THAILAND GENERAL INFORMATION
Thais actually call their country “Prathet Thai” which translates as “The Land of the Free”, and that belief in freedom is ingrained in Thai society. Prior to 1939 Thailand was know as “Siam” and you might see references to this older name from time to time.
The capital of Thailand is Bangkok, or in Thai “Krung Thep”, the full name is:
Krungthepmahanakhon Amornrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharat Ratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.
And it should come as no surprise that that is the longest place name in the world, I would argue it still doesn’t do Bangkok the justice it deserves.
In 1932 Thailand moved from being a nation run by an absolute monarch to a constitutional monarchy, governed by a democratically elected government with the King remaining as head of state.
However, the military in Thailand remain hugely influential (there have been 17 coups and attempted coups since 1932) and they still play an active part in the management and running of the nation. This influence is waning but remains significant in the areas of broadcast media and education.
In 1997 the people and government of Thailand adopted a new constitution that secured for Thailand’s citizens a wide range of rights that are perhaps not enjoyed anywhere else in Asia.
The King and The Royal Family
I do not believe it is possible to overestimate the respect with which the Thai people hold their King, HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX.
Thais rightly regard their King as being someone a great deal more than the father of their nation, he has selflessly devoted himself the welfare of his people and has earned a respect in the lives of Thai people that is surely unique in modern history.
It is absolutely essential that you understand this relationship because it lies at the heart of how Thais feel about their country and their King, it is also important that you understand that any remark that Thais feel is derogatory towards their monarch will land you in a great deal of trouble.
This respect goes too for all members of the Thai Royal Family both living and past.
As a foreign observer I can only say that having witnessed myself the depth of this respect and too, only some of, the works of the King and his family, the Thais are singularly blessed with a monarch who embodies the good of the nation.
I think if you are interested in Thailand’s culture then spending some time learning about this special relationship will greatly help you in your understanding of Thailand and its people.
Thailand is overwhelmingly Buddhist with over 95%of the population declaring Buddhism as their religion; the next nearest number is Muslims with 4% of the population, mainly in the far southern provinces and the remaining 1% is made up of all other religions.
However, do not underestimate the importance of older religions and their influence. There is a deep rooted animism in Thai culture, you will undoubtedly come across these older religious beliefs during your holiday, the most common of which is perhaps the “Spirit House” Sarn Phra Phum but also many other beliefs such as offering prayers to trees, a real belief in ghosts and many non animist rituals absorbed into the practice of Thai Buddhism.
Some of these older beliefs express themselves and rituals that have now become festivals. Loy Kratong and Phi Tha Khon being two very famous examples. What you must realise is that Thais regard these religious traditions as sacred, so do be a little careful when discussing seemingly strange customs.
Thailand has a land area of 513,115 sq. km, about the same size as France, but due to the shape of the country the distances can be huge.
The county is divided into four distinct areas, each with its own climate and culture, in brief these regions are:
The mountainous North, famed for its cool winter climate, fruit, handicrafts and as the home of many of Thailand’s indigenous ethnic minorities. The north, and particularly Chiang Mai are a very popular destination during the cool winter months.
The Northern Province is bordered by Laos and Burma, and if you have heard the term “The Golden Triangle” this relates to the point where the three nations meet just outside of Chiang Rai.
The Northeast Plateau, also know as “Isaarn” is the least visited region of Thailand but does boast a unique culture and some very fine ancient ruins. The Isaarn region is largely agricultural but because of poor soil and frequent drought is also very poor. To its credit it is the home of what are arguably the friendliest people in Thailand.
The Central Plain, is often deservedly referred to as Thailand’s rice bowl, it is one of the worlds most fertile rice growing areas and is also the birthplace of what we now call the Thai nation. Many of he famous historical sites are located in this region.
The Thai Peninsular, is the Thailand that many people come to see, beaches, islands and some of the best seascapes in Asia. The local industries are mainly agriculture, in which rubber cultivation plays a major part, whereas fishing is still a living industry and not something put on as a show for the tourists.
Thailand has a population of approximately 67 million, about the same size as that of the UK, the vast majority of whom are Ethnic Thais while there is a sizable proportion of third generation Chinese and small numbers of Khmers. The people of the Isaarn region are to a large extent ethnic Laos and there are pockets of other ethnic minorities who are often referred to as the Hill Tribes. Many of these have a history in Thailand that stretches back into prehistory.
In addition there are a number of Ethnic Indians and a growing population of Westerners who have settled in Thailand.
The official language is ‘Thai’ though many businesses use English and most people working in the tourism sector will speak at least some English.
Thai is a tonal language, the tone of the spoken words is an essential part of the meaning, if you don’t get the tone right you loose the meaning. This has one parallel in spoken English.
Fore example; If I point to a bag and say “This is yours”, and raise the tone of my voice on the word “Yours” you will understand this as a question. If I do not raise my tone you will understand what I have said is a statement and not a question. So English too uses tones and their correct use is essential to the meaning of the spoken word.
The Thai language takes this use of tone further and uses five such tones; every Thai conversation relies on the words and the tones being correct, this makes Thai almost an impossible language to master without considerable effort on part of the student.
If you want an illustration of this, ask a Thai to tell you what the Thai word for ‘Far’ is, as in ‘far away’.
Then ask what the Thai word for ‘Near’ is, as in ‘nearby’.
I challenge you to tell the difference, yet their meaning is diametrically opposed.
Written Thai is based upon a Sanskrit script and is phonetic, expressing both the word and its pronunciation.
I don’t believe you will have a problem with the language as most educated Thais will speak reasonable English, all hotels will have staff who speak good English as will all hospitals in the main tourist areas.
The main highway signs are in both Thai and English, though some of the spelling leaves a bit to be desired.
You are going to see some very strange translations on restaurant menus!
Learning a few Thai phrases before you go or while you are in Thailand will undoubtedly increase the enjoyment of you get from your holiday and will solicit a smiles and perhaps a little extra help should you ever need it.
I have added a brief collection of useful phrases in the attachments to this guide, I hope you will find time to learn a few of these because they really will go a long way towards you enjoying your holiday. A few words of Thai from you or your children will almost certainly be met with huge smiles of appreciation; who knows, a few closed doors might open.
Thailand is divided into 76 provinces (Changwats), each of which is subdivided into districts (Amphur), Sub-districts (Tambon) and Villages (Moo Baarn). The leading administrators of these areas are elected.
The red, white, and blue stripes symbolize the nation, Buddhism, and the monarchy, respectively. Like all national flags, treat it with respect.
The time in Thailand is seven hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+7 hours GMT). Telling the time in Thailand has a unique twist to it; Thais traditionally divide the day into four parts each of six hours, this can get confusing if you are, for example, booking a taxi for 4.00 am, the literal translation of the term “Four in the morning” is 10:00 am. The twenty-four hour clock is widely used and understood.
Tip: If you are making any bookings, use the twenty-four hour clock as it is the most easily understood time scale.
Tip: If you have to contact Thailand from overseas check the time first, this is very important if calling by phone or sending faxes to confirm a hotel booking. Daytime for you at home might very well be night-time in Thailand
The point is that the night staff in Thai hotels will not have the same English skills as the day crew. Sending faxes at night (Thai time) has the advantage that there is less likelihood of the fax machine being busy but my advice is still, if you need to contact a Thai hotel from overseas call mid morning Thai time, even if that means getting out of bed.
I’m going to say something very odd now. There are probably more days when you can enjoy being outside in the midday weather in England than there are in Thailand, true Thailand takes the trophy for evening weather but having lived in Thailand for many years I am of the opinion that much of Thailand’s midday weather is either too hot, too humid or too rainy. The exception being the cool winter months of December and January during which the weather is fabulous.
Thailand’s climate ranges between tropical and subtropical and has three quite distinct seasons: Hot, Cool and Rainy.
The Hot Season lasts from around the middle of February through to the end of May and peaks in April when temperatures can reach the low 40°C mark, the humidity will usually be in the range 70~80%. The skies during the hot season are generally cloudless but UV levels can be extremely high.
The Rainy Season comes in two parts, the first rains come in or around June as tropical storms move north, then towards September the returning weather brings in the real heavy storms. Midday temperatures are in the range 27~35°C and humidity in the range 85~92%. The skies during the rainy season are very often flat grey and overcast but you will be treated to some quite fantastic electrical storms.
The Cool Season is perhaps the time most people will enjoy in Thailand, it runs from November to mid February and is very similar to a European summer. Temperatures range from perhaps 32°C to below 20 degrees Celsius and the humidity can drop to below 70%. In the mountainous north daytime temperatures range from 22~28°C and it can drop to around freezing during the night.
If like me your a bit of a botony fan then there's a sweet spot in the Thai seasons between the rains and the cool weather (around about the last days of October through the first days of November), the Thai term for this period is 'Blai Fun Don Naow' its a time of lush green forrests and when Thailand's native wild flowers are out in all their glory. - Might be missed on the kids though!
The Climate is going to play a big part in what you are able to do, if your children are very small then the climate might restrict some of your choices. I’ll say more about climate in the section on Choosing an Itinerary.
Thailand’s domestic electricity supply is 220 Volts AC (50 Hz).
Electrical Plugs are generally two pin but I advise that you carry an international Plug Adapter Kit. Many hotels provide a 110-volt shaving point.
Thai two pin electrical socket and Internet connection point.
Electrical Safety in Thailand is ‘poor’ I have stayed in an upmarket hotel that had extremely dangerous wiring behind the bed-head that was held together by Scotch-tape.
All families travelling with small children should consider carrying electrical plug sealers, a plastic blank that fits into electrical sockets to keep little fingers out. An alternative is a simple role of electrical insulation tape.
Tap water is filtered and chlorinated but I would not recommend drinking it, although using it to brush your teeth is perfectly safe and a good way to introduce yourself to the small amounts of the local bacteria.
I once drank a whole jug of water that had been left out after watering the household plants, I can report no ill effects and I remained completely unmoved but drinking tap water in Thailand is nevertheless not something I would recommend.
Tap water during the rainy season may become a slight reddish brown colour, you may even notice sand or grit particles in the waer, this is nothing to be concerned about as it is only minerals washed into reservoirs.
Weights and Measures
Thailand has adopted the metric system and this is used for all measurements in markets, shops and on the highway signs. Weights are measured in Kilograms, measurements are made in Meters, distances are measured in Kilometres and temperatures are measured in degrees Celsius.
Banks main branch opening hourse are generally Monday to Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm, while the same banks in shopping malls will be open seven days a week 10:00 to 8:00pm.
Most shops are open seven days a week from around 10:00 am to 10:00 pm, many supermarkets in the larger towns and cities are open 24 hours.
Government offices are open from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm with a noon to 1 pm lunch break.
Your embassy will have special opening hours for each of its various services, so do check before visiting your embassy should the need to do so arise.
Banks, government offices and embassies close for the main public holidays but private businesses tend to remain open.
Thailand has an excellent postal service; it is efficient and honest.
Post offices are open Monday to Friday from 8:00 am to 4:30 pm.
The postal service can handle all the services you are used to at home and at a fraction of the price.
If you are sending parcels by post from Thailand you will need to make a customs declaration, be sure to add a value to the goods of at least $1.00, otherwise the post office may refuse to accept the parcel.
Tip: If you have anything valuable to post, or that absolutely must get to its destination use the EMS service, it is extremely cheap and efficient. Mail sent by EMS is also trackable on the interent - You'll be given a tracking number and the web address when you post your mail.
Tip: Post cards will be sent surface mail, if you want your postcards to get their while you can still remember having been to Thailand put them in an envelope and put the address and stamp on the envelope. Now write Airmail on the front, your name and hotel address on the back and Do Not Seal the Envelope. Your card will now be sent airmail at the cheapest rate.
Many hotels offer a mail service but I have posted too many letters at hotels only to be told they never arrived at their destination, I suspect the stamps are removed and used elsewhere.
All the major courier services are available in Thailand and they are more than happy to ship our purchases home for you.
Thailand’s telephone services are, by international standards, expensive, but are much cheaper than using your mobile phone. All telephone numbers have nine digits:
Calls to Bangkok are preceded by “02”. for example: 02-123 4567
Each provincial area has its own code, for example calls to Chonburi District are preceded with “038”
Mobile Phones have their own numbers “08” and “09” are common but Thailand’s mobile phone industry is expanding so fast that other numbers are being added.
Calls to Thailand are preceded by the International Direct Calling Code “66”, so that an international call to Bangkok will be (your access number) 66-2-123-4567. Notice that the “0” has been dropped in this call from overseas to Bangkok. (See example at the top of this list).
The international access number from Thailand is 001+country code + area code + telephone number
Directory assistance: 1133 (local), 100 (international)
Tip: Cheaper Calls to the UK can be made by dialing 009 + 44 + area code + telephone number.
Tip: Cheaper Calls to the US can be made by dialing 004 + 1 + area code + telephone number.
Emergency Telephone Numbers
Keep these numbers in a safe place.
Police, Ambulance, Fire 191
Tourist Police (English, French and German spoken) - 1155
Using Your Own Mobile Phone In Thailand
GSM Mobile Phone Coverage is widely available throughout Thailand but costs can be excessive, I had an email from one visitor to Thailand who said she returned home to a telephone bill that cost her half as much as her airfare (From Europe!).
I think, if only because of the expense, it is best if you don’t use your mobile phone unless you really must, at other times keep it switched off and always use the PIN number to protect you against unauthorised use.
Buying a Local Pay-as-you-go SIM Card or Phone
An option is to buy a local pay-as-you-go SIM Card or Phone, these can be bought at many local shopping malls, usually at or near the top floor. Alternatively in response to many queries on this topic we at Thailand4Kids have teamed up with a local store and can arrange for a phone/SIM card to be delivred to your hotel for you to collect when you arrive. See link to this service on the website.
Discount Telephone Services
Thailand’s landline telephone system is state owned, while the major player in the Mobile Phone service is the family of the current Prime Minister, so it comes as no surprise that Thailand lags behind much of the world in the adoption of discount telephone services. However, there is one convenient and cheap provider “Lenso”.
Lenso cards can be bought at most 7/11 stores and in many tourist shops. They are available in Bht200, 300 and 500 denominations and can be used in any of the easily identifiable Lenso phone booths and phones that are located in all the tourist hotspots, and in many of the better hotels - see examples below. Apart from cheaper rates, Lenso phones offer an International Direct Dial Service, something not available from Thai phone booths.
AT&T have phone booths in Bangkok and some of the major tourist destination but if you choose to use AT&T I advise you buy card before you leave home as I have always had difficulty finding AT&T Cards in Thailand.
The AT&T access number in Thailand is 001-999-111-11
Internet services are widely available in Thailand and are very cheap.
Most Internet Cafes will state a rate per hour and may impose a minimal charge, they may charge for the full hour but the charges are never expensive.
Many hotels will offer Internet access and if you are staying up market you might even get broadband access in your room. I must however caution, hotels will often charge very high prices for access to the Internet, if you are on a restricted budget, or if like me you simply do not like being ripped off, it might be better to search out one of the many internet cafes - These are very often right alongside hotels and guesthouses.
If you are bringing your own laptop then you'll find free internet access via hotspots provided by many of the Coffee shops and Cafes around Thailand.
Internet Services Caution and a Warning
Those of us who normally only ever use our home or office computers might not be aware of the risks that come with using a ‘public’ computer.
I have seen software that recovers every single keystroke that is typed into a machine and I myself have found what was cleary personal security sensitive material left on public computers. Be aware of this and do not use any sensitive information on a public PC.
WARNING - Do not access your bank account, paypal account, credit card account or any such accounts you have via a public computer in Thailand - That includes computers in Hotels and Guesthouses. Making bookings and using your credit card online is fine, the Credit Card company provide security to protect you and themselves - But accessing your own accounts might verywell give a thief direct accss to your money.
If you must access your accounts during your holiday, I'd recommend brining a laptop - and make sure that this is password protected.
Tip: You should regard email in the same way you regard a postcard something that anyone can read.
A Word About Staying in Touch
If you are travelling as single parent with children or if your own parents are being a bit negative about your plans to take their grandchildren to Thailand then you might want to give a bit of thought to how you keep in touch, this is especially important if you are travelling independently.
I certainly advise that you call home to say you have arrived safely but be a bit careful about committing to an exact time or day for your next call. In the remote areas of Thailand and many of the islands communications can be difficult, you might not be able to keep that appointment, sometimes for several days. This delay to someone at home who is already concerned about your trip might cause real worries.
Better, I think, to call on your day of arrival and then agree to call ‘next week’ rather than “Sunday at 3:00pm”.