Many guide books on Thailand only partially cover the subject of health and well-being while traveling in the country, so I would like to give you some advice about transportation, protocol, health, and the law. Hopefully it will help you to enjoy your travels in Northern Thailand.
When you arrive in Chiangmai, it helps to know a bit about transportation within the city. At the airport, train station, or bus station, you will probably be met by the representatives of various guesthouses and hotels and tour operators. If you have a specific place in mind and you don't see the specific signboard, you can always call the place to have someone pick you up from the train station, airport, or bus arcade depot. Taxis are available at the airport, with a price of 150 baht to most destinations.
The common vehicles of public transportation are more varied than public buses. The terms 'dtoog dtoog' and 'sarmlor' are open-air, three-wheel vehicles, and 'zeelor' and 'songthaew' describe vehicles with four wheels. Whenever you get in a 'dtoog dtoog', 'zeelor', or 'samlor', you should make sure that they take you where you want to go. Often the drivers work on commission and may tell you that the place you want to go is dirty, closed, or full if they don't have a previous agreement with the place you have in mind. Always negotiate the price before you get in a dtoog dtoog or samlor. A zeelor ride should cost 15 Baht on a regular route, more if you hire it out to go somewhere out of the way.
The best way to get around Chiangmai is by 'songthaew'. These are covered pick-up trucks with two benches in the back. “Songthaew” means “two benches” in Thai. You will see them everywhere, and it's easy to get them to pick you up. All you need to do is to put your arm out and look at the driver, and they will stop. Then tell the driver which street you want to go to, and if he is going that way, he will shake his head "yes"; if not, he will say "no" and go on. Don’t worry—there will be another one right behind him. When the driver turns down the street you want, start looking for where you want to get off and press the switch located on the roof of the cab. The driver will pull over, let you out, and then you pay him. The fare should be 20 Thai baht or less (around 50 cents). If you tell the driver a hotel or establishment, he will think you want to hire him for a private trip, and the price will be much more. Negotiate any price beforehand if you want to go to an establishment.Thai culture and their way of thinking
Meeting and making friends with different people is an exciting part of travel anywhere. In Northern Thailand, it helps to know a bit of the language and something about the protocol. To say "hello", say "Sawasdee Krup" for men and "Sawasdee Kha" for women. To learn more Thai before you come, an excellent free Thai language teaching website can be found here.
You will gain loads of respect from the Thai people if you learn just the basics.
The Thais put a lot of emphasis on manners, so it's a good idea to learn to say "Thank you". In Thai, it's "Kob Khun", followed by "Krup" or "Kha" for women. The "wai" made by placing your palms together in front of the upper chest is the traditional Thai gesture of greeting or respect, and the gesture is always appreciated. The custom is that younger people "wai" elders first, so let the children and persons you think are younger than you "wai" before you "wai" them.
The Thai people have several customs that are important to remember to avoid causing offense. Never touch the head, because it is the most sacred part of the body. The feet are the lowliest part, so don't point them at others or rest them above ground level. Never stop a rolling Thai Baht coin or any type of Thai currency with your foot, as the money here has a picture of the king on it.
Respect for the king and religious customs is another important part of Thai protocol. They have great respect for the royal family, the flag, and anything with an image of the king, including the money. When you visit a Buddhist temple, you should always remove your shoes before entering any buildings. Men should wear long pants, and women should wear knee-length or longer skirts. Women are not allowed to touch monks or make prolonged eye contact with them. Do not sit on the walls surrounding the jedee, which contains the temple's sacred relics of the Buddha.
Don't display your anger, because the Thais will think you uncultured, and ranting will get you nowhere. Smile and think "no problem". Thais do not like confrontation, so getting angry will get you nowhere in Thailand. Here is an example:
Let’s say you arrive at your hotel and want a nice, hot shower or bath. You turn on the tap and find the hot water is not working. What most people would do is call the front desk and complain, and if you are tired, you might raise your voice a little, saying, “The hot water doesn’t work—what’s the problem?” It might take a long time before someone comes to check it out, if at all. What you should do is say, “I don’t know how to get the hot water turned on in my room; would you please have someone show me?” Someone will come to your room within a minute or two to check it out.Important Do's and Don'ts
Thailand is a country of gourmands. Eating out is one the nation's favorite activities, and knowing a bit of table manners will help you appear more civilized. Waiters and waitresses in Thailand are trained to take your entire order. When they take the order, they will often ask "one", which is their way of asking whether they got it correctly or not. The entire meal is customarily served at the same time, but the empty dishes are removed one by one. Some street-side restaurants will not remove any dishes or bottles until you finish your meal. This is because they do not write down your order. They shout your order to the cook, and after the meal, they will count the plates and bottles and figure out the bill then.
Chiangmai and the north have plenty of night entertainment available. It runs the gamut from restaurants to nightclubs, discos, or video bars. Thai people are often as interested in meeting you as you might be in meeting them, but one should exercise discretion and sometimes a bit of caution, especially in matters of the heart. In romantic situations, Westerners and Thais both occasionally get hurt. The best advice is to think with your head AND your heart. Enjoy yourself, but be very adult about any given situation.
Many visitors to Chiangmai enjoy taking trips outside the city. We recommend these trips highly, but don't forget to bring a few extras in case of emergency. Flashlights and extra batteries, as well as film and camera batteries, are recommended, as are matches or a lighter. Jackets may be needed for the cold evenings, and don't forget a first-aid kit and the ever-important toilet paper for emergencies. Ear plugs are a good idea if staying overnight in a hill tribe village, as the roosters can be very loud at 3am.
Keeping healthy on holiday is essential. If you feel ill, it's probably a good idea to see a doctor in one of Chiangmai's clinics or hospitals. If you are worried that you may have come down with malaria, Chiangmai has an excellent malaria clinic. There you can get a 30-minute test. For more information, call the Regional Center at 222275. Whatever you do, don't take chances with your health while traveling away from home.
While Chiangmai is a great place to visit, just like any other city, crime is never on holiday when you are. Theft seems to be the most common tourist-targeted crime, and this includes credit cards and passports. How about carrying half your cash in a body money belt? If you must leave your passport or credit cards anywhere for safekeeping, we recommend using a safety deposit box in one of the local banks or your hotel. Do not give anyone valuables to put in a safe. Make sure you both have a key to the safety box and a list of items that you put in. When you go trekking, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) suggests that a photocopy of your passport is acceptable identification to carry on the trek.
Every visitor should be well-informed about Thailand's laws on illegal drugs. Drugs that are illegal in your home country are just as illegal in Thailand. There are no "recreational" drugs in Thailand. The list of banned substances includes marijuana and hashish, as well as opium, heroine, and cocaine. Unfortunately, some people come to Northern Thailand with the impression that the use of some drugs is okay. This is a misguided and very wrong impression. There are now undercover police in hill tribe villages, and you will get caught. Naiveté is not an excuse in court. There is extreme danger in buying or using drugs in Northern Thailand, and we hope all visitors will keep this in mind. The laws are very strict, and the punishment is not pleasant.
The advice given on this page is by no means comprehensive, but it presents many of the fundamental cautions that will help you get the most out of your trip to this beautiful country. If you would like more detailed medical or health information, please speak with a doctor or other trained professional. For legal or travel safety information, contact the Chiangmai Tourist Police.
Please let us know if you have any questions about north Thailand.
Randy and Ning