Sudham is a Thai author who was born to a poor family in northeast Thailand and has written Siamese Drama, Monsoon Country and People of Esarn (Isaan). These books are not translations - Sudham writes in English in order to reach a worldwide audience. These titles are fairly easy to find in Bangkok but can be difficult overseas - the publisher is Siam Media International, GPO Box 1534, Bangkok, 10501.
For books on Buddhism and Buddhism in Thailand, see our religion page.
Thailand - Maps
The Latest Tour's Guide to Bangkok & Thailand has a bus map of Bangkok on one side and a fair map of Thailand on the other, and is usually priced at around 30 Baht. The bus map is quite necessary if you intend to spend much time in Bangkok and want to use the very economical bus system. It is available at most bookshops in Bangkok that carry English-language materials. A better map of the country is published by APA Productions which costs around US$7, also available at many Bangkok bookshops, as well as overseas.
Even better is the four-map set issued by Thailand's Department of Highways? For 65 Baht you get a very detailed road map of the central, northern, northeastern and southern regions. The maps include information on 'roads not under control by the Highway Department'; for example, many of the roads you may travel on in the Golden Triangle. Bookstores sometimes sell this set for 200 Baht, including a mailing tube, but the Highway Department on Si Ayuthaya Road and the Bangkok Tourist Authority of Thailand office on Ratchadamnoen Nok offer the set at the lower price. The mailing tube is not worth 135 Baht.
Recently DK Books has published a 44-page bilingual road atlas called Thailand Highway Map that has cut the highway department maps to a more manageable size and includes dozens of city maps, driving distances and lots of travel and sightseeing information.
The Highway Department maps are more than adequate for most people. At DK Books in Chiang Mai, however, you can also purchase Thai military maps, which focus on areas no larger than the amphoe (local district), complete with elevations and contour lines. These may be of use to the solo trekker, but cost 60 Baht upwards per map. DK also publishes special maps for hill-tribe trekkers.
There are also Nancy Chandler's very useful city maps of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which are actually more than just maps. Her colourful maps serve as up-to-date and informative guides, spotlighting local sights, noting local markets and their wares, outlining local transport and even recommending restaurants.
We have included a map of Pattaya for your convenience
We have included a map of Jomtien for your convenience
We have included a map of Chonburi & Rayong for your convenience
Thailand - Media
Two English-language newspapers are published daily in Thailand and distributed in most provincial capitals throughout the country: the Bangkok Post (morning) and the Nation (afternoon). The Post is the better of the two papers and is in fact regarded by many journalists as the best English daily in South-East Asia.
The Singapore edition of the International Herald Tribune is widely available in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and tourist areas like Pattaya and Phuket.
Bangkok's national public radio station (Sathani Withayu Haeng Prathet Thai) broadcasts English language programmes over the FM frequency 97 MHz from 6 am to 11 pm. Most of the programmes comprise of local, national and international news, sports, business and special news-related features. There is some music on the channel between 9 and 11.15 am, interspersed with hourly English-news broadcasts. For up-to-date news reports this is the station to listen to. An 'Official New Bulletin' (national news sponsored by the government) is broadcast at 7 am, 12.30 pm and 7 pm.
FM 107 is another public radio station and is affiliated with Radio Thailand and Channel 9 on Thai public television. They broadcast Radio Thailand news bulletins at the same hours as Radio Thailand (7 am, 12.30 pm and 7 pm). At 7.30 pm, FM 107 provides the English-language soundtrack for local and world satellite news on television Channel 9 while FM 104.5 does the same for Channels 3 and 7. Between 5 am to 2 am daily, FM 107 features some surprisingly good music programmes with British, Thai and American disc jockeys.
Chulalongkorn University broadcasts classical music at FM 101.5 MHz from 9.30 to 11.30 pm nightly. A schedule of the evening's programmes can be found in the Nation and Bangkok Post newspapers. The Voice of America, BBC World Service, Radio Canada and Radio Australia all have English and Thai-language broadcasts over short-wave radio. The radio frequencies and schedules, which change hourly, also appear in the Post and the Nation.
There are five television networks in Bangkok. Channel 9 is the national public television station and broadcasts from 6 a.m. until midnight. Channel 3 is privately owned and is on the air from 4 pm until midnight. Channel 5 is a military network (the only one to operate during coups) and broadcasts from 4 pm to midnight. Channel 7 is military-owned but broadcast time is leased to private companies; hours of operation are from 4 pm to midnight. Channel 11 is run by the Ministry of Education and features educational programmes from 5.30 am until midnight, including TV correspondence classes from Ramkhamhaeng and Sukhothai Thammathirat Open Universities.
Upcountry cities will generally receive only two networks, Channel 9 and a local private network with restricted hours.
Thailand - Money
<a href="http://www.bangkokbank.com/nr/bangkokbankwebapps/webapp%20currency%20exchange2/user_fxrate.asp?print=bbl" mce_href="http://www.bangkokbank.com/nr/bangkokbankwebapps/webapp%20currency%20exchange2/user_fxrate.asp?print=bbl">Exchange Rates for Thai Baht</a>
There are 100 satang in 1 Baht; coins include 25 satang and 50 satang pieces and Baht in 1, 5 and 10 Baht coins. Older coins exhibit Thai numerals only, while newer coins have Thai and Roman numerals. At this writing, 1 Baht coins come in three sizes: only the middle size works in public pay phones! Likewise, 5 Baht coins also come in three sizes, a large one with a Thai numeral only and two smaller coins that have Thai and Roman numerals (one of the smaller 5 Baht coins has nine inset edges along the circumference). Eventually Thailand will be phasing out the older coins, but in the meantime it's confusing when trying to count out change.
Paper currency comes in denominations of 10 Baht (brown) (rarely seen), 20 Baht (green), 50 Baht (blue), 100 Baht (red), 500 Baht (purple) and 1000 Baht (brown) denominations. Fortunately for newcomers to Thailand, numerals are printed in their western as well as Thai forms. Notes are also scaled according to the amount, the larger the denomination the larger the note. Large denominations like 500 Baht and 1000 Baht bills can be hard to change in small towns, but banks will always change them.
Twenty-five satang equals one 'saleng' in colloquial Thai, so if you're quoted a price of six saleng in the market, say, for a small bunch of bananas or a bag of peanuts, this means 1½ Baht.
There is no black market money exchange for Baht, so there is no reason to bring in any Thai currency. Banks or legal moneychangers offer the best exchange rate within the country. The Baht is firmly attached to the American dollar and is as stable.
Exchange rates are given in the Bangkok Post everyday. For buying Baht, US dollars are the most readily acceptable currency and travellers' cheques get better rates than cash. Since banks charge 8 Baht commission and duty for each travellers cheque cashed, you will save on commissions if you use larger cheque denominations (a US$50 cheque will only cost 8 Baht while five US$10 cheques will cost 40 Baht). Note that you can't exchange Indonesian rupiah or Nepalese rupees into Thai currency. Bangkok is a good place to buy Indian and Nepalese rupees, however, as well as Burmese kyat, if you're going to any of these countries. Rates are comparable with black market rates in each of these countries.
Visa credit card holders can get cash advances of up to US$200 per day through some branches of the Thai Farmers Bank and some Thai Commercial Banks (and also at the night-time exchange windows in tourist-spots like Banglamphu, Chiang Mai and Ko Samui). If you try to use a Visa card (very common in the south, even at the smaller hotels) at upcountry hotels, the staff may try to tell you that only Visa cards issued by the Thai Fanners Bank are acceptable. With a little patience, you should be able to make them understand that the Thai Farmers Bank will pay the hotel and that your bank will pay the Thai Farmers Bank - that any Visa card issued anywhere in the world is indeed acceptable.
American Express cardholders can also get advances, but only in travellers' cheques. The Amex agent is SEA Tours, Suite 414, Siam Center, 965 Rama I Road, Bangkok. Many shops and hotels that take Visa also accept MasterCard. A few hotels will charge an extra 3% for using credit cards.
Travellers can rent safety deposit boxes at the Safety Deposit Centre, 3rd floor, Chan Issara Tower, 942/8 1 Rama IV Road (near the Silom Road intersection), Bangkok, for 150 Baht a month plus 2,000 Baht refundable key deposit. Open from 10 am to 7 pm, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 6 pm Saturday, Sunday and public holidays. A few banks will rent safety deposit boxes as well, but generally you need to open an account with them first.
Legally any traveller arriving in Thailand must have at least the following amounts of money in cash, travellers' cheques, bank draft, or letter of credit, according to visa category
- Non-immigrant visa: US$500 per person or US$1000 per family
- Tourist visa: US$250 per person or US$500 per family
- Transit visa or no visa: US$125 per person or US$250 per family
This may be checked if you arrive on a one-way ticket or if you look as if you're at 'the end of the road'.
There are also limits on the maximum amounts of Thai currency you may bring in or take out of the country without special authorisation. No more than 2000 Baht per person or 4000 Baht per family is to be brought into the country and no more than 500 Baht per person or 1000 Baht per family is to be taken out.
Although there are no limits on the amount of foreign (non-Thai) currency that can be brought into the country, anything over US$10,000 or its equivalent in another currency must be declared to Customs on arrival in Thailand. A failure to declare the excess can result in confiscation.
It's legal to open a foreign currency account at any commercial bank in Thailand. As long as the funds originate from abroad, there are no restrictions on maintenance or withdrawal of the funds.
Thailand - National Parks
Despite Thailand's rich diversity of flora and fauna, it has only been in recent years that most of the 53 national parks have been established. The majority of the parks are well maintained by the Forestry Department, but a few have allowed rampant tourism growth to threaten the natural environment, most notably on the islands of Ko Samet and Ko Phi Phi. In 1989, all logging was banned in Thailand so that it is now illegal to sell timber felled in the country - this should help to curb illegal logging operations in the interior.
A number of national parks are easily accessible for visitors. There is usually somewhere to stay, and sometimes meals are provided, but it's a good idea to take your own sleeping bag or mat, and basic camping gear is useful if there is not much accommodation. You should also take a torch (flashlight), rain gear, insect repellent, a water container and a small medical kit.
Most parks charge a small fee to visit. Advance bookings for accommodation are advisable at the more popular parks, especially on holidays and weekends. Most national park bungalows are around 500 to 1000 Baht a night (unless otherwise noted) depending on size, but will sleep five to ten people. A few parks also have reuan thaew, or long-houses, where rooms are around 150 to 200 Baht for two. Some have tents for rent for 50 to 60 Baht a night. Finally, if you bring your own tent it's only 5 Baht per person - almost every park has at least one camping area.
In Bangkok the reservations office is at the National Parks Division of the Forestry Department, (tel. 0 2579 4842, 0 2579 0529), Phahonyothin Road, Bang Khen, (north from Siam Square). Bookings from Bangkok must be paid in advance.
Below are some remarks on twenty of the more notable national parks.
This is the oldest national park in Thailand and one of the world's best, covering 2,168 square km. It has some of Asia's largest remaining areas of rainforest and is rich in wildlife, with elephants, tigers, deer, gibbons and other large mammals. There are over 500 km of hiking trails and visitors' facilities are very good.
Accommodation can be arranged with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, but may be expensive. Forestry bungalows (there are 19) are 500 to 1,000 Baht and there are camping areas. The coolest months are December and January.
The park is 205 km northeast of Bangkok.
Take a bus to Pak Chong from the Northern Bus Terminal (or a train from Bangkok (Hua Lampong) station). From Pak Chong a large truck with seats in the back leaves at 12.00 midday on weekdays, 10.30 a.m. on weekends (15 Baht).
Erawan, Sal Yok & Sinakharin
These three parks form one main complex, northwest of Kanchanaburi. Large mammals and many birds can be found in this region. There are Forestry bungalows at all the parks, as well as a range of private accommodation. The best time to visit is from November to February.
Erawan is best known for its waterfall and the spectacular Phrathat Cave. Buses run daily from Kanchanaburi to the market near the park. From there it's two km - hire a minibus, hitch or walk. Try to avoid weekends.
Sinakharin is also noted for its waterfall. To reach the park, continue on the dirt road north from the Erawan headquarters, or hire a boat at Tha Kradan 24 km past the junction to Sinakharin Dam, for a 1½-hour ride.
Sai Yok is between Erawan and the Burmese border. It has the world's smallest mammal - a bat weighing just two grams, discovered in 1973.
From Kanchanaburi, daily buses going north on Highway 323 pass the park entrance and from there it is about one km.
Khao Chamao-Khao Wong
This park of only 83 square km has an abundance of wildlife for which it is a refuge from the habitat destruction caused by the forestry industry in surrounding areas.
From Rayong, take a minibus to Ban Khao Din, where minibuses to the park are available. The best time is from November to February. There are seven bungalows and camping areas in the park.
Khao Sam Roi Yot
This offers a large variety of easily accessible attractions. It is on the east coast, north of Prachuap Khiri Khan and consists of a series of striking limestone hills rising from the sea.
Wildlife includes the serow, a goat-antelope that lives on the limestone crags, and monkeys, porcupines and leopards.
From Bangkok take a bus to Pranburi, from there you can hitch a ride; trucks go the 35 km to the park headquarters several times daily. The best time to go is from November to February. There are five bungalows and camping areas.
Doi Suthep - Pui
Doi Suthep-Pui only became a national park in 1981. In spite of the heavy human use that has displaced the larger animals, some trails off the side of the road to the summit offer pleasant walking after a visit to the famous Wat Phrathat.
Doi Inthanon is Thailand's highest mountain (2565 metres). Off the new 47-km road to the summit there are many trails to explore and several impressive waterfalls.
From Chiang Mai take a minibus to Chom Tong, then a songthaew. Ask for Doi Inthanon and say you want to get off at km 31. From the park headquarters there is plenty of traffic for hitching. There are five bungalows and camping areas. Accommodation is also available in hill-tribe villages.
In this seldom visited park, the trail to the summit of Doi Khuntan (1273 metres) offers great views and a good chance of seeing large mammals, including black bear, serow, tiger and sambar.
The only access is by the Chiang Mai to Lamphun train to Khuntan station (one to two hours); the train makes only a quick stop, so be careful not to miss it (watch for the tunnel near the station). Weekdays are the best time to go; try to arrive by noon to reach the bungalows (2½ km above the headquarters) before dark. There are eleven bungalows ranging from 200 to l200 Baht. The best time to go is from November to February.
The mountains here are famous as the birthplace of the Thai nation over 700 years ago.
One notable animal seen here is the scaly pangolin, a strange anteater the size of a small dog. Plan to spend at least two days here and camp on the summit of Khao Luang.
From Sukhothai take a bus to Kamphaeng Phet and get off after 22km at a police post opposite a hospital sign. From there it's 16 km by unsealed road to the park; hitching is usually the best way to reach the headquarters. The best time to go is from November to February.
Thung Salaeng Luang
This is Thailand's third largest park (1262 square km), spread across parts of Phitsanulok and Phetchabun provinces. The topography here is characterised by rugged mountains and grassy valleys and is said to be a habitat for wild elephants, tigers, boars, deer, and various large birds.
The park is about 50km from Lom Sak off the Lom Sak to Phetchabun highway. There are four bungalows, long-houses and tents for rent.
This small park (104 square km) in Tak Province is a popular local recreation spot, with a large hill-tribe centre on the west side.
Several trails meander to waterfalls. It's a pleasant stopover along the Bangkok to Chiang Mai highway.
From Chiang Mai get out at Tak and take a bus for Mae Sot; the park headquarters is reached after 18 km. The best time to go is November to January. There is one bungalow and a camping area.
One of Thailand's most beautiful and valuable parks; covering nearly 1000 square km in Chaiyaphum and Phetchabun provinces. Rumours of rhinoceros persist (last seen 1971) and the bizarre fur-coated Sumatran rhinoceros may survive here.
From Sukhothai take a bus to Chum Phae; the park headquarters is 55 km from Lom Sak. Daily buses run through the park from Lom Sak or Khon Kaen. The best time to go is from November to February. There are nine bungalows and camping areas.
Phu Kradung is a bell-shaped mountain in the northeastern province of Loei about 1500 metres above sea level. The top of the mountain is a large plateau with a network of marked trails and government-owned cabins. The weather is always cool on top hence the flora is more like what you see in temperate zones.
The park is best visited between mid-October and mid-June, before the rains set in and flood the trails. Phu Kradung also should be avoided during school vacations unless you like crowds.
There are daily buses from Loei for the 75 km trip to Phu Kradung.
Kaeng Krachan is Thailand's largest national park, spreading over 2900 square km or nearly half of Phetburi Province. In addition to semi-tropical rainforest you'll also find areas of savannah-like grasslands, mountains, steep cliffs, caves, waterfalls, long-distance hiking trails and two rivers, the Phetburi and the Pranburi, which are suitable for rafting. The large reservoir above the Kaeng Krachan Dam is stocked with fish.
Animals living in Kaeng Krachan include wild elephants, deer, tigers, bears, boars, gaurs and wild cattle.
Kaeng Krachan is about 60 km from Phetburi off Route 3175. The Route 3175 turn-off is at Tha Yang on Highway 4.
There is no regular transport to the park, but you can hitch or charter a pick-up. There are six bungalows for 600 to 700 Baht, a camping area, and a private floating resort. The park is best seen from November to June.
Thailand's southernmost park (101 square km) borders Malaysia. The beautiful, unspoilt forests support a great variety of wildlife and there are good trails too.
The park headquarters is only two km from the border. It is about 90 km south of Hat Yai; coming from Malaysia it's about 75 km from Alor Star. The best time to go is from December to March. There are ten bungalows.
The 51 islands off the southwest coast offer beaches, coral reefs and rainforest. Turtles nest on Ko Adang from around September to December. The park headquarters on Ko Tarutao includes an outdoor museum, an aquarium and turtle-rearing ponds. There is a store selling basics, and snorkeling gear can be hired.
Share taxis run from Hat Yai to the pier at Pak Bara. The best time is from November to April.
Hat Nai Yang
This is a marine park protecting the northwest portion of Phuket Island. Turtles nest here from around November to February. There are facilities for day visitors; bring your own snorkelling gear if you can.
The park headquarters is 1½ km from Phuket Airport. From Phuket Town minibuses can be hired at the central market for the 32-km ride to Hat Nai Yang. There are several bungalows and tents for rent. The best time to go is from September to December.
Khao Sok is a 646-square-km park in Surat Tham Province that features thick rainforest, waterfalls, limestone cliffs and a lake formed by the Chiaw Lan Dam.
The park is located 1½ km off Route 401 between Takua Pa and Surat Thani at km 109.
There is a camping area and private bungalows.
The forested limestone pillars of Ao Phang-Nga, made famous by the James Bond film Man with the Golden Gun are the major attraction. The park is 96 km from Phuket Town and nine km from Phang-Nga Town where a minibus can be hired at the market. Alternatively, organise a day tour from Phuket. There are no bungalows but camping is allowed. This park is best seen early in the morning before the hordes of package tour boats start arriving from Phuket.
Khao Laem Ya - Mu Ko Samet
Officially declared a national park in 1981, the Ko Samet group and Laem Ya have only recently had a park headquarters installed (1985). The main islands of the Ko Samet group are Samet, Chan, Makham, Kruai, Plai Tin, Kut and Thalu. Laem Ya is opposite Samet on the mainland, southwest of Ban Phe. There are many places to stay along the mainland sections of the park, as well as on Ko Samet, while the other islands may be visited on day trips from Ko Samet. Admission to the National Park is 5 Baht. Unfortunately, Ko Samet itself is beginning to suffer as growth on this island continues unchecked.
Noppharat Thara - Phi Phi
This park consists of several islands in offshore Krabi Province along with a long stretch of beaches from Noppharat Thara to Phranang. There is good snorkeling and beachcombing. There are five national parks' bungalows, camping areas, and many private bungalows. Ko Phi Phi, one of Thailand's most beautiful islands, is a bit overcrowded.
Thailand - Population
The population of Thailand is about 53 million and currently growing at a rate of 1.5% per annum (as opposed to 3% twenty years ago and 2.5% in 1979), thanks to Khun Mechai's nationwide family planning campaign. This does not include the recent influx of Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. About 75% of the citizenry are ethnic Thais, 14% are Chinese, and the remaining 11% include Malays, the Yumbri (Mrabri), Semang, Moken ('sea gypsies'), Lawa, Kui, Karen, Meo, Yao, Akha, Lahu, Lisu tribes (the latter six are the true hill tribes; for more information see the Hill Tribe section of the North chapter), Khmers and Mona. A small number of Europeans and other non-Asians live in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
The literacy rate of Thailand is approximately 85% and increasing, and the average life expectancy is 61. In both respects Thailand is a leader in the region. Thailand as a whole has a relatively youthful population; only about 12% are older than 50.
Bangkok is by far the largest city in the kingdom, with a population of nearly six million (over 10% of the total population) - too many for the scope of its public services and what little 'city planning' exists. Khorat (Nakhon Ratchasima) is the second largest city but does not have nearly such a big population - just over 200,000. Third is Chiang Mai with a population of around 150,000. All other towns in Thailand have well below 100,000, with few over 40,000.
Thailand - Postal Rates
Thailand - Religion
About 95% of the Thai citizenry are Theravada Buddhists. The Thais themselves frequently call their religion Lankavamsa (Singhalese lineage) Buddhism because Siam originally received Buddhism during the Sukhothai Period from Sri Lanka. Strictly speaking, Theravada refers to only the earliest forms of Buddhism practised during the Ashokan and immediate post-Ashokan periods in South Asia. The early Dvaravati and pre-Dvaravati forms of Buddhism are not the same as that which has existed in Siamese territories since the 13th century.
Since the Sukhothai Period Thailand has maintained an unbroken canonical tradition and 'pure' ordination lineage, the only country among the Theravadin (using Theravada in its doctrinal sense) countries to do so. Ironically, when the ordination lineage in Sri Lanka broke down during the 18th century under Dutch persecution, it was Siam that restored the Sangha (Buddhist brotherhood) there. To this day the major sect in Sri Lanka is called Siamopalivamsa (Siam-Upali lineage, Upali being the name of the Siamese monk who led the expedition to Ceylon), or simply Siam Nikaya (the Siamese sect).
Basically, the Theravada school of Buddhism is an earlier and, according to its followers, less corrupted form of Buddhism than the Mahayana schools found in East Asia or in the Himalayan lands. The Theravada (teaching of the elders) school is also called the 'southern' school since it took the southern route from India, its place of origin, through South-East Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia in this case), while the 'northern' school proceeded north into Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia, Vietnam and Japan. Because the Theravada school tried to preserve or limit the Buddhist doctrines to only those canons codified in the early Buddhist era, the Mahayana school gave Theravada Buddhism the name Hinayana, or the 'lesser vehicle'. They considered themselves Mahayana, the 'great vehicle', because they built upon the earlier teachings, 'expanding' the doctrine in such a way as to respond more to the needs of lay people, or so it is claimed.
Theravada or Hinayana doctrine stresses the three principal aspects of existence:
- Dukkha (suffering, un-satisfactoriness, disease)
- Anicca (impermanence, transience of all things)
- Anatta (non-substantiality or non-essentiality of reality - no permanent 'soul')
These concepts, when 'discovered' by Siddhartha Gautama in the 6th century BC, were in direct contrast to the Hindu belief in an eternal, blissful Self or Paramatman, hence Buddhism was originally a 'heresy' against India's Brahmanic religion.
Gautama, an Indian prince-turned-ascetic, subjected himself to many years of severe austerities to arrive at this vision of the world and was given the title Buddha, 'the enlightened' or 'the awakened'. Gautama Buddha spoke of four noble truths that had the power to liberate any human being who could realise them. These four noble truths are:
- The truth of suffering - 'Existence is suffering'.
- The truth of the cause of suffering - 'Suffering is caused by desire'.
- The truth of the cessation of suffering - 'Eliminate the cause of suffering (desire) and suffering will cease to arise'.
- The truth of the path - 'The eight-fold path is the way to eliminate desire/extinguish suffering'.
The Eightfold Path (atthangika-magga), which if followed will put an end to suffering, consists of:
- Right understanding.
- Right mindedness (or 'right thought').
- Right speech.
- Right bodily conduct.
- Right livelihood.
- Right effort.
- Right attentiveness.
- Right concentration.
These eight limbs belong to three different 'pillars' of practice: morality or sila (3 to 5); concentration or samadhi (7 and 8); and wisdom or panna (1 and 2). Some Buddhists believe the path - called the Middle Way, since ideally it avoids both extreme austerity and extreme sensuality - is to be taken in successive stages, while others say the pillars and/or limbs are interdependent.
The ultimate end of Theravada Buddhism is nibbana (Sanskrit: nirvana), which literally means the extinction of all desire and thus of all suffering (dukkha). Effectively it is an end, not only to suffering and action (karma), but also to the cycle of rebirths that is existence. In reality, most Thai Buddhists aim for rebirth in a 'better' existence rather than the supramundane goal of nibbana, which is highly misunderstood by Asians as well as westerners.
Many Thais express the feeling that they are somehow unworthy of nibbana. By feeding monks, giving donations to temples and performing regular worship at the local wat (temple) they hope to improve their lot, acquiring enough merit (Pali pufina; Thai bun) to prevent or at least lessen the number of rebirths. The making of merit (tham bun) is an important social and religious activity in Thailand. The concept of reincarnation is almost universally accepted in Thailand, even by non-Buddhists, and the Buddhist theory of karma is well-expressed in the Thai proverb tham dii, dai dii; tham chua, dai chua - 'do good and receive good; do evil and receive evil'.
The Triratna, or Triple Gems, highly respected by Thai Buddhists, include the Buddha, the Dhamma (the teachings) and the Sangha (the Buddhist brotherhood). Each is quite visible in Thailand. The Buddha, in his myriad and omnipresent sculptural forms, is found on a high shelf in the lowliest roadside restaurants as well as in the lounges of expensive Bangkok hotels. The Dhamma is chanted morning and evening in every wat and taught to every Thai citizen in primary school. The Sangha is seen everywhere in the presence of orange-robed monks, especially in the early morning hours when they perform their alms-rounds, in what has almost become a travel-guide cliché in motion. Socially, every Thai male is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and the time he starts a career or marries. Men or boys under 20 years of age may enter the Sangha as novices - this is not unusual since a family earns great merit when one of its sons takes robe and bowl. Traditionally the length of time spent in the wat is three months, during the Buddhist lent (phansaa) which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season. However, nowadays men may spend as little as a week or 15 days to accrue merit as monks. There are about 32,000 monasteries in Thailand and 200,000 monks, many of these monks ordain for a lifetime. Of these a large percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialise in healing and/or folk magic.
The Sangha is divided into two sects, the Mahanikai and the Thammayut. The latter is a minority sect (one Tharnmayut to 35 Mahanikai) begun by King Mongkut and patterned after an early Mon form of monastic discipline that he had practised as a monk (bhikkhu). Generally, discipline for Thammayut monks is stricter. For example, they eat only once a day, before midday and must eat only what is in their alms-bowls, whereas Mahanikais eat twice before noon and may accept side dishes. Thammayut monks are expected to attain proficiency in meditation as well as Buddhist scholarship or scripture study; the Mahanikai monks typically 'specialise' in one or the other.
An increasing number of foreigners come to Thailand to be ordained as Buddhist monks, especially to study with the famed meditation masters of the forest wats in northeast Thailand (see Meditation Study).
There is a Buddhist bookshop selling English-language books across the street from the north entrance to Wat Bovornives in Bangkok.
If you wish to find out more about Buddhism you can contact the World Fellowship of Buddhists (tel. 0 2251 1188), 33 Sukhumvit Road (between Soi 1 and Soi 3). There's an English meditation class on Wednesday evenings; all are welcome.
Recommended books about Buddhism in Thailand include the following titles:
- Buddhism in Transition by Donald K Swearer, the Westminster Press, 1970 (Philadelphia)
- Buddhism in the Modern World edited by Heinrich Durnoulin, MacMillan Publishing, 1976 (New York)
- Buddhism, Imperialism, and War by Trevor Ling, D. Reidel Publishing, 1980 (Dordrecht)
- World Conqueror and World Renouncer by Stanley Tarnbiah, Cambridge University Press, 1976 (Cambridge)
- Living Buddhist Masters by Jack Kornfield, Buddhist Publication Society, 1989 (Kandy)
- Buddhism Explained by Phra Khantipalo, Mahamakut Rajavidyalaya Press, 1973 (Bangkok)
- Buddhism in Thailand: Its Past and Present by K. Kusalasaya, Buddhist Publication Society, 1965 (Kandy)
General books about Buddhism include:
- What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula, Motilal Banarsidass, 1971 (Delhi)
- The Central Conception of Buddhism by Th Stcherbatsky, Motilal Banarsidass, 1974 (Delhi)
- Buddhist Dictionary by Mahathera Nyanatioka, Island Hermitage Publications, 1950 (Dodanduwa)
Thailand has long been a popular place for Western students of Buddhism, particularly those interested in a system of meditation known as vipassana (wi-pat-sa-naa), a Pali word which roughly translated means 'insight'. Foreigners who come to Thailand to study vipassana can choose among dozens of temples and study centres which specialise in these teachings. Teaching methods vary from place to place but the general emphasis is on learning to observe mind-body processes from moment-to-moment. Thai language is usually the medium of instruction but several places also provide instruction in English.
Information on some of the more popular meditation-oriented temples and centres is given in the relevant sections. Instruction and accommodation are free of charge at temples, though donations are expected. Short-term students will find that two-month tourist visas are ample for most courses of study. Long-term students may want to consider a three or six-month non-immigrant visa. A few westerners are ordained as monks in order to take full advantage of the monastic environment. Monks are generally (but not always) allowed to stay in Thailand as long as they remain in robes. For a detailed look at vipassana study in Thailand, including visa and ordination procedures, read Guide to the Meditation Temples of Thailand (Wayfarer Books, P0 Box 5927, Concord, California 94524, USA).
A small percentage of Thais and most of the Malays in the south, amounting to about 4% of the total population, are followers of Islam. Confucianists, Taoists, Mahayana Buddhists, Christians and Hindus make up approximately 1% of the population. Muslim mosques (in the south) and Chinese temples are both common enough that you will probably come across some in your travels in Thailand. Before entering any temple, sanctuary or mosque you must remove your shoes, and in a mosque your head must be covered.
Thailand - Things To Buy
Things to buy
There are a lot of good bargains awaiting you in Thailand if you have the space to carry them back. Always haggle to get the best price, except in department stores.
Fabric is possibly the best all-round buy in Thailand. Thai silk is considered the best in the world and can be purchased cheaply in the northeast where it is made or, more easily, in Bangkok. Excellent and reasonably priced tailor shops can make your choice of fabric into almost any pattern. A silk suit should cost around 2,500 to 4,000 Baht.
Cottons are also a good deal - common items like the phaakhamaa, which is reputed to have over a hundred uses in Thailand and the phaasin, the slightly larger female equivalent, make great tablecloths and curtains. Good ready-made cotton shirts are available, such as the maw hawm or Thai work shirt and the kuay haeng (Chinese-style shirt).
In recent years, cotton weaving has become very popular in the northeast and there are fabulous finds in Nong Khai, Roi Et, Khon Kaen and Mahasarakham. The mawn khwan, a hard, triangle-shaped pillow made in the northeast, makes a good souvenir and comes in many sizes. The northeast is also famous for its mat-mii cloth, thick cotton fabric woven from tie-dyed threads.
Fairly nice batik (pa-re) is available in the south in patterns that are more similar to batik found in Malaysia than in Indonesia.
Thai shoulder bags are generally quite well made. The yaam comes in many varieties, some woven by hill tribes, others by Thai cottage industry. The best are made by the Lahu hill-tribes, whom the Thais call 'Musoe'. The weaving is more skilful and the bags tend to last longer than those made by other tribes. For an extra large size yaam, the Karen-made bag is a good choice - easy to find in the Mae Hong Son area.
Overall, Chiang Mai has the best selection of standard shoulder bags, but Bangkok has the best prices - try the Indian district, Pahurat, for these as well as anything else made of cloth. Roi-Et and Mahasarakham in the northeast are also good hunting grounds for locally made shoulder bags. Prices range from 45 Baht for a cheaply made bag to 100 Baht for something special.
Real antiques cannot be taken out of Thailand without a permit from the Department of Fine Arts. No Buddha image, new or old, may be exported without permission - refer to Fine Arts again, or, in some cases, the Department of Religious Affairs, under the Ministry of Education. Too many private collectors smuggling and hoarding Siamese art (Buddha images in particular) around the world have led to strict controls. See Customs for more information on the export of art objects and antiques.
Chinese and Thai antiques are sold in Chinatown in an area called Wang Burapha - the streets with Chinese 'gates' over the entrance. Some antiques (and many fakes) are sold at the Weekend Market, Chatuchak Park. Objects for sale in the tourist antique shops are fantastically overpriced, as can be expected.
Thailand is one of the world's largest exporters of gems and ornaments, rivalled only by India and Sri Lanka. The biggest importers of Thai jewellery are the US, Japan and Switzerland. One of the results of the remarkable growth of the gem industry - in Thailand the gem trade has increased nearly 10% every year for the last decade - is that the prices are rising rapidly.
If you know what you are doing you can make some really good buys in both unset gems and finished jewellery. Gold ornaments are sold at a good rate, as labour costs are low. The best bargains in gems are jade, rubies and sapphires. Buy from reputable dealers only, unless you're a gemologist. Be wary of special 'deals' that are one-day only or which set you up as a 'courier' in which you're promised big money. Many travellers end up losing big. Shop around and don't be hasty.
The biggest gem centres are Kanchanaburi, Mae Sot and Chantaburi - these areas are where the Bangkok dealers go to buy their stones. The Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences (tel. 0 2233 8388), 4th Floor Rama Jewelry Building, 987 Silom Road, Bangkok, offers short-term courses in gemology as well as tours of gem mines for those interested.
Interesting embroidery, clothing, bags and jewellery from the north can be bought in Bangkok at Narayan Phand, Lan Luang Road, at the Queen's Hill crafts Foundation, in the Sapatum Palace compound behind the Siam Centre, and at various tourist shops around town.
The International School of Bangkok, on Soi Ruam Chai (Soi 15) off Sukhumvit Road, has regular hill-tribe craft sales, often featuring good selections, and the prices are good. These are usually held once a month but check with the school to find out the latest schedule.
In Chiang Mai there are shops selling handicrafts all along Thapae Road and there is a shop sponsored by missionaries near Prince Royal College. There is a branch of the Queen's Hill crafts Foundation in Chiang Rai. It is worthwhile to shop around for the best prices and bargain. The all-round best buys on northern hill-tribe crafts are at the Chiang Mai night bazaar.
Thailand produces some good Burmese-style lacquer ware and sells some of the Burmese stuff itself, along the northern Burmese border. Try Mae Sot, Mae Sariang and Mae Sal for the best buys.
Fake or Pirated Goods
In Bangkok, Chiang Mai and all the various tourist centres, there is black market street trade in fake designer goods; particularly Lacoste (crocodile) and Ralph Lauren polo shirts and Rolex, Dunhill and Cartier watches. No one pretends they're the real things, at least not the vendors themselves. The European manufacturers are applying heavy pressure to the Asian governments involved to get this stuff off the street so it may not be around much longer.
Pre-recorded cassette tapes are another slightly illegal bargain in Thailand. The tapes are 'pirated', that is, no royalties are paid to the copyright owners. Average price is 30 to 35 Baht per cassette. Word has it that these will soon disappear from the streets, too, under pressure from the US music industry.
Bangkok is famous the world over for its street markets - Pratunam, Chatuchak Park, Khlong Toey, Sampheng (Chinatown), Banglamphu and many more - where you'll find things you never imagined you wanted but once you see can't do without. Even if you don't want to spend any money, they're great places to wander around.
For top-end shopping, the two main centres in Bangkok are the area around the Oriental Hotel off Charoen Krung (New) Road and the relatively new River City shopping complex on the river next to the Royal Orchid Sheraton Hotel. Thailand's two big department store chains, Robinson and Central, have several branches in Bangkok as well as in the larger towns.
Thailand - Tipping
Tipping is not a normal practice in Thailand, although they're getting used to it in expensive hotels and restaurants. Elsewhere don't bother. In taxis where you have to bargain the fare, it certainly isn't necessary.
Thailand - Tourist Information
The Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) has several offices within the country and others overseas.
Local Tourist Offices
- 4 Ratchadamnoen Nok Avenue, Bangkok 10100 (tel. 0 2282 1143-7)
- Chiang Mai
- 135 Praisani Road, Chiang Mai 50000 (tel. 0 5323 5334)
- Hat Yai/Songkhla
- 1/1 Soi 2, Niphat Uthit 3 Road, Hat Yai 90110 (tel. 0 7424 3747, 0 7424 5986)
- Saengchuto Road, Kanchanaburi 71000 (tel. 0 3451 1200)
- Khorat (Nakhon Ratchasima)
- 2102-2104 Mittaphap Road, Nakhon Ratchasima 30000 (tel. 0 4424 3427)
- 38211 Chai Hat Road, Pattaya Beach, Chonburi 20260 (tel. 0 3842 8750)
- 20917-8 Surasi Trade Center, Boromtrailokanat Road, Phitsanulok 65000 (tel. 0 5525 2742)
- 73-75 Phuket Road, Phuket 83000 (tel. 0 7621 2213)
- Surat Thani
- 5 Talat Mai Road, Ban Don, Surat Thani 84000 (tel. 0 7728 2828)
- 12th Floor, Exchange Building, 56 Pitt Street, Sydney NSW 2000 (tel. 277540/9)
- Office National de Tourisme de Thailande, 90 Ave des Champs Elysees, 75008 Paris, France (tel. 4562-8656)
- Hong Kong
- Room 401, Fairmont House, 8 Cotton Tree Drive, Central, Hong Kong (tel. 5-868-0732)
- Hibiya Mitsui Building, 1-2 Yurakucho 1-chome, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100 (tel. (03) 580-6776)
- C/o Royal Thai Embassy, 370 Orchard Road 0923 (tel. 2357694)
- 9 Stafford Court, London WIX 3FE (tel. (01) 499 7670/9)
- 5 World Trade Center, Suite 2449, New York, NY 10048 (tel. (212) 432-0433)
- 3440 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 1101, Lot Angeles, California, 90010 (tel. (213) 382-2353)
- West Germany
- 4th floor Bethmann Strasse, 58/IV D-6000 Frankfurt/M1 (tel. (069) 295704/804)
Thailand - Transport Air
Transport - Air
Domestic air services in Thailand axe now operated by Thai Airways International (THAI) (there is no longer a separate Thai Airways for domestic flights) and cover 23 airports throughout Thailand. On certain southern routes, domestic flights through Hat Yai continue on to Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bandar Sen Begawan.
THAI operate Boeing 737s on all their main domestic routes, but they also have Avro 748s on some smaller routes and to the more remote locations, particularly in the north and northeast, there are small Shorts 330s and 360s. Some of the fares to these remote locations are subsidised.
The accompanying chart shows some of the fares on more popular routes. Where routes are operated by 737s and by Avro 748s or Shorts 330s and 360s the 737 fares will be higher. Note that through fares are generally less than the combination fares - Chiang Rai to Bangkok, for example, is less than the addition of Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai and Chiang Mai to Bangkok fares. This does not always apply to international fares however. It's much cheaper to fly from Bangkok to Penang via Phuket or Hat Yai than direct, for example.
THAI no longer has a run between Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani although there are fights between Khorat and Khon Kaen.
- Head Office, 89 Vibhavadi Rangsit Road (tel. 0 2513 0121)
- 485 Silom Road (tel. 0 2234 3100, 0 2233 3810 for reservations)
- 6 Lam Luang Road (tel. 0 2288 0090, 0 2280 0070-80 for reservations)
- Bangkok International Airport, Don Muang (tel. 0 2523 8271-3, 0 2523 6121)
- 45 Anuwong Road, Yaowarat (tel. 0 2224 9602-8)
- Asia Hotel, 296 Phayathai Road (tel. 0 2215 2020-1)
- 4th floor, Charn Issara Tower (tel. 0 2236 7884-5)
- Chiang Mai
- 240 Prapokklao Road (tel. 0 5321 1541, 0 5321 1420, 0 5321 1044-7)
- 183/3 Changklan Road (tel. 0 5323 4150, 0 5323 5462, 0 5323 3559-60)
- Chiang Rai
- 870 Phahonyothin Road (tel. 0 5471 1179, 0 5471 3663)
- Hat Yai
- 166/4 Niphat Utit 2 Road (tel. 0 7424 5851, 0 7424 6165, 0 7424 3711, 0 7423 3433)
- 190/6 Niphat Uthit 2 Road (tel. 0 7423 1272, 0 7423 2392)
- Khon Kaen
- 183/6 Maliwan Road (tel. 0 4323 6523, 0 4323 9011, 0 4323 8835)
- 314 Sanainbin Road (tel. 0 5421 7078, 0 5421 8199)
- 191/1 Chamenrat Road (tel. 0 4281 2344, 0 4281 2355)
- Mae Hong Son
- 71 Singhanatbamnrng Road (tel. 0 5361 1297, 0 5361 1194)
- Mae Sot
- 76/1 Prasatwitthi Road (tel. 0 5553 1730, 0 5353 1440)
- Nakhon Ratchasima
- 14 Manat Road (tel. 0 4425 7211-5)
- Nakhon Si Thammarat
- 1612 Ratchadamnoen Road (tel. 0 7534 2491)
- 34 Mahaprom Road (tel. 710377, 710498)
- 324-326 Phuphaphakdi Road (tel. 0 7351 1161, 0 7351 2178)
- Nong Khai
- 453 Prachak Road (tel. 0 4241 1530)
- 9 Preeda Road (tel. 0 7334 9149)
- Royal Cliff Beach Hotel (tel. 0 3841 9286-7)
- 209/26-28 Bromtrailokanat Road (tel. 0 5525 8020, 0 5525 1671)
- 42-44 Rasdamnem Road (tel. 0 5451 1123)
- 78 Ranong Road (tel. 0 7621 1195, 0 7621 2499, 0 7621 2946)
- 41/33 Month Road (tel. 0 7621 2400, 0 7621 2644, 0 7621 2880)
- Sakon Nakhon
- 1446/73 Yuwapattana Road (tel. 0 4271 2259)
- 2 Soi 4 Saibun Road (tel. 0 7431 1012)
- Surat Thani
- 3/27-28 Karoonrat Road (tel. 273710, 273355)
- 31/1 Viseskul Road (tel. 0 7521 8066)
- 929/9 Chayanggoon Road (tel. 0 4525 4431, 0 4525 5894)
- 60 Makkang Road (tel. 221004, 243222)
In early 1986, a privately owned domestic airline began operations in indirect competition with THAI. The newcomer was Bangkok Airways and they had four daily flights along the Bangkok to Khorat and Bangkok to Surin routes, along with occasional flights between Bangkok and Krabi. Eventually, they had plans to fly between Bangkok and Ko Samui when the Samui Airport was completed. Within a year, however, all Bangkok Airways flights were suspended due to political friction with THAI, the government carrier. Then in January 1989 Sahakol Air, owners of Bangkok Airways, announced it would resume flights in April of that year, this time from Bangkok to Ko Samui, from Ko Samui to Phuket and Hat Yai, and from Bangkok to Ranong and Krabi routes. The company has as yet to decide whether to resume service to the northeast. Check with any travel agent in Bangkok to see if this venture is off the ground.
Bangkok Airways fares are competitive with THAI's but the company is small and it remains to be seen whether or not it will survive to become a serious contender. At the moment it's like Mekong and Hong Thong whisky, each concentrating on a different share of the market.
The Ko Samui Airport is privately owned by a group of Thai investors who are mostly medical doctors, financiers and retired military. They may allow landing rights for charter flights from Malaysia and Singapore in addition to domestic traffic.
Thailand - Transport Bus
Transport - Bus
Several different types of buses ply the roads of Thailand. The cheapest and slowest are the ordinary government-run buses. For some destinations - smaller towns - these are your only choice. The faster, more comfortable, government-run 'tour buses' (rot thua or rot ae), usually with air-con, only run between certain major cities. If these are available to your destination, they are your very best choice since they don't cost that much more than the ordinary stop-in-every-town buses. The government bus company is called Baw Kaw Saw as an abbreviation for Borisat Khon Song - literally the Transportation Company. Every city and town in Thailand linked by bus transportation has a Baw Kaw Saw-designated terminal, even if it's just a patch of dirt by the side of the road.
Charter buses are available between Bangkok and major tourist destinations: Chiang Mai, Surat, Hat Yai, Pattaya and a few others. These are called 'tour' buses although there is no tour involved. To Chiang Mai, for example, there are several companies running buses out of Bangkok every day. These can be booked through most hotels or any travel agency. Fares may vary a little bit from company to company but usually not by more than a few Baht. However, fare differences between the government and private bus companies can be substantial. Using Surat Thani as an example, the state-run buses from the Southern Bus Terminals are 125 Baht for ordinary bus, 250 Baht air-con, while the private companies charge up to 300 Baht. On the other hand, air-con buses to Phuket are all the same price, 299 Baht (ordinary bus is 165 Baht).
As a result of passenger complaints concerning delayed or non-existent departures, poor baggage service, theft etc, all buses in Thailand are required to be licensed by Baw Kaw Saw, which now oversees all bus operations.
There are also private buses running between major destinations within the various regions, e.g. Nakhon Si Thammarat to Hat Yai in the south, and Chiang Mai to Sukhothai in the north. New companies are cropping up all the time. The numbers did seem to peak in the early '80s, but are now somewhat stabilised. On some routes they use minivans, e.g. Surat to Krabi and Tak to Mae Sot.
The tour buses are somewhat more comfortable than the state buses, if you don't mind narrow seats and a hair-raising ride. The trick the tour companies use to make their buses seem more comfortable is to make you think you're not on a bus, by turning up the air-con until your knees knock, handing out pillows and blankets and serving free soft drinks. On overnight journeys the buses usually stop somewhere en route and passengers are awakened to dismount the bus for a free meal of fried rice or rice soup. A few companies even treat you to a meal before a long overnighter. In general, food service seems to be getting better on the long overnight trips.
A new innovation are the 'VIP' buses that have fewer seats so that each seat reclines more - sometimes these are called 'sleepers'. For small-to-medium-sized people they are more comfortable, but if you're big you may find yourself squashed when the person in front of you leans back.
The main trouble with the tour buses is that statistically, they seem to meet with a lot of accidents. Head-on collisions with trucks, and turnovers as they round bad curves are probably due to the inexperience of the drivers on a particular route. This in turn is probably a result of the companies opening and folding so frequently and because they try hard to make good time - tickets are sold on a reputation for speed to Thais.
As fares are higher than the government-run buses, they attract a better-heeled clientele among the Thais, as well as foreign tourists. One result is that a tour bus loaded with money or the promise of money is a temptation for upcountry bandits. Hence tour buses occasionally get robbed by bands of thieves, but these incidents have become increasingly rare due to increased security in the provinces under the Prem and Chatichai administrations.
The most dangerous route now seems to be the road between Surat and Phuket, though this is more so because of the old drugged food/drink/cigarette trick than because of armed robbery. (See Precautions for details.) In an effort to prevent this menace, which began to increase rapidly during the early '80s, Thai police now board tour buses plying the southern roads at unannounced intervals, taking photos and videotapes of the passengers and asking for IDs. Reports on drugging are now on the decrease. Another dangerous area is in Yala Province between Yala and Betong on the Malaysian border, where the Communist Party of Malaysia insurgents and Thai Muslim separatists occasionally hijack public vehicles.
Large-scale robberies never occur on the ordinary buses, very rarely on the state-run air-con buses and rarely on the trains. The Southern train route is the most dangerous. Accidents are not unknown to happen on the state-run buses, so the train still comes out as the safest means of transport in Thailand.
Now that you've decided not to go to Thailand after all, let me point out that robberies and accidents are relatively infrequent (though more frequent than they should be) considering the number of buses taken daily. The odds are on your side. Travellers to Thailand should know the risk of tour bus travel against the apparent convenience, especially when there are alternatives. Some travellers really like the tour buses though, so the private companies will continue to do good business.
Keep an eye on your bags when riding buses - thievery by stealth is still the most popular form of robbery in Thailand (eminently preferable to the forceful variety in my opinion), though again the risks are not that great - just be aware. The place you are most likely to be 'touched' is on the crowded buses in Bangkok. Razor artists abound, particularly on the buses in the vicinity of the Hualampong Railway Station. These dextrous thieves specialise in slashing your knapsack, shoulder bag or even your trousers' pockets with a sharp razor and slipping your valuables out unnoticed. Hold The your bag in front of you, under your attention, and carry money in a front shirt pocket, preferably (as the Thais do) maintaining a tactile and visual sensitivity to these areas if the bus is packed shoulder to shoulder. Seasoned travellers don't need this advice as the same precautions are useful all over the world - the trick is to be relaxed but aware, not tense.
Thailand - Transport Local
Transport - Local
In larger provincial capitals, there are extensive local bus services, generally operating with very low fares (2 Baht to 4 Baht).
Many regional centres have taxi services but, as in Bangkok itself, although there may well be meters they're never used. Establishing the fare before departure is essential. Try and get an idea from a third party what the fare should be and be prepared to bargain. In general fares are reasonably low.
Samlor means three (sam) wheels (lor, pronounced 'law') and that's just what they are - three-wheeled vehicles. There are two types of samlors, motorised and non-motorised. You'll find motorised samlors throughout the country. They're small utility vehicles, powered by a horrendously noisy two-stroke engine - if the noise and vibration doesn't get you the pollution will. These samlors are often known as tuk-tuks from the noise they make. The non-motorised versions, on the other hand, are bicycle rickshaws, just like you find, in various forms, all over Asia. There are no bicycle samlors in Bangkok but you will find them elsewhere in the country. In either form of samlor the fare must be established, by bargaining if necessary, before departure.
Songthaew means two rows - they're small pickup trucks with two rows of bench seats down the sides, very similar to an Indonesian bemo and akin to a Filipino jeepney. Songthaews sometimes operate fixed routes, just like a bus, but they may also run a share taxi type of service or even be booked individually just like a regular taxi.
As any flight over Thailand will reveal, there is plenty of water down there and you'll probably have opportunities to get out on it from time to time. The true Thai river transport is the 'long-tail boat', so called because the propeller is driven by a long extension off the end of the engine. The engine, which can run all the way from a small marine engine to a large car engine, is mounted on gimbals and the whole engine is swivelled to steer the boat. They can travel at a phenomenal speed.
Car & Motorcycle Rental
Cars can be rented in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Hat Yai. Check with travel agencies or large hotels for rental locations. Motorcycles are for rent in these towns as well as many smaller tourist centres like Krabi, Ko Samui, Ko Phangan, Mae Sal, Chiang Saen, Nong Khai, etc (see Transport - Motorcycle). Rental rates vary considerably from one agency to another and from city to city. Since there is a glut of motorcycles for rent in Chiang Mai these days, they can be rented there for as little as 80 Baht per day. A substantial deposit is usually required to rent a car; motorcycle rental usually requires that you leave your passport. Bicycles can also be hired in some locations, particularly Chiang Mai, where they are an ideal form of transport. One traveller wrote in with this warning though, carefully note the condition of the bike before hiring, if it breaks down you are responsible and parts can be very expensive.
Thailand - Transport Motorcycle
Transport - Motorcycle
Motorcycle travel is becoming a popular way to get around Thailand, especially in the north. Dozens of places along the guest house circuit, including many guest houses themselves, have set up shop with no more than a couple of motorbikes for rent. It is also possible to buy a new or used motorbike and sell it before you leave the country - a good used 125cc bike costs around 20,000 Baht. While motorcycle trekking is undoubtedly one of the best ways to see Thailand, it is also undoubtedly one of the easiest ways to cut your travels short, permanently. You can also run up very large repair and/or hospital bills in the blink of an eye. However, with proper safety precautions and driving conduct adapted to local standards, you can see parts of Thailand inaccessible by other modes of transport and still make it home in one piece. Some guidelines to keep in mind:
- If you've never driven a motorcycle before, stick to the smaller 80 to 100cc step-through bikes with automatic clutches. If you're an experienced rider but have never done off the road driving, take it slow the first few days.
- Always check a machine over thoroughly before you take it out. Look at the tyres to see if they still have tread, look for oil leaks, and test the brakes. You may be held liable for any problems that weren't duly noted before your departure. Newer bikes cost more than clunkers, but are generally safer and more reliable. Street bikes are more comfortable and ride more smoothly on paved roads than dirt bikes; it's silly to rent an expensive dirt bike like the Honda MTX 125 if most of your riding is going to be along decent roads. An MTX 125 uses twice the fuel of a Honda Wing with the same engine size, thus lowering your cruising range in areas where roadside pumps are scarce (the Wing gives you about 300 km per tank while an MTX gets about half that).
- Wear protective clothing and a helmet (most rental places will provide a helmet with the bike if asked). Without a helmet, a minor slide on gravel can develop into a quick concussion. Long pants, long-sleeved shirts and shoes are highly recommended as protection against sunburn and as a second skin if you fall. If your helmet doesn't have a visor, then wear goggles, glasses or sunglasses to keep bugs, dust and other debris out of your eyes. It is practically suicidal to ride on Thailand's highways without taking these minimum precautions for protecting your body. Gloves are also a good idea - to prevent blisters from holding on to the twist-grips for long periods of time.
- For distances of over 100 km or so, take along an extra supply of motor oil and, if riding a two-stroke machine like the MTX, two-stroke engine oil. On long trips, oil burns fast.
- Never ride alone in remote areas, especially at night. There have been incidents where farang bikers have been shot or harassed while riding alone, mostly in remote rural areas. When riding in pairs or groups, stay spread out so you'll have room to manoeuvre or brake suddenly if necessary.
- In Thailand the de facto right of way is determined by the size of the vehicle that puts the motorcycle pretty low in the pecking order. Don't fight it and keep clear of trucks and buses.
- Distribute whatever weight you're carrying on the bike as evenly as possible across the frame. Too much weight at the back of the bike makes the front end less easy to control and prone to rising up suddenly on bumps and inclines.
- Get insurance with the motorcycle if at all possible. The more reputable motorcycle rental places insure all their bikes; some will do it for an extra charge. Without insurance you're responsible for anything that happens to the bike, If an accident results in a total loss, or if the bike is somehow lost or stolen, you can be out 25,000 Baht plus. Health insurance is also a good idea - get it before you leave home and check the conditions in regard to motorcycle riding.
Thailand - Transport Train
Transport - Train
The railway network in Thailand, run by the Thai government, is surprisingly good. The train wins hands down as the best form of public transport in the kingdom. It is not possible to take the train everywhere in Thailand, but if it were that's how to go. If you travel 3rd class, it is often the cheapest way to cover a long distance; by 2nd class it's about the same as a 'tour bus' but much safer and more comfortable. The trains take a bit longer than a chartered bus but on overnight trips especially, it is worth the extra time it takes.
The trains offer many advantages; there is more space, more room to breathe and stretch out - even in 3rd class, than there is on the best buses. The windows are big and usually open, so that there is no glass between you and the scenery - good for taking photos - and more to see. The scenery itself is always better along the rail routes compared to the scenery along Thai highways - the trains regularly pass small villages, farmland, old temples, etc. Decent, reasonably priced food is available and served at your seat or in the dining car. The pitch-and-roll of the railway cars is much easier on the bones, muscles and nervous system than the quick stops and starts, the harrowing turns and the pothole jolts endured on buses. The train is safer in terms of both accidents en route and robberies. Last, but certainly not least, you meet a lot more interesting people on the trains.
For those who plan to travel extensively by train in Thailand, the State Railway of Thailand has announced that, as of 23 October 1989, a Visit Thailand Rail Pass will be available for 'holders of international passports'. The pass allows 20 days of travel at 1500 Baht for a Blue Pass (2nd and 3rd class, supplementary charges not included), or 3000 Baht for a Red Pass (2nd & 3rd class, all supplementary charges included).
There are four main rail lines: the Northern, Southern, Northeastern and Eastern routes. There are several side routes, notably between Nakhon Pathom and Nam Tok (stopping in Kanchanaburi) in the west central region, another between Tung Song and Kan Tang (stopping in Trang) in the south, and between Hat Yai and Songkhla in the south. The Southern line splits at Hat Yai, one route going to Sungai Kolok in Malaysia, through Yala, one route going to Padang Besar in the west, also on the Malaysian border, Within the next few years, there will probably be a line extending from Kiriratnikom to Phuket in the south, establishing a rail link between Surat Thani and Phuket.
The State Railway of Thailand operates passenger trains in three classes - 1st, 2nd and 3rd - but these can vary considerably amongst themselves depending on whether you're on an ordinary, rapid, or express train. A typical 3rd-class car consists of two rows of bench seats divided into facing pairs. Each bench seat is designed to seat two or three passengers, but on a crowded upcountry line nobody seems to care about design considerations. On a rapid train (which carries 2nd and 3rd-class cars only), 3rd-class seats are padded and reasonably comfortable for shorter trips. On ordinary trains, 3rd-class seats are usually made of wooden slats, and are not recommended for more than a couple of hours at a time. An ordinary train is much slower than a rapid train, naturally. Express trains do not carry 3rd-class cars at all (except for the Special Express 19/20 between Bangkok and Sungai Kolok). Commuter trains in the Bangkok area are all 3rd class and the cars resemble modern subway or rapid transit trains, with plastic seats and ceiling loops for standees.
In a 2nd-class chair car, seating arrangements are similar to those on a bus - pairs of padded seats all facing toward the front of the train. Usually the seats can be adjusted to a reclining angle, and for some people this is good enough for overnight trips. In a 2nd-class sleeping car, you'll find two rows of facing seat pairs; each pair is separated from the next by a dividing wall. A table folds down between each pair and at night the seats convert into two fold-down berths, one over the other. Curtains provide a modicum of privacy and the berths are fairly comfortable, with fresh linen for every trip. A toilet stall is located at one end of the car and washing basins at the other. Second-class cars are found only on rapid and express trains; some routes offer air-con 2nd class as well as ordinary 2nd class.
First-class cars provide private cabins for singles or couples. Each private cabin has individually controlled air-con, an electric fan, a fold-down washing basin and mirror, a small table and a long bench seat (or two in a double cabin) that converts into a bed. Drinking water and towels are provided free of charge. First-class cars are available only on express and special express trains.
In dining cars and in 2nd and 1st-class cars, there are usually two menus available, a 'Special Food' menu with prices at 50 to 60 Baht per dish (generally given to tourists) and a cheaper, more extensive menu at 15 to 20 Baht per dish. If you want the latter but are handed the expensive menu, ask for the menu thammadaa or ordinary menu. The food is basically the same on both menus but the 'special'-menu items get a fancier presentation.
The disadvantage of travelling by train, in addition to the time factor mentioned above, is that they can be difficult to book. This is especially true around holiday time, e.g. the middle of April approaching Songkran festival, since a lot of Thais prefer the train, too. Trains out of Bangkok should be booked as far in advance as possible - a week minimum for such popular routes as the Northern (to Chiang Mai) and Southern (to Hat Yai) lines, especially if you want a sleeper. For the Northeastern and Eastern lines a few days will suffice.
To book tickets in advance go to Hualampong Station in Bangkok, walk through the front of the station house and go straight to the back right-hand corner where a sign says 'Advance Booking'. The other ticket windows, on the left-hand side of the station, are for same-day purchases, mostly 3rd class. In the Advance Booking office you will receive a numbered reservation form, white for the Southern line, green for North, North-Eastern and Eastern. Then proceed into the ticketing room, taking the blank reservation form to the appropriate counter when your number is called. A clerk will fill out the appropriate forms for you, according to available space on the train you want. This done, you take the filled-out form to the desk indicated by the clerk, separate your numbered stub from the form and spindle the form on the nail standing upright on that desk. Then you must wait until your number is called (most likely in Thai, so keep an eye on the numbers around you), at which point the agent at the desk will give you your ticket and collect the money. It's not as bad as it sounds, but takes some time.
Note that buying a return ticket does not necessarily guarantee you a seat on the way back, it only means you do not have to buy a ticket for the return. If you want a guaranteed seat reservation it's best to make that reservation for the return immediately upon arrival at your destination.
Booking trains back to Bangkok is generally not as difficult as booking trains out of Bangkok; however, some stations can be quite difficult, e.g., buying a ticket from Surat Thani to Bangkok.
Tickets between any stations in Thailand can be purchased at Hualampong Station (tel. 0 2223 3762), the main railway station in Bangkok. You can also make advance bookings at Don Muang Station, across from Bangkok International Airport. Ticket offices for the State Railway of Thailand are open from 8.30 am to 6 pm on weekdays, 8.30 am to 12 noon on weekends and public holidays.
Train tickets can also be purchased at certain travel agencies in Bangkok, such as Airland on Phloenchit Road or at the Viengthai Hotel in Banglamphu. It is much simpler to book trains through these agencies than to book them at the station.
Charges & Surcharges
There is a 30 Baht surcharge for Express trains (rot duan) and 20 Baht for Rapid trains (rot raew). These trains are somewhat faster than the ordinary trains, as they make fewer stops. On the Northern line during the daytime there is a 50 Baht surcharge for 2nd-class chairs in air-con cars. For the Special Express (rot duan phiset) that runs between Bangkok and Singapore there is a 50 Baht surcharge.
The charge for 2nd-class sleeping berths is 70 Baht for an upper berth and 100 Baht for a lower berth. The difference is that there is a window next to the lower berth and a little more headroom. The upper berth is still quite comfortable. For 2nd-class sleepers with air-con add 100 Baht per ticket. No sleepers are available in 3rd class.
On the north and northeastern lines, all 1st-class cabins are air-con and a two-bed cabin costs 250 Baht per person while a single-bed cabin is 350 Baht. On the southern line, air-con 1st class is the same but there are also a few ordinary 1st-class rooms available, all with two beds, for 150 Baht per person.
Train fares in Thailand continue to increase regularly, so train travel is not quite the bargain it once was, especially considering that the charge for 2nd-class berths is as high as the cost of most hotel rooms outside Bangkok. You can figure on 500 km costing around 180 Baht in 2nd class (not counting surcharges for rapid/express service), twice that in 1st class, less than half in 3rd. Note that the fares given are guaranteed to the end of 1989 only. Surprisingly, fares had hardly changed since 1987, in spite of an overall inflation rate in Thailand of about 5%. Relative to fare trends over the last 12 years, this is unusual and think they're due for an increase. Although the government continues to subsidise train travel to a some extent, it's predicted that fares will be taking a significant jump in the next two to three years, say around 10% to 15%.
The main railway stations in Bangkok (Hualamphong), Phitsanulok, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai have baggage storage services. The rates and hours of operation vary from station to station. At Hualamphong Station the hours are from 4 am to 10.30 pm and left luggage costs 5 Baht per piece the first day, 10 Baht per piece per day thereafter.
All stations in provincial capitals have restaurants or cafeterias as well as various snack vendors. These stations also offer an advance booking service for rail travel anywhere in Thailand. Hat Yai Station is the only one with a hotel attached, but there are usually hotels within walking distance of other major stations.
The Hualamphong Station has a travel agency where other kinds of transport can be booked. This station also has a post office that's open from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm Monday to Friday, 9 am to 12 noon Saturdays and holidays, and closed Sundays.
Accurate up-to-date information on train travel is available at the Rail Travel Aids counter in Hualamphong Station. There you can pick up timetables or ask questions about fares and scheduling - one person behind the counter usually speaks a little English. There are two types of timetables available: a condensed English timetable with fares, schedules and routes for rapid and express trains on the four trunk lines; and complete, separate Thai timetables for each trunk line, with side lines as well. These latter timetables give fares and schedules for all trains, ordinary, rapid and express.
Thailand - Transport Trekking
Transport - Trekking
For years Chiang Mai has been a centre for treks into the mountainous northern areas inhabited by hill tribes. It used to be pretty exciting to knock about the dirt roads of rural Chiang Rai Province, do the boat trip between Fang and Chiang Rai and hike into the various villages of the Karen, Meo, Akha and Yao tribes and the Kuomintang settlements. You could spend the night in rustic surroundings and perhaps share some opium with the villagers.
Only a very few Thais living in Chiang Mai had the travel and linguistic knowledge necessary to lead adventurous foreigners through this area. Booking a trip usually meant waiting for optimum conditions and adequate numbers of participants, which sometimes took quite a while.
The trips began to gain popularity in the early 1970s and now virtually every hotel and guesthouse in Chiang Mai books hill tribe tours for countless tour organisations.
Soon the word was out that the area north of the Kok River in the Golden Triangle was being over-trekked, with treks criss-crossing the area in such a fashion that the hill-tribe villages were starting to become human zoos. When their only contact with the outside world was through a camera lens and a flow of sweets and cigarettes, it was no wonder that the villagers began to feel this way.
So the tours moved south of the Kok River, around Chiang Dao and Wieng Papao, then to Mae Hong Son where most of them now operate. It's only a short time before this area suffers from the heavy traffic as well.
Meanwhile, hundreds of foreign travellers each year continue to take these treks. Most come away with a sense of adventure while a few are disillusioned. What makes a good trek is having primarily a good leader-organiser, followed by a good group of trekkers. Some travellers finish a tour complaining more about the other trekkers than about the itinerary, food or trek leader.
Hill-tribe trekking isn't for everyone. Firstly, you must be physically fit to cope with the demands of sustained up and down walking, exposure to the elements and spotty food. Secondly, many people feel awkward walking through hill-tribe villages and playing the role of voyeur.
In cities and villages elsewhere in Thailand, Thais and other lowland groups are quite used to foreign faces and foreign ways (from television if nothing else), but in the hills of northern Thailand the tribes lead largely insular lives. Hence, hill-tribe tourism has pronounced effects, both positive and negative. On the positive side, travellers have a chance to see how traditional subsistence-oriented societies function. Also, since the Thai Government is sensitive about the image projected by their minority groups, tourism may actually have forced it to review and sometimes improve its policies toward hill tribes. On the negative side, trekkers introduce many cultural items and ideas from the outside world that may erode tribal customs to varying degrees.
If you have any qualms about interrupting the traditional patterns of life in hill-tribe areas, you probably should not go trekking. It is undeniable that trekking in northern Thailand is marketed like soap or any other commodity. Anyone who promises you an authentic experience is probably exaggerating at the very least, or at worst may be contributing to the decline of hill-tribe culture by leading foreigners into unhampered areas.
If you desire to make a trek keep these points in mind:
- Choose your trek operator carefully.
- Try to meet the others in the group (suggest a meeting).
- Find out exactly what the tour includes and does not include, as usually there are additional expenses beyond the basic rate.
If everything works out, even an organised tour can be worthwhile. A useful checklist of questions to ask is:
- How many people will there be in the group? Six is a good maximum, reported one traveller, although others have said that 10 are equally OK.
- Can they guarantee that no other tourists will visit the same village on the same day, especially overnight?
- Can the guide speak the language of each village to be visited?
- Exactly when does the tour begin and end? Some three-day treks turn out to be less than 48 hours.
- Do they provide transport before and after the trek or is it just by public bus - often with long waits?
Choosing a company
TAT is making efforts to regulate trekking companies out of Chiang Mai and recommend that you trek only with members of the Professional Guide Association of Chiang Mai or the Jungle Tour Club of Northern Thailand. Still, with more than 100 companies operating out of Chiang Mai, it's very difficult to guarantee any kind of control.
These days there are plenty of places apart from Chiang Mai where you can arrange treks. Often these places have better and usually less expensive alternatives that originate closer to the more remote and un-trekked areas. Also, they are generally smaller, friendlier operations and the trekkers are usually a more determined bunch since they're not looking for a quick in-and-out trek. The treks are often informally arranged, usually involving discussions of duration, destinations, cost, etc (it used to be like that in Chiang Mai).
You can easily arrange treks out of the following towns in the north: Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Mae Sai and Tha Ton. With a little time to seek out the right people, you can also go on organised treks from Mae Sariang, Soppong (near Pai), Mae Sot, the Akha Guest House on the road to Doi Tung and other out-of-the-way guesthouses that are springing up all over northern Thailand.
The downside, of course, is that companies outside of Chiang Mai are generally subject to even less regulation than those in Chiang Mai, and there are fewer guarantees with regard to trekking terms and conditions.
Organised treks out of Chiang Mai average from 800 Baht for a four-day, three nights trek to 2,500 Baht for a deluxe seven-day, six-night trek that includes elephant riding and/or rafting. Rates vary, so it pays to shop around. You can count on an extra 1,000 Baht for elephants or other exotic additions to a basic trek. Elephant rides actually become quite boring and even uncomfortable after about an hour.
Don't choose a trek by price alone. It's better to talk to other travellers in town who have been on treks. Treks out of other towns in the north are usually between 100 and 150 Baht per person per day.
The Professional Guide Association in Chiang Mai meets monthly to set trek prices and to discuss problems, and issues regular, required reports to TAT about individual treks. All trekking guides and companies are supposed to be government licensed. As a result, a standard for trekking operators has emerged whereby you can expect the price you pay to include: transport to and from the starting/ending points of a trek (if outside Chiang Mai); food (three meals a day) and accommodation in all villages visited; basic first aid; pre-departure valuables storage; and sometimes the loan of specific equipment, such as sleeping bags in cool weather or water bottles.
Not included in the price are beverages other than drinking water or tea, the obligatory opium-smoking with the village headman (how many travellers have I heard say '... and then, oh wow, we actually smoked opium with the village headman! '), lunch on the first and last days and personal porters.
Probably the best time to trek is November to February when the weather is refreshing with little or no rain and poppies are in bloom everywhere. Between March and May the hills are dry and the weather is quite hot in most northern places. The second-best time to trek is early in the rainy season, between June and July, before the dirt roads become too saturated.
Every year or so there's at least one trekking robbery in northern Thailand. Often the bandits are aimed with guns that they will use without hesitation if they meet resistance. Once they collect a load of cameras, watches, money and jewellery, many bandit gangs hightail it across the border into Burma. In spite of this, police have had a good arrest record so far and have created hill-country patrols. Still, gangs can form at any time and anywhere. The problem is that most people living in the rural north believe that all foreigners are very rich (a fair assumption in relation to hill-tribe living standards). Most of these people have never been to Chiang Mai and, from what they have heard about Bangkok, they consider it to be a virtual paradise of wealth and luxury. So don't take anything with you trekking you can't afford to lose, and don't resist robbery attempts.
Once trekking, there are several other guidelines to minimising the negative impact on the local people:
- Always ask for permission before taking photos of tribal people and/or their dwellings. You can ask through your guide or by using sign language. Because of traditional belief systems, many individuals and even whole tribes may object strongly to being photographed.
- Show respect for religious symbols and rituals. Don't touch totems at village entrances or other objects of obvious symbolic value without asking permission. Keep your distance from ceremonies being performed unless you're asked to participate.
- Practise restraint in giving things to tribes-people or bartering with them. Food and medicine are not necessarily appropriate gifts if they result in altering traditional dietary and healing practices. The same goes for clothing. Tribes-people will abandon hand-woven tunics for printed T-shirts if they are given a steady supply. If you want to give something to the people you encounter on a trek, the best thing is to make a donation to the village school or other community fund. Your guide can help arrange this.
Some guides are very strict now about forbidding the smoking of opium on treks. This seems to be a good idea, since one of the problems trekking companies have had in the past is dealing with opium-addicted guides! Volunteers who work in tribal areas also say opium-smoking sets a bad example for young people in the villages.
Opium is traditionally a condoned vice of the elderly, yet an increasing number of young people in the villages are now taking opium and heroin. This is possibly due in part to the influence of young trekkers who may smoke once and a few weeks later are hundreds of km away while the villagers continue to face the temptation every day.
You might consider striking out on your own in a small group of two to five people. Gather as much information as you can about the area you'd like to trek in from the Tribal Research Institute at Chiang Mai University. The institute has an informative pamphlet that is available at its library. Don't bother staff with questions about trekking as they are quite non-committal, either from fear of liability or fear of retribution from the Chiang Mai trekking companies.
Maps, mostly distributed by guesthouses outside of Chiang Mai, pinpoint various hill tribe areas in the north. DK Books in Chiang Mai sell two excellent maps on the Wawi area, south of the Kok River and the Kok River area itself. Both lie in Chiang Rai Province and are considered safe areas for do-it-yourself treks. DK Books plan to produce a series of trekking maps based on Tribal Research Institute research.
Be prepared for language difficulties. Few people you meet will know any English. Usually someone in a village will know some Thai, so a Thai phrasebook can be helpful.
As in Himalayan trekking in Nepal and India, many people now do short treks on their own at the lower elevations, staying in villages along the way. It is not necessary to bring a lot of food or equipment, just money for food that can be bought along the way in small Thai towns and occasionally in the hill-tribe settlements. However, TAT strongly discourages trekking on your own because of the safety risk. Check in with the police when you arrive in a new district so they can tell you if an area is considered safe or not. A lone trekker is an easy target (see Safety section).
I won't make any specific recommendations for particular trekking companies in Chiang Mai. Many of the trekking guides are freelance and go from one company to the next, so there's no way to predict which companies are going to give the best service at any time.
The companies listed are recognised by TAT and the Professional Guide Association, which means that they should be using licensed guides. Just about every guesthouse in Chiang Mai works through one of these companies. The list represents a mixture of companies that are directly affiliated with hotels/guest houses and those which are not. Ultimately, the best way to shop for a trek is to talk to travellers who have just returned from treks.
- Bamboo Tour (tel. 236501), Chiang Mai Guest House, 91 Charoen Prathet Road
- Camp of Troppo (tel. 213219), 83/2 Chotana Road
- Changmoi Trekking (formerly Folkways) (tel. 251839), Changmoi Guest House, 29 Chang Moi Kao Road
- Eagle Trekking (tel. 235387), Eagle House, 16-18 Chang Mol Kao Road, Soi 3
- Enjoy Tour (tel. 235791), 258 Tha Phae Road
- DNP Trekking, (tel. 210447), Welcome Guest House, 37/1 Moon Muang Road
- Evergreen (tel. 236710). 47 Moon Muang Road
- Family Tribal Trekking (tel. 213939), Moon Muang Road, 9 Soi 7
- Inter Travel Agency (tel. 252512), 17 Tha Phae Road
- Inthanon Tours (tel. 232722), 100/19 Huay Kaew Road
- Lanna Travel & Tour Service (tel. 251471), 94 Charoen Prathet Road
- Markes Travel (tel. 236704), 2-4 Tha Phae Road
- Mau Tour (tel. 211033), 106 Ratchapakhinai Road
- ME! Tour (tel. 234358), 261 Tha Phae Road
- Northern Thailand Trekking (tel. 214572), 59 Moon Muang Road
- New Wave Tour (tel. 214040), 33/6 Moon Muang Road
- Pinan Tour (tel. 236081), 235 Tha Phae Road
- PS Tours & Travel (tel. 251721), New Chiang Mai Hotel, Chaiyaphum Road
- Sam Trekking & Service (tel. 233885), Galare Guest House, 7 Charoen Prathet Road
- Seiko Tour (tel. 236640), 164 Tha Phae Road
- Singha Travel (tel. 233198), 277 Tha Phae Road
- Summit Tour & Trekking (tel. 233351), 28-30 Tha Phae Road
- Top North Tours (tel. 252050), Chiangmai Plaza Hotel4 92 Si Donchai Road
- Udom Tribal Trek (tel. 232448), Times Square Guest House, 2/10 ma Hue Road
- Unity Tour (tel. 211033), 198 Ratchapakhinai Road
- Youth's Tour (tel. 212863), Chiang Mai Youth Hostel, 31 Phra Pokklao Road
The term hill tribe refers to ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of north and west Thailand. The Thais refer to them as chao khao, literally meaning mountain people. Each hill tribe has its own language, customs, mode of dress and spiritual beliefs.
Most are of semi-nomadic origins, having migrated to Thailand from Tibet, Burma, China and Laos during the past 200 years or so, although some groups may have been in Thailand much longer. They are fourth-world people in the sense that they belong neither to the main aligned powers nor to the third-world nations. Rather, they have crossed and continue to cross national borders without regard for recent nationhood. Language and culture constitute the borders of their world as some groups are caught between the 6th and 20th centuries while others are gradually being assimilated into modern Thai life.
The Tribal Research Institute in Chiang Mai recognises 10 different hill tribes but there may be up to 20 in Thailand. The institute's 1986 estimate of the total hill-tribe population was 550,000.
The following descriptions cover the largest tribes that are also the groups most likely to be encountered on treks. Linguistically, the tribes can be divided into three main groups: the Tibeto-Burman (Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the Karenic (Karen, Kayah) and the Austro-Thai (Hmong, Mien). Comments on ethnic dress refer mostly to the female members of each group, as hill-tribe men tend to dress like rural Thais. Population figures are 1986 estimates.
The Shan (Thai Yai) are not included since they are not a hill-tribe group per se as they live in permanent locations, practice Theravada Buddhism and speak a language very similar to Thai. Thai scholars consider the Shan to have been the original inhabitants (Thai Yai means larger or majority Thais) of the area. Nevertheless, Shan villages are common stops on hill-tribe trekking itineraries.
- Akha (Thai: I-kaw)
- Population: 33,600
- Origin: Tibet
- Present locations: Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Yunnan
- Economy: rice, corn, opium
- Belief system: animism, with an emphasis on ancestor worship.
- Distinctive characteristics: headdresses of beads, feathers and dangling silver ornaments. Villages are along mountain ridges or on steep slopes from 1000 to 1400 metres in altitude. The Akha are amongst the poorest of Thailand's ethnic minorities and tend to resist assimilation into the Thai mainstream. Like the Lahu, they often cultivate opium for their own consumption.
- Hmong (Thai: Meo or Maew)
- Population: 80,000
- Origin: south China
- Present locations: south China, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam
- Economy: rice, corn, opium
- Belief system: animism
- Distinctive characteristics: simple black jackets and indigo trousers with striped borders or indigo skirts, and silver jewellery. Most women wear their hair in a large bun. They usually live on mountain peaks or plateaus. Kinship is patrilineal and polygamy is permitted. They are Thailand's second largest hill-tribe group and are especially numerous in Chiang Mai Province.
- Karen (Thai: Yang or Kariang)
- Population: 265,600
- Origin: Burma
- Present locations: Thailand, Burma
- Economy: rice, vegetables, livestock
- Belief system: animism, Buddhism, Christianity, depending on the group.
- Distinctive characteristics: thickly woven V-neck tunics of various colours (unmarried women wear white). Kinship is matrilineal and marriage is endogamous. They tend to live in lowland valleys and practice crop rotation rather than swidden (slash and burn) agriculture. There are four distinct Karen groups - the White Karen (Skaw Karen), Pwo Karen, Black Karen (Pa-o) and Kayah. These groups combined are the largest hill tribe in Thailand, numbering a quarter of a million people or about half of all hill-tribe people. Many Karen continue to migrate into Thailand from Burma, fleeing Burmese Government persecution.
- Lahu (Thai: Musoe)
- Population: 58,700
- Origin: Tibet
- Present locations: south China, Thailand, Burma
- Economy: rice, corn, opium
- Belief system: theistic animism (supreme deity is (Geusha) and some groups are Christian.
- Distinctive characteristics: black and red jackets with narrow skirts for women. They live in mountainous areas at about 1000 metres. Their intricately woven shoulder bags (yaam) are prized by collectors. There are four main groups - Red Lahu, Black Lahu, Yellow Lahu and Lahu Sheleh.
- Lisu (Thai: Lisaw)
- Population: 24,000
- Origin: Tibet
- Present locations: Thailand, Yunnan
- Economy: rice, opium, corn, livestock
- Belief system: animism with ancestor worship and spirit possession.
- Distinctive characteristics: the women wear long multi-coloured tunics over trousers and sometimes, black turbans with tassels. Men wear baggy green or blue pants pegged in at the ankles. They wear lots of bright colours. Premarital sex is said to be common, along with freedom in choosing marital partners. Patrilineal clans have pan-tribal jurisdiction, which makes the Lisu unique among hill-tribe groups (most tribes have power centred at the village level with either the shaman or a village headman). Their villages are usually in the mountains at about 1000 metres.
- Mien (Thai: Yao)
- Population: 35,500
- Origin: central China
- Present locations: Thailand, south China, Laos, Burma, Vietnam
- Economy: rice, corn, opium
- Belief system: animism with ancestor worship and Taoism.
- Distinctive characteristics: women wear black jackets and trousers decorated with intricately embroidered patches and red fur-like collars, along with large dark blue or black turbans. They have been heavily influenced by Chinese traditions and use Chinese characters to write the Mien language. They tend to settle near mountain springs at between 1000 and 1200 metres. Kinship is patrilineal and marriage is polygamous.
Thailand - Visas
Go for list of Thai Embassies & Consulates around the world
Transit visas cost around US$5, tourist visas cost US$10 and three passport photos must accompany applications. The actual fee depends on the country in which you arrange your visa, e.g. in Penang a tourist visa is M$30. A transit visa is valid for 30 days, a tourist visa for 60 days. People arriving in Thailand without a visa may be granted a 15-day stay, no extension allowed, with proof of onward ticket and sufficient funds.
Non-immigrant visas are good for 90 days, must be applied for in your home country, cost around US$15 and are not difficult to get if you can offer a good reason for your visit.
Travellers with New Zealand passports may enter Thailand as visitors for up to 90 days without a visa - or so says the latest report from Thai Immigration in Bangkok.
You had better confirm this in writing in advance at a Thai embassy or consulate - it almost seems too good to be true.
Thailand does not issue 'multiple-entry' visas. If you want a visa that enables you to leave the country and then return, the best you can do is to obtain a visa permitting two entries, and this will cost double the single-entry visa. For example, a two-entry three-month non-immigrant visa will cost US$30 and will allow you six months in the country, as long as, you cross the Malaysian border (or any other border with immigration facilities) by the end of your first three months. The second half of your visa is validated as soon as you re-cross the Thai border, so there is no need to go to a Thai embassy/consulate abroad. All visas acquired in advance of entry are valid for 90 days from the date of issue.
If you overstay your visa, the practice at Bangkok International Airport now seems to be to fine you 200 Baht per day of your overstay.
Bangkok is a good place to collect visas for westward journeys, and most countries are represented by an embassy. For more information see Embassy page.
Tourist visas may be extended at the discretion of Thai Immigration. The Bangkok office (tel. 0 2286 9176) is on Soi Suan Phlu, Sathon Tai Road, but you can apply at any immigration office in the country - every provincial capital has one. The usual fee for extension of a tourist visa (up to one month) is 500 Baht. Bring along two photos and two copies each of the photo and visa pages of your passport. Extension of the 15-day transit visa is only allowed if you hold a passport from a country that has no Thai embassy. The 30-day transit visa cannot be extended for any reason.
If you need a re-entry visa for an out-and-back trip to Burma or the like, apply at the immigration office on Soi Suan Phlu. Cost is 300 Baht.
A traveller's comments:
If you fail to get your passport stamped on arrival, as has happened to people arriving by long-tail boat at Satun in the south of Thailand, you can take your sorry story to the Immigration Office in Bangkok and after filling out countless forms and showing a ticket out of the country you might get away without being fined.
If you want to stay longer, a non-immigrant visa is the one to get. Extending it is very much up to how the officials feel about you - if they like you then they will. Money doesn't come in to it. An Australian teaching English in Thailand recounted how he had to collect various signatures and go through various interviews that resulted in a 'provisional' extension. Back in his province he then had to report to the local office every 10 days for the next three months until his actual extension came through. 'Extensions needn't be expensive', he reported, 'you just have to say nice things and smile to a lot of people'. Becoming a monk doesn't necessarily mean you'll get a longer visa either - again it depends on whom you see and how they feel about you.
Thailand - What To Bring
What to Bring
Bring as little as possible - one medium-size shoulder bag or backpack should do it. Pack light, wash-and-wear, natural-fabric clothes, unless you're going to be in the north in the cool season, in which case you should have a pullover. Pick up a phaakhamaa (short Thai-style sarong for men) or a phaasin (a longer sarong for women) to wear in your room, on the beach, or when bathing outdoors. These can be bought at any local market (different patterns/colours in different parts of the country) and the vendors will show you how to tie them.
The phaakhamaa/phaasin is a very handy item, it can be used to sleep on or as a light bedspread, as a make-shift 'shopping bag', as a turban-scarf to keep off the sun and absorb perspiration, as a towel, as a small hammock and as a device with which to climb coconut palms - to name just a few of its many functions. (It is not considered proper street attire, however.)
Sunglasses are a must for most people and can be bought cheaply in Bangkok. Slip-on shoes or sandals are highly recommended - besides being cooler than tie shoes, they are easily removed before entering a Thai home or temple. A small torch (flashlight) is a good idea, as it makes it easier to find your way back to your bungalow at night if you are staying at the beach or at a government guesthouse. A couple of other handy things are a compass and a fits-all sink plug. Sunscreen and mosquito repellent (though not 100% DEET - see Health) can be purchased in Thailand, as can toothpaste, soap and most other toiletries.
If you plan to spend a great deal of time in one or more of Thailand's beach areas, you might want to bring your own snorkel and mask. This would save on having to rent such gear and would also assure a proper fit. Shoes designed for water sports, e.g. Nike's 'Aqua Socks', are great for wearing in the water whether you're diving or not. They protect your feet from coral cuts, which easily become infected.
This page copywrite © 2002, 2003, A2Z Web World Company Limited. All rights reserved.