Questions and Answers
On this page I'll try to answer some common and not so common questions about travel in Thailand. My experience is limited to the three weeks I spent there and you must keep this in mind while reading my answers. More over, my comfort level might be different from yours, which means that places that I liked may seem drab and dingy to you. If you have any other questions, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Where did you go?. I flew into Bangkok and spent a few days kicking around before heading north to Phitsanulok, Sukhothai, and Chiang Mai. I then returned south to Ayutthaya for a wedding, and then further south to Hua Hin. I then returned north to Bangkok, visiting Phetchaburi along the way.
- How long were you there? From December 12, 2005 to January 1, 2006. By my count, this is 21 days.
- How did you get there? I flew from SeaTac to Bangkok via Taipei on China Air. From leaving my apartment to getting into my hotel in Bangkok took about 27 hours. I found China Air to be quite comfortable and would happily fly them again. My flight had the added benefit of arriving around noontime in Bangkok, rather than the more traditional hour of 2 am.
- What sort of visas do you need? As long as you are planning to stay for less than a month and are a US citizen, you can get a free visa upon arrival at the airport. For other nationalities and other border crossings the rules are different. In general, it is very easy to get into and out of Thailand.
- Is it Safe? Thailand is far safer than the US and I did not have any problems. Nor did I hear of any serious problems. In the far south there is occasional violence as the Thai government and the local Muslims near the Malay border are having a few issues.
- What about the language barrier? Communicating with the Thai is not as hard as you might expect. In the rail and bus stations the attendants tend to speak English. The people who work in guesthouses and hotels speak enough English that this isn't a problem either. In sit down restaurants, you can generally find menus in English. However, in street stalls this rarely happens, nor can you expect menus in most basic dining establishments. The first few times you'll need to point and wave to get some food, but after that you should start learning the names of some common dishes and prices. A phrase book can be useful, but I found that I needed to hear people pronounce the words before I could effectively mimic them. By the end of my trip, I was comfortable just sitting down at a stall and ordering a variety of dishes in Thai. It will be helpful to learn a few basic phrases as well, such as the words for "Thank you" and "Hello." The more Thai you know, the easier it is to avoid tourist traps and places of herd-congregation.
- What is a farang? Farang is the Thai word for guava, but usually denotes a westerner. It usually is not meant pejoratively.
- How expensive is it? Thailand can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be, but in general I would put it as one of the best value countries I've been to. On the low side, you can get by on less $10 USD a day if you eat on the street, limit your beer consumption, stay in guest houses without AC, and travel only by third class train or second class bus. If you up your spending to $15 or $25 a day, you can drink all the beer you want, stay in places with AC and your own hot shower, eat on the street and in restaurants, and generally travel as you wish. For families wanting to eat only western food, stay in western style hotels, and travel first class, it is better to go elsewhere, though you can certainly do this in Thailand for $30-50 per day. Here are some common prices, quoted in Baht and USD (40 B to a dollar):
- Beer (large): 40-60 B ($1-$1.50)
- Whiskey (large bottle): 150-250 B ($2.25-4.25)
- Som Tom (street): 10-20 B (25 to 50 cents)
- Paht Thai (street): 20 B (50 cents)
- Grilled Tiger Prawns (2): 300 B ($7.50)
- Cheap Guesthouse: 100-200 B ($2.50-$5)
- Moderately Fancy Hotel/Guesthouse: 400-800 B ($10-$20)
Including gifts for people back at home, I averaged about $25 a day. I could have cut this back to about $20 a day without dramatically changing the quality of the trip. For $15 a day, I would have had to drink less beer and whiskey.
- Can you drink the water? I did everything that travel books tell you not to do: Drank out of taps, had plenty of ice in my drinks, ate fruits I couldn't peel, ate leafy green vegetables, ate on the street, and so on an so forth. I had no problems with this, though a friend of mine did come down with food poisoning in Bangkok.
- How is the food? The food was really outstanding and I didn't have a single bad meal, except for the breakfast I had at the Burger King in the airport while waiting for my flight back to the States. I ate mostly in street stalls or small restaurants, though a few times I ate in fancier places. There is something for everyone in Thailand, although vegetarians will have to be careful and there is some form of meat or fish in most dishes.
If can't handle much chili, stick with noodle dishes or fried rice dishes in street stalls, because the person cooking will generally ask you how spicy you want it and the default for a farang is mild. Salads are generally blazing hot and very good. Som tom, a salad made from shredded green papaya, is intensely hot, as is yam plaa meuk, a salad made from lightly grilled squid. Curries in a curry shack can be a mixed bag, with some very mild and others intense.
- How is the beer? In a hot climate like Thailand, I found the local beers to be very refreshing and quite nice. Others disagree with this assertion, however. All the beers are relatively high in alcohol, usually in the 6% range. The two largest brands are Singha (pronounced Sing) and Chang and these can be found just about everywhere. Singha is a bit more expensive and perhaps slightly better than Beer Chang. A large bottle will run 35-50 B in a store, slightly more in a street stall, and about double or triple in a restaurant.
- How did you get around?Thailand has a very good transportation system, though it is lacking in a few minor details. The rail network works very well and can get you to the north, south, and northeast with little difficulty. Trains seem to leave more or less on time but rarely get in on time unless you take one of the special express sprinter trains. Third class rail travel is like taking a metro train inside of a large US city: No assigned seating, not super comfortable, makes every stop. It is also the cheapest. For a bit more, you can travel second class in which you get your own (padded) seat, and sometimes AC. First class gets you a cabin, but costs a lot more. There are different speeds of trains, including express, special express, and sprinter. These vary in cost and speed, and on some you get a meal service. For overnight trains, you can opt for a sleeping berth, but I don't see the need for this.
The bus system can be better than the train system at times. Again, there are varying degrees of comfort and speed and cost. For short hauls, the bus system works better than the train system due to more frequent departures. Moreover, the bus system can get you just about anywhere in the country, whereas the train system will only get you to places along the rail road.
Inside cities, you have a variety of transit options, including local bus (I never took one), tuk-tuk (three wheeled vehicle), or pick-up truck (benches in the back). You need to barter with the driver and fix a price before you get in. I tended to walk to most places, but occasionally rode. In Bangkok, you also have the option of taking the subway (excellent, easy system), the Skytrain (didn't take it, heard great things), the local train network (slow, but far reaching), and river taxis. The river taxi system is very cheap and works well.
- How do you get from the airport into Bangkok? The airport is located well to the north of town. Your most expensive option is to get a taxi from the taxi stand inside the airport. This will cost you about 700 B plus tolls on the highway to most places inside the city. Or, you can walk outside the airport to the arrivals section and get in the taxi line there, where you will pay about 300 B plus tolls. I'm not sure what the difference is. Or, if you arrive during the day and are not too whipped from a long flight, just get on a local train in to town and ride it all the way to the main train station, just outside of Chinatown.
- Where do people stay in Bangkok? Bangkok is like any western city: You can stay about anywhere. However, most people seem to gravitate to Khao San Road, which is a mini-backpacker ghetto with lots of cheap rooms.. And a lot of other tourists. And not much charm. Instead, head to Chinatown which has a really neat vibe, excellent dining, slightly more upscale accomodation, and a distinct lack of banana-pancake-seeking backpackers. I saw few westerners there and really, really liked the time I spent there.
- What about the sex-tourism thing in Bangkok? This doesn't appeal to me and I didn't seek it out. It is located in one particular quarter of the town and any guidebook will point you to it. On the plus side,the rest of Bangkok seems free of it and unless you go looking for it, you won't experience it.
- What about smoking? Pretty much every male in Thailand smokes, and they smoke just about everywhere. There are a few exceptions: No smoking in temples, subway or Skytrain stations, and a few other spots. Signs are posted conveniently.
- How did you carry your stuff? I brought a Serratus Aladdin II pack (about 44 liters capacity), which is a tough alpine pack that has seen quite a few miles. I had plenty of space for all my stuff and I could carry it effectively on my back when appropriate. If I hadn't brought my SLR, I would have filled only about half of it.
- What kind of camera did you bring? I brought a Nikon N80 with Nikkor 28-105mm and 50mm lenses. The 50mm lens was great for interior and night shots as it lets it about twice as much light as the other Nikkor and I found that I could shoot without a flash on most occasions. I shot on a Fuji Provia 100 and Velvia 50 slide films. I carried all this in a small Tamrac chest bag. I also carried a small Olympus D-395 Camedia digital camera for impromptu shots on excursions during which I didn't want to haul the larger camera. I scanned the slides into the computer using a friend's Canon slide scanner.
- What about taking pictures of people? I really liked spending time in markets and took a lot of pictures there. However, before snapping a shot of someone, I would always get their consent. As my Thai is weak, I simply pointed to my camera. If the person nodded, I took a picture. I tried to avoid taking pictures of monks. As in any country, don't photograph the police, military, or security services.
- How did you carry your money and passport? While in town, I left most of my money and passport in my room, as I was staying at places where the risk of break-in was relatively low (i.e, nice places not catering to backpackers or other tourists). I stuffed some Baht into my pants pocket as I walked about. While traveling with all of my stuff, I used a small waist wallet to carry the passport and cash, with some in reserve hidden inside the pack.
- Why didn't you go to the beaches in the South? Thailand is about the size of Texas, which means you can't see everything in three weeks. The beaches were less interesting to me than the cultural stuff in the north. Moreover, the high season for beach tourism in the south starts in mid-December and I didn't feel like spending my time interacting with Germans in speedos and competing with Australians for room space. However, if I go to Thailand again I might spend three weeks in the South as it does have a certain tropical appeal.
- What was your favorite place? This is really a hard question to answer. I liked Chiang Mai alot, but everyone does. Phitsanulok had the best market by far and seems to be completely overlooked by tourists, probably because the sexier destination of Sukhothai is close by. Hua Hin had the best food, but is a real hole.
- What was your least favorite place? Well, I wouldn't spend time in Hua Hin again. It had excellent seafood, but was overrun by western tourists and had about as much appeal as going to the Jersey shore for vacation. That being said, it had some nice qualities too.
- Where didn't you go that you wish you did? I'd like to have visited Chiang Rai, Pai, and Nan in the north, but couldn't tear myself away from Chiang Mai soon enough to get there and still get to the wedding in Ayutthaya. Rather than going to Hua Hin, I would have rather gone to Prachuap Khiri Khan, which is a few hours south of Hua Hin and seems to have nothing to recommend it to western tourists. Except for seafood that is supposed to be the best in Thailand.
- How did you wash your clothes? I brought a bottle of concentrated soap with a lavender scent and washed out my clothes in buckets or garbage bins in my hotel room.
- What kind of toilets do they have? Everyplace I stayed had western toilets.
- What is the weather like in the winter? It varied from warm to hot. Except for Chiang Mai, most days ranged from 85-95 Fahrenheit, with nights in the upper 70s. Chiang Mai was more comfortable, with highs in the mid 80s and lows in the lower 70s. It never rained while I was there, although it did get cloudy occasionally.
- What guidebooks did you use? I used the Lonely Planet and found it to be more or less accurate and helpful. It seems the authors deliberately left out some details about really cool attractions, probably to encourage people to explore rather than being led around by the nose.
- Will you go back to Thailand? Absolutely. Given three weeks, I'd probably head to the north east and spend a week or ten days seeing a few places before crossing the border and heading in to Laos for another week or ten days. Alternatively, I might skip Laos and instead make my way over to Nan, Chiang Rai, and Pai in the north.