In part, due to the importance of tourism to the Thai economy, holders of many nationalities of passport are visa exempt, or can apply for a visa on arrival. As a general rule, visa-exempt passport holders are granted a 30 day permission to stay if arriving by air, or 15 days if arriving by land. Those eligible for a visa on arrival are granted 15 days. Longer stays are available by applying for a tourist visa from an overseas Thai Embassy or consulate. Visa rules and regulations are subject to change. For accurate and up to date information see the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
Travel and Getting Around
Air - International flights. Thailand is well connected to the rest of the world. The major international airport is Suvarnabhumi on the eastern side of Bangkok. The previous international airport, Don Muang, to the north of Bangkok, despite being originally planned to close, was again made fully operational after September 2012, with most budget airlines now based from there. As a result it is important to check which airport flights are using when planning a trip. Several other airports offer international connections, especially for major tourist destinations. These include Chiang Mai, Rayong, Hat Yai and Phuket.
Air - Domestic flights. Many companies operate domestic flight services around Thailand. These include Thai Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air, Bangkok Airways, Orient Thai, Thai Smile and Kan Air. Both airports in Bangkok operate domestic flights so check carefully when trip planning.
Bus and mini-bus. Bus services, both long-distance air conditioned express services and local/regional are found everywhere in Thailand, and are generally the cheapest public transport for travel around the country. Every town has a main bus terminal which is the best place to head for when looking for out of town travel. Small, shared, mini-buses are popular in some areas.
Taxis and Song-taews. Taxis are available in larger towns and cities. Most are metered. However, taxi drivers are notorious for excuses for meters apparently not working. In such cases it's often better to find another taxi. For unmetered taxis always agree a price in advance. All towns have numerous song-taews which plough town and local routes, picking up and dropping passengers at will. Song-taews are pickups with two rows of benches in the back. As a foreign visitor it's hard to know where they are headed as signs on them are either in Thai or non-existent. Locals know from the colour of the song-taew in which direction it is headed. Song-taews can also be rented for the day by negotiating with the driver. However, be aware that these are rather uncomfortable; sitting sideways in the back for long distances, plus there are no seatbelts. Many serious accidents occur in Thailand involving speeding song-taews.
Motor-cycle taxis and Tuc-tucs. In many larger towns, especially areas with heavy traffic like Bangkok, motor-cycle taxis are by far the quickest way to get around. As crash helmets are, in theory, compulsory by law drivers will provide a plastic crash helmet for pillion passengers. At best these helmets provide protection from sun burn. Tuc-tucs, also called sarm lors, are small three wheel motorcycles with space for a couple of passengers, and baggage, in the back. They have the advantage that they offer some protection from the weather and are usually able to negotiate heavy traffic. They are named after the tuc-tuc sound the two-stroke, overworked engines produce. Prices for all need to be negotiated.
Trains. Thailand is covered by a rail network linking the major towns in the north, south and east of the country. Overnight sleepers are available. Travel by train is a great way to see the country, but they are not fast. Even the express services are significantly slower than express bus services.
Car and motor-cycle rental. The country is well-served by rental companies, both international and local, and competition is fierce in tourist areas, especially outside high season. A good range of vehicles and options are available. The cheapest cars tend to be open-back pickups and small SUVs. Saloon cars are mid range, with top of the range SUVs the most expensive. Mopeds and motorcycles are readily available. Officially to drive in Thailand an International Licence/Permit is required, although rental companies usually accept any licence. They will also ask for a passport copy and credit card slip or cash deposit. It's quite easy to rent vehicles with drivers, with most rental companies able to provide that service.
Driving and Fuel. GPS satellite navigation systems can be rented in major locations, and make driving through major cities much easier. Toll roads exist in the Bangkok area, and for a relatively small fee enable the driver to cross Bangkok in a very short time. Along all major roads, signs giving directions to towns and cities are in both Thai and English. Traffic in Thailand drives on the left (most of the time). Be very aware of motorcyclists who are a law unto themselves, and can be found driving with no respect to rules, regulations, themselves or other people. Driving at night without lights is common, as is running red traffic lights and driving under the influence of alcohol. Fuel prices in Thailand vary a lot between diesel and petrol, with the former about 25% cheaper. However, it's hard to take advantage of this when renting a vehicle as all smaller engined saloon cars are petrol, with diesel engines only available in trucks, pickups and larger SUVs. Occasional police roadblocks will be found inside towns and on the open highway. They may ask for an International Driving Licence/Permit. If riding a motorcycle wear a crash helmet or expect a fine.
Maps. Good road maps can be difficult to find. The best places to pick them up are good bookshops in major cities or sometimes convenince stores at major fuel stations along the busiest highways. Some publications are bilingual. Recently, ThinkNet have been publishing maps combined with a CD for installation on laptops which are searchable and can be zoomed. Several versions are available covering southern, northern or northeastern provinces. Details here.
General. Any medical treatment required will need to be paid for. Clinics, of varying standard, are found everywhere, with most of them open in the evening. It's a first come, first served basis, often with a numbering system. Larger cities have good hospitals. Pharmacies are readily available, and many medications can be directly bought over the counter, saving a trip to the clinic for those who know which medication is required.
Malaria and Dengue. Major towns, cites and tourist areas of Thailand are virtually malaria free. However, it is still prevelent in border areas and the west and east. During the dry season the risk is considerably reduced. For information on profilaxsis and recommendations check the web - Traveldoctor website. Doxycycline can easilly be purchased in Thailand. Malarone is restricted and difficult to find, and is marketed under the name Malanil. Dengue Fever is by far a greater risk and widespread across the country during the wet season.
The unit of currency is the Thai Baht. Money can be exchanged readily at international airports, banks and money exchange services. Rates are usually not the best at international airport arrivals. Almost all hard currencies can be changed. Rates can be slightly higher for higher-denomination notes. Traveller's cheques are most easily changed at banks. ATMs are very common, and can be found in all towns and most petrol stations. Foreign credit and debit cards are widely accepted.
Time, Dates, Sunrise and Sunset
Time and Dates. The time zone is GMT+7 hours throughout the country. Thailand has no summer time or clock adjustments. Generally Thailand uses the Gregorian calendar. However, especially in official communication, the Buddhist year is often used. The Buddhist year is calculated by adding 543 years to the Gregorian year - for example, the Gregorian year 2013 is equivalent to the Buddhist year 2056. Although the Buddhist year starts in April, for simplicity the Thais still use the Gregorian months. So 23 December 2013 is written either 23/12/2013 or 23/12/2556 in Thailand.
Sunrise and Sunset. Day length varies somewhat between the northern and southern extremes of Thailand, but loosely averages out to around 06:00 to 18:00. Differences are more marked in the north, where the daylight varies from about 05:30 - 19:00 in June to 06:30 - 17:45 in December. Sunrise and sunset times for many Thai cities can be found on the Gaisma website.
Phones, Communication and Internet
Phones. The international dialling code for Thailand is +66. To call international press 00 (or sometimes 001) or '+' for an international line, followed by the international dialling code. Public phones are usually easy to find, and take either coins or prepaid cards which are available from convenience stores. Mobile SIM cards are very cheap and easy to obtain likewise in convenience stores. The two largest network providers are AIS and DTAC. Top-ups are available at convenience stores and mobile shops everywhere. Note though that a mobile phone from outside Thailand should not be locked to a network from its country of origin, although most mobile shops will be able to unlock it.
Internet. Internet shops and cafés are rather ubiquitous. Internet speeds in rural areas can leave a lot to be desired, but work adequately for email and general surfing. In some more remote areas it might be necessary to deal with Thai versions of software and keyboards. Many internet shops have calling, faxing and copying services.
Post Offices. All towns of a reasonable size have post offices usually open 08:00 - 16:00 Monday to Friday, with sometimes opening 08:00 - 12:00 Saturdays. In larger city shopping malls and many tourist areas, small agencies sometimes provide postal services outside these hours.
Weather, Climate and When To Come
Although the weather is best described as hot and tropical, considerable variation can be found by region and altitude. The northern half of the country has three defined seasons (the cool, the hot, and the wet) while the southern half two (the dry and the wet). Rainfall for both regions comes primarily from the south-western monsoon spanning the period from approximately April to November. Travel at this time can be disrupted by floods, road closures and landslides. Annually, the south receives more rainfall than the north; about 2.5 metres compared to 1.5 metres. A useful source of rainfall and temperature data for Thailand, and the world, can be found at the World Climate website. A daily and weekly weather forecast can be found at the Thai Meteorological Department website in both Thai and English.
North. The cool season is from November to February. Some rainfall can continue into November, and the dry forests of the north will still be green until the New Year. It can be surprisingly cold on northern mountains in this period, especially if a northern airflow is flowing out of China. Temperatures of zero to 5°C are not uncommon above 1,000 metres in the early hours of the morning. From March to May temperatures often soar, and daytime temperatures can be 40°C. During this time extensive clearing and burning of forests, both in Thailand and neighbouring countries can be severe, and air quality can really suffer. After mid April or early May the wet season starts, with peak precipitation in August and September.
South. With the impact of both the south-western and north-eastern monsoons, the wet season varies between the west (April to October) and east (September to December) coasts. Due to oceanic proximity there is no great temperature variation over the year, with average temperatures averaging only between 26-29°C through the year.
When to Come. Visitor numbers are highest in the cooler, dryer part of the year from November to March, when many northern hemisphere tourists escape the cold winters. For birders, photographers and naturalists the best time depends on what is being sought. For birders seeking a large species list and covering the country, the period between December and March offers a long list of birds wintering from northern climes. For those targeting breeding species, such as pittas, a later visit during May-June offers a better chance of these forest species as they are vocal at this time. A by far greater number of migrants winter in northern than southern Thailand.
Food and Water
Judging by the volume of literature on Thai cuisine available, its worldwide popularity is clear. The majority of eating establishments are simple small restaurants serving local foods. Many of these will have limited menus - based on rice dishes, or noodles, or chicken only. Larger establishments have greater choice. Tourist areas usually have a huge range of Thai and international food options. Away from tourist areas it would be unlikely to find menus in English, and simpler establishments often have the menu displayed on the wall. Thai food is well known for its use of herbs, lemon grass, fish sauce and chilli. For those not accustomed to spicy food a fair selection of Thai dishes can be red hot, especially some of the salads. Typical dishes without spice would be such items as fried rice, omelettes and noodle soup. If asking for non-spicy food the appropriate Thai for not spicy is mai pet. However a Thai chef's opinion of not spicy can be subject to debate. All areas have local shops with essential basics. Large supermarkets can be found, often on highways just outside the main cities. Convenience food, junk food and similar are easy to obtain, including at the many fuel stations around the country. Markets and stalls by the roadside, selling fresh seasonal fruit are good options. For sure, finding food in Thailand is not a problem. Tap water in large towns will be chlorinated, but bottled water is a safer option and available everywhere. All water and ice served in restaurants is potable. Ice is available everywhere, so travelling with a cool box can be very handy.
Tipping for good service is very much the norm. Many of the salaries of staff employed in the service industries are low, so tips are much appreciated. Anything around the 10% figure is very acceptable.
Thailand has a large number of regional languages and dialects, but standard Thai is spoken by just about everyone. Standard Thai is a rather complex language with five tones and a large othography. A number of Thais working within the tourist industry will speak variable amounts of English, but outside these areas only a rudimentary level of English can be expected. If travelling away from tourist areas a phrase book is recommended.
The range of accommodation that can be encountered is vast, varying from 5-star international hotel chains to back-packing dormitories and campsites.
Hotels and resorts. Even in most rural areas it is usually possible to find some small room, bungalow, resort or simple accommodation. Rooms prices, other than in dormitories, are priced per room, either dual or single occupancy. Expect to pay additional for a third person. As a general rule newly constructed rooms are a better bet than older ones, as maintenance is not usually a priority.
National Park Accommodation. Most parks have chalets and bungalows for rent near the park headquarters. However, these accommodations are usually with several rooms, so targeted for families and larger groups. For one or two persons it's usually more cost effective to stay nearby, but outside the park. Park accommodation, although clean, is often rather basic with cold showers and fans only. A further complication of using park accommodation is that it must be booked and paid for in advance. Bookings can be made online, although credit cards are not accepted, through the Thai Parks website. One alternative for those outside Thailand is to use an agent, such as Thai Forest Booking website, that will charge a service fee. Note that during the wet season some parts of parks and sometimes the whole park is closed to visitors. A list of closures can be found here.
Camping. Camping is popular, especially in national parks during the dryer months. Facilities are adequate, although hot showers will be a rarity. In national parks, tents and sleeping bags are sometimes available for rent, mostly in the most popular parks. Note that campsites during national holidays and weekends get very crowded and very noisy, so do not expect much sleep.
National Park Fees
National Park fees are not straightforward and currently in a state of flux. Some years ago national park fees were increased massively for non Thai tourists to, the then heafty price of, 400 Baht. This move proved very unpopular with tourists and as a consequence numbers of visitors declined to the extent that the fee was lowered to 200 Baht at most parks, but retained at 400 Baht at Khao Yai National Park and Mu Koh Surin Marine Park. On 1 October 2012, the park fees for the top-rated parks were slated to be increased to 100 Baht for Thais and 500 Baht for foreigners. This was subsequently put on hold and a decision of when to raise park fees has been ongoing since, with no official announcement as yet. Currently, most popular parks are charging 200 Baht for foreigners and 40 Baht for Thias. Other parks charge less depending on their popularity and, seemingly, local price structure. How the fee is charged also varies considerably between parks. Most will levy the fee on a daily basis for visitors staying outside the park and entering each day. However, if staying at accommodation within the park a single entry covers all days until the park is exited, whereafter a new ticket is required. On the other hand, some less visited parks allow the same single entry ticket to be used for up to three days. Even more rural national parks, off the beaten track, will charge a reduced fee.
Public Holidays and Business Hours
Public Holidays. Thailand has about 21 days per year of national celebrations, although only 15 of these days are actually public holidays. During public holidays, private services will continue to function, but all government offices, such as the Post Office and Immigration offices will close. The main impact on visitors is that hotels, flights, trains and buses can be totally full during these holidays, making changes to journey planning difficult. Hotel prices also escalate considerably during the New Year holiday. Thailand has both fixed and moveable public celebrations and holidays, with the moveable ones based on the Buddhist calendar. The two biggest holidays are both fixed; New Year from 31 December to 1 January, and Songkran (Thai New Year) from 13-15 April inclusive. Note that these can often drag out to almost a week with substitution days if one of the dates falls on a weekend. For those travelling during Songkran be sure to pack cameras, mobile phones and electronic equipment in waterproof bags. A list of Thai celebrations and dates for the coming year can be found on the Thailand For Visitors website.
Business Hours. General business hours vary considerably across different sectors of the economy. Goverment offices, such as Immigration, will be open from 08:00 - 17:00 Monday to Friday. Private office hours will be similar, and potentially open on Saturdays. General shops will often open early and stay open late, but shopping malls in cities usually open at 10:00, but remain open till 21:00. Tourist oriented services tend to follow the market demand and are open every day, but often not before 10:00. In rural areas, small restaurants and shops will often open very early, but likewise close earlier, around 18:00. Banks generally operate from 09:00 - 16:00 Monday to Friday, but in shopping malls and larger cities some branches will be open later into the evening and even over the weekend.
Electricity is 220 V, 50 Hz throughout. However, supply can be overstretched in some areas, and voltages can dip. Power outages are occasional during the wet season when lines are brought down. Electrical outlets are mostly not grounded and will take both two flat pronged (USA type) and two round pin (European continental type) plugs. Further information can be found on the Voltage Valet website. As many of the more simple accommodations may only have a single electrical outlet it is useful to bring a multi-point adapter for charging mobiles, cameras, laptops etc.
What To Bring
Due to the hot, tropical climate clothing should ideally be from natural materials such as cotton. Fragile clothing is best avoided as washing services in Thailand will usually be hand wash. Dry cleaning is not readily found. For those venturing into forest and nature, bright colours should definitely be avoided. Long trousers are highly recommended for those entering forests, due to biting insects and potentially vines and thorns. Long-sleeved shirts should similarly be considered. Probably the most important item of clothing is a hat, preferably with a wide brim. The choice of footwear is more difficult, but lightweight walking boots would be recommended for hiking, maybe coupled with a pair of trainers. Sandals are also very useful when not actually in the field as they allow feet to breathe, and help stop fungal infections of the foot which can happen wearing closed footwear in humid tropical environments. An umbrella is very useful, and a lightweight rain jacket recommended as even in the dry season rain is always a possibility. In the northern mountains in winter a fleece or warm jacket should be taken, and even gloves and a warm hat are not out of place. During the wet season leech socks are almost essential. Surprisingly these are not readily available in Thailand, other than in a few parks where leeches are renowned, so bring from home. Other items to bring include insect repellent, sun block and a flashlight. Ear plugs can be useful for the unexpected party which can often go on all night, especially in campsites. Finally, a dry sack, as used by scuba divers on boats, is really useful for optics and electronic equipment if caught out by rain in the field or travelling by boat. Rain can come when least expected, and it's always good to be prepared.