Thailand has the reputation as the home to beautiful beaches, great food, smiles, monks, political turmoil and the longest standing monarchy in the world. Bangkok has the “one night in Bangkok” reputation mixed with the smiles, monks, protests and tuk-tuks. With 6.5 million people in central Bangkok, a tremendously hot climate, bright lights, skyscrapers and great food you have anything you want.
Some basic thoughts and tips for enjoying the Thai culture and Bangkok:
Smile. Smiling at and with Thai people will make navigating Bangkok and Thailand much easier. Thai people are said to be the friendliest in the world, smile at them and you will see the how they acquired the reputation.
Once you master smiling in 95 degree heat on crowded broken sidewalks, try this when greeting a Thai person: smile a bit more and be patient. Got it? To finish the routine: smile, be patient, point to what you want (if ordering food), smile again.
Learn your basic Thai- Sawadee Kop (male) means hello and goodbye and Kop Khun Krap means thank you.
Bangkok is a filled with people, Thai people are used to working in very small, crowded spaces without much personal space. The heat and humidity will crowd you more than people. Thai people are not confrontational; they do not raise their voice or become aggressive. If you encounter any difficulties, stay calm and speak in plain, clear English. Remember, most Thai people cannot read English, showing them a piece of paper with English on the paper will not help them help you; try carrying a picture of where you want to go or having your hotel write questions or instructions in Thai for you.
Bangkok traffic is terrible, it can take 20 minutes to move 1 kilometer. Take public transit- the Skytrain is outstanding (this is an elevated train) and runs from the river all the way downtown, the website: http://www.bts.co.th/en/index.asp, the trains run every 3-5 minutes. The subway system is outstanding as well, clean, safe and efficient. For those visiting from North America, traffic is on the the left side of the rode, remember that and don’t end up the farang who looked the wrong way and walked into a motorbike.
Taxi’s are abundant, if a taxi is available the small red “sign” in the lower right of the windscreen will be illuminated. All taxi’s are metered and you pay by the meter- it will be on THB35 when you get in. Tip- if the driver won’t use the meter, don’t get in the taxi. Another tip- only use taxi’s that are ‘moving’, I never use the taxi’s parked on the side of the street with the half-asleep drivers. Many taxi drivers understand some english, but not much. Make sure your driver understands where you want to go- if you are not local, make sure your hotel gives you a card with the hotel address in Thai.
Take the tuk-tuk one time, then don’t do it again. I hate those polluting machines, they don’t have aircon, all fares are negotiated (you will get ripped off) and they cannot negotiate traffic any faster then a taxi.
Motorcycle (motorcye) taxis are great, but not for the faint of heart and challenging unless you speak some Thai. How to tell a motorcycle taxi? The drivers where vests. It is simple, you jump on the back of the motorcycle (never put your feet down), weave through traffic and are done. There is no meter. This is the fastest way to get around, but you are going to get hurt if there is an accident and communication with the driver is a challenge. I love the motocye and use it regularly.
Pedestrians have no rights, even in crosswalks. Look both ways before trying to cross the street, find a break in the traffic and walk at a logical pace across the street. There are loads of motorbikes, don’t run as they will adjust to your pace if you are walking. Don’t jaywalk, the motorbikes ride between cars and are always in motion.
Buddhism, Temples, Monks and Shrines are a part of everyday life in Bangkok and Thailand. This is very different from the West where the majority of outward displays of religion are confined to certain days of the week or places. You are welcome to visit, and should just to have a look.
There are over 400 temples in Bangkok, many Thai people pay a quick visit to the temple during the week; visits to the temple are informal and can last as long as you like. As you walk down streets or ride in a taxi, you will notice people placing their hands in the prayer position and bowing as they pass a shrine- yes, the taxi driver will even do this while driving. Monks are walking on the streets, usually early in the morning; buses and trains have seats reserved for Monks and Thai airlines allows Monks to board first.
Please pay the proper respect to the Temples, Monks and Shrines, but do not be intimidated, the easiest way to learn the protocol at a shrine or temple is just to observe a Thai person and copy or follow their lead (remove shoes, observe silence).
Politics is a topic filled with much emotion and very clear sides and viewpoints. There have been numerous protests with violence between the “red” shirts and “yellow” shirts. Generally the protests have been contained to small areas of Bangkok, usually where they can draw significant attention. During a protest, it is strongly recommended that you not attend or venture into that section of town for sightseeing or photo taking. I recommend not wearing either a Red or Yellow shirt on days of protests- any local paper will have news of a planned protest on the front page. I also suggest avoiding delving into prolonged, definitive conversations about Thai politics, best to maintain a neutral viewpoint.
The Monarchy and King are treated with the highest respect in Thailand, there are pictures of the King on buildings and signs throughout Bangkok. It is not acceptable to speak unfavorably about the King or Monarchy, I strongly suggest you not utter any divisive or derogatory comments or statements about the King- even if in jest.
Food- Thai people love their own food, with good reason. Most Thai people want to eat Thai food over any kind of food. The food is fresh, healthy and very inexpensive; eat Thai food while here, don’t eat pizza and KFC. Yes, the food can be spicy, if you are ordering Thai food and don’t like spicy, try some of the basics like Pad Thai or Khao Pad Moo (friend rice with pork) and say “no spicy” (mai phed) when ordering.
Sightseeing- go early in the day before the big heat comes, the best sights offer very little protection from the sun and heat and rarely have air conditioning. Head out around 9am, head back mid-afternoon for a beer and nap by the pool, or head to sights with air-conditioning during the afternoon heat.
Thai people purchase a great deal of their food on the street (sidewalk) either to take home or sit down and eat. Try it. Simply walk up to a small cart, point to what you want, it will be made for you in 3-4 minutes to prepare, sit on one of the plastic stools at the “picnic” table on the sidewalk and eat. Street food is very inexpensive- from 10 Baht for barbecue to 40 Baht for a bowl of noodle soup- and safe to eat. If it wasn’t safe, why would all the Thai people be eating it?I eat street food 4-5 times a week and have never had any problem.
Bangkok and Thailand are very safe places, but you can always do your part to ensure you are safe. Only take taxi’s that are “on meter”, don’t pull out large quantities of cash, avoid dark side streets and lightly traveled dark places late at night.
It always helps me to remember a simple fact: I am a visitor in another country and walking in a completely different culture. See the culture for what it is, best not to limit your experience by judging and comparing the culture to your own. Experience the differences, enjoy the experience.