My interest in Thailand began in 1985 when I went there for my first vacation overseas. I had no idea at the time that it would become a lifelong interest and that years later I would (temporarily) retire there.
The Sad State Of Thailand Today:
I used to describe Thailand as "a wonderful country to visit". I think you'll sense that in some of my other writings here on the site. I don't consider it so any longer. Here are a few reasons why:
1. The Insurgency In Southern Thailand: As long as I've been familiar with Thailand, there's been discontent with the federal government in the three southern provinces of Thailand -- Yala, Pattani, and Narithiwat. I've traveled in those provinces (although back about a decade ago), and I can't say they are the friendliest areas toward tourists. Nevertheless, there were some interesting places to visit there, so I rather enjoyed one summer mostly in that region. What the basis of the insurgency is, is debated. One factor is historic, because many Muslims (who make up the overwhelming majority of the population in those provinces) feel the region is occupied by Thailand, but rightly belongs to a Muslim state (for most, neighboring Malaysia). Another factor is certainly the distance from the capital -- Bangkok -- and the feeling that there is a lack of respect for the southern Muslims by the country's Buddhists (95% of the population). Police and military brutality, a general disrespect of Islam, drug trafficking, and corruption all play a part in the resentment.
Some Muslims in the deep south support independence from Thailand, while others do not. Some insurgent groups -- which are difficult to identify, and who have not clearly stated concrete demands -- support armed conflict, while most Southern residents seem to want compromise to result in the return of the rule of law to the area, along with an end to human rights abuses by the government and the insurgents. Meanwhile, the violence continues, and escalated dramatically in 2004 when dozens of Muslim protesters died from suffocation while being held in government trucks. There are fears that much of the violence occurred under the influence of foreign Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, although much of the violence seems to differ from that typically perpetuated by those organizations. Nevertheless, some sources indicate that some of the insurgents were trained at al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda-like facilities in Pakistan, the Philippines, and/or Indonesia.
Bombings, beheadings, and other forms of murder have raised the death toll to well over 3,000, and that figure is from 2008! The mayhem continues on an almost daily basis.
Personally, I would no longer feel at all safe being a western tourist in the provinces of Narithawat, Pattani, or Yala.
2. The Red Shirts:
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship are typically called the "Red Shirts", is in my view, the most dangerous political group to be formed in Thailand in modern history. It is a political pressure group -- some would say a terrorist group -- that supports former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. It may be more accurate to say that Shinawatra controls the Red Shirt movement for his own ends. Some of the leaders of the Red Shirts have connections to the old Communist movement in Thailand. The position of the Red Shirts is that the current government of Abhisit Vejjajiva -- possibly the most honest politician in Thailand's modern history -- took power through illegitimate means, backed by the Thai military (and make no mistake, despite a veneer of democracy, Thailand is controlled to a large extent by the army. The Red Shirts are particularly strong in the poorest region of the Thailand -- Issan (the northeast plateau) and the north. But do not think that this is about poverty. As a New York Times article recently pointed out, "Thailand’s rural people are not serfs. They have been called some of the most comfortable poor people in the world. The economic boom of the 1980s brought them paved roads, electricity, brick houses, television sets, motorbikes, cell phones and factory jobs. Political analysts now call them 'post-peasants' and 'middle-income peasants'. But as their standard of living rose, the wealth of the well-to-do in Bangkok rose faster, and the aspirations and resentments of the lower classes grew."
During most of my year in Bangkok, most city dwellers looked down on the Red Shirts as uneducated rable rousers. And, they were correct. The Red Shirts mouth all the right words about democracy, but to them democracy means that their men (especially Shinawatra) win. At first there were sporadic demonstrations in the governmental area of the city, quite a ways from where we were living. But, as April 2009 rolled around, the Red Shirts became increasingly aggressive in their demonstrations, taking over areas near Government House (where the Prime Minister works) and the nearby Royal Plaza. Then they moved into the central business and shopping district, an area where I shopped or dined frequently. Finally, the major shopping malls in the area had to mostly shut down completely. Thousands were put out of work, and simply wondering if one would be able to shop for food became a daily concern. Skytrain and subway mass transit was occasionally disrupted, and several major streets were shut down completely. Central Bangkok came to a standstill.
The government seemed powerless to act and restore order. They would proclaim that action would soon be taken, but it was clear that the military wasn't backing the elected government and the police force tended to site with the Red Shirts. Increasingly, military forces were brought into the city, but did virtually nothing. A day after I drove north in the city to renew my visa, a shoot-out that lasted several hours occurred right on the expressway I had used. On April 13, the military half-heartedly attempted to clear protesters from the Din Daeng area of the city and the government began shutting down broadcasts by the Red Shirts. Several embassies, including that of the United States finally had to close and suspend services due to the violence in their area of the city.
Then, on May 19, the proverbial shit hit the fan. The military finally dispersed the protesters, but only after the most violent day in Thailand's history since the 1760s. Thirty-some important buildings were torched by the Red Shirts, including Southeast Asia's largest shopping mall -- and my favorite -- which was, to a large extent, gutted by flames (some sections of it have since reopened, but one of its major department stores was completely destroyed). Midday, dense black smoke billowed down our soi (street), and I wondered if I was safe from the arson. Then there were several days of near-martial law. I had had enough! I immediately began to plan my return to the States, and within two weeks was back "home".
As quoted in the previously mentioned New York Times article, anthropologist Charles Keyes said, "This is the worst crisis Thailand has had, ever, probably...and where we go from here I don’t think anybody knows. My understanding of what I have learned over the years here has really come into question. I question all the things I’ve learned about this country.”
Did I make the right decision to leave Thailand? Since May 19 there have been hand grenades thrown in shopping districts and near office buildings on a pretty-much weekly basis. Last week (as of this writing on October 9) an entire apartment complex was demolished when one rental unit was being used to make bombs and one actually detonated. Now, in October 2010, there are predictions of extreme violence for the remainder of this year. And make no mistake...it's not over...not a single problem has been solved, and personally I don't feel anyone is attempting to truly solve the issues.
And that is how I feel. Sort of like a lover who suddenly falls out of love with his mate! I will never return to Thailand, and I now discourage people from spending their tourist dollars to prop up a country whose moral fiber is bankrupt.
3. The Thai Smile & Buddhist Morality:
Over my two-decade-plus love affair with Thailand, I often heard other farangs (Thai slang for foreigners) say that you could never trust the famous "yim Thai" (Thai smile).
After my 13 months of living in Thailand, I have changed my mind a great deal about the Thai people, and perhaps I should explain why before I make some generalizations. During my first ten months of living in Thailand I was very happy and adjusted well. Not much surprised me...my many years of 3-8 week summer visits had prepared me well. Every day I was faced with little challenges (well, mostly little) -- things like the cleanliness of food, difficulty in finding clothing in bigger farang sizes, the language problem, and so forth. Although I love Thai food and was learning to cook it well, there were still days I longed for a real hamburger or a Krispy Kream donut. But, all the while there were many things that made up for what I missed. The seeming friendliness of Thai people, the great Thai food, the increasingly modern city of Bangkok, the beautiful serenity I found in at least some Thai temples, and so forth. If I had been keeping a balance sheet, it would have still been "in the black". But then along came the Red Shirts protests, shutting off certain areas of the city, making it difficult to plan trips around Thailand because you wondered what violence might break out, closing down shopping venues (including quite a few modern grocery stores) and restaurants. The red ink on my mental balance sheet began growing...exponentially once the actual violence began. This was not the Thailand I signed up for!
Are Thai people honest? Most are. But the likelihood that you will be the target of a scam is great. It may just be a little scam that could cost you a few cents or a few dollars (satang or baht)...that you'll be fined for littering, even if you're not...that the tuk tuk driver will take you to a gem shop for a special sale, instead of to your real destination...that you'll be walking past a major hotel and taxi drivers will offer you sex with female (or male or child) prostitutes...that you'll have porn DVDs and illegal software shoved in your face at Pantip Plaza...that you'll be offered Viagra at the otherwise legitimate drug store...that the pharmacist will try to sell you an alternate medication that's "the same thing", even though it isn't...I could go on. You get the point.
Are Thai people accepting of foreigners? On the surface, yes. Very welcoming. But with many there is an ulterior motive. You see the smiling Thai face. They see a walking $$$$$ dollar sign $$$$$. You are rich...even if you're not...it's all relative. That girl or guy you're dating. Ka-ching! The friends you hang out with. Ka-ching! Even the best friend you've know for 20 years! Ka-ching! Sour grapes because it happened to me? Admittedly so. But in the end, never have I so wrongly judged a number of people as I ultimately discovered in Thailand. If you say anything not positive about Thailand, no matter how true it may be, you're likely to lose a friend, or -- at the very least -- see a level of pouting you typically see only among children. Plan on bribing a policeman or other government official if you stay any length of time in the country; the concept is endemic.
And what of Buddhist morality? I'm not sure the average Thai is a true Buddhist. Most are as apt to bow to a statue of a Hindu god as a statue of Buddha. Most believe in ghosts...oh, they'll tell you they don't, but they all have a spirit house for the local phii...whom they revere to some extent. You may run into a scam-artist at some Buddhist temples, who are allowed to freely accost the rich foreigners. Oh, and just in case you're ready to jump to the conclusion that I don't respect Buddhism...I am Buddhist...and Christian.
And so, despite my sour grapes and new-found disdain for Thailand and its people, I will continue to post some travel experiences and advice for those of you who still want to go to this morally bankrupt nation:
Below, on this page, you can read some nitty gritty information you should know before planning a trip to Thailand. Over time I hope to add other information, but at least here's a start.
On other pages of the my website you can read more information about (each entry is a link):
The Nitty Gritty
The purpose of this section is to give you some basic information that will be helpful if you are considering visiting Thailand:
ACCOMMODATION: Reserve a hotel for at least your first couple of days in Bangkok (that will give you time to look around, if you prefer), and I recommend reservations in smaller cities at all times (it may be especially difficult to find suitable alternatives in smaller cities). For Bangkok, you might check out websites such as http://www.asiatravel.com (a company whose services I have used a number of times, both for hotels and serviced apartments). If you will stay in Bangkok for a month or more, consider finding a serviced apartment. For upcountry hotels you might checkout http://www.sawadee.com/.
CYBER CAFES: Are a little less common now, but can still be found in Bangkok. They are more common upcountry in almost any touristy area. Some in small shops along the street are just as useful and cheaper than those in shopping malls. Be sure you know if and how your ISP allows you to access your email through the web.
DINING IN BANGKOK: Hungry? No problem! It's been said that half of Bangkok's citizenry cook for the other half. Food is everywhere, and often it's an adventure!
There are many different venues when you're hungry. Head to the northern suburbs for charming garden restaurants, some built on poles over small lakes. Watch Thai families interact with their loving attitude toward children. At one such restaurant, waitresses in small boats bring the food to you. A traditional Thai meal consists of one dish with chicken, one beef, one seafood, and another with pork. With drinks and desert the total bill for two in such places may not exceed $10-$20.
My current favorite restaurant in Thailand is on the mezzanine level of the President Hotel near the corner of Ploenjit and Ratchadamri Roads...Sawasdee! You enter this level down some steps from the street, then through an airy bar into an up-class mall-like level...the Thai restaurant is on the left (there's also a street entrance to the restaurant in the parking area just past Gaysorn Plaza). There are other Sawasdee Restaurants in Thailand, this is not related to them. I really miss this restaurant!
Not all dining experiences in Thailand are formal. Some delicious food can be had right along the street. Fruit peddlers are everywhere -- a few mangosteens, bananas, or lamyai can make an easy snack while sightseeing. I favor meaty lunches on a stick -- there are meatballs (chicken, beef, or fish) with a delightful tangy sauce and, of course, the SE Asian staple -- satay -- is found everywhere (often sans peanut sauce, but with a delightfully spicy sweet chili sauce). Sit down cafes along the street can whip up a delicious noodle soup in a jiffy, if one knows how to order. Some would question the cleanliness of such food, but the rules are simple: 1.) look for a clean cook; 2.) look for a busy cook; 3.) buy something freshly cooked just for you. Although I've been sick in Thailand several times as a result of food or water, I've never been able to trace it back to a street-side dining experience.
Another option in Bangkok are the food courts in most shopping malls. While you will find American fast-food establishments throughout Bangkok, in these food courts, the outlets are primarily for Thai food. Experiment! The price is right!
SUVARNABHUMI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: The old international airport north of Bangkok has been replaced by this new airport. I was apprehensive about arriving here after all I had read about the poor design and lack of toilets! I found it very user-friendly, with my only problem being getting in the wrong line for passport and visa check-in, resulting in a few minor delays. Had I asked, instead of being the typical "I don't need directions" type of man, I would have been fine. I found passport and visa check-in to be quick and easy, although that could vary depending on the time of day or night your plane lands. After all my trips to Thailand, my bags have only been searched coming into the country once or twice, and that was rather cursory. Keep in mind, that in addition to the logical restrictions present in any country, you may not take Buddhist religious items, particularly statues of Buddha, out of the country without going through a complicated process. I found the following website to be rather a good introduction to the new airport: http://www.bangkokairportonline.com/.
Be sure to exchange some money at one of the bank booths or electronic machines in the terminal – you'll need Thai money for transportation into the city and tipping. If someone is meeting you, there is a "meeting point". If you are taking a taxi, go to the queue; prices are reasonable and those taxis are safe.
So, why so much angst regarding the "new" airport. Not sure. It's just an airport. Not very Thai in dosing or style. But, in my view it works rather well.
FOOD: Visit Thai restaurants in America and learn what you like. Then, remember, that the food is likelier to be spicier and hotter in Thailand! “Mai phet” means "not spicy". Good luck with that! Rice is a better antidote to spicy food than water. The sign you will see most frequently in Thailand is for Coke; other soft drinks are common. In Bangkok, American fast food restaurants are common; skip them and enjoy the local cuisine. Experiment with street food; just pick a clean looking vendor who is cooking fresh. Upcountry restaurants are less likely to have English menus, so try to learn some food vocabulary. When the food is good, tell them “ah-roy” (with a rolling r). Somewhere where you are not sure what might or might not be “safe”? In such situations I always ask for fried rice with chicken, pork, or shrimp.
GETTING AROUND BANGKOK: It happened! The Skytrain is a reality. And, there's a subway, too! Expressways are popping up all over. Years of political promises about Bangkok becoming a hub of modern transportation came to fruition. Wonderful vantage points are from the penthouse restaurants at either of the Baiyoke Hotels in the Pratunam district. It's an impressive sight as the ribbons of concrete ramps head in all directions. For information about the Skytrain, check out http://www.bts.co.th/en/index.asp.
A popular mode of street transportation (until recently) was the tuk-tuk, a motorized rickshaw. It has a motorcycle in place of a runner, with seating for two or three in the rear. A tuk-tuk used to be half the cost of a cab, but more fun if you were willing to be jostled a bit. Open to the breeze, they were cooler than taxis, but that breeze usually consists of polluted air. The biggest advantage was that tuk-tuks can weave in and out of tight spots.
Taxis were always relatively inexpensive in Bangkok; in recent years they became a greater bargain. No more bargaining for a fare -- a process that could be fun or frustrating. Like everything else in Thailand, bargaining should be sanuk (fun)! In 1993 meters reduced fares and made short trips almost as inexpensive as by tuk-tuk. The poor tuk-tuk drivers didn't understand. They tenaciously stuck to their old fares or even increased rates to make up for fewer customers. Now, nearly half the tuk-tuks have disappeared or remain empty. Are taxis the best way to go? Frequently not. You may end up totally lost when the driver misunderstands your destination. English is not readily understood by many cab drivers (and even fewer tuk tuk drivers). Victory Monument? Mai pben rai (“no problem”). You're delivered to Democracy Monument! Speaking a little Thai is unlikely to help much, either. First, Thai is a tonal language, so a mispronounced tone makes a different word. Second, drivers will often assume they know where you want to go. Hua Lamphong? You find yourself at Banglampoo! Remember -- Mai pben rai! Even if you're familiar with the city it may take a while to determine you're headed in the wrong direction; drivers often take circuitous routes to avoid expected traffic jams; they all know short cuts (that aren't).
If one is really brave one can hitch a ride on the back seat of a motorcycle-taxi. Not recommended except for short hops on back alley streets. Helmets are now required in Bangkok.
Hop a city bus. Fares have skyrocketed to over twelve cents for a regular bus, a little more for one that is air-conditioned! Excellent city bus route maps with tourist locations noted are available in bookstores. You'll get to meet the common people, possibly become engaged in conversation, and smiled at...a lot! I've heard there are pickpockets, but I've never been bothered. Buses can be crammed during rush hour. You'll get a kick out of the ritual the ticket seller aboard the bus goes through as he tears the postage stamp-sized ticket before handing it to you. Don't discard it -- transportation police sometimes make surprise checks to see that fare takers aren't pocketing money for fake tickets!
Walking? You'll meet a lot of people who want to talk or will offer to take you to your destination. Some are touts and cheats, but many are just nice people. You'll learn which is which. Watch out for potholes in sidewalks and remember crossing busy streets is dangerous -- remain vigilant! Walking gets you up close to real life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. One day along a busy thoroughfare I nearly tripped over the corpse of a decaying dog.
One of the fastest means of inner-city transport is boat. A few old klongs (canals) in Bangkok have new long tail boat (rua hang yao) service, although you're more apt to hire these for short river trips or on regularly scheduled jaunts up the klongs of Thonburi. The Mae Nam (Mother River) Chao Phrya separates Bangkok from Thonburi. Ferries cross the river in more places than do bridges, and they're sanuk ! Very convenient are the Chao Phrya River Taxis (rua duans), which have a set route from S of the urban center to the far N suburb of Nondhaburi. Fares are almost as cheap as for buses. It's fun, there's lots to be seen, and there are docks convenient to most of the important sites near the river.
My routine is this -- if possible, get as close to my destination as possible via the Skytrain or subway. Then rely on a bus. If it's an ultimate destination that is not fairly direct, then I take a taxi. And, I walked a lot...by choice...and always felt safe!
GETTING AROUND THE COUNTRY: Some tourists visit Bangkok and think they understand Thailand. Although distinctly Thai, Bangkok is, to some extent, a Western city. You must get out of the city to understand Thai ways of life. And, it's important to understand that the various regions of Thailand differ from each other more than some nations. The deep south is predominantly Muslim, while the rest of the country is almost exclusively Buddhist. People from Bangkok fantasize about wearing coats in the “cold” north (Chiang Mai), while in reality it's usually the difference between 97 and 90 degrees! Language dialects vary considerably. Take hello, for example: in Krung Thep it's "sawatdii khrap." In the north it's sometimes "sawatdii djou." In the south simply, "wadii." People in Issan (the NE plateau) speak a dialect strongly influenced by Lao and Cambodian, while in the north the influence is more Burmese. Food and dress similarly deviate.
The point is -- get out of Bangkok. But how?
The quickest form of travel is via Thai Airways, a comfortable, safe carrier than spreads out from Bangkok to all significant population centers in the country. The domestic terminal for many flight is at Bangkok's old Don Muang Airport, although most domestic flights now fly out of the international airport.
Another option is renting a self-drive car. I do for at least a few days every trip, but I attempt avoiding driving in Bangkok. Play it safe in regard to insurance by sticking with one of the international companies – Hertz and Avis are common (I prefer Avis in Thailand) -- and accept all the insurance offered. In the old days you had to drive a stick shift ("Oh, you must be American! We know Americans cannot drive real cars"). Now rental cars with automatic transmission are widely available, although it is worth checking. Remember, the driver sits on the right, drives in the left lane, and all the controls within the car will be on the opposite side from what you're used to. Usually, if you have a good sense of direction, you'll find road signage sufficient.
If you do drive, take a native Thai with you, if possible. On one trip a Thai friend had told me to drive cautiously in one particular area because there were usually speed traps. At one point I passed a slow moving truck, but maintained the legal speed. By the time I finished passing the vehicle, the dotted line had turned solid where it crossed a small culvert. It was too late -- two uniformed policemen were waving me onto the shoulder. My friend was worried. He kept saying, "We will have to pay, we will have to pay,” over and over and over. I gave my Thai friend my international and Virginia driver's licenses and let him do the talking. Although I could not decipher the conversation, it was obvious he was doing much "bowing and scraping." The officer doing most of the talking seemed a bit grumpy, so I expected the worst, whatever that might be. The other officer occasionally looked my way and finally smiled. It is said that a smile can get you anything in the "Land Of Smiles." I smiled back and winked. He interrupted the other officer and waved us on our way -- no ticket, no fine, and no bribe. Apparently Thai hospitality to Americans can save the day! Maybe.
Another excellent alternative for getting out into the countryside is to use the relatively efficient and inexpensive national railway. The price for a 3rd class ticket to the Bridge On The River Kwai from Bangkok, for example, (a three hour journey) is unbelievably inexpensive! Chances are your diesel train (apt to look like something out of America's roaring 20's) will pull into the station on schedule. You can expect relatively clean interiors, although hard wooden seats in third class are uncomfortable for long journeys. There's no air conditioning in third class, but I have found that to be a blessing -- the large open windows admit a refreshing breeze and make sightseeing and photography very pleasant. Enjoyable aspects of any rail journey are the Thai smiles and friendly waves of children, laborers, farmers, and other Thais along the tracks and at the stations. There are also first and second-class trains on many routes. There is one caveat to railway travel: before planning a trip, assure it's not during a Thai holiday. On my first sojourn to Phetburi I arrived at Hualomphong on just such a day. The station was mobbed with thousands of Thais in long lines at every ticket window, all hoping to escape the heat of the city. After somehow getting a ticket for car fourteen I discovered the train only had nine cars! People were packed in so tightly it was impossible to move, fall down, or sneeze! I escaped and rented an automobile.
GETTING THERE: 24 or more hours is a long time to live as a sardine in coach! If you can't afford business class to Thailand, don't just seek the cheapest fare. Look for well-spaced layovers of some duration. You'll enjoy walking, stretching, and doing knee bends after hours in the air! Take Advil for muscle relaxation and headaches. The flight is the perfect time to brush up on Thai at some level.
You are likely to change planes at Tokyo's Narita Airport, perhaps my least favorite airport in Asia. One often deplanes mid-field and is transported to the terminal on a bus, only to stand in incredibly long lines to have every piece of carry-on luggage re-ex-rayed; never have I seen air passengers as angry as they often are here.
GUIDEBOOKS: I recommend two. First, Lonely Planet's “Thailand” by Joe Cummings is arguably the most complete guidebook. Their accommodations listings are generally reliable, although more basic hotels and guesthouses can be very basic and may cater to prostitution. I am less convinced about LP's restaurant listings. I often find restaurants on my own while exploring or rely on hotel dining rooms in smaller cities. The other, less comprehensive guidebook, has more reliable hotel and restaurant listings, as well as good info about things to do and see. It's by Moon Publications – “Thailand Handbook” by Carl Parkes. But there's also a ton of information on the internet...for free!
HEALTH CONCERNS: Consult a travel medical professional before going to SE Asia. Having said that, I take doxycycline when visiting areas where malaria may be present (if I am going out hiking or spending much time in the countryside). If I will be upcountry I make sure tetanus, polio, typhoid, hepatitis, cholera and Japanese encephalitis vaccinations are up-to-date. The degree to which these are warranted depends on what kinds of places will be visited. In general, public health in Thailand is good and medical help is available…if you can figure out how to access it. Most prescription medications in the West are non-prescription in Thailand…just walk into a pharmacy and ask for what you need. That does require one to be an educated patient or to find a good pharmacy where you can trust the druggist. When they tell you the medicine they have is "the same thing" as you asked for, they may be very wrong. One medicine may be for the same symptom, but that doesn't mean its chemistry and effect on your body will be the same. Men…don't be surprised when you buy that medication for your stomach upset if they try to sell you viagra! Don't drink tap water -- ever! Bottled water is generally reliable and widely available; avoid crushed ice. Beware of salads or foods that may have been washed in dirty water. Stir-fried or newly cooked dishes are preferable to pans of food that may sit out for a while. When I do get an intestinal upset I use Lomotil (readily available in pharmacies), sometimes in combination with Pepto Bismol (which you will have to take with you). If it's a bad stomach infection, I ask for Cipro, with one to three doses generally sufficient. However, do not use my advice or trust what you find most places on the web. Consult a doctor and use your research as a source for asking questions. Be aware of the results of diarrhea in the tropics! Needless to say, AIDS is a serious problem in Thailand. Hopefully you're not heading there for recreational sex!
HISTORY: It's difficult to find authoritative sources about Thai history. Most books by Thai authors are...well..."nice". The best book I've found is “Thailand: A Short History” by David Wyatt (Yale University Press). It's not so short, and is probably more in depth than then you'll need. Brief, but decent, summaries of Thai history are provided in the guidebooks mentioned above.
MAPS & BOOKS: The Lonely Planet and Moon guidebooks have decent street maps for many tourist areas. For Bangkok, you'll want to stop by a book store to get a city map that includes bus routes. Highway maps are readily available in bookstores in the capital. Asia Books can be found in many of the larger Bangkok shopping malls, but recently the chain called Kinokuniya Books seems much better stocked for foreigners and Thais, alike. I find that searching the internet in advance provides me with the best and most up-to-date maps in places outside of Bangkok.
MONEY: The Thai baht floats, and your best bets for exchange are banks. Larger American bills and traveler's checks get the best rates. Many ATMs accept Visa, MasterCard, and AMEX, are usually reliable, and have a better exchange rate. I always carry some AMEX traveler's checks as a backup. There is a safety deposit rental facility in Charn Issara Tower Office Building on Rama IV Road.
NEWSPAPERS, ETC.: The Bangkok Post and The Nation are the two major English-language dailies and are nicely done; they can be difficult to find outside of Bangkok, but both have online editions that I read daily while in the U.S. Time and Newsweek can also be readily found in the capital. Many hotels have CNN, BBC News, or similar channels.
PERSONAL CONDUCT: Most guidebooks provide suggestions about how to behave in a culture as different as Thailand's. You might also look for “Culture Shock: Thailand” (Robert & Nanthapa Cooper, Times Books International). It's an entertaining and helpful read. I have found Thais to be wonderfully forgiving of faux pas by Westerners if they sense you are trying to understand and enjoy their culture. I have secured hotel reservations in hotels that supposedly had no vacancies by using courtesy and a warm smile. If, on the other hand, you become the “ugly American”, you will likely fail in even the most simple endeavors.
RELIGION: About 95% of the populace professes to be Buddhist. The most likely attitude when you visit a temple, even if a ceremony is in progress, will be to come in and be a part. You are liable to find yourself sitting with novice monks at an ordination ceremony or being the honored guest at a funeral. It all depends on your behavior and the respectful interest you show. You might shop around at bookstores in Thailand for books about Buddhism, including those by Rahula (“What The Buddha Taught”), Plamintr (“Getting To Know Buddhism” and “Basic Buddhism”), and Roscoe (“The Triple Gem”); they are quite good and easy to understand.
Next to Buddhism, Islam is the most common religion, particularly in the South. While I haven't found the Muslim regions to be quite so welcoming, neither are they unwelcoming. There is great sensitivity about their religion, hence the sign in front of one mosque – “Non-Muslims may not enter, but you may give money”.
SAFETY: With rare exceptions, I feel safer in Thailand than America (although I am not referring here to the current political problems). Pickpocketing can be a problem, though I have never experienced it. There are stories about friendly thieves offering food or drink with “knock-out” drugs and then robbing people. However, an alert and intelligent tourist should experience no problems. Common sense is usually all you'll need to have a crime-free visit to the Kingdom.
SERVICED APARTMENTS: "Sukhumvit soi hoke sip haa," my friend told the taxi driver at the Airport. Although only vaguely familiar with Sukhumvit Road, I knew that soi (65) was quite far out. It was my 4th trip to Thailand and my friend had arranged my first Bangkok apartment to provide me with an opportunity to savor a real taste of living Thai style. I'd be unable to rely on hotel room service, American restaurants, and only meeting Thais who spoke English. On the practical side, my cost of living over six weeks would be drastically reduced. Instead of the over $1,500 I would spend at a tourist class hotel (and that was only thanks to a discount through a friend), the apartment would cost only $700 (including very basic maid service). The soi had no street lights and some of the buildings along the lane looked dilapidated, but my friend had chosen well. Unlike American cities where one hesitates to walk even the busiest thoroughfares at night, in Thailand's capital you need not be too concerned for your safety in all but the poorest of neighborhoods (if there).
Don't be misled: in Bangkok, "mansion" translates as a basic, Western-style apartment complex with 24-hour security. Hallways are typically clean and well lit. A two room flat will probably be furnished simply, but you will tend to find no insects, a refrigerator, and air conditioning (check to see if it is run by a thermostat). The floors may be hardwood or tile and the walls and ceiling stark white plaster. The furniture will probably consist of a comfortable Thai-style bed with remarkably uncomfortable pillows, a table with chairs, a coffee table, two sitting chairs, a large dresser, and a bookcase. There may or may not be a television. The bathroom will usually be nicely tiled with a Western-style toilet, but check to be sure there is hot water -- even in the tropics, no hot water can make for some rude awakenings! There may be a balcony with a small sink where you will be able to hand launder clothing.
Bangkok's neighborhoods tend to be a mix of rich, middle class, and poor, all seemingly living in harmony -- undoubtedly due to the common bonds of Buddhism and the Thai philosophy of "mai pben rai". From early morning till midnight some sois will be full of life. If you're lucky you will find a number of perpetually busy food stalls right on your lane, a few "basic goods" stores, and a tailor with a portable sewing machine. And then, there are quite a few 7/11 style marts in many areas when you need a quick snack or soda. Be attune to where you will eat, bank at ATMs, shop, and catch convenient local transportation.
A good resource for lodging, including serviced apartments is http://www.asiatravel.com .
TOILETS: The further you get out of Bangkok, the more likely you are to encounter an Asian squat toilet. Practice squatting in advance! You don't want to drop your keys or wallet in the toilet! Another thing to keep in mind is that most public toilets will not have toilet paper; come prepared with tissue!
VISAS & PASSPORTS: An American passport and a return flight ticket will usually get you into Thailand for 30 days. For a visit of 31-60 days, you'll need to visit an embassy or consulate and obtain a tourist visa.
Where To Go
For me, the best online site to use to plan your tourism adventures within Thailand is Wikitravel at http://wikitravel.org/en/Thailand. My secondary choice is http://www.sawadee.com/ (scroll to the bottom of the page). There is really great diversity as you travel throughout Thailand, so planning where you want to go, balanced with your available time is essential.
BANGKOK: Temples, temples, temples. There are plenty! Museums. Everyday culture. Shopping. Restaurants. You could spend weeks here and not have a boring moment.
CENTRAL THAILAND: If you rent a car, it's a teriffic drive north through central Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Major stops along the route include the ruins of the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, the secondary capital of Lopburi, Phitsanuloke to visit one of the nation's most important Buhha statues, and the glorious ruins at Thailand's first capital at Sukhothai. Other destinations in central Thailand include the Bridge on the River Kwai and the marvelous chedi at Nakhon Pathom.
NORTHERN THAILAND: Chiang Mai is a destination in and of itself, and is a modern hub of accomodations, as well as charming Buddhist temples. In the region are also lovely towns such as Lampang with its charming Burmese styled Buddhist temples, and Nan and its lovely valley. Further afield are the Golden Triangle and Thailand's highest mountain -- Doi Inthanon.
ISSAN: Southern Issan includes many Khmer (ancestral Cambodian) ruins that are similar to and date to around the time of Ankor Wat. Northern Issan is interesting because of the Lao flavor to its temples and culture.
SOUTHERN THAILAND: Regrettably, extreme southern Thailand (the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat) should probably be considered off-limits to tourists at this time. The Islamic-based separatist campaign in this region has been deadly in recent years! Songkhla is comparatively safe, and further north and on the west coast, all is well. The resort of Phuket and that western coastal region is spectacular and the tropics personified. On the east coast of the southern peninsula there are many lovely national parks and villages, with my favorites being the small city of Hua Hin and Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park.
Some Great Websites About Thailand
http://www.travelfish.org/thailand_map.php -- An excellent collection of basic maps designed just for tourists…both of Bangkok and areas upcountry.
http://www.bangkokbob.net/city_map.htm -- An excellent street map of Bangkok…you might look for the scrollable link.
http://www.bangkoktourist.com/map.htm -- A bit of a different approach to mapping the city of Bangkok…but sometimes very useful.
http://www.bangkokpost.com/ -- The English-language daily Thai newspaper I prefer.
http://www.nationmultimedia.com/ -- The Nation , another excellent English-language daily Thai newspaper.
http://www.angkor.com/2bangkok/ -- A very interesting alternative news site with a sometimes historical perspective. Different!
http://thaidigitalphoto.com/ -- A photography website about Thailand I truly envy!
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forum.jspa?forumID=51 – Lonely Planet's “Thorn Tree” travel forum about Thailand.
http://www.seasite.niu.edu:85/thai/ -- Although advertised as a website about the Thai language, there is so much more here!
http://www.thailandguidebook.com/ -- An interesting guidebook to Thailand by teenagers!
http://www.sawadee.com/ -- Hotels and lots more general information.
http://www.hotelsguidethailand.com/ -- An intriguing hotel site…be sure to click on the link for English.
http://wikitravel.org/en/Thailand -- The Wiki travel site…often one of the most complete about places to visit in Thailand. I go here first.
http://www.travelfish.org/country/thailand -- A nice travel site about Thailand.
http://www.bangkokguidebook.com/ -- A sometimes different perspective on visiting Bangkok.
http://www.bangkok-daytrips.com/ -- A bit more of a blog-type perspective.
http://www.thai-blogs.com/ -- Blogs about Thailand's life and culture, many leading you to want to visit.