Thailand’s culture is fascinating, its people are incredibly warm and friendly, it offers gorgeous and widely varied landscapes, its architecture is stunning… we could go on! Here are a few of the basics that you’ll want to know when planning a visit.
Thailand is hot and humid. Period. The seasons are simply variations on that theme. Summer (March-June) in Bangkok can see temperatures well over 100 F (40 C) with humidity at 80%. Even Thai people wither under these conditions. At the hight of summer they have a national water fight during the Songkran Festival, just to keep cool. The rainy season (July-October) provides no real relief. Temperatures are only slightly cooler in the mid-80s F (high 20s C) with humidity at 90% when it’s not raining – which it does 25-30 days each month, producing severe annual flooding. The best time to visit is winter (November-February) when temperatures are still in the high 80s F but the humidity is a more bearable 65-75% with little rain.
Nestled between Myanmar (Burma) on the west, Cambodia on the east and Laos to the north, the Kingdom of Thailand is in the heart of Asia. Stretching from 5 to 20 degrees above the equator, Thailand offers great geological diversity – from stunning beaches in the south to flat plains in the center and steamy jungles at the foot of the Himalayas in the north.
Thailand is located almost exactly opposite on the globe from the U.S. (the same meridian that runs through Bangkok runs through South Dakota). Bangkok is located on about the same latitude as San Salvador in Central America and Saint Lucia in the Caribbean. The distance between Los Angeles and Bangkok is 8,263 miles (13,298 km). This makes for a very long flight of 17 hrs – great for collecting frequent flier miles!
The Thai baht exchanges at around 30 baht to the dollar. While dollars are accepted in most places, it is best to make your purchases in the native currency to ensure the best exchange rate. Major credit cards are universally accepted. The banking system is stable and robust. ATMs can be found in nearly every city and can be used to withdraw baht from credit or debit cards.
The Thai people welcome visitors from all over the world. Americans and Europeans are equally well received by a thriving tourist industry eager to meet their needs. Most population centers display signs in both Thai and English. While English is by no means universal, most Thai speak enough to conduct business with western visitors. A smile and a few hand gestures are usually sufficient communication.
The Thai dress modestly and consider it rude to show a lot of skin. They also avoid strong emotions in public. Foreigners are given considerable tolerance in their clothing and manners. In most situations, shorts and t-shirts are perfectly acceptable. When visiting temples and sacred places, men should wear long pants and women should cover their upper arms and their legs above the knee. Otherwise, light cotton for comfort is the rule for daily wear.
Thailand is governed by a constitutional monarchy similar to Great Britain. The Thai people enjoy many democratic freedoms but, unlike Great Britain, there is one subject that is not open to debate or criticism: Thailand’s royal family. Even the slightest negative comment or defamation of any member of the royal family is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. This includes foreign visitors. The Thai government is very serious about this and actively prosecutes vandalism of royal images, critical verbal statements, disrespectful photos, even negative Internet posts and email. You will be treated as an honored guest during your stay, so it is best to avoid political discussions and just enjoy the exotic beauty and friendly hospitality of this great nation.
(Very) Brief History
People have lived in the area we now call Thailand since at least 3000 BC. The T’ai ethnic group migrated to the area from China around 600 BC and it is from this that the word “Thai” is derived. Buddhism arrived from India around 300 BC and is the predominate religion (94%). Early Thai history is tumultuous and dominated by many tragic wars between native warlords and Burmese or Cambodian invaders. Around 1239 AD we see the first of several city-state governments. Dynasties from Auytthya, Thonburi and Sukhothai would rise and fall over the next several hundred years until the creation of Siam in 1782 under the current Chakri Dynasty.
Westerners have been in contact with Thailand since at least the late 1400s. In 1516 the Portuguese signed a formal trade treaty with the Royal Court. The first American diplomats arrived in 1833. There has been much western influence over the centuries, but Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to never be colonized by western powers.
Modern Thailand is a bustling center for trade with Bangkok at the center. The Thai could teach the world about business. These hardworking and industrious people always seem busy. Laborers who work farmland during the day can be found selling wares from carts in the evening. It almost seems that every Thai has a side business in addition to their day job!