Tips for Visiting Thailand for the First Time

It wasn’t that long ago (ok, 2012) that we were visiting Thailand for the first time and had boatloads of questions before our arrival. So, we put ourselves into newbie shoes, thought about what our concerns were, and wrote up a list of essential tips that you can use during your first visit. Follow this mini guide and you’ll fit right in!

Visiting Thailand for the First Time? Here’s Our Advice

We’ve definitely experienced that silly feeling when researching a country for the very first time and realizing that we didn’t know what airport to fly into or what clothes we should pack. If you’re feeling the same way, don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. Here are introductions to the following Thailand travel topics: What to wear, food, proper etiquette, major cities, money talk, sightseeing suggestions, types of transportation, and safety. Although these have been greatly elaborated on in Thailand’s guidebooks, we’ll just give the highlights.

What to Wear in Thailand

Thailand Travel 101: East meets West choice in attire

Some travelers prefer to protect their skin from the sun’s strong rays while others rather stay cool.

Thailand is hot and sunny and temperatures generally range from 80 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (27 to 35 degrees Celsius) year round. Many guidebooks recommend wearing “conservative or polite clothing” but that could mean a range of things depending on what country you’re from.

Many Westerners tend to wear fewer clothes or clothing that shows skin to stay cool. On the other hand, Eastern foreigners tend to wear clothing that covers their skin and protects them from the sun’s rays. You can very often see them walking around with umbrellas. In fact, the above picture is an excellent example of East versus West preference in clothing.

After observing what local Thais wear, here are our thoughts on what to wear in Thailand:

Recommended Attire in Thailand

  • Collared shirts (like polos), casual to semi-dressy button-down shirts, and Bermuda shorts are great for men. Good quality t-shirts (without offensive language or images of sex, drugs, and violence) and cargo shorts (that aren’t holey or stained) are alright, too.
  • Ladies can wear tops that are flowy, fitted, or collared. If you wear a sleeveless shirt, double check that the shoulder straps are a few inches wide. Ladies, wear shirts that cover your cleavage. This is considered impolite dress anytime and anywhere.
  • Comfortable flat closed-toed shoes, preferably ones that can be easily slipped on and off and cleaned of dust and grime. Flip flops and sandals are socially acceptable but closed-toe slip-ons simply keep your feet much cleaner.
  • Skirts and shorts are definitely ok to wear and they can be fairly short as long as your derriere isn’t hanging out of the bottom. Summer dresses and bohemian-esque skirts are great. In the cooler months (November through January) wear capris, 3/4 length pants, lightweight pants, and long skirts or dresses.
  • A very lightweight cardigan, jacket, or pashmina to protect yourself from the sun. It will also keep you warm at night, which can feel unusually cool after getting sunburned at the beach.

Not Recommended and Considered Impolite

  • Spaghetti strap shirts and crop tops are out; wife beaters/muscle shirts/singlets are better left at home.
  • Shirts that show your cleavage, are see-through (unless you’re wearing a camisole underneath), or that clearly reveal you aren’t wearing a bra.
  • Beach attire unless you’re at the beach. This includes see-through cover-ups, unbuttoned shirts that show your stomach, or no shirt at all. Oh yeah, and don’t sunbathe nude.
  • Walking around barefoot. Per observation, Thailand attracts many people who like to “connect with Mother Earth” and walk around barefoot. However, this is culturally unacceptable in Thailand. Please be mindful of Thai culture and wear shoes.

We go even further in depth in a more recent post about the dos and don’ts of what to wear in Thailand.

Must-Try Thai Food

Tips for Visiting Thailand for the First Time: Thai food

Central Thai cuisine: Gaeng keow wan (แกงเขียวหวาน) or sweet green curry with rotee (โรตี)

You can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Thais usually eat with a fork and spoon, not chopsticks! The food will be cut up into bite sized pieces so there is no need for a knife. Soups are generally served with chopsticks and a spoon.

Restaurants in touristy places often tone down their food and it’s not as spicy or as rich in flavor. This can be either good news or bad news depending on your level of food adventurism and how much heat your mouth can take. We prefer the real deal!

Many foods have fish sauce in them, not soy sauce. While it’s fairly easy to get a vegetarian dish, it’s more difficult to go full vegan because of the fish sauce, oyster sauce, and animal-based broths.

Also, many vendors use MSG. You can say “Mai sai pong-cheu-rot” which means “Do not put in MSG,” but some pre-made items (like curries and soups) cannot be changed. Also, table condiments usually include vinegar, sugar, fresh chilies in fish sauce (nahm blah prik)) or dried chilies, and a bottle of fish sauce.

There is more to Thai food than pad Thai. Try the following:

  • If you’re in the South, try the Muslim-influenced massaman curry full of potatoes and peanuts in a rich and fragrant coconut sauce. Or dive into fried crispy whole fish with sweet and tangy tamarind sauce.
  • If you’re in Central Thailand, go for tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup flavored with lime, lemongrass, and delicious with shrimp. Or try gaeng keeow wan. It’s a mild green curry dish with fresh basil and slices of eggplant served with steamed rice or rotee (like crepes).
  • In the Northeast, often called Isaan (ee-sahn), try som tum, a refreshing green papaya salad tossed with lime juice, coconut sugar, fish sauce, and often peanuts and a few chilies.
  • In the North we highly recommend taste testing khao soi, a northern Thai yellow curry dish served over egg noodles.

As far as tipping goes, it isn’t necessary or expected at food stands or small mom and pop establishments. However, in restaurants where a server takes our order and delivers our food, we typically leave 20 baht per person. In fine dining restaurants with an attentive server, we play it by ear but tip at least 15%. Check out earlier posts of ours where we go into more depth about eating Thai food and how to order at food stalls.

Proper Etiquette

Proper Thai etiquette: Remove shoes before entering a temple

Always take your shoes off when entering someone’s house, a temple, and in some instances, a business. If you see shoes arranged beside a door’s entrance, that is your key to take yours off. If you’re not sure, default to taking them off.

Do not conduct yoga semi-nude or in skin tight clothing in front of temples. While it sounds silly and somewhat unbelievable, it has happened several times across southeast Asia. It is an embarrassing example of disrespectful travelers!

The wai is a how Thais greet each other rather than using a bow, a handshake, or a wave from afar. It is also used when saying thank you or to say goodbye, too. We wai back to our Thai friends and to people we see often like our smoothie lady or the gym staff. We hope we aren’t impolite in doing so, but sometimes if an unfamiliar hotel concierge or a craft vendor wais us, if we clam up and feel shy about wai’ing back (or we simply have our hands full of bags), we will always smile, nod in acknowledgment, and say a reciprocal thank you instead.

Both men and women should be especially conscious of being properly covered when entering temples. Men must wear shoulder covering shirts (buttoned closed) and shorts that come to the knee but preferably pants. Women must cover their cleavage and shoulders and wear pants or skirts that are at least knee-length. A shawl is a versatile piece of clothing that can be wrapped around your waist or worn across your shoulders and chest if you are visiting a temple. In most cases is an acceptable article of clothing to wear in a temple.

NOTE: There is some interpretation regarding the term “knee-length.” For men, if shorts are an inch or two above the knee, it’s typically acceptable. For ladies, it’s a good idea to wear a skirt or capris that are clearly below the knee.

Stay clean and smell fresh. Being stinky is considered impolite. (There’s that word again.) This may sound obvious, but travelers should practice good hygiene habits. Take a shower at least once a day if not twice (even if it’s a quick rinse!) and double up on the deodorant. Whatever the reason – the heat, last night’s booze fest, or the garlic and cumin in Thai cuisine – chances are you’ll be more aromatically present but not in a good way!

Monks are highly respected. Keep your head below a monk as you pass by them (duck a little if you’re tall) and do not touch them (especially women). Also be aware of sitting areas that are designed to monks only; give up your seat on a bus or at the airport for a monk.

It is not illegal to drink in public but there may be some restrictions on where you can drink outside such as at temples and public parks. Use good judgment and stay seated when you are drinking. It’s simply uncouth to walk around the city streets with a big Chang beer in hand.

If you’re planning a trip to Thailand, you might also like…

First Time Visitor’s
7-Day Guide to Bangkok

This week-long itinerary is a collaboration of the best things to do in Thailand’s capital city plus our personal recommendations for where to stay in Bangkok, best restaurants, transportation, and more.

Thailand’s Major Cities (and Common Mispronunciations)

Bangkok is the nation’s capital and has two airports: Suvarnabhumi (BKK), which is pronounced sue-wan-na-poom, and Don Mueang (DMK).

Most short-term visitors do not need a Thai visa and depending on what country you are from you can receive a free 90- or 30-day visa-exempt stamp upon arrival. Other travelers, such as citizens from China and India, are required to apply for a visa upon arrival and can do so at the international airports.

Other major cities in Thailand (and towns that are often mispronounced) include:

City in Thailand

Known For

Chiang Mai
RIGHT: CHEEung-my
WRONG: chang-my
This northern city in the mountains has hundreds of temples and outdoor activities. It’s very popular during the lantern festival (Yee Peng) and water festival (Songkran).
Phuket
RIGHT: poo-get
WRONG: FUK-it
One of the most popular and expensive beach towns in the south, it is also Thailand’s largest island and is in the Andaman Sea.
Pattaya
RIGHT: PAT-tay-ya
WRONG: put-TIE-ya
A beach town not far from Bangkok, this place has a huge night scene with a plethora of girly bars.
Ayutthaya
RIGHT: ah-YOU-tah-yah
WRONG: ah-you-TIE-yah
Kingdom of ruins north of Bangkok. Thailand’s equivalent to Bagan in Myanmar or Siem Reap in Cambodia but not as big.
Koh Phi Phi
RIGHT: gaw-pee-pee
WRONG: koh-fee-fee
A group of six islands in the far south of Thailand known for its crazy nightlife and gorgeous diving spots.
Koh Chang
RIGHT: gaw-CHAWHNG
WRONG: koh-chang
A backpacker friendly island in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s not as popular as other islands and therefore offers more seclusion.
Udon Thani
RIGHT: OO-dawn tah-NEE
WRONG: oo-don THAH-nee
One of major cities in the Isaan region, land-locked Udon Thani has few foreign visitors but still features beautiful countryside with lakes and temples.
TIP: Anytime you read a “th” or “ph” in Thai, the “h” is silent. Pronounce it as “t” and “p”, respectively. You wouldn’t say “I’m going to Thighland (for Thailand) or Fooket (for Phuket).”

Thai Currency and ATMs

The accepted currency in Thailand is baht. No other currency is used. However, in airports and major cities, you will have no problem finding ATMs to withdraw cash or money exchanges to swap out your euros, dollars, or yen. ATMs always give the option in English and often Chinese and they spit out 1,000 baht bills (sometimes in 500 baht increments). There is a 200 to 220 baht ATM charge (6.50 USD to 7 USD) for every withdrawal in addition to your bank fees and conversion rate fees.

Thailand is a cash-based society so credit cards are rarely used. The few exceptions are in the major malls. The paper bills come in increments of 20, 50, 100, 500, and 1,000 baht. Coins come in increments of 1, 2, 5, and 10 baht.

Conversion Rates as of April 2018

Foreign Currency 1 EUR 1 CNY 1 AUD 1 RUB 1 USD
Conversion 38.5 THB 4.96 THB 24.2 THB 0.48 THB 31.2 THB

Sightseeing Suggestions

There are tons of activities and bucket-list items to do in Thailand. Things like rock climbing, kayaking in lagoons, indulging in beach-side massages, biking in the mountains, scuba diving in coral reefs, taking a dinner cruise along the river, trekking through hill tribes, ATVing, zip lining, joining a Thai food cooking class, dancing at full moon parties, golfing on luxurious greens… We could go on and on and on.

But there is one thing that we wouldn’t suggest doing.

Even though it seems to be on everyone’s bucket list, do not take part in unethical animal tourism.

We’re referring to the snake farms, tiger kingdoms, and elephant camps that continue to rear their ugly heads on bloggers’ and popular travel guides’ “Top Ten MUST DO Things in Thailand” lists. There is a dark side to animal tourism in Thailand and many travelers have no idea that these wild animals have been abused, drugged, overfed or underfed, beaten, chained or otherwise exploited.

So that’s why we’re telling you now. Please reconsider spending the day laying with drowsy tigers, riding on the backs of overworked elephants, or taking pictures with exotic animals who are otherwise being held captive.

Do your research and if you absolutely must see wild animals, choose to spend time at sanctuaries or rescue facilities who practice responsible animal tourism without the chains and cages. Want to feed, bathe, and play with elephants without riding them? If you’re in Chiang Mai, we suggest checking out the Elephant Nature Park.

And that’s all we’re going to say about that.

Driving Rules and Modes of Transportation

The ultra modern skytrain in Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand offers travelers a great variety of public transportation. There are more than twenty domestic and international airports throughout the country. There is also an extensive railway system and many cities can be reached by well-traveled bus routes. Thankfully, Thailand has a new site that allows visitors to book plane, train, and bus tickets online. It’s a lifesaver!

Touristy towns have songthaews (red truck taxis) or tuk-tuks to take you short distances, too. But Thailand also has a ridesharing app called Grab Taxi. It’s similar to Lyft and Uber. You can find it in major cities such as:

  • Bangkok
  • Chiang Mai
  • Chiang Rai
  • Khon Kaen
  • Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat)
  • Pattaya
  • Phuket
  • Songkhla & Hat Yai
  • Surat Thani & Koh Samui
  • Ubon Ratchathani
  • Udon Thani
For Grab Taxi first-timers, create an account and use our Grab Taxi code GRABTIETOTHAI to get a FREE ride (up to 100 THB off). 

If you’d rather drive yourself, foreigners can easily rent cars and motorbikes. Be sure to have an international driving permit or a Thai license when driving. If you don’t have one, you’ll be fined several hundred baht if you are pulled over by the traffic police.

If you do drive yourself, make sure to drive on the wrong left side of the road. There are many unspoken driving rules so be extra careful if you do decide to explore the country on your own.

Safety

Beware of Thai scams

Be aware of scams. Although they aren’t designed to threaten your safety but it is an easy way to get your money. Don’t trust someone who approaches you (seemingly kind and sometimes even well dressed and spoken) who will take you to “their friend’s restaurant” or “a secret temple” or tries to sell you tickets to an event. Most likely they will overcharge you, or worse, it’s fake.

If you drink at a night club or girly bar, make sure to see the price of the beverages so you don’t end up with an outrageous bar tab. Thailand is incredibly safe.

Aside from the occasional opportunist who snatches a purse or pick-pockets, you and your belongings are generally safe. You don’t have to worry much about your car being stolen, your hotel room or house being broken into, or being a victim of a violent crime.

Solo female travel is totally welcomed in Thailand, too. This does not mean to throw caution to the wind, but you should feel comfortable almost everywhere you go and be able to relax and enjoy your time.

A Place to Stay for Your First Night in Thailand

Chances are you’ll be flying into Bangkok if you’re visiting Thailand for the first time. Whether you arrive in the middle of the day or at midnight, the first thing you’ll want to do after a long flight is set down your luggage, clean yourself up, and get some rest. We’ve been to Bangkok a dozen or so times and recommend the following hotels:

Dorms from $13 USD

This backpacker-friendly hostel may have a vintage industrial feel to it but it’s spotless and features fast Wifi. Located in Khao San old town Bangkok.

Duo rooms from $31 USD

The House of Phraya Jasaen combines modern style with a peaceful atmosphere and is nestled away on a quiet soi in Sathorn.

Superior rooms from $55 USD

You can’t beat the location of this stylish hotel in the heart of Sukhumvit and a stone’s throw from the BTS, MRT, and Terminal 21.

Deluxe studio from $60 USD

The Chatrium Residence Sathorn hotel combines comfort, luxury, and amazing amenities. The breakfast is unbeatable.

Rooms from $185 USD

Treat yourself to this five-star contemporary Thai colonial style hotel in Witthayu. Complete with a fitness center and outdoor pool.

There you have it! This mini guide should help get you ready for visiting Thailand for the first time. Hopefully, you now feel more confident about what to expect once you’re here.

Since many of our readers have been to or are currently traveling in Thailand, what advice do you have for others?

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From what to wear, what foods to try, proper etiquette, popular cities, and how to travel around, this mini guide will help you out if it's your first time visiting the Land of Smiles | Tieland to Thailand

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