Getting Started: Tips for First-Time Visitors to Thailand

Welcome to our 'Getting Started' guide, a page of information and links specifically designed for first-time visitors to Thailand. On this page, we cover the basics of when to go, how to get there and we even have some suggestions for what to pack.

When To Go

There really isn't a bad time to visit Thailand. Traditionally, the high season is when the weather is generally at its coolest and driest, from October to April. This is when hotel rates are at their highest, and the main tourist destinations at their most crowded.

Tradition also has it that the worst time to visit is during the rainy season which starts in earnest in May or June and lasts until September or so. This particular piece of traditional wisdom is not entirely accurate. During the rainy season, it may rain for only an hour or less each day, usually in the late afternoon. Yes, the downpours are drenching, but they are short lived and you get up to an hour's notice that they are coming -- if it starts to get dark at 4:00 in the afternoon, run for cover! We're not talking cold showers here either. The rainy season is still quite hot, so the rains can sometimes be warmer than you might be used to in your bath at home.
 

Average Monthly Rainfall for Major Destinations in Thailand (mm)
Rainfall Figures

The rainy season is actually an annual monsoon that moves east and northward in the first half of the year before shifting south and west in the second half. This means that when the rains are their heaviest on Phuket in May they are still rather light in Samui and have hardly even started in Chiang Mai.

Holidays & Events

It's good to be aware of the national holidays and festivals that may be happening during your trip. The major tourist sights remain open on most of the holidays. The days they are most likely to be closed are New Years Day (1 January) and Songkran (13 to 15 April). If you visit during Songkran, it's good to know that this is the time when many Thais also take to the road, so Bangkok can be a little empty, but hotels outside of Bangkok are often booked full for months in advance.

Visas

Before you book your trip, you'll want to check to see if a visa is required. Thailand has traditionally been rather free with visas, and most westerners still receive 30 day entry stamps on arrival. However, like just about every other country since 2001, security concerns have lead to a reduction in the number of countries automatically granted visas. For a current list of countries entitled to visa-free entry, visit the Thai Foreign Ministry's web site.

If you do need a visa, or plan to stay longer than 30 days, you can generally easily get a 60 or 90 day visa at most Thai embassies and consulates. This can usually be done by mail if there's no consulate in your city.

Note: As of March 2006, the penalties for over-staying your visa have been significantly increased. Although you are given one days grace, over-staying your visa by two days will now cost you 1,000 Baht (26.74 USD). More than two days will add 500 Baht (13.37 USD) per day. If you need to over-stay your visa due to a problem getting flights on the right day, you are urged to visit the immigration department on Soi Suan Plu in Bangkok to get a short extension to your visa. The cost of extending your visa is much less than the over-stay penalty.

Getting There

Most people arrive in Thailand by plane. Bangkok is a major air hub, with almost every international carrier landing at Bangkok's international airport. Since the trip from western countries to Thailand is usually quite long -- nine to 15 hours -- you'll want to check out comfort as well as price when booking your ticket.

Thailand can also be reached by train from Singapore and Malaysia. Read our Getting There page for more information.

Money and Financial Matters

The Thai currency is called the "Baht" and is pronounced to rhyme with 'hot'. There are several currency exchanges at Bangkok's international airport, and around most major tourist areas. After being allowed to float freely in July 1997 -- precipitating the Asian financial crises -- the Baht has settled in around 40 Baht to the US Dollar.

As in most countries, you do not want to change money at hotels, as their rates will be significantly lower than you will get from a bank exchange. Travelers Checks can be changed at exchanges, but are not generally accepted elsewhere.

Major credit cards -- Visa, Mastercard and American Express -- are accepted at most hotels and restaurants. Department stores and other large shops will also generally accept all cards. However, smaller merchants may not accept any cards, or add on the credit card processing fee (3% for Visa and Mastercard, 5% for American Express) to the price of items purchased. See our Money Matters page for more links and important information you should know about using credit cards overseas.

Packing - What to Bring

Packing is mostly a matter of common sense. Keep in mind that Thailand is a tropical country where any kind of jacket is rarely required. However, dressing in shorts all the time is not a good idea either. In addition to the dangers of too much sun and mosquitoes, you also need to keep in mind that most temples and palaces require visitors to wear long pants.

Natural fabrics such as cotton breath better and so will keep you cooler than artificial cloth. Having laundry done at hotels in Thailand is generally inexpensive, so you can assume that you can have items cleaned if needed.

Aside from sensible clothing, you'll probably want to bring a camera. If you're still using film, all types of film can be purchased just about anywhere in Thailand. One-hour processing is also readily available throughout the kingdom.

We'd also suggest you bring an inexpensive rain poncho. The lightweight plastic kind take up almost no room in your camera bag or backpack, but can really come in handy if you get stuck in the rain.

Cultural Notes

Thailand is a very welcoming country, and the Thais themselves are generally very forgiving. That said, you'll have a better time, and get better treatment from those you deal with if you just keep in mind a few basic rules. The most important is: Take it easy, you're on vacation! Taking things in stride with a smile will ensure you have a good time and get the best service. Keeping one's cool is considered basic good manners in Thailand, and Thais will often choose to simply not deal with someone who appears visibly angry rather than try to solve their problems.

Many people also have the impression that 'anything goes' in Thailand. It's actually hard to argue with this, but the important thing to remember is that it only applies to things done in private. In public, Thais are rather conservative. This is why one must wear long pants and shirts that aren't too revealing to enter palaces and major temples. Showing too much skin in public anywhere is generally unacceptable. There are very, very few 'nude' beaches in Thailand.

First Time Itinerary

The best itinerary for you is going to depend on your own interests. If you're primarily looking for sun and fun, then you'll want to spend most of your time on the beaches of Phuket or Samui. However, if you're looking to really see Thailand, we'd suggest something along the following:

Bangkok - 3 Days
It takes at least three days to see the basic sights of Bangkok. Start the first day with the Grand Palace, then move on to a canal tour with stops at the Royal Barge Museum and Wat Arun. On the second day, visit Wat Po, Wat Traimit and Chinatown. On the third day, visit Vimanmek Mansion and Wat Benjamabophit.
Beach Break - Phuket / Krabi / Samui - 3 Days
I like to put a beach destination in the middle of the itinerary since it gives you some time to cool off and relax after a whirlwind tour of Bangkok. Pick the destination that seems best suited to you and the time of year you'll be visiting. Your choices mostly break down into either the Andaman Sea area (Phuket, Krabi, and Phang Nga provinces) or the Gulf of Siam (Samui and its smaller cousins) You'll want to spend most of your time on the beach, but take at least one day to tour some of the natural wonders of the area you stay in. There are some fantastic landscpapes around all the major destinations.
Chiang Mai - 3 Days
Chiang Mai is the perfect place to wind down, and do some souvenir shopping. On your first day, take a trip up to Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and the Maeo village at Doi Pui. If you have time after this, take in one of the city temples such as Wat Phra Singh or Wat Suan Dok. On the second day, try a trip to Mae Rim to take in the elephant camp, orchid farms, butterfly farms, or Siamese cat farm. On the last day, we suggest a trip up the factory row of Sankamphaeng Road. Of course, on any and perhaps every night, you'll want to wander around the night bazaar.