There’s no denying the myriad attractions of Thailand. Beaches, jungles, cities, spices – this kingdom of intrigue offers endless explorations into culture, nature and history.
To help you get to know Thailand a little better, we’ve drawn upon our extensive knowledge of the country to share some of our favorite things about it. You’ll notice we’ve left out Bangkok – because we love it so much we decided the ‘City of Angels’ deserves a blog post of its own (coming up next week).
Take a whirlwind trip through Thailand with our fun and interesting facts…
Fact 1. You could go island-hopping forever
There are thousands of islands and islets off Thailand’s shores, with roughly two-dozen accessible to the regular traveler.
Each of these has a distinct personality, from the glitzy, extensively-developed Phuket and Koh Samui, to the sleepy and far-flung Koh Phayam and Koh Phu. (‘Koh’, by the way, just means ‘island.’)
Many island-hopping travelers find an island they don’t want to hop away from anymore and end up settling there, which is why you’ll find healthy expat communities on virtually all of Thailand’s larger islands.
Fact 2. Thailand was never colonised
It is also fact that the French occupied the provinces of Chanthaburi and Trat on the Cambodian border in 1895, returning them to Thailand in exchange for the western part of Cambodia.
The historic Western-style buildings you see around Bangkok’s Old Town were built by King Rama V in efforts to save Siam from colonization by modernizing the kingdom. By cooperating with the British and French, (including making aforementioned land concessions) he helped save the country from invasion.
Extra fun fact: His tutor was Anna Leonowens (who you know from Anna and the King, which is incidentally banned in Thailand.)
Fact 3. Thailand is one of the most visited countries in the world
The country’s main international airport, Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Su-varna-boom with a silent ‘i’), reportedly sees 45 million people per year, with expansion plans underway that will increase its capacity to 60 million by 2019.
In fact, Mastercard ranked Bangkok the most visited place on Earth in 2016, with 21.47 million individual stays of at least one night. No wonder there are traffic jams!
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Fact 4. The Thai language has 44 consonants and 32 vowels
And six tones, which are critical to pronunciation.
The word ‘mai’ means ‘no’, ‘wood’, ‘new’, ‘silk’ and ‘burn’, depending on which intonation you give it, which is a minefield for learners.
To make things easier for the traveler, ‘hello’’ and ‘goodbye’ are the same: ‘sawasdee’.
Fact 5. Thailand is the top orchid exporter in the world.
The kingdom has more than 1,500 species of orchids.
Yes, they are affordable and widely available, so you can indulge your love of fresh blooms while in the country.
Fact 6. Medical museum
A fun fact for the morbidly curious: There is a museum on the outskirts of Bangkok – the Siriraj Forensic Museum – with some ‘unconventional’ displays.
There’s a mummified serial killer. A human nervous system. Skeletons and various body parts in formaldehyde. Not for the squeamish.
Fact 7. Thailand is a Buddhist country
Which means feet are unholy and should stay as close to the floor as possible at all times, and heads are holy and shouldn’t be touched.
Temples require demure clothing (covered shoulders and legs), and monks should generally be given a wide berth.
Thai Buddhism incorporates elements of Hinduism and local folklore and animism, which is why you see Buddhist shrines to Hindu gods, ‘magic’ amulets, prayer tattooes and spirit houses all over the country.
Fact 8. ‘Soi’ means ‘street’ or ‘alley’
Major cities in Thailand are more or less laid out in a grid, with even soi on one side of a road and odd numbered ones on the other, which helps while trying to navigate.
The soi are often long, winding, narrow and one-way, which doesn’t help while trying to navigate, so keep your GPS on.
Fact 9. The food is amazing
We probably don’t need to tell you this, but Thai food is one of the world’s tastiest cuisines.
That mix of sweet, sour and spicy in every dish can make your favorite dishes back home seem bland by comparison.
Travelers who can’t tolerate chili at all will still find plenty of food without any added. ‘Safe’ dishes include fried rice, fried noodle dishes and clear noodle soups, which come with all the condiments on the side.
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Fact 10. Street food is especially good
Should you try it? Yes! Get a local to show you where the best stalls are (or just look for those with the most people).
You’ll see everything from BBQ pork skewers and fried crickets to ice cream sandwiches and banana pancakes – also fresh fruit, water and soda to keep you hydrated.
Fact 11. The ice is hygienic
Ice factories use filtered water and supply it to businesses in various forms – cubes, blocks and little cylinders of different sizes.
The street vendors using ice in milk tea or soda have bought it from the local store as it’s simply not efficient to make your own ice out of tap water.
On that note, tap water should be avoided – you can buy inexpensive bottled water easily across Thailand.
Fact 12. The pythons get real big
Do you like snakes? Thailand is home to the largest of them all – the reticulated python.
They’re not venomous but they can – and do – slither into people’s properties and eat their chickens from time to time.
The good news is that you will likely not see any on your travels in Thailand, bar the odd street tout selling pictures with them (which is illegal, so avoid).
Fact 13. Monkeys have their own temples
If you’d like to see some of the local wildlife, Lopburi, just outside Bangkok, has a Khmer temple – Phra Prang Sam Yod – where thousands of crab-eating macaques roam free.
Tourists and locals visit just to meet the monkeys and feed them – they’re not scared of people and will steal whatever they want from you, so it’s wise to leave jewelry back at your hotel.
Every year in November there’s a Monkey Festival with traditional dance performances, music and a fruit buffet to honor the monkeys, who locals believe bring good luck (Hanuman the monkey is a key deity in Hinduism). The next festival is on November 15, 2017.
Fact 14. Thailand used to be called Siam
But only for a short period of time. In Thai, it has been called ‘Muang Tai’ – ‘land of the Tai’, with ‘Tai’ being the word for ‘free person’ (as in ‘not a serf’).
On May 11th 1949, Siam was officially renamed the Kingdom of Thailand. ‘Prathet Thai’ is the formal Thai name for the country.
Fact 15. Thailand has some unusual crazes
A good number of Thais are superstitious, which means many a strange craze has swept the country in the name of good luck.
One such craze is that of the ‘luk thep’ – ‘child angels’ – where baby dolls are treated as if they are real children.
The dolls are uncannily life-like and after being blessed by a monk in a special ceremony they’re believed to bring good luck to their owners.
Fact 16. New Year is a splashy affair
Songkran, Thailand’s New Year, is celebrated from April 12-15 with much country-wide festivity.
While there are deeply solemn aspects to the rituals of the new year, the most famous one is ‘water play,’ which sees locals, visitors, rich, poor, young and old alike engaged in water fights.
The water fight is the natural evolution of the water blessing, a Buddhist good-luck ritual that metaphorically washes away the sins of the old year in preparation for the new.
It’s Thailand’s most joyous time – a great period for travel if you don’t mind getting wet.
Fact 17. The wildlife is wild
Thailand’s jungles, seas, rivers and skies are teeming with amazing animal species.
The country is home to the smallest mammal – the bumblebee bat – and the largest fish – the whale shark.
There are also elephants, whales, tigers, otters, pink dolphins, buffalo, wild cats, snakes, geckos and thousands of species of birds and butterflies.
If you travel to any of Thailand’s islands, you’re likely to encounter tokay geckos, which have a distinctive call and are both loved and loathed by locals.
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Fact 18. Thailand is home to the Full Moon Party
Down on Koh Phangan next to Koh Samui, Haad Rin beach heaves every month with the famous Full Moon Party.
Far from the hippy operation it once was, it’s now a well-organized, mass-marketed party on the sand, with multiple stages, fire shows, cocktail buckets and thousands of 20-something travelers wearing body paint and not much else.
While the party gets its fair share of negative press, it doesn’t affect the rest of Koh Phangan (other than driving up hotel prices across the island).
If you’re looking for a serene beach holiday on Koh Phangan, there are dozens of beaches where you can have one, just avoid Haad Rin beach, especially on Full Moon Party dates.
Fact 19. All rise for the King’s Anthem
The monarchy is highly respected in Thailand, so much so that it is protected by severe lese majeste laws.
You’ll witness this love of the royal family everywhere you go – portraits of key royals are all around the country, the royal anthem is played in Bangkok mass transit stations twice a day and a short film dedicated to the King is screened before every movie (for which you must stand).
Be sure to treat your Thai baht with respect, as it bears the face of the late, and much-loved, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Fact 20. Diving is world-class
Thailand is a fantastic place to indulge your love of diving and even get your diving certificate.
The Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea, and part of the Similan National Park, are considered in the top 10 dive sites in the world for their diversity and abundance of marine life. More than 500 species of coral, manta rays, whale sharks, turtles and underwater caves and boulders make for world-class diving.
The islands are only accessible from mid-October to mid-May due to the monsoon, and they’re not well developed thanks to their protected status, though there are plenty of liveaboard boats and day trips from Phuket, Khao Lak or Ranong.
Fact 21. There are some stinky fruits
Most towns in Thailand have fruit vendors who sell inexpensive fresh fruit (20-baht per bag of cut fruit is the going rate in Bangkok.)
While most sell pineapple, mango, cantaloupe and melon, you’ll also find more exotic-looking fruit for sale. Lychee, rambutan (hairy and round), rose apples, dragonfruit (red and spiky), papaya and mangosteen are fairly common, but the one fruit you should really try if you’re adventurous is durian.
To some, this fragrant fruit smells offensive (like sulphur), which has seen it banned from public transport. While the smell is strong, the flavor is mild and creamy – a little hard to describe. British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace tried, claiming it tasted like, “a rich custard highly flavored with almonds,” with “occasional wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, and other incongruous dishes.”
Are you game to try it?
Fact 22. All boys become monks for a while
It’s routine in Thailand for boys to spend some time as novice monks, living at the local temple.
The time they spend there can be anywhere from a few weeks to a few years, and adult men can return as a novice monk temporarily at any time.
Novice monks observe 10 precepts rather than the 227 observed by full-fledged monks. While at the temple they learn mindfulness and meditation skills as well as reading, writing and secular subjects.
Fact 23. There are countless temples
While visiting Thailand, you’ll probably want to visit some temples, so here are some things you should know.
- Most temples will have sarongs for rent if you aren’t dressed appropriately, so you can cover your shoulders or legs.
- You should wear slip-on shoes because you will have to take them off every time you go inside.
- Obviously, you should be quiet and respectful.
- Most temples don’t allow you to take flash photographs inside, though pictures are generally allowed.
- Never point at a Buddha or monk with your feet.
- As a foreigner you’re not expected to wai anything.
- Step over the threshold of the temple when you go inside.
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Fact 24. Amulets have magical powers
You’ll see a lot of people wearing gold necklaces with pendants containing scrolls or figures of monks.
These are believed to bring protection and good luck to the wearer. In a taxi, look up and you’ll see the roof covered in protective blessings, or there’ll be amulets hanging from the rear-view mirror.
You should never touch one of these amulets or monk statues as they are considered sacred objects.
Fact 25. Thai temple tattoos are also magically blessed
Called ‘sak yant, the Thai temple tattoo has gained in popularity with Western travelers and expats, perhaps due to the exposure brought by Angelina Jolie-Pitt.
You can get an ajarn or local tattoo shop to do an authentic-looking sak yant with a bamboo needle or normal tattoo machine, or you can head to Wat Bang Phra, which is the main temple where the monks do them. The monks use bamboo needles with steel tips dipped in a communal ink pot.
They take requests if you know what to ask for, otherwise they’ll give you a gao yord (nine peaks) or a ha thaew (five lines), which are two of your basic starter temple tattoos. There’s a lot more info here.
Fact 26. Thais have interesting insults
The worst insult you could hurl at a Thai person is to call them a buffalo, a water lizard or just an animal.
Buffalos are seen as dumb (though in reality they are highly prized, expensive commodities in rural communities) and calling someone an animal or water monitor is insinuating they are an uncultured beast.
It is not advisable to insult anyone while on vacation in Thailand.
Fact 27. Entertainment is vast and varied
If you like a show, Thailand has a diverse range of options that caters to every taste.
If you’re on an island, you’ll likely see a fire-twirling show.
If you’re in a city, there are world-famous cabarets that might pique your interest.
If you like a fancy cultural performance with elephants and dancers flying above the stage, Siam Niramit should be on your list.
And if you’re into sports, you should make it to a muay Thai match.
Fact 28. Elephants can be seen in an ethical manner
It’s true that many elephant camps and safaris around Thailand have less than ideal conditions for their elephants, but there are some reputable places renowned for their conservation work.
Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai and Phuket Elephant Sanctuary are two organizations that care for ex-logging and street elephants, or head to a luxurious jungle camp that lets you interact with elephants while sleeping in style.
Fact 29. Different islands have different seasons
The high/dry season on the Andaman (Phuket) side is from November to March, so the Christmas and New Year period brings the year’s best weather. Not so on the western side of the Thai Gulf, where December and January see torrential rains batter the islands of Samui, Phangan and Tao.
Conversely these three islands have pretty good weather for the rest of the year, missing the long monsoon of the Andaman coast.
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Fact 30. Thailand is very convenient
In fact, if convenience were measured by convenience stores, Thailand would be up there with Japan.
We don’t know exactly how many 7-Elevens, Family Marts, Lawson 108s and Tescos there are in the kingdom, but we do know that it’s hard to find a place these brands aren’t represented.
Handy for water, money (they always have ATMs), sunblock, tissues, sausages and toasted sandwiches, the proliferation of convenience stores in Thailand might make you wonder how you ever coped back home.
Fact 31. Thai people love babies and also taking pictures
If you travel outside the major cities with a cute kid, especially if they have blue eyes or curly hair, you and your offspring may find yourself the subject of baby-cuddling and/or picture-taking.
This is meant as a compliment, but if you find it intrusive, just smile and say ‘no thank you.’
Fact 32. Soccer is also huge
Both national and international football are big in Thailand.
Exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra even purchased Manchester City FC. You’ll notice cab drivers listening to games and crowds gathered around TVs in restaurants any time there’s a match on.
If you’re a fan, you’ll be pleased to learn that most European games of note are aired on local TV channels.
Fact 33. Thailand has five UNESCO World Heritage Sites
There’s the former Siamese capital, Ayutthaya, which is an essential daytrip from Bangkok.
There’s Sukhothai, which was the capital before Ayutthaya.
There’s the Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex near Khao Yai, a popular weekend escape from the capital.
And then the not-very-widely-known Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries on the border of Myanmar.
Also not very well-known: the archeological site of Ban Chiang, where a human dwelling has been unearthed that dates back to 1495 BC and is considered the most significant archeological site in Southeast Asia.
There are so many things we could write about Thailand that this blog post could easily reach 100. If there’s anything major you think we’ve left out, let us know in the comments or send us an email at info[alt]backyardtravel.com.