Journeywoman Shannon O'Donell is an American storyteller and writer actively traveling the world while volunteering and giving back to local communities. She shares the stories encountered along the way on her travel blog and provides practical RTW travel planning resources. You can join her conversations on Facebook. Here are her facts and observations designed to help other JourneyWomen planning their trips to Thailand.
Before I travel through any new place I like to read up on the history…though far from scholarly, Wikipedia is my go-to source, and Thailand's Wikipedia entry gives a really great overview of each facet of Thai history, geography, economy, etc. Also, I actively veer away from stereotypes and gross generalizations about a country, but that being said, take this as a fun and not-authoritative-at-all list. :)
Wait, Before we Get Started, Where is Thailand?
For a quick geography lesson, Thailand is smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia and bordered by four countries: Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. And because of its location, Thailand's culture and history are heavily influenced from India and China.
A Spoon and a Fork Please!...
Thais eat most dishes with a spoon in their dominant hand and forks easily leverage food onto the spoon. This comes in handy because Thai food is so tasty and when I'm using a spoon it's a lot easier to shovel food into my mouth! Of note is the fact that chopsticks are really only used for eating soups, otherwise you can mostly expect your dish served with a spoon and/or fork.
It Goes Together Like Ice Cream and Bread...
Desserts are of a different ilk here, and one of the more popular desserts is ice cream sandwiched between a piece (or two) of white bread. They don't traditionally eat bread with meals (that's what the rice is for), and bread is most often served sweet. Yum! Seriously, don't knock bread and ice cream 'til you've tried it…I found it odd, have never craved it again, but am glad I sampled it once!
When in Doubt, Add Condensed Milk...
Condensed milk is a staple here so it seems, it's sold on the shelf of every 7-11 and Tesco Lotus and the syrupy sweet flavor compliments both drinks and desserts. Thai food often has a sweet component to it (they sugar their food with table sugar!) and the near obsession here with condensed milk is another facet of that sweet tooth!
Land of smiles delivers...
Thailand's tourism pushes the image that the country is the "land of smiles" and this is mostly true. Thais generally prefer harmony over open social conflict so it's rare to get into altercations on the streets and I find the vendors and locals regularly offer up warm smiles and greetings. It's also worth noting though, that smiling is the default reaction for Thais in a range of situations very different from the West. For example, a smile from a Thai person can show their personal embarrassment, or they smile to relieve your personal embarrassment, smiles come out of fear, remorse, and even tension. It varies – so yes, everyone is smiling, but it not always because they're happy! :)
The Wai, and Thai Social Protocol...
Many Asian cultures have a different social hierarchy in place and Thailand is no exception. The hierarchy is present within families, friendships, and nearly all social situations. The most pronounced manifestation of this is thewai, a gesture of raised, clasped hands in front of your body…depending on the person, age, and "status" for lack of a better word defines how low you bow your head in greeting and thanks.
Random quirky facts...
Many Thais cart around the tiny, fluffy, yappy dogs and perch them in purses and on their motorbikes. Excluding the motorbike phenomenon, it's actually equally baffling to me as this same trend in the US.
Bangkok has the longest city name in the world; written out it's actually: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Try saying that ten times fast!
Though Thai is the official language in Thailand, you will also find: Lao, Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Akha and Karen…among many others depending on where in Thailand you're traveling!
Until this century, Thailand was actually called Siam throughout history; the name changed to Thailand in 1939.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power…quite a feat since Europeans colonized seemingly everywhere for a good while.
The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy (one of the most populated in the world) and has a King; he is well-loved and respected throughout Thailand (and sarcasm and levity concerning the King is not so much appreciated, it's against the law to say anything bad about him)…
The Thai political situation is very, very complex and nuanced and there are many people better suited to explaining Thai politics than myself.
It's always some sort of holiday here. Okay, that's not entirely true, but it does feel like it! I always take note of upcoming holidays and ask around before planning anything big just to ensure I don't get to a temple/park/shop/event and find everything closed!
The country is deeply spiritual and Buddhism is the main religion, with more than 90 percent of the population Buddhist. And let me tell you, you can tell when traveling through because there are wats (temples), Buddha statues, and mini offerings everywhere.