Every new place has its share of idiosyncrasies and Thailand is no different. To make sure you’re not caught totally off guard, the best thing to do is be prepared, mentally and otherwise, for the differences you’ll encounter. Here are some of the most jarring things that are best to prepare for in advance:
1. You can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet. Anywhere. Ever.
For a Westerner, this probably takes the most getting used to. From the second you arrive at the airport, you’ll notice signs all over telling you that paper and other waste cannot be flushed. Their plumbing is simply not meant to withstand that. But most toilets, public and private, will have a handheld spray you can use to wash up before you wipe so you don’t have to dump soiled paper in the waste basket.
2. Sometimes you have to bring your own toilet paper.
This is especially true for any tourist spots you might want to visit like national parks and tiny villages or markets in the middle of nowhere. It’s also so true for some large temples and sights in major cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The presence of toilet paper is not guaranteed. To be safe, bring wipes, tissues, or a roll of TP wherever you go.
3. You have to hustle to get a cab.
For me, this was the hardest thing to get used to. Even in cities where getting a cab is really pricey, at least you can get a cab. Thailand really makes it hard, especially in Bangkok. The most fair thing is for cab drivers to use the meter when they pick you up. But that only happened to us once. Every other time, the driver offers you a flat rate, which is usually ridiculously high.
Within Bangkok, you probably shouldn’t spend more than 100-150 baht to get anywhere, unless you’re going to the airport. But cab drivers will consistently offer you rides for 200-300 baht. Some will turn you down altogether if they don’t feel like driving to a certain area. Though there are hundreds of cabs all over the place, by the time you try to haggle for four cabs and get turned down by two others, you’ll pretty much take anything. To be fair, 300 baht is $8. But why pay $8 when you can pay $4?
4. And you may need to give your cab driver directions.
This was mostly true in Bangkok since it’s so huge and according to a local we met, it’s because many of the cab drivers are from other countries. So after haggling for a cab fare, you have to navigate your driver to the right place. You can imagine if they are lost, that you are much more so. So always make sure you have a working phone with GPS on you so you can direct your cab driver in the right direction. The good thing about this system is that you know they’re not going to take you some long way to jack up the price. The downside is that they already jacked up the price when they gave you a flat rate.
5. Addresses are not a reliable way to get anywhere.
The fact that our Airbnb host in Bangkok gave us detailed walking directions and GPS coordinates to the apartment should have been a tip off. Though they do have an address system in place, it’s mostly used for mail and other official purposes; it’s not really used to get around. Some places don’t have street names and if you try to give a cab driver an address, he’s probably going to turn you down and drive off. Some hotels and other establishments have Thai directions on slip cards and even those are mostly ineffective without a good GPS. Where a place is located is not as important as how to get there. So always know how to get there.
6. The real cost of anything is about half of what they’re offering.
Thailand is for hagglers. Unless you’re shopping at H&M at the mall, almost everything is negotiable. And almost everything is cheaper than they want you to believe it is. As a result, it’s a great place to treat yourself to some new goodies. You can get shirts, shoes, pants, dresses and accessories for only a few dollars. All you have to do is pretend you don’t want it. Trust me, they’re more interested in selling it than you are in buying it. So don’t be too eager. Take it or leave it, and you’ll take it for a lot less. The only thing you shouldn’t be haggling for is food. But it’s cheap, so you won’t need to.
7. It’s hotter than you can possibly imagine.
Thailand is a great place to be nearly naked in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea. For everything else you’ll be doing, like walking around temples, going to markets, or eating outside, you’ll be too hot. So dress accordingly. Bring plenty of shorts, dresses, light tops and pants. Don’t bring jeans. Don’t wear dark colors (unless you go when they’re still mourning the King; then wear black always).
8. Dress respectfully in temples.
That being said, you shouldn’t go into temples and some royal areas without proper clothing. Though many temples offer cover-ups, sometimes for a small fee, you probably shouldn’t rely on that. So if your day includes any royal or religious sites, it’s probably best to wear pants instead of shorts and a top that covers your shoulders. Thailand is a great place to shop (see #6), so if you don’t have the right clothes, you can always pick up the perfect pair of flowy linen pants that feel like you’re wearing nothing and are perfect for temples.
You’ll have to remove your shoes when going in temples, so you may want to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and out of and some socks. That’s just a suggestion; you can always go in barefoot.
9. Prepare to listen to a lot of Maroon 5.
Something I wasn’t mentally prepared for was the Thai affinity for Maroon 5. It was on our private tour outside of Chiang Mai that we first noticed that our wonderful and sweet driver only had one CD and it was made up entirely of Maroon 5 songs and covers of Maroon 5 songs. We thought it was just the driver’s funny quirk until we realized that they play Maroon 5 everywhere: in restaurants, bars, at karaoke, and covered live by local bands. Get ready to hear the sweet musical stylings of Adam Levine everywhere you go.