1. Know the geography
Thailand is not an island, or a city. It’s a country with a number of islands off the main land.
Bangkok is the capital city on the mainland. When most people travel to Thailand, they usually go to one of the tropical islands. There are literally hundreds of these which are grouped into various clusters. The most popular islands or clusters include Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Phangan, Ko Samui and depending who you speak to, the list goes on. So when people talk about going to Thailand, be careful not to assume that all these places are the same. You will be disappointed.
We decided to try a little bit of everything and would definitely recommend this as a first timer. You can always go back another time to experience something you really liked for a longer period. If you don’t like places with a lot of people then you are probably going to struggle in Bangkok, which has a population of just under 8.2million people. However, those of you that aren’t allergic to cultural experiences, then you really want to add that to your itinerary.
2. Travel packages are great but not a bible
There is nothing wrong with buying a package from a travel agent, it cuts out a lot of work for you. Your purist traveler friends may give you the side eye but if you are a first timer, you will need the guidance that an agent can give you. With that being said, don’t take everything they offer you at face value. Whilst some of the locations may come in cheaper, they may also be missing some of the essentials that you may want out of your trip. So read the fine print carefully and do your homework.
We booked our trip through STA Travel and used the agent to assist us on which islands to visit, however we did our own research on hotels and transport and changed pretty much most of the hotels or rooms types that were initially part of the package. Our agent was a rock star and insanely accommodating to the little changes we wanted to make to the programme.
Trip advisor was a great help in assessing hotels. The reviews will give you a very clear idea of what to amend. Take note of which room types you may want to upgrade, what hotels are near noisy areas or mosquito infested.
Be sure to also not commit to every single activity ahead of time. You don’t know what you will be in the mood for once you are there. Nothing like having to go scuba diving early in the morning after a huge bender because you have already paid for it.
3. Phuket or not Phuket?
Phuket is the name of the island, province and main city of the province. It’s also probably the most popular destination for South Africans going to Thailand and a very contentious topic as many who have visited it have come back disappointed. Personally, I think skipping Phuket is like coming to Cape Town and only visiting Camps Bay, Constantia and Franschoek. It’s still a great trip but doesn’t give you the full experience.
If you are looking at experiencing some nightlife then you will definitely find more than enough options to choose from in the town. The world famous Bangla road with it’s night clubs and ping pong shows. There are also over 30 beaches on the island so it’s not all about the party life. It’s definitely not glamorous but it’s worth the visit. Two days in the town is more than enough though. Don’t set up camp there for too long.
One of the hotels we changed based on our research was in Phuket and that was one of the smartest things we did. The hotels are a bit of a hit or miss so you need to do your homework. Be very weary of hotels that show limited pictures on their site. Some hotels which may look good on the inside are located right in the middle of run down areas. Trip advisor is your friend in helping you identify the landmines.
4. Don’t get caught off-sides at a ping pong show
Everyone goes on about the ping-pong shows in Thailand and Phuket or Bangla Road more specifically has them in droves. I mean why would you go all the way to south east Asia and not see a budgie coming out of a women’s cookie? Not everything is as it looks though. Whilst some of the shows are blatantly expensive to enter, be cautious of the ones with free entry because whilst there might not be a cover charge, the drinks are ridiculously expensive, 900 Baht/ R360 per beer to be precise and you have to buy at least 4 beers. So if you want to feed your curiosity make sure you know what you are getting yourself into upfront. There are plenty of “promoters” walking the streets trying to lure you to their respective bird cages. Don’t just fall for the first one that comes up to you. Bangla Road is not that long and there is plenty of time to walk up and down and make up your mind later.
5. There will be be funny, crawly things
Thailand’s climate is influenced by the warm moist air of the Indian Ocean, which means its hot and it rains a lot and therefore are tons of insects, lizards and other creepy crawlies that one would expect in such climates. You will not die, other than the rats running around around the streets, most of the other wild life is pretty harmless so don’t go trying to kill every insect you come across. Bring some Peaceful Sleep or Tagard and you will be fine.
6. Learn the lingo
Any time you visit a country you should always try to learn a few phrases of the native language. Now this might be something new few some South Africans who are just used to conversing in English all their lives but it’s the polite thing to do. We were fortunate enough to get our crash course from the SA Butler academy’s own Newton Cross. So here are a few phrases to get you by
Hello (if you are a man): Sawadee cup
Hello (if you are female): Sawadee ka
Thank you very much (male): Kob kun cup
Thank you very much (female): Kob kun ka
1 = Neung
2 = Song
3 = Sam
4 = See
5 = Ha
6 = Hok
7 = Jet
8 = Pad
9 = Kow
10 = Sip
7. Don’t be scared to try new things
Now there’s no point in heading all the way to South East Asia and then doing all the things that you are used to at home. Asian culture and lifestyle is unlike most things we are used to at home and if you actually open yourself up to the experience, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much you can learn from the locals. Eat stuff that you wouldn’t normally eat. Wear funny looking pants. Let fish nibble at your toes. Just live.
8. Don’t buy at first sight
There are a lot of markets in Thailand and you will find amazing deals all over the place. However don’t go an buy at the very first stall that you come across. Walk around and you will find that there are many other vendors selling the same stuff at cheaper prices or willing to negotiate. There is not a single item that we wanted that we didn’t come across again a number of times. So be patient and rather browse first before committing. You will have plenty of opportunities to get yourself that Tiger Beer vest.
9. Happy endings are not the norm
Thai massages are a thing and ridiculously cheep. R300 will get you an hours full body massage. However one of the misconceptions about Thailand is that these massages come with a happy ending. Don’t make the mistake of rocking up at a regular establishment and requesting some “special treatment”. In fact most of the massage parlors have signs on entry letting patrons know that they don’t roll like that.
With that being said, take full advantage of the cheap massages. I think we were averaging one a day, and even two on some days.
10. Keep cash on hand
We’ve become used to swiping cards when we out shopping and even if you are traveling across Europe or the US you will get away without carrying much cash. That’s not always the case in Thailand. A lot of places, especially the more informal ones will not have card facilities and you will need to pay for your goods in cash. So make sure that you draw or convert some to keep with you when you are out and about.