I’ve been to Thailand a few times now and along the way have picked up some great tips on travelling around the country safely. Thailand is a pretty safe country to visit, but it doesn’t come without its own drawbacks and dangers. While the threat from terrorism is relatively low in the country, petty crime and scams are absolutely rife. I’ve rounded up my need-to-know tips on how to enjoy Thailand’s beauty in a safe and savvy way.
The damn taxi meter.
Taxis are absolutely everywhere in Thailand. Whether you’re in the center of bustling Bangkok or relaxing on Koh Samui you’ll always be able to grab a taxi. Most taxis in Thailand are pink or yellow but you can also find blue, burgundy or orange taxis around.
Most people don’t know this before they visit, but it’s actually the law for taxi drivers in Thailand to use the meter for fares. Despite this it’s still an uphill struggle to get any taxi driver to agree to put the meter on. On our first trip to Thailand, I argued with a taxi driver who was quoting us 1000 baht (£22) to take us to the airport. We were at loggerheads on the side of the motorway as I began taking our luggage out of the boot of the car. He finally caved and agreed to put the meter on. When we arrived at the airport the meter showed a fare of 137 baht – and he had wanted to charge us 1000 baht!
This is sadly all too common in Thailand and it can get incredibly expensive, so make sure you demand that fares are by the meter. If the driver refuses, simply leave the taxi and find another. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to find another taxi, make sure you agree a price with the driver before he starts driving.
The “cheap” tuk-tuk ride.
Thailand is famous for its tuk-tuks. They’re ugly metal things which are driven at the speed of light. They’re usually cheaper than a taxi and are great fun (if you enjoy being hurtled through busy rush-hour traffic at dangerous speeds.) Tuk-tuk drivers also usually want to get as much money out of you as possible.
A common scam in Bangkok is the ‘cheap’ tuk-tuk ride, where a driver will offer to take you to your destination for 20 baht. “Bargain!” you think, and you hop in. What the driver neglects to tell you is that you’re not going to your destination. Not yet, anyway. He will drive you around for 2 hours to seemingly random places beforehand. Congratulations, you’ve fallen for the wondrous “tour of Bangkok” scam.
First, he’ll take you to a tailors to try to make you buy a custom-made suit. Then you’ll hop back in the tuk-tuk and off you go, desperately hoping he’s now taking you to wherever it was that you wanted to go. Alas, the driver drops you at a jewellery shop in the middle of nowhere. The sales assistants descend on you like a swarm of bees, trying to sell you rubies, diamonds, their eldest child. You politely decline and hop back into the tuk-tuk.
After a few hours of being dropped at various shops the ‘tour’ is over. The driver takes you to where you want to go. You’ve lost half your day and are exhausted from fending off sales people all morning. You retreat to your hotel a broken man/woman, desperate for some tea and a nap. The best way to avoid this scam is to tell the driver “no stops” before you start your journey.
The damaged rental car.
This is a big one, although it’s becoming less common in Thailand. People are hopefully cottoning on to it. Imagine this: you hire yourself a wonderfully authentic beat-up jeep to go all Rambo in the jungle. You feel free, you can drive anywhere you want and explore the area. You enjoy a wonderful few days with your rental and a map, finding lots of off-the-beaten-track cafes and temples.
The day comes that you need to return the car, so you drive it to the rental shop. The guy comes out and checks the car over. Before you know it, he’s noticed no less than 10 dings which he assures you were not there before he gave the car to you. You know for a fact that the dings were there when the car was given to you. Argument ensues. The rental owner demands 200,000 baht (£4,000) for repairs. You can’t afford that amount. You had to hand over your passport to the rental place to hire the car. He refuses to give it back until your pay the extortionate sum. This scam has gotten a lot of people into serious problems before.
I knew about this scam before I visited Thailand so I was well aware of the trouble it can get you into. When we hired our jeep (dubbed Jenny), I took photographs of every small dent or scratch before we drove the car away from the rental place. I also pointed the damage out to the man who owned the car. This is really the only way to cover yourself on this one.
The palace (probably) isn’t closed.
We tried to visit the palace last time we went to Bangkok, but a tuk-tuk driver told us that the palace wasn’t open that day. I was already aware that this was a common scam in Bangkok so I came ready for it. I told the driver that I knew that the palace wasn’t actually closed. He replied that the palace really wasn’t open because it was Songkran (the Thai New Year). I felt like a grade-A idiot. I later Googled it and found the palace wasn’t closed at all that day.
This one isn’t a huge scam and you’re only likely to lose a few hours of your time (as with the tuk-tuk tour scam.) I think the way it works is that they tell you that the palace wasn’t open, and then offer to take you to visit some other landmarks in their tuk-tuk. Queue the two-hour long tuk-tuk tour.
I believe that most Thai people are in on this scam. I once read on a forum about a person who, as an experiment, walked around the district that the palace is in asking where the palace was. Of the 50 people he asked, 49 people told him that the palace wasn’t open that day. Two of these people were policemen. The palace wasn’t closed.
Take your shoes off!
Thai people can be incredibly proud and easily offended. Due to their Buddhist way of life, it’s deeply offensive to wear shoes in their house. I knew about this, and thought “it’s not like I’m planning on going into a Thai person’s house”. What I didn’t know was that it also applies to some shops, as some Thai people live above their businesses. This got me into a whole heap of trouble with a shop owner on Koh Phangan. I’d completely missed the sign, so the woman was understandably furious with me. I eventually found the sign hidden behind a shrub and written all in Thai.
As a general rule of thumb, if you see lots of flip-flops outside a shop then it’s best to remove your shoes. If the shop owner speaks English it’s always a good idea. It’s also good manners to remove your flip-flops before entering a temple. It’s also important that you cover your shoulders in temples, so it’s best to carry a sarong around with you.
Buy your sunscreen in England!
Thailand is cheap for many things, but sunscreen is not one of them. A bottle of Nivea costs about £15 in Thailand, and because it’s imported you won’t find it on any 2-for-1 deals. We learned this the hard way, so I always recommend buying it from the UK in advance. This also applies to your run-of-the-mill after sun which is roughly the same price. Thais use coconut oil as after sun, but I struggled to find any that was reasonably priced.
I’m not usually a burner, but the Thai heat is something else. Even factor 50 couldn’t save me. It ruined my holiday a bit because I was quite literally burnt to a crisp. The one good thing that came out of this: I learned that Thai people love to laugh at burnt Westerners. Save your dignity and stock up before you fly.
Don’t get the “VIP” bus.
Depending on how you like to travel, you may find yourself needing to get around Thailand on public transport. If you tell a taxi driver to take you to the airport or train station, it’s likely he will take you to a tourism shop. Don’t even set foot in it. They will try to sell you a seat on a VIP bus to your destination. There’s absolutely nothing VIP about these buses. They’re cold, they leak, and the journey South took us around 15 hours. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere at 4am and left us there for 4 hours. They had told us that there were no stops on the route.
At 8am another bus came to pick us up to take us to the ferry port, which was only 30 minutes away. The whole debacle was by far one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. It still gives me the sweats just thinking about it.
Thailand’s trains and planes are by far the best way to get around. Pre-booking a flight online is actually cheaper than they charge for the VIP bus, so we flew south on our most recent visit to Thailand. If you can’t afford the plane, get the train. Train travel in Thailand is inexpensive and the trains are well maintained. They have a great network, so you can get around the country easily and in comfort. Even Thai public buses are good. Whatever you decide, just don’t get the VIP coach.
So there’s my round-up of the important need-to-know information about Thailand. It truly is a wonderful country which has something for everyone; whether you’re a sun worshipper, a thrill seeker or an animal lover.
Have you ever been on the wrong end of any similar scams while on holiday? Or maybe you’re planning a trip to Thailand and have heard of some other things to watch out for that aren’t included in this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!