Part 1: Five critical things to understand before your 2023 trip to Thailand. Yes, you read that right – I consider these “must knows” before you go, otherwise you may be in for a bit of a surprise.
The Kingdom of Siam once unified a broad swath of peoples, stretching from present day Burma to Laos and Vietnam. As a representative government began to take hold in the mid-twentieth century, the name was changed to Thailand in an attempt to present a more modern image to the world. While the name loosley translates to “Land of the Free”, wanderers in Thailand can often encounter some barriers that limit that feeling. From their lese-majeste law that provides very strict penalties for insulting the monarchy, to the world’s 2nd most deadly traffic – and world famous “tourist scams” – it’s critical to understand five specific things before planning your 2023 trip to Thailand . . .
Thailand is truly a land made for wanderers
A key goal of my wandering is to learn about the inner workings of local cultures outside the United States. This includes understanding how their chosen (or dictated) form of economic system, government, and legal system works. I’ve often been surprised at what I find. Specifially, how much economic freedom people, even those living under communist dictatorships, are able to create for themselves and their families. It can be a wonderful mess and exciting to witness firsthand.
Unfortunately, personal freedom to think and act as you wish, and for free speech, is an increasing rarity. Even in the U.S., the “land of the free”. All things being equal, I feel as free to speak my mind in Thailand as I do in the U.S. However, there is one subject I never brouche because I am not a citizen of Thailand and feel I have not earned the right to do so; their monarchy.
Respecting Thailand = Respecting the King
For Western visitors to Thailand, it is difficult to understand the power of the monarchy and the lese-majeste law. The concept originated in the Roman Empire and the term itself, lese-majeste, is loosely defined as “to do wrong to majesty”. In Thailand it is the law, making it “illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the monarch of Thailand (king, queen, heir-apparent, heir-presumptive, or regent)”. And they mean it. The law is still enforced and the penalty can be harsh. Even if the violation occurs on social media.
I’ll never forget my first trip to Thailand. We were at a small, regional airport built by the U.S. Military for use during the Vietnam war and later gifted to the Thai people. As we entered the terminal, a grand painting of the King Rama the 9th (the longest serving and most loved of the Thai Kings) towered over us. It stood 12 feet tall and was in a gilded frame of gold.
Being new to Thailand and quite excited to be there, I asked my wife (who is Thai) to take my picture standing next to the painting. Her father knew King Rama the 9th personally, So she immediately responded in the negative. But I perstisted. As she lifted the camera to take my photo, likely with a big goofy grin on my face, a Thai military officer rapidly approached. His aggressive stance and angered expression told me all I needed to know . . . so we skurried away.
We got the photo. But it could have easily turned out different if my Thai wife had not been with me. To Thai’s, even those who don’t actually like the monarchy, respect for it is engrained in their psyche from birth. To the monarchs, any dissent or appearance of mocking the king and his family members is something that must be quickly squelched. Especially for a “farang” like myself (a Thai term for foreigners, generally of Caucasion ancestry) who, in the eyes of the officer, was mocking his king.
That’s why, as a wanderer, I encourage you to have some understanding of a culture, especially how it shows respects to others, before entering it. This is especially true for anyone planning a 2023 trip to Thailand.
5 things to understand before your 2023 trip to Thailand
Thailand offers a bounty of amazing creations. From landscapes and world-class streetfood to intricate art and entertainment, wandering its beaches and sois (alleys) can be the adventure of your lifetime. But you must take a few precautions before hand. Some may seem strange, others common sense. But as I’ve said before, common sense seems in low supply these days. And as for strange, well, life gets stranger every day so expect just about anything during your travels.
As wanderers, I strongly suggest fully understanding and accepting the limitations below. Think of them as safeguards. By understanding these five things you’ll wander much more happily (and safely) during your 2023 trip to Thailand.
- Respect the monarchy. No exceptions. While the king is ever-present in Thailand, avoid discussing him and his family in too much detail. Keep it high-level and from a historic perspective. While you may not agree with or understand their monarchy, do your best to relate to it in a respectful manner without denigrating it in any way. After all, you’re there as a wanderer, not a political activists. Plus, under no circumstances should you join or even linger in the vicinity of any protest. Doing so makes you fair game for the police and military that will certainly be surrounding the fringes. While I’ve never seen the inside of a Thai prison, their reputation is well earned. Trust me, you don’t want to experience their unique hospitality.
- Avoid driving if at all possible. This includes motorcycling. For some reason “tourist” feel empowered and immortal when riding motorbikes in Thailand. Unfortunately, the truth is just the opposite. Many die on their roadways due to arrogance and carelessness. Driving a car or other 4 wheel vehicle in Thailand, especially Bangkok, can be just as dangerous. If you do feel it necessary, do your family a favor and purchase enough medical travel insurance to cover 30 days in a Thai hospital. Oh, and make sure the policy covers transportation of your body back home, if necessary.
- Be aware, scams are everywhere. Especially on the beaches in resort areas such as Pattaya and Phuket, and in downtown Bangkok. While you should feel perfectly safe in Thailand, thanks to the heavy police and military presence, do remember that it has crime like any other country. And you may be on your own in dealing with it. So, if you engage in conversation with a stranger or are approached by someone offering a discount Rolex or free services, please keep your guard up, make eye contact, and if your instinct says something is off, politely walk away. The two most common scams are:
- Tuk-tuk Joyride. A tuk-tuk is a small 3 wheeled motorbike with 1 or 2 bench seats and a canopy. I love riding in them and enjoy using them whenever possible. They get you close to the colors, sounds, and vibrance of Thai culture. But some tuk-tuke drivers offer a very low price to give you a driving tour of the local area. They’ll then take you to small shops and restaurants where you may be trapped for hours haggling over merchandise you really don’t want or paying for food, especially alcohol, at outrageous prices revealed after the fact.
- Rental Wrecking. Another popular scam involves renting a personal watercraft or motorbike to a tourist. It’s fine when you check it out and when you return it. But for just a moment the employee removes it from your view and damages it slightly. You’re then accused of damaging their vehicle and they demand immediate payment for repairs. And no use calling the local police. They’re likely related to the guy you rented it from. Be sure to take detailed photos or a quick video of any vehicle you rent before you leave with it.
- Keep your passport on your body at all times. You will need to show it at your hotel, when boarding any internal flights, and when exchanging currency. You may also need to use it as ID when entering certain businesses and tourist sites – or purchasing certain items. But be warned, pickpockets are fairly common in the tourist areas of Thailand so keep it close to your body. I suggest the Venture 4th RFID blocking money belt. Big enough to handle your passport as well. Also, carry the contact information for your hotel and the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. You should also contact the embassy before you arrive and let them know the dates and locales you’ll be visiting, plus give them your hotel and emergency contact information.
- Keep your shirt on. Really? Yes. Really. I hate to say this (as it makes me embarassed for my home country) but Americans, especially those with sleeve tatoos, seem to have a bad habit of walking around shirtless in Thailand. To the Thai people this is extremely disrespectful. For Thai authorities (who, generally, are not too fond of farangs) it may be a reason to focus their attention on you. And Thai scammers love nothing better than to see a group of young farang, shirtless, beers in hand, walking their way. It’s like a neon sign that says “Easy Target”. I know, you think you aren’t. But truth is, you are. Especially after a few drinks. Besides, would you walk around in public shirtless all day back home? Show the same respect when visiting Thailand. Outsmart the scammers. The only place men visiting Thailand should publically remove their shirts is at the beach.
As a final note, I want to encourage you to view yourself as an ambassador during your 2023 trip to Thailand. Not only for your country of origin but for the individual belief system or faith you adhere to. As a wanderer, respect of other cultures and maintaining high moral and personal standards is paramount when travelling, especially when going to another country. By doing so, you impact other cultures in a positive way that will pay dividends to others in the future. More importantly, you grow personally in understanding of Creation and those who inhabit it.
“Always remember, you’re not a tourist on this planet. You’re a wanderer – one seeking the truth. And that’s what life and every little thing in it is all about. Truth.” -Kenneth R. Dodson, Wanderer