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Thailand guide for first-timers

Thailand guide for first-timers

Widely regarded as one of the best places to ease yourself into Asian culture, Thailand is truly welcoming and relatively easy to travel around. Tourism has a long history here, so amenities, guides and tours are readily available.

Most western visitors are already familiar with Thai food, and it helps that many locals speak basic English.

Thailand guide for first-timers

Western comforts are also relatively easy to come by, and things like street signs and menus are very often written in English as well as in Thai.

Nonetheless, you'll still feel a culture shock when you arrive – as I did when I touched-down in Bangkok for the first time last year. From getting to grip with the exchange rate to respecting the local culture, there are several things you can do make your first few days as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Read on for my top tips to help you hit the ground running:

Travel Basics

  • Visas

    Visa to Thailand

    British passport holders can enter Thailand for 30 days without a visa, so you'll get your passport stamped when you go through customs. For visits of more than 30 days, you need to obtain a visa through the Thai consulate before you travel.

  • Money

    Baht, Thailand's local currency

    The local currency is Thai Baht (THB or b). At the time of writing (Jan 2017), £1 is roughly 45THB. Banks, ATMs and exchange bureaus are widely available in cities and most towns across the country.

  • Language

    Many locals speak basic English

    "Thai" is spoken throughout the country. The language uses five different tones and is written in a unique script. Many hotel and tourism staff speak English but this is less common beyond major cities and popular tourist areas.

  • Mobile reception

    Phone reception is good in Thailand

    3G is available widely, and 4G is available in major cities. Phone reception is good in all but the most remote areas.

What to pack:

Along with obvious things like shorts, t-shirts, beachwear and sun-cream, I found it was really useful to have these specific items to hand – alternatively, you could buy most items in Bangkok or Chiang Mai but it's nice not having to scour the shops as soon as you arrive:

  • Wet weather gear

    Don't forget your wet weather gear

    Definitely take a waterproof and/or an umbrella, even if you're visiting outside the main rainy season (May to October). Most upscale hotels and guesthouses provide umbrellas but it's better to keep one on you at all times. I'd also recommend using a dry sack inside your daypack – it often rained without warning when I was sightseeing and, without a dry sack, my camera would have been ruined.

  • Mosquito repellent

    You should pack mosquito repellent

    Generally, Malaria isn't a risk in Thailand (except in very remote areas) but you should still try to avoid being bitten by mosquitos. Besides spoiling your tan with swollen bites, mosquitos carry other nasty infections, like dengue fever. Be prepared with sprays, coils and plug-ins. Check NHS Fit for Travel for the latest advice.

  • Plug adaptor

    UK three-pin plugs won't work in Thailand

    Most Thai sockets take either round two-pin plugs (European-style); or flat two-pin plugs (North American-style). UK three-pin plugs won't work in Thailand, so buy an adapter before you leave to make sure you can charge your phone, Kindle and other electric equipment as soon as you arrive.

  • Clothes to cover knees

    Pack long shorts/skirts and trousers

    You won't be allowed to enter most temples and palaces unless your knees and shoulders are covered, so pack long shorts/skirts and trousers. Shoes also need to be removed, so take a pair you can slip on and off easily, like flip-flops or Crocs.

  • Snorkelling gear

    Snorkelling gear

    Thailand's underwater world is a fascinating place, and being able to experience it whenever you feel the urge adds a fantastic element to your trip. Taking your own gear also means you can guarantee it fits well and is leak free.

Ten top tips

  1. Check the weather

    Weather in Thailand varies throughout the year

    The weather in Thailand varies throughout the year, depending on whereabouts you go. As a rough guide, the most comfortable and settled months are November to February. Outside this period, it tends to be hot and humid between March and May, with monsoon rains between May and October.

  2. Don't do too much

    Pick and prioritise visits to two or three key attractions

    Thailand is bursting with "must see" sights and, although it's tempting to cram it all in, I find it tends to be far more enjoyable to prioritise two or three key attractions. For a first visit, a simple itinerary might include Bangkok and/or Chiang Mai, plus a national park like Khao Sok, and a beach or island like Ko Samui or Phuket.

  3. Manage expectations

    Thailand's top beach resorts are hugely popular

    If you're hoping for secret islands and untouched beaches, then steer clear of the best-known spots. Famous places like Koh Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Phi Phi (where the movie The Beach was filmed) are hugely popular, so don't expect a slice of paradise all to yourself. For crowd-free sands, be prepared to travel away from the obvious.

  4. Haggle at markets

    Bargaining is all part of the Thai experience

    Bargaining is all part of the Thai experience, and stall holders will expect you to haggle. You can often knock the original price down by a third or more, so don't be afraid to walkaway if you think you're being overcharged. Two of the best Thailand markets for souvenir shopping are Chiang Mai Night Bazaar and Bangkok's Chatuchak Weekend Market.

  5. Drink responsibly

    Drink responsibly in Thailand

    The legal age for buying booze in Thailand is 20 and, officially, you can only buy alcohol in shops between 11am-2pm and 5pm-midnight – so don't be offended if you get refused or asked for ID. It's also useful to note the high alcohol content in many Thai drinks – some local beers are 7% abv, so it won't take much to feel tiddly.

  6. Dress modestly

    It's polite to dress modestly in cities and public places

    While skimpy clothes and bikinis are fine by the hotel pool, it's polite to dress modestly in cities and public places. You should also remove your shoes and cover your shoulders and knees when entering a temple or palace.

  7. Take care on the roads

    Thailand has one of the worst safety records in the world

    Be very careful if you hire a moped or a car – Thailand has one of the worst safety records in the world, with everything from speedy locals to unusual road signs and inexperienced fellow tourists to watch out for.

  8. Eat adventurously

    A Thai holiday is a fantastic opportunity to try new dishes

    As well as tucking into favourites like pad Thai and green curry, a Thai holiday is a fantastic opportunity to try new dishes that you can't find back home. Street stalls are a good place to browse new flavours, and regional specialities like Khao Soi Soup and Chiang Mai Sausage are a must. Even better, street food is so cheap that you can sample lots of things without worrying about the cost.

  9. Be culturally aware

    Religion and the monarchy are also treated with great respect in Thailand

    Friendliness and hospitality are imbedded in Thai culture – smiles, laughter and a sense of humour go a long way here. Religion and the monarchy are also treated with great respect, so it's polite to do as the locals do: stand when anthems are played, and never touch someone's head or to point your feet at Buddhist icons.

  10. Keep your wits about you

    Keep your wits about you

    Most Thai people are kind and honest but, just like anywhere in the world, you can't trust everyone. First-time visitors are easy targets, particularly for Thailand's notorious gem scams – this elaborate scheme involves a series of seemingly independent individuals convincing a tourist that they can buy cheap or duty-free gems to sell back in the UK. In most cases, the "gems" turn out to be worthless.

Learn from the locals

Learn from the locals

It certainly pays to do a little prep before you arrive somewhere new – trying to work out the exchange rate while haggling at the same time is stressful, and accidently timing your beach stay during the monsoon season could be a real disappointment. Nonetheless, you can't be expected to get everything right first time – the fun of visiting somewhere new is in discovering different cultural quirks and being open to new experiences.

Luckily, most Thai people are accustomed to tourists learning about their culture for the first time and, in my experience, they're ready to laugh at your mistakes with you, give guidance where you need it, and go out of their way to make sure you enjoy their country as much as they do. If you're visiting for the first time, I'm sure you'll love it as much as I did.

Lucy Grewcock

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Lucy Grewcock

Lucy Grewcock

The Escape Artist

One-off experiences, action-filled adventures and eye-popping cultural encounters: my kind of travel...

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