General Information About Thailand
We don’t want to bore you too much and most people either already know this stuff or don’t care or want to know. However, we just didn’t think our guide would be complete without at least mentioning some key facts. Rather than long paragraphs on each topic, we decided to just stick in some basic summaries next to each point.
Therefore in summary:
- Geography – Thailand is located in South-East Asia (in the tropics), and is 513,120 square kilometers in size (similar in size to Texas or France). The country is divided into four regions and 76 provinces. It’s neighbours are Myanmar (West), Laos (North), Cambodia (East) and Malaysia (South).
- Climate – Thailand is tropical… that means hot and sweaty with similar temperatures each day and not much cooler at night. There is some variation though, with a cool season in November to February (best time to visit), Hot season in March to June, and Rainy season from July to October.
- Holidays – Thailand has the following national holidays, some of which become alcohol free days due to religious significance. For drinkers you may want to plan your vacation around this or else stock up prior to the day. In addition, expect significant traffic particularly leaving Bangkok during these times as Thais will either go on vacation themselves or visit their relatives in the provinces. Note, public holidays usually only mean that government offices, schools and banks are closed. Most other businesses tend to still open:
- New Years Day (1 January);
- Makha Pucha Day (14 February 2014; 2 March 2015; date changes each year based on lunar calendar). This is an alcohol free day. This day is to commemorate when the Buddha preached to 1,250 monks and then ordained them. Candle ceremonies will be held at temples in the evenings where people hold candles and walk around the temple three times;
- Chakri Day (6 April). Commemorates the foundation of the Chakri dynasty and coronation of King Rama I in 1782;
- Songkran (13 to 15 April). This is the original Thai New Year and is celebrated by way of water ceremonies, which traditionally involved sprinkling water on people as a means of blessing good fortune onto them. However in modern times the Songkran period (which can last for over a week in some areas including Pattaya) has turned into an all out water fight instead, with people armed with water cannons, super soakers, buckets, and talcum powder. Expect to get wet no matter how much you protest;
- Labour Day (1 May);
- Coronation Day (5 May). Celebrates the coronation of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej;
- Visakha Pucha Day (13 May 2014; 1 June 2015; varies based on lunar calendar). Commemorates the Buddha’s birthday. This is an alcohol free day;
- Asahna Pucha Day (11 July 2014; 30 July 2015; varies based on lunar calendar). Commemorates the Buddha’s first sermon in Benares, India and the founding of the Buddhist monkhood. This is an alcohol free day. The following day is the start of Buddhist lent and is also alcohol free;
- Her Majesty the Queen’s Birthday (12 August). This is also Mother’s Day and is a popular date for people to return to the provinces to pay respect to their mothers;
- Chulalongkorn Day (23 October). Commemorates the anniversary of the death of King Rama V, one of Thailand’s most revered kings;
- Loy Krathong (6 November 2014; 25 November 2015; varies based on lunar calendar). It is not actually a public holiday but it is a significant event worth mentioning, where Thai’s pay respects to the water spirits, and seek to wash away their bad luck by placing small round boats with joss and candle sticks and a few coins onto a river. It occurs in the evening during a full moon;
- His Majesty the King’s Birthday (5 December). This is also Father’s Day. In more recent years this has become an alcohol free holiday;
- Constitution Day (10 December). Celebrates the event in 1932 when Thailand enacted its first constitution;
- New Year’s Eve (31 December);
- Population – Thailand’s total population is about 65 million. The majority of the population is still rural, although there is a growing influx of labourers moving into cities for work. Bangkok has approximately 8 million people, with the next two largest cities (Korat and Chiang Mai) only having 500,000 and 250,000 respectively. Pattaya’s official population is only 100,000 (2007 statistics), although realistically it is probably closer to Chiang Mai’s population these days.
- Religion – Almost 95% of the population are Buddhist (Theravada Buddhism being the most prevalent), with Islam and Christianity being the next two most popular religions.
- Politics – Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) being on the throne since 9 June 1946 (making His Majesty the longest current reigning monarch). The government is generally democratically elected although at present a military coup has displaced the previous civilian government and is currently undertaking reforms in what it claims is designed to remove corruption. Note that military coups are par for the course in Thailand and therefore nothing to be overly concerned with as a tourist.
Thailand Cultural Etiquette (Things to Keep in Mind)
- Royal Family – Do not disrespect the King or the Royal family – The King of Thailand is highly revered and respected by the Thai people. You will see many portraits and displays dedicated to the King and Queen throughout Thailand. Avoid saying or doing anything disrespectful towards the King and the Royal family as this can land you in serious trouble. For example, if you drop a Thai coin on the ground, do not attempt to stamp on it with your foot to stop it rolling away as all Thai coins contain an engraving of the King on it and it is equivalent to putting your foot on the King’s face. Thailand has strict lèse-majesté laws that give prison sentences of up to 15 years per offence.
- Feet – Avoid pointing with your feet – Pointing at someone or objects with your feet, lifting your feet above someone’s head or putting your feet on objects such as a desk, is considered extremely rude.
- Head – Avoid touching someone’s head – Feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body and the head is considered the most sacred. Do not touch someone’s head or hair, this includes children, even in play (the exception is your own children). Avoid stepping over someone sitting or sleeping on the ground.
- Avoid Pointing – Pointing is considered rude in most cultures including Thailand. If you need to point at someone, do so by lifting your chin in their direction. When motioning for someone to come over, do so by waving your hand with fingers straight and palm down. Pointing at inanimate objects and animals is acceptable (except for religious statues or buildings).
- Do not lose your cool – Becoming angry and showing strong emotions by yelling and using threatening gestures is frowned upon by Thai people. Thailand has a strong culture of appearance or face, therefore if you behave like this you will cause embarrassment to yourself and those around you and make everyone lose face. In some situations, this can result in swift and harsh physical retribution from locals.
- Take off your shoes – You will be required to remove your shoes before entering temples or a person’s house. Also, certain (usually small) businesses or restaurants may require you to remove your shoes, but this will be obvious upon entry. Just do as others do.
- Returning a Wai – A wai is a traditional Thai greeting of respect, this is done by placing both hands together in a prayer-like gesture under the nose with a slight bow of the head, do not attempt to wai while holding an object. You should instigate the wai when you are greeting someone of a higher social standing than yourself. Those of an equal or lower social standing to yourself will wai to you first (although as a Westerner many times locals will just adopt Western custom and give you a handshake or just simple hello or wave instead). If you are wai-ed to, not returning a wai is usually considered very impolite. The exception to returning a wai is where there is a significant distance in terms of social standing (such as a child wai-ing an elder or a waitress wai-ing a customer upon entry). In such circumstances, a nod of the head to acknowledge the wai would be sufficient, although with children of relatives or close friends, it is better for face to wai instead. There is also a rule that the higher the social standing of the person you are wai-ing to, the higher up on your head your finger-tips should be when wai-ing. Finger tips to just below the end of your nose signifies equal social standing.
- Avoid Illegal Drugs – Thailand and Asia in general are very strict when it comes to drugs. Thailand’s government has, from time to time carried out brutal crackdowns on illicit drugs. Even possession of small amounts of illicit drugs such as cannabis will lead to a prison sentence. A charge of trafficking can lead to a death penalty. Note that in certain establishments such as dance clubs, police do sometimes conduct raids where they will ask customers to give urine samples, which are tested on-the-spot for narcotics. Also note that Police will sometimes stop pedestrians (or even drivers/passengers in vehicles) to carry out a search for drugs. For those on prescription medication, it is recommended that you have a letter from your doctor confirming your prescription and/or at the least, keep the medication in its original box with the prescription label attached.
- Showing Affection in Public – Notwithstanding Thailand’s international reputation for bars, booze and bitches, Thailand is actually on the whole a very conservative society. The traditional views are that a girl should remain a virgin until marriage and no decent girl should show any affection whatsoever in public. Under the very traditional views, even holding hands in public is frowned upon. These viewpoints might seem contradictory when you are in Pattaya, but please note that girls working in the pay-for-play industry are only a minority of the Thai population and the average Thai girl is still quite conservative. Having said that, Thais do give a lot of lee-way to foreigners, but keep in mind that public displays of affection will make you lose a bit of respect in the eyes of locals. Also, many Thai girls may be embarrassed to cuddle, kiss or hold your hand in public. If you visit the relatives or parents of a Thai girl (even if you met her in a bar in Pattaya), we strongly recommend you do not show any affection (or even touch her) in front of her family or relatives.
- Cutlery – When eating Thai food, the locals will use a fork to shovel food onto a spoon and then put the spoon in their mouth. This is kind of the reverse of Western etiquette, but is quite practical for eating Thai food given food is usually already cut into small pieces. The fork should not be put in your mouth (only the spoon), and therefore when serving yourself from a common plate, try to use your fork for this (unless there is a serving spoon). Contrary to popular stereotypes, Thais do not use chopsticks regularly when eating their meals, unlike the Chinese and Japanese. Instead, chopsticks are really only used when eating noodle soup, in which case the locals will also have a spoon which is used to drink the broth. When eating Western food, Thais will (usually) then adopt Western etiquette and use a fork and knife, plus soup spoon, salad fork, dessert spoon, etc.
Thai currency is called the Baht, with denominations in 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000 baht notes, and coins in 1, 2, 5 and 10 baht. In addition, you will occasionally also find coins in smaller (essentially useless) denominations known as satang (equivalent to cents) in 25 and 50 satang denominations (copper coloured).
The approximate rounded exchange rates for baht as of this writing (October 2014) are:
- USD 1 = 32 baht
- GPB 1 = 53.5 baht
- Euro 1 = 44 baht
- JPY 100 = 31 baht
- HKD 1 = 4 baht
- SGD 1 = 25 baht
- AUD 1 = 29 baht
- NZD 1 = 28 baht
- DKK 1= 5.5 baht
- NOK 1 = 5 baht
- SEK 1 = 5 baht
- CAD 1 = 29 baht
- RUB 1 = 1 baht
- ZAR 1 = 3 baht