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THAILAND – GENERAL INFORMATION

                 Fig.1 – Thailand Flag

GEOGRAPHY

Located in the center of Southeast Asia, Thailand is truly at the heart of the region.  Looking over a map of Thailand will reveal a country whose borders form the rough shape of an elephant’s head: the head and ears forming the mostly landlocked northern and eastern provinces and the trunk extending down the Malaysian peninsula between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.

The geography of Thailand features many natural borders with neighboring countries: a mountainous border with Myanmar (Burma) to the north and west; a long stretch of the Mekong River separating Thailand from Laos to the north and east; and the Mekong River and the Dongrak Mountains delineating the border of Cambodia to the east.

Covering an area of approximately 514,000 square kilometers (200,000 sq miles), Thailand is the 50th largest country in the world, most nearly equal in size to Spain.   Located just 15 degrees north of the equator, Thailand has a tropical climate and temperatures typically range from 19 to 38 degrees C (66-100 F); monsoon rains fall predominately from May to July and cooler, drier weather occurs around November and December.  Despite the geographical boundaries of Thailand all falling within the tropics, Thailand’s four primary regions are each geographically distinct from each other. Along Thailand’s western border with Myanmar, the forested mountains of Thailand rise higher as they stretch north, peaking at the 2,565 meter (8,415 ft) Doi Inthanon.  Thailand’s northern peaks are replete with wildlife and feature Thailand’s coolest winters.

Northeastern Thailand’s geography, where the kingdom borders Laos at the Mekong River, features the Khorat Plateau, which extends south towards the Thai border with Cambodia. The Isan region of Northeastern Thailand is the most populous region of Thailand (with the exception of Bangkok) and features a number of bustling provincial capital cities. The geography of Thailand’s interior is dominated by the Central Plains, the “Rice Bowl of Asia,” through which the Chao Phraya River feeds expansive rice fields and then enters the bustling capital of Bangkok before spilling into the Gulf of Thailand.

Stretching down the Malaysian peninsula, the slender trunk of the figurative elephant separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand, providing Thailand with beaches and islands along opposing shores.  Once, the sheltered coves of the narrow Isthmus of Kra were important ports along an ancient, strategic trading route; today the islands of Phuket and Koh Samui are equally important as tourist destinations, though both coasts also contain numerous historical attractions as well as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and spectacular forests, waterfalls, and beaches. In addition to these natural, geographical regions, Thailand is divided into 76 political provinces, with Bangkok serving as the political, commercial, industrial, educational, and entertainment capital of the country.

HISTORY

Thailand’s social history can be traced back to the Neolithic period and has witnessed the rise and fall of a myriad of empires and dynasties. Thailand, as we know it now, came into effect with the establishment of an alliance between three kingdoms: Lan Na, Sukhothai, and Phayao in the 13th century. The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the establishment of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which continued until it fell to the Burmese, initially in 1569, then again in 1760 before finally falling again in 1767.

Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty began in 1782 when Phraya Chakri ascended the throne as King Ramathibodi, Rama I. The new dynasty moved the country’s capital city to Bangkok where it remains to this day. Current king Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, is the world’s longest serving current head of state and Thailand’s longest reigning monarch, having ascended to the throne in 1946.

Credit: Central Intelligence Agency

King Mongkut, Rama IV, instigated trade and diplomatic relations with European countries in the mid-19th century. He also instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines. His son, King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, led Thailand into the 20th century, establishing an effective civil service, formalizing global relations and introducing industrialization. He united the royal line under the title Rama and assigned the title Rama I to the dynasty’s first king.

During the reign of King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy following a successful coup d’état in 1932. The country’s name was officially changed from Siam to Prathet Thai, or Thailand, meaning “land of the free” in 1939. The Thai use the phrase “land of the free” to express pride in the fact that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized by a European state.

The Thai military government sided with the Japanese forces in WW2 and was involved in the construction of the infamous Burma-Siam railway, made legend by the fictional British film Bridge Over The River Kwai. The government also allowed US forces to use Thai territory during the Vietnam War.

Democracy has developed slowly in Thailand with corruption allegations, demonstrations and military coups derailing the process on several occasions. After a quarter of a century of military rule, civilian government was restored to Thailand in 1973 following student riots in Bangkok, but this was to last only three years before the military again took control. The country continues to move between civilian and military governments.

On December 26 2004, an earthquake in Southeast Asia triggered a tsunami that impacted considerably upon Thailand’s touristic infrastructure. The west coast was the worst hit area, including outlying areas and tourist resorts near Phuket. Many hotels were ruined; thousands were killed. Thailand has however made a strong recovery from this terrible catastrophe and continues to be one of the world’s top travel destinations.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first female Prime Minister assumed office on August 5th 2011 following the 2011 general election. Leader of the populist Pheu Thai Party, which replaced the controversial People’s Power Party in 2008, her party won a majority with 265 of the 480 seats. She is the country’s ninth leader in just over five years.

THE PEOPLE

Mainland Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand’s Buddhists follow the Theravada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable with their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous and becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men.

One pre-Buddhist tradition that still survives is the spirit house, usually found at the corner of any house or business, which houses spirits so they don’t enter the house and cause trouble. The grander the building, the larger the spirit house, and buildings placed in particularly unlucky spots may have very large ones. Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, which protects the Erawan Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Erawan) – built in 1956 on a former execution ground – and is now one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the city.

Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country’s best known indigenous sport.

In addition to the mainland Thai culture, there are many other cultures in Thailand including those of the “hill tribes” in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand (e.g., Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the southern Muslims, and indigenous island peoples of the Andaman Sea.

SOCIAL CONVENTIONS

Western visitors will generally receive a handshake on meeting. A Thai will be greeted with the traditional closed hands and a slight bow of the head – the wai. Buddhist monks are always greeted in this way.

The Thai Royal Family is regarded with an almost religious reverence. Visitors should respect this. It is very bad manners to make public displays of anger, as Thais regard such behavior as boorish and a loss of ‘face’. Public displays of affection between men and women are also frowned upon, and it is considered rude to touch anyone on the head or to point one’s feet at someone. Shoes should be removed before entering someone’s home or a temple.

Informal dress is widely acceptable and men are seldom, if ever, expected to wear suits. Beachwear should be confined to the beach and topless sunbathing is frowned upon. Smoking is widely acceptable.

LANGUAGES

Thai is the official language. English is widely spoken, especially in establishments catering for tourists.

GOVERNMENT

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with the king as a very highly respected and revered Head of State. The Thai parliament is bicameral, consisting of a Senate, of which about half are directly elected with each province electing one member, and the other half being appointed by a committee, as well as a lower house which is directly elected by the people. The Prime Minister is the Head of Government, and is usually the leader of the party with the most seats in the lower house.

In practice, the king’s role is largely ceremonial, with the Prime Minister holding the most authority in government. However, the king and the royal family are still protected by strict lèse majesté laws, which stipulate long jail terms for anybody convicted of insulting the king or any other members of the royal family.

TIME ZONE

Thailand is 11 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST)

ELECTRICITY

Thailand’s voltage is 220-240AC, 50 Hertz. The plugs in Thailand are not standardized — there are at least three different types, some two pin and some three, so be sure to either bring a universal adapter or buy one once you arrive in Thailand.

CLIMATE

The weather in Thailand is generally very hot, particularly between March and May. The monsoon season runs from June to October, when the climate is still hot and humid with torrential rains. The best time for travelling is November to February (cool season), although the southern islands are best from June to September.

CLOTHES TO WEAR

Lightweights and rainwear are advised.

LOGISTICAL

Entry & Exit Requirements:

If you are a U.S. citizen tourist staying in Thailand for fewer than 30 days, you do not require a visa to enter the country, but your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of your entry into Thailand. Thai Immigration officials may ask for your onward/return ticket, and airlines may ask for this information when you book or check in.  If you are a tourist entering Thailand by air or land without a visa, you are allowed to stay in Thailand for 30 days per visit.  Note that Thai Immigration authorities are closely scrutinizing travelers who receive a 30 day visa through the visa exemption program, and who then attempt to reenter Thailand repeatedly for an additional 30 days under the same program. If it appears individuals are entering and reentering Thailand to reside rather than for tourism, they are being denied reentry and referred to the nearest Thai embassy to apply for a regular Thai tourist visa.  The U.S. Embassy and Consulate are not able to intervene with Thai Immigration or the airlines regarding their regulations and policies. Business travelers should check with the Royal Thai Embassy about visa requirements. You must pay a Passenger Service Charge in Thai baht (Thai currency) when you depart from any of Thailand’s international airports; this charge is included in the ticket price for flights from Bangkok’s main airport, Suvarnabhumi International.

When you enter the country, Thai Immigration officials stamp your passport with the date your authorized stay will expire. Make sure your passport has been stamped with the date your authorized stay will expire before you leave the Immigration counter. Replacing a missing stamp later often requires a trip back to your original port of entry. If you remain in Thailand beyond the date of your authorized stay without getting an official extension, Thai Immigration officials will fine you 500 baht per day, up to a maximum of 20,000 baht (approximately $625 at 32 baht/$1.00) when you leave Thailand. In cases of excessive overstay, as determined by Thai officials on a case-by-case basis, you may be arrested for violating immigration law and be detained as you undergo official deportation proceedings. If the police find that you are out of legal status before you leave the country (for example, during a Thai Immigration “sweep” through a guesthouse or in a popular a tourist area), you will be detained, fined, and deported at your own expense, and you may also be barred from re-entering Thailand. These determinations are the legal responsibility of the Royal Thai government, and the U.S. Embassy or Consulate may not intervene in the application of Thai law. Private “visa extension services,” even those advertising in major periodicals or located close to Immigration offices or police stations, are illegal. A number of U.S. citizens are arrested at border crossings each year with counterfeit visas and entry stamps they have obtained through these illegal services.

It is illegal for foreigners to work in Thailand without a work permit.  This includes unpaid work, volunteer work (even for charitable causes), and work in exchange for room and board.  If you work in Thailand without a work permit, you are subject to arrest, jail time, a fine, and deportation.  Before traveling to Thailand for work—whether or not you will receive compensation—you should check with the Royal Thai Embassy to ensure that your plans are consistent with Thai law.  Several U.S. citizens are arrested each year due to work permit violations.

Thailand’s entry/exit information is subject to change without notice. For further information on Thailand’s entry/exit requirements, contact the Royal Thai Embassy at 1024 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20007, telephone (202)-944-3600, or contact the Thai consulate in Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York City.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs website lists the Thai embassies and consulates worldwide and provides current information about Thailand, including visa and other policies.  The Royal Thai Police Immigration Bureau maintains an English-language website as well.

HIV/AIDS restrictions– Some HIV/AIDS entry restrictions exist for visitors to and foreign residents of Thailand.  However, these restrictions are generally not enforced.  Please verify this information with the the Royal Thai Embassy before you travel.

Embassy Locations:

U.S. Embassy in Thailand
95 Wireless Road
Bangkok 10330
Thailand

Telephone: +(66) (2) 205-4049, 02-205-4049 (within Thailand)

Emergency After-Hours Telephone: +(66) (2) 205-4000, 02-205-4000 (within Thailand)

Fax: +(66) (2) 205-4103, 02-205-4103 (within Thailand)

http://bangkok.usembassy.gov/

 Embassy of Canada in Thailand

15th Floor, Abdulrahim Place
990 Rama IV Road
Bangrak, Bangkok 10500
Thailand Telephone:  (66) 0-2646-4300
Fax: +66 (0) 2646-4336

http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/thailand-thailande/index.aspx?lang=eng

HEALTH

Medical treatment is generally adequate in Thailand’s urban areas. In Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya good facilities exist for routine, long-term, and emergency health care. Basic medical care is available in rural areas, but English-speaking providers are rare.

Medical tourism is a rapidly growing industry.  The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic and other elective surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery.

Please note: Some medications may not be permitted in the country. Please check if the medication you are bringing is permitted in the country you are visiting.

Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or via the CDC website at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the infectious diseases section of the World Health Organization (WHO) website at http://www.who.int/topics/infectious_ diseases/en/. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.

BANKS AND CURRENCY

Baht (THB; symbol ฿) = 100 satang. Notes are in denominations of ฿1,000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10. Coins are in denominations of ฿10, 5, 2 and 1, and 50, 25, 10, 5 and 1 satang.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted. ATMs are found in all major cities and almost all provincial banks. ATMs are found in all major cities and almost all provincial banks.

Traveler’s cheques are accepted by all banks and large hotels and shops. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travelers are advised to take traveler’s cheques in US Dollars, Euros or Pounds Sterling.

 Banking hours: Monday-Friday from 8:30am till 3:30pm

 COMMUNICATIONS

Thailand International Dialing Code is +66. A popular way to call overseas is through a service called Home Country Direct, which is available at various post offices and CAT centers in towns and cities. It offers an easy connection to international operators in many different countries. Some accommodation places will have a mobile or landline that customers can use for a per-minute fee for overseas calls. Public phones are not recommended as they are often on noisy main streets.

There are plenty of internet cafés, some even found in remote areas visited by tourists. Post office hours: The General Post Office in Bangkok (on Charoen Krung Road) is open Mon-Fri 0800-2000, Sat-Sun and holidays 0800-1300. Post offices up-country are open Mon-Fri 0800-1630, Sat 0900-1200.

 Cell Phone Usage:

Please contact your cell phone provider to determine whether your contract includes coverage in the country you are visiting. Depending on your contract you may have to add international services and/or country specific services.

ENTERTAINMENT

Food and Drink:

Thai food is traditionally fairly hot and spicy, but most tourist restaurants tend to tone down the heat for the more fragile Western palate. Most Thai food is prepared with fresh ingredients such as lemon grass and coriander and rice is commonly eaten with most meals. Popular fruits are papaya, jackfruit, mangosteens, rambutans, pomelos (similar to grapefruits) and, above all, durians, which farangs(foreigners) either love or hate. The thorny fruits have a rather malodorous scent which has even resulted in many hotels banning them from their premises.

Excellent food can be found at the stalls of the many street vendors around the country as well as top-notch eateries. There are also many Asian and European restaurants throughout the major cities and smaller towns.

 Specialties: 

  • Tom yam(a coconut-milk soup prepared with makrootleaves, ginger, lemon grass, prawns or chicken).
  • Gang pet (hot ‘red’ curry with coconut milk, herbs, garlic, chili, shrimp paste, coriander and seasoning).
  • Pad Thai (stir-fried rice-noodles) served with shrimp or chicken and garnished with peanuts.
  • Desserts include salim (sweet noodles in coconut milk).
  • Well worth trying is sticky rice and mangoes (rice cooked in coconut milk served with slices of mango).

 Note: 

Bars have counter or table service.

 Regional drinks: 

  • Mekhong (local whiskey) and SamSong(rum) are very popular.
  • Singhaand Singha Gold are locally made beers which dominate the domestic market.
  • Coconut milk straight from the shell during the harvest season is particularly refreshing in the heat and humidity.

NIGHTLIFE

Bangkok offers a wide range of entertainment venues, from nightclubs, pubs, bars, cinemas and restaurants, to massage parlors, pool halls and cocktail lounges. The nightlife is concentrated in three districts of Bangkok – Banglamphu, Patpong (between Silom and Surawong roads), Sukhumvit Road and the nearby street of Soi Cowboy. Bangkok’s sex industry is as blatant and booming as ever.

Many venues are open all day and late into the night, although bars and clubs are supposed to close at 0200. Sometimes there is an admission fee but this usually includes one or two drinks. The dress code is very relaxed, although a few of the nightclubs do enforce smarter clothing.

Performances of traditional religious and court dances can be seen at the Thailand Cultural Centre and Patravadi Theatre in Bangkok. Elsewhere on the mainland, nightlife takes the form of traditional dances. The islands are renowned for their nightlife but attendance is almost exclusively by foreigners. The full moon parties are notorious and continue well into the following morning. Performances by the infamous katoeys (lady boys) are worth a visit, with the most famous seen at the Calypso Cabaret in the Asia Hotel in Bangkok. 

SHOPPING

Duty-free shops are located at Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai and Had Yai airports as well as in the King Power Complex on Bangkok’s Sri Ayutthaya-Rangnam Road. Items can be purchased there and delivered to the airport in time for the departure flight. Value Added Tax (7%) can be refunded on goods bought in shops labeled ‘VAT Refund for Tourists’, but there is a minimum transaction of ฿2,000 including VAT. VAT Refund Application for Tourists forms are completed at the time of purchase and it is necessary to show one’s passport. Cash refunds (minimum ฿5,000) can be obtained in the airport departure hall and often the goods purchased must also be shown.

Souvenirs such as textiles, handicrafts, antique reproductions, ceramics and jewelry are available; all major cities and popular tourist haunts will offer some or all of these although Bangkok and Chiang Mai have the greatest range and excellent markets.. Generally souvenirs and tourist offerings are extremely good value but shoppers need to check quality carefully.

Shopping hours: Mon-Sun 1000-2100/2200

BAGGAGE

Baggage rules for international and domestic air travel have changed much in recent years, differ from carrier to carrier and these days even may cover your on-board bags. Checking luggage may cost a separate fee or may be free depending on your personal status with the carrier. We therefore encourage you to read your ticket’s small print and/or contact your carrier for exact rules.

TIPPING

Gratuities are not included as a part of our service. However, we would like to reiterate that tipping is NOT mandatory and is entirely at your discretion, based on your level of satisfaction for the services that you have received. Having said that, most service providers do expect gratuity. We are pleased to provide you with the suggested guideline, that you may use at your discretion.

LAUNDRY

There is no public laundry on the streets. Laundry services are available in hotels and cruise ships, usually through the floor attendant or housekeeping. One-day dry cleaning and pressing services are offered at good hotels.

 PHOTOS & VIDEOS

In some countries you must refrain from photographing sites such as Military bases and industrial installations. Also be aware of cultural sensitivities when taking pictures of or near churches and other religious sites. It is always courteous to ask for permission before taking photographs of people.

USE OF DRONES 

The use of drones is being legislated by many countries. In some cases drones are already forbidden and their unauthorized use may carry severe penalties. If you plan to travel with a drone please contact the embassy or consulate of the country you wish to visit.

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