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A Beginner’s Thailand Travel Guide

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Written by: Matt Dawson

Welcome to the ultimate big fat Thailand fact file!

Government type: Constitutional Monarchy
Capital: Bangkok


Location: Southeastern Asia, bordering the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, southeast of Myanmar
Climate: Tropical; rainy, warm, cloudy southwest monsoon (mid-May to September); dry, cool northeast monsoon (November to mid-March);southern is always hot and humid
Terrain: Central plain; Khorat Plateau in the east; mountains elsewhere
Lowest point: Gulf of Thailand 0m
Highest point: Doi Inthanon 2,576m


Population: 65,068,149
Nationality: noun: Thai (singular and plural) adjective: Thai
Ethnic groups: Thai 75%, Chinese 14%, other 11%
Religions: Buddhist 94.6%, Muslim 4.6%, Christian 0.7%, other 0.1% (2000 census)
Languages: Thai, English (secondary language of the elite), ethnic and regional dialects
Thai Beach Panorama

Visa Requirements

Visitors from many nations are entitled to a 30-day visa on arrival. However, there are a range of options for longer stays and multiple entries.

Getting There

International airports: Bangkok, Chiang Mai
Land borders: Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar.

Ideas and Things To Do

  • Learn to Scuba dive
  • Thai boxing
  • Visit the hill tribes
  • Khao Sahn Road
  • Damnoen Saduak Floating Market
  • Chill on an island
  • Grand Palace, Bangkok
  • A Full Moon Party

Climate Advice

Escape Britain at its parkiest and visit Thailand between November and February for dry, sunny days and occasionally cool evenings. February to May is hot and sultry, May to October is the seriously-humid, rainy season.

Etiquette and stuff

Be prepared to barter for items on street stalls and at markets. It is considered the norm and will be expected. But don’t get angry or raise your voice. Just smile and agree a deal.
If you visit a temple or royal residence you will have to take off your shoes and cover up legs (girls have to cover up arms.) They usually have things you can borrow to cover up if you need to.
You’ll read this everywhere, but just to confirm: DO NOT insult the King or the royal family. The King is well respected by all Thais and they will not tolerate any insults towards him. This includes anything bearing the King’s image like a stamp or a coin, so be careful!

Handy phrases

It’s very easy to pick up a few words and phrases. Worth expending a bit of mental energy on it as it’ll make your life easier and endear you to the locals to some extent.
With most of these greetings, it is necessary to end your sentence/phrase with khrab for men and kaa for women.

  • Sawat-dee – Hello/Goodbye
  • La-gon – Goodbye
  • Lao jer gun – See you again
  • Chok dee – Good luck

Ideas of Cost

Food: £2 – £3 per day

Accommodation: £2 – £3 for a dorm bed, £10 – £20 for singles in most hotels
Travel: A 12 hour journey can cost as little as £1.50, but it will vary from one travel agent to another.
Beer: 80p will buy you a decent sized Chang or Singha beer.

Nightlife and Going Out

Nightlife ranges from international super clubs in Bangkok to the seedy sex shows of Patpong and Pattaya. Unless you’ve managed to get a long way off the beaten track, you won’t be short of something to do of an evening. Of course, there’s also the legendary / infamous Full Moon Parties on Koh Phangan.

Staying Healthy – FCO Guidelines

There are excellent international hospitals in Bangkok but they can be expensive. Ordinary hospitals and clinics in Thailand are not always up to UK standards. This applies particularly to the coastal islands and many mainland districts outside of Bangkok, where hospitals and clinics are not equipped to deal with major trauma.
Seek medical advice about endemic diseases before travelling. Dengue fever is on the increase in Thailand. The dengue-carrying mosquito is most active during the day and you should consider using insect repellent.
Thailand has an epidemic of HIV infection and AIDS. Heterosexual transmission accounts for most HIV infections and HIV is common among prostitutes of both sexes.

Staying in Touch

Internet, email, landlines, mobiles and post are all cheap(ish), available and affordable in Thailand.

Ideas and Things To Do in Thailand

Learn to Scuba dive – Discover a new world

Do this because Thailand is one of the cheapest and most beautiful places to dive in the world. There are loads of dive shops where you can get your PADI Open Water certificate for less than £150, which includes four days of training and diving and all your kit. You’ll swim among huge trigger fish, colourful coral and puffer fish, and even Nemo makes an appearance.

Muay Thai – Thai boxing

Go there because it’s bloody good fun! Thai boxing matches are held at Bangkok’s Lumpini Stadium. It’s loud, packed and a lot of fun, though the fights get quite brutal at times. Buy one of the cheaper tickets if you’d rather sit with the fans than at the front with the tourists complaining about blood-splatters on their Ralph Lauren.

Elephant trekking

See the world from another angle
Do this because it’s a great chance to make friends with these gentle giants, and see some amazing scenery in the process. Chiang Mai, with its lush forests and breathtaking mountains, is the place for elephant trekking. You can combine it with a spot of bamboo rafting and swimming in jungle waterfalls for a great fun day.

Visit the Hill Tribes – A Different Side to Thailand

Do this because you’ll get an insight into traditional rural life in Thailand. From Chiang Mai you can trek up into the surrounding mountains which are home to the hill tribes. The tribes live a largely traditional way of life based on subsistence farming, but make a few extra bob by providing unique accommodation for groups of trekkers.

Khao San Road – Backpacker hub

Go there because. whether you end up loving it or hating it, you have to check out Khao San Road. This road in Bangkok is where most backpackers head to when they arrive. It’s packed with travellers from around the world and lined with hostels, bars, restaurants, travel agents and stalls selling everything from wall-hangings to pirate CDs. Great for people-watching.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – Whatever floats your boat

Go there because it’s one of the coolest places to shop in the world. Hundreds of little boats piled high with fruit, vegetables, chickens, blankets, clothes and knick knacks jostle for position in a web of canals. You can wander along the shores, stopping to eat hot food from one of the boats, or hop on a boat yourself and join the action.

Chill on an island – sun, sea, sand and snorkelling

Do this because Thailand’s islands are a legendary place to unwind. Find yourself a beach hut (for a couple of quid a night), bagsy a hammock, then spend your days chilling and snorkelling and your nights socialising in a beach-side bar. Koh Samui is great for partying, Koh Phangan has the Full Moon Parties and Koh Tao is a Scuba diver’s paradise.

Grand Palace, Bangkok – Buddhist bling

Go there because it’s an exotic architectural masterpiece. The fabulously ornate, golden palace was once home to Thailand’s king and government. You’ll also find the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, home to a deeply sacred statue of the Buddha carved from a single piece of jade. Dress modestly or you won’t be allowed in.

Full Moon Party, Koh Phangan, Thailand

Glowsticks-a-go-go! Slap on the fluorescent body paint, grab yourself a goldfish bowl of questionable alcoholic content and join 10,000 other revelers in shaking your stuff on the sandy beach of Haad Rin, the island’s nightlife capital.
The Full Moon Party atmosphere starts bubbling up to a week before the actual event. Beachside bars play 24 hour music, DJs spin warm-up sets and everyone gets into the Full Moon spirit. Be warned, the place gets rammed a fair few days before the big party, so you’ll need to get your accommodation booked up beforehand. If you’re planning to any sleep that is.
The Full Moon Party is held each month (on the eve of the full moon surprisingly) Twelve major sound systems run the length of the beach, so chances are you won’t be able to miss where the party’s at. Drum ‘n’ bass, dance, trance, house, hip hop, the music is varied and top DJs keep on doing their thing well into the morning. Full Moon Parties mean table-dancing, fire eaters, jugglers, candle-lined beachfronts, midnight swims, plenty of alcohol and backpackers from across the globe getting together to shake their money-makers.
There are also Half Moon Parties and Black Moon Parties should you miss out on the main event.
Be warned, this may not be your scene if you’re a pipe and slippers type.

Things to Think About

1) Please respect the beautiful island of Koh Phangan. Take your rubbish with you and do all you can to leave the locals with a positive image of backpackers.
2) Not everyone is in it for the music and the booty-shaking. Bad people go to full moon parties too. Stay aware.
3) Be sensible on the alcohol and drugs front. Girls (and guys), stick with a group and keep an eye on each other.
4) If you’ve been drinking, stay out of the sea. It’s dangerous.
5) Keep your shoes on. Broken glass and bare feet are a bad combo.
6) Local hostels often require a three night minimum stay around Full Moon Party time, so try to get there early if you can. You’ll get cheaper rates too!

Our Users Say

“Eventually the Full Moon Party arrived and as night fell we started to apply luminous paint to our bodies. I know it sounds cheesy but at Full Moon it works! When we stepped onto the beach, it was rammed. There must have been two or three times the amount of people there compared to the warm-up nights. A few buckets down though and it didn’t matter anymore. Dancing on tables and stages or wherever there was room ensued and I had the most mad night of my life. It just didn’t matter how much you danced you just carried on, the adrenalin rush was intense.
“When the sun came up it was like something out of ‘Saving Private Ryan’. The beach was covered in people walking round in a daze or laid out on the floor looking half dead while the bass coming from the drum ‘n’ bass tent sounded like bombs going off. There were still some of us who kept on dancing and drinking though. At 9am the few people I had re-found and I decided to call it a night – or day – and head back to the hostel. It was the best night of my RTW trip by a mile.” – Rhys Ingram
“The Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan was so much better than I expected. After hearing so much negativity about it I was beginning to think I wouldn’t bother, but then I always said I would have to try it for myself before deciding, and it was brilliant! I think it really got into swing at around 5.30am but don’t know if this was maybe due to the fact that by then I’d been dancing for nearly 12 hours and had drank 12 buckets of sangsom mix! (No, I didn’t really have 12. I’m not that hardcore…)” – Sarah Cumming
“The highlight of Thailand was of course the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Wow!
“It was so much fun! Everyone dances on the beach all night and then all day, drinking buckets of the cheapest whisky in Thailand! I highly recommend these parties! Especially since there are ‘warm up’ parties, half moon parties, night after the full moon parties… every night is a party on Haad Rin!” – Helen Bray
“I was advised not to stay in Haad Rin for the Full Moon Party and this was good advice: Haad Rin never quietens down, despite best attempts the beach is dirty and all night men piss in the sea instead of using the toilets. It is also expensive around Full Moon and I heard a lot of reports of break-ins and burglaries. Instead I stayed a short taxi ride away in Ban Tai in a blissful, beautiful resort which was cheap, quiet and basically paradise. This meant I could spend my days relaxing in a hammock on the beach and my evenings living in up in Haad Rin. A private taxi was expensive so I found it best to wait by the side of the road and flag down the 50B-a-ride pick-up taxis that come along fairly frequently. On the night of the Full Moon Party I discovered you can fit 19 people in a Toyota Pick-up (although I was assured we weren’t trying very hard and you can actually fit closer to 25).
“We’d been to Haad Rin for the nights leading up to the Full Moon Party and had a great time, dancing on the beach, drinking buckets and meeting lots of people. On the night of the FMP we bumped into various people we’d spoken to the previous nights and the atmosphere was just alive with friendliness and everyone looking to have a good time. There were more people out earlier on the Saturday night: it was in full swing by about 11pm where on previous nights it didn’t really get going until midnight or 1am. The bars all play different music and you can find something to fit your preference, there’s a lot of techno but also house, drum and bass, RnB and general cheese! In the end it doesn’t really matter as you find you move up and down the beach to meet people, following people you know etc. You can sit outside the bars on the mats provided until things really kick off and people start dancing in every available space and then you are likely to get sand kicked in your face! I would advise to stay away from the widely available drugs, the police do patrol and will arrest you. Aside from that I spent a proportion of my evening looking after a mushroom casualty and all he was really capable of doing was giggling – when this got boring I took him to watch fire dancers as revenge, but seriously I was worried: there are so many people and the sea is tempting when you are on drugs and if you get lost or lose a member of your group it can ruin your evening. It is worth having a meeting point as if you do get separated you may not find each other again.
“It really was a night I won’t forget in a hurry – I took a moment to sit by the water with friends and look at the moon and think about where I was, cliche but worth doing, I don’t know if I will ever get to go to one again and it was a moment I wanted to remember. While it is just a big beach party it is also such a good night, due to the number of people, all wanting an excellent party and all adding to the incredible atmosphere. A word of warning though, if you are hardcore enough to stick it out until the morning, you will get sunburnt on the beach and the cleaners coming round will ‘clean up’ anything… your camera, bag, shoes… they’re not fussy!” – Tori Groom

Diving in Thailand

Emma Kasprzak writes…

“Scuba diving: an expensive hobby for people on luxury holidays, and certainly not suited to a backpacker’s budget, right? That was what I thought, too…
When I booked my round the world ticket I never imagined that diving would be one of the best experiences of my trip. I learnt to dive when I was 14 on a family holiday in Egypt but since then I’d always seen the sport as pretty inaccessible. I didn’t realise how affordable it could be, or how many great diving locations there were.
Learn to dive, and you add a whole new dimension to your trip as you see new worlds both above and below the water.
Photo courtesy of Corina SwanThe island of Koh Tao off the east coast of Thailand is perfectly equipped for those who want to learn to dive or – like me – refresh their somewhat rusty skills.
Koh Tao has more dive shops than I’ve ever seen in one place so if you don’t like the first place you come to, try the other five down the road. Most dive centres are linked to resorts, so if – for example – you do the PADI Open Water Diver Course (usually the first step in diving), you’ll get free accommodation and breakfast for the duration (typically three to five days). Even if you’re already a seasoned diver, you’ll get half-price accommodation on the days you dive or do other PADI courses. If you really get bitten by the diving bug you can train all the way up to instructor level.
All courses are taught in a variety of languages as PADI is an international learning body, meaning your qualification will be recognised everywhere you go. You can learn in Japanese, French, German, Swedish or Swahili (though they may have been pulling my leg on that last one…).
All courses and dives include full kit, and even prescription masks for glasses-wearers. Your PADI course will include a certain amount of theory, and most resorts have classrooms for the videos and lectures… but don’t worry, it’s nothing like school! The resorts also have pools for training in or chilling out by when you’re not diving.
Koh Tao’s coral reef is accessible from the island’s shore, but some of the best dives require a short boat trip. So, once you get into the water what will you see? You’ll swim amongst huge trigger fish, rays, colourful coral, pipe fish (similar to seahorses) and puffer fish, and even Nemo himself makes an appearance.
By far the best dive I did was at night. It was a scary proposition to sink into blackness with a tiny torch to guide my way but it was well worth it to see the fish that come out once the sun goes down. At one point we turned our torches off and moved our arms about, watching the plankton light up like something out of The Matrix!
Koh Tao is also one of the few places in the World where you can dive with the biggest fish in the ocean, the 18 foot long whale shark (don’t worry, they only eat plankton!). If you want to meet these gentle giants, make sure you visit Thailand between February and June.
Diving in Thailand is affordable and fun, with crystal-clear, calm, warm seas, plenty of sunshine and tonnes of tropical sealife – so come on in, the water’s great!”

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