Monday, 4 March 2013

Thailand Etiquette and Survival Tips

After years of blunders (and much kind forgiveness by Thai people), guest blogger John Borthwick has compiled the sort of “Newbie’s Guide” to Thai survival that he wishes he’d had way back when.

Thais value good form and politeness, so learn a few basic Thai phrases, such as greetings and thanks, and keep in mind the following tips:

Heads and feet. Buddhist Thais see the head as sacred. It is impolite to touch someone else’s, so don’t pat cute kids on the head — try the shoulder. It is equally impolite to point the soles of your feet at someone. 

Royals. Thais are publically very respectful about their royals, even if they have private reservations about the system. The King is deeply revered so don’t make jokes about the monarchy, even “harmless” ones. 

Stay cool. When things go wrong, as they can, don’t lose your cool and raise your voice against a Thai person. Speak calmly and keep negotiating if possible. Thais intensely dislike losing face (or money), especially to a foreigner, so sometimes it’s less aggravation to just button your lip and walk away. 

Temples and monks. Women are never permitted to touch a monk. When visiting a temple (and there are lots of them), dress modestly (this often means no shorts or bare shoulders for women), always remove your shoes, and never point your feet at the altar. 

Despite being footloose and free in the so-called Land of Smiles, we farang (foreigners) still have to watch out for scammers and our own dumb mistakes. 

Road sense. Some 8,000 people die on Thailand roads each year, and April’s Songkran (Thai New Year) festival delivers one of the worst spikes. Minimise your long-distance van or motorcycle travel during peak holidays. If you hire a motorbike, note well that unless you hold a current, valid motorcycle licence (as opposed to a car licence), your travel insurance policy (you do have insurance, don’t you?) will very possibly NOT cover your medical or damage expenses. This is definitely true for Australian policies. And good Thai hospitals are very expensive. 

Double pricing. Non-Thais pay higher entrance fees at most attractions. For example, Thai adults pay 40 baht to enter national parks while foreigners pay 400 baht. It’s much more annoying at commercial attractions. Cough up, and don’t let the discrimination spoil your day. 

Gems. Buyer beware. Regardless of the “certificate,” don’t invest more money on gems than you can afford to laugh off when you return home to have some of them assessed as coloured glass. 

Jet-skis. In Pattaya (and elsewhere) unsuspecting tourists are often extorted by jet-ski hirers who claim that “damage” has been done to their craft. Threats and violence, plus official indifference, leave victims with little option but to pay up, big time. Jet-skis are allegedly “banned” at many popular beaches but still remain dangerously unregulated, a real hazard to swimmers. If you cause death or damage when driving a jet ski, you’re in major trouble. 

Fighting. Thailand is a very safe country, but never get into a physical fight with a Thai (such as a jet-ski operator). Queensbury does not rule here. In the Land of Smiles, they fight to win at all costs, and in numbers. Being a foreigner is no protection; it’s more like an invitation once the brawl begins. And don’t assume that the law is on your side. 

Taxi Mafias. Phuket taxi and tuk-tuk drivers collude in charging passengers absurd fees. Koh Samui has a version of the same problem, with drivers often refusing to use meters; in such a case, set the fare before staring the ride. If possible, arrange an airport transfer prior to your arrival. Bangkok is not a problem in this respect — just make sure the taxi meter is turned on. Pattaya’s “baht bus” (shared pick-up truck) system work admirably: basically, it is just 10 baht for any journey. 

Finally, a few obvious and not-so obvious pointers:

Drugs: don’t even think about scoring anything unless you feel spending the next five to ten-plus in the Monkey House. 

ATM fees: cash machines are everywhere but Thai banks keep 150 baht (approx. $5) each time you withdraw (no matter how little) from a foreign account. And that’s on top of whatever your home bank also charges on the transaction. 

Street elephants: buying bananas from mahouts to feed young elephants that are paraded through the street just adds to the animal’s misery. 

Got all that? OK. Now go have fun.

PICS: Julie Miller

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