Tipping and telephones, health and weather — and those toilets
Menu: Calendar, Climate, Currency, Drinking water, Health, Language, Laundry, Religion, Telephone, Time difference, Tipping, Toilets.
The Thai calendar dates from 543 B.C., the year the Buddha was born. Add 543 to a western year to get the equivalent Thai year. Despite a Thai New Year celebrated each April 13, their calendar rolls over to a new year on January 1, the same as ours.
Climate and weather
Thailand’s weather is tropical, with seasonal monsoons. As in many tropical regions, the weather here is fairly predictable.
May/June to October is monsoon season, with hot, humid weather throughout the country.
November to February are consistently much drier throughout the country, and are the most popular time for travel.
March and April are drier but hotter throughout the country, continuing that way until the monsoons begin.
South and Central Thailand (Bangkok, Phuket) are quite warm year-round, with temperatures well into the 80s every day. In the more mountainous north (Chiang-Mai) temperatures can drop in the winter (Dec. to Feb.), but rarely fall below the 50’s. Be prepared for cooler winter nights if you’re in the mountains of the north.
On the peninsula. A long, narrow piece of Thailand stretches south on a peninsula. Weather for the west coast of the peninsula follows the patterns described above. However, some of the seasonal changes are reversed on the east coast, which is affected by the northeast monsoons. Here, on the east coast, the May-to-October season tends to be drier than the rest of Thailand, while November to March is rainy.
See today’s weather in any country.
The Baht. About 43 baht = 1 U.S. dollar (January 2003 rate).
ATM machines, readily available in cities and tourist areas, are easier than traveler’s checks. Break large notes as soon as you can, and accumulate small bills. Merchants often cannot make change, and small bills are useful for tips.
Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, larger restaurants, and department stores, but not by smaller merchants and at street markets and bazaars.
Worldwide currency exchange rates
Don’t drink the tap water. Bottled water is widely and inexpensively available, but not always at the instant you want it, so try to always have a little on hand. Most hotels will give you one or two complimentary bottles of water each day.
The easiest time to forget this precaution is when brushing your teeth. You probably won’t suffer any ill effects if you forget and rinse your mouth with tap water, but why take a chance?
Health, malaria, and vaccines
A month or two before departure, consult with your doctor about what medical precautions are appropriate, based on your own situation, and the areas you’ll visit. The information given here is intended as a general overview, and could change.
At this writing, American visitors to Thailand are not required to have any special vaccinations, unless they have recently visited a region infected with yellow fever. It’s advisable, however, to be sure your standard vaccinations — tetanus, polio, and typhoid — are current. Also discuss hepatitis and rabies vaccines with your doctor.
Malaria requires some special consideration. Malaria is rarely a problem in the more populated areas, but persists in remote regions of the north. There are no perfect malaria vaccines at this time: they all include potential side-effects that must be weighed against the risks. Malaria is carried by mosquitoes, and many authorities now recommend prevention — avoiding mosquito bites — as the best tactic if you travel into infected areas. That means wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants, sleeping under mosquito netting at night, and using repellent.
AIDS is widespread in Thailand, as are other sexually-transmitted diseases. Carry condoms if you anticipate sexual encounters, and avoid unprotected sex.
The national language is Thai, a tonal language with a unique script. Thai proves challenging for most foreigners to learn well, but a rudimentary understanding of Thai will make your trip more enjoyable.
Most Thais do not speak English, but those you’re likely to encounter — hotel clerks, waiters, guides — will know enough English to get their job done. In return, it’s helpful if you follow certain guidelines (see link below) for being understood. Note that cab drivers may speak no English; it’s best to have a card or advertisement showing where you want to go; have someone write it out in Thai, or have a dispatcher translate your instructions to the driver.
In airports, major cities, and resort areas, most signs will be in both Thai and English.
Thai language basics
Making yourself understood
Do-it-yourself laundromats are scarce. Mai pen rai. You can get laundry done through your hotel, or at walk-in laundry services, quite inexpensively. Be cautious about entrusting expensive clothing, or items needing special attention, to a laundry service, which will most likely treat everything as if it were cotton.
About 93% of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, the national religion.
Just as Christian religions inspired Europe’s grandest architecture, the cathedrals of the middle ages, so has Buddhism inspired Thailand’s most impressive structures. Bangkok alone has over 400 temples, and there are some 25,000 throughout Thailand, representing a fascinating variety of styles.
Saffron-robed monks are a common sight on the streets. Most Thai men become a monk, for at least a few weeks or months, at some point during their lives.
Buddhists worship Buddha, but do not have a god; thus by some definitions, Buddhism is properly categorized as a philosophy rather than a religion. The central tenets of Buddhism are similar to those of many religions: Killing, stealing, and bringing harm to others are wrong. Tolerance, moderation, and non-violence are virtues.
The difference is that Thai Buddhists genuinely believe in toleration, moderation, and non-violence. Buddhists tolerate other beliefs. They don’t believe sexuality is inherently sinful, they see nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, and they don’t feel a need to persecute or kill people who don’t agree with them. It’s a welcome change from the Christian Coalition.
To call Thailand from the U.S.: Dial 011 (to establish international connection) + 66 (Thailand’s country code) + the city or area code (Bangkok is 2) + the local number. Within Thailand, you’ll generally dial a 0, followed by an 8-digit number.
More international telephone information
From U.S. Eastern Time: Add 12 hours to your time in the USA to get the time in Thailand
From U.S. Central Time: Add 13 hours
From U.S. Mountain Time: Add 14 hours
From U.S. Pacific Time: Add 15 hours
Subtract an hour from their time if you (in the U.S.) are on Daylight Savings Time. Thailand does not use Daylight Savings Time.
If it’s 10 am on a December Monday in New York, it’s 10 pm on Monday in Thailand.
But if it’s 10 am on a July Monday in New York (with DST in effect), it’s 9 am on Tuesday in Thailand.
Thai clock time
Within the country, Thais divide the day into four six-hour segments, each with 6 hours. “One in the evening” is one hour into the 6-pm-to-midnight segment, or 7 pm. You won’t often encounter this while traveling, where a 24-hour clock is most common, but be aware that it could arise.
More time zone information
Tips are not generally expected in Thailand, although that is changing as more Americans visit. A small tip is fine to reward service that genuinely goes beyond what was expected. A cab fare is often rounded up by 5 or 10 baht or more if the driver has spent considerable time sitting in traffic; 3-5% (20 to 50 baht)added to a restaurant bill; 10-30 baht per bag for a hotel porter.
When you do tip, think more in terms of absolute amounts than as percentages. The 15-20% that has become standard in the U.S. would be excessive following a large dinner in Thailand.
pic tissue-water.jpg Tissue and bottled water will be regular items on your shopping list in Thailand.
Hotels and restaurants with a large western clientele increasingly have installed western-style flush toilets. Be prepared, however, to encounter squat toilets in many traditional establishments, particularly if you’ve decided to see the real Thailand rather than just the tourist areas.
Squat toilets will usually be a hole in the floor with footprints suggesting where to squat. When you’re done, ladle water from the nearby bucket into the toilet to flush away evidence of your visit. Thais use this water to clean themselves; you may prefer to carry toilet paper or tissue with you. However, toilet paper will clog many of these septic systems. If a waste bin sits nearby for used tissue, please use it!
That’s not a toilet. It’s a hole in the ground!
As long as you restrict yourself to upscale western-style hotels and shops, you may never see a squat toilet in Thailand. But what’s the fun of that? You can get the same experience at Disney World. If you venture off the well-beaten tourist path, be ready to greet squat toilets with more than the comment above.
Traditional Thai toilets (like those in most parts of Asia, the Middle East, and — once — Europe) consist of a hole in the floor and the necessary accoutrements. In Thailand, a white porcelain plate generally surrounds the hole, with two slightly raised footprints. Adding to the experience, the porcelain plate frequently carries the brand name “American Standard,” however unstandard such items may be in the America you so fondly remember when you first encounter a squat toilet.
You stand on the footprints, pull down your pants, and squat, trying to line up the relevant holes; this alignment gets easier with experience.
It also gets easier, with experience, to keep your pants out of harm’s way. The first few times, it may be simplest to just take them off. At first, you’ll probably also need to hold on to something with one hand to steady yourself.
In traditional squat toilets, a barrel of clean water sits beside the toilet. People use this water (a ladle or bowl floats inside) and their left hand to clean themselves, then empty a few more scoops of water into the toilet until all traces of their visit disappear. The water barrel is gradually replenished from a spring or brook (or from a faucet, if available), and this water remains pure. Wash your hands by ladling water over them, outside the barrel. Nothing dirty should ever be put into the barrel.
More likely, you’ll choose to carry a packet of tissue with you. In this case, note that Thai plumbing often cannot accommodate toilet paper without clogging. In many toilets (including western-style toilets), you’ll spot a nearby wastebasket for used tissue. Please use it! No, this isn’t what you were taught growing up, but you weretaught to treat your hosts with respect, weren’t you? That means not clogging their toilet.
One more refinement: Bathrooms with running water frequently have a hose and water jet next to the toilet, which can take the place of toilet paper. Try it! After a few practice runs, you’ll probably wonder why American bathrooms don’t offer this more civilized feature.
What kind of facilities should you expect to find as you travel through Thailand? It’s best to be prepared for anything. Trains may have squat toilets on one side of the corridor, western-style on the other. Some establishments offer a water jet and no toilet paper. Others have toilet paper and no water jet. In early 2003 Siam Center, one of Bangkok’s fanciest new shopping malls, offered neither: Your only options were bring your own tissue, or have exact change to buy a small pack from a bathroom vending machine. As you travel, be prepared!
In remote areas, you might also have occasion to shower in the traditional Thai style. This means using the same water barrel and ladle to douse yourself with water, then lather up, and rinse. Again, all waste water should go onto the floor, not back into the bucket.