Everyone knows the Land of Smiles is filled with sunshine, lady boys, cheap eats and tuk tuks…but there are several things, especially when it comes to what is actually legal or illegal, that may surprise you. Here’s what you don’t know about Thailand:
Bangkok is not called Bangkok, in Thai it’s known as Krung Thep (sounds like kroong t-aep, like a mix between a hard /a/ sound in tape and the /e/ sound in pet). But that’s just the abbreviated version, the city’s full name is กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยามหาดิลก ภพนพรัตน์ ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์ มหาสถาน อมรพิมาน อวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะ วิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์ or Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Here’s a video to help you practice (they start singing the name about one minute in).
Is illegal. Yes, Thailand is known for its after-hours entertainment but, technically, it’s still illegal.
To wear or not to wear? Legally, you must wear a helmet at all times. That said, it depends on where you are and the time of day as to whether or not you’ll get in trouble for it. Regardless of the fact that you should always wear a good helmet for safety reasons, it doesn’t seem like many people do here. You’ll notice many Thais still don’t wear their helmets, especially in the evening or at night time when the police are done with their checks for the day.
Along with state occasions, Phleng Sansoen Phra Barami, the royal anthem of Thailand, is played before movies start at the cinema, as well as before live music or theater performances. When the song is played everyone stands respectfully.
While most people are careful to cover their mouth with their hand while using a toothpick after eating, they’re just as likely to go digging for gold in public with no sense of embarrassment or impoliteness.
Some people think the party never stops – and if you know where to look, it doesn’t – but technically it is illegal to sell alcohol between midnight – 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. The rule mainly affects larger chains, like 7-11, and you can usually find smaller, family-owned shops that will continue selling. There are also several Buddhist holidays and election days where the selling of alcohol is strictly prohibited.
I’m sure you’ve heard feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and you should never point them toward people or, especially, temples, monks and the Buddha. But the anti-foot fetish goes much further than that. Stepping on or over certain things, like money, purses and pillows, will make some people uncomfortable as well as using your feet to open or close a door or drawer. Even with the best of intentions or awareness, it’s easy to slip up and move or use your feet in a way that is inappropriate or disrespectful. (For more social and cultural practices you need to be aware of check out 10 Things Not to Do in Thailand.)
Thailand is the place to go for sex change operations (along with many other cosmetic or augmentation procedures). The prices are cheaper than in the West and the procedures more common. Medical tourism in general is very high in Thailand with people coming over for everything, from dental work to face lifts, for a fraction of the cost at home.
…are illegal to purchase or sell. Seems like a funny thing to have such strict laws about considering the widespread strip clubs, brothels and sex change operations (and market stalls will still sell them out in the open in certain areas), but it’s true.
If you pronounce something wrong in Thai, chances are you said something rude or dirty. For example, with just a change of tone ‘aunt’ becomes ‘crazy’, ‘drive’ becomes ‘shit’, and ‘pii’, a term of respect used before the name of those older than you becomes, becomes ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’. There are also several words that sounds awfully similar to a slang Thai word for ‘penis’, and once when I was trying to say the flowers in my Thai teacher’s apartment smelled nice, instead of saying ‘good smell’ said ‘balls’, as in testicles. No wonder I’m afraid to speak Thai.
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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