Thailand is South-East Asia’s most popular travel destination. Formerly one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it is also home to one of the longest-reigning monarchs and one of the most tumultuous democracies. Thailand’s recent political crises aside, its tropical beaches, friendly populace, ancient ruins and good-value shopping have ensured its popularity with tourists from around the world, and tourism is one of the main pillars of its emerging economy. It may be a developed country with a high literacy rate, but resources tend to be unevenly distributed, with students living in ethnic minority areas scoring lowest on standardized tests – so there is a lot of good work that can be done by volunteers interested in teaching and education in Thailand. The native wildlife, which includes Asian elephants, bears and gibbons, is under severe threat from poaching and the practice of keeping wild animals as pets, so anyone looking to volunteer in Thailand in nature, environmental and wildlife conservation will also find plenty of ways to make a difference.
- Thailand is currently governed by a military junta that took control in the May 2014 coup d'état. This kind of “bloodless revolution” is not an uncommon occurrence in Thailand’s political history.
- The monarch is the head of state in Thailand, which is not dissimilar to the system of governance in the United Kingdom. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is the current reigning monarch, and he has been on the throne since 1946.
- Theravada Buddhism is the country’s primary religion, practiced by 95% of the population.
- Stone artifacts found in Thailand show that it has been inhabited by humans for over 40 000 years.
- There are now more Asian elephants in captivity than in the wild in Thailand.
- Education is compulsory only until the age of 14 in Thailand.
- It is useful to learn the wai, the traditional Thai greeting. It is usually offered first by the youngest or least “important” of two people meeting. Press your palms together with your fingers pointing upwards, then bow your head to touch your face to your fingertips. Men say “swatdi khrap” and women say “sawatdi kha”.
- Never touch a Thai person’s head, or point at anything with your feet. These are both serious taboos.
- Thailand has been the world’s largest exporter of rice for many years. It is the staple food, particularly the jasmine variety, with the average Thai person eating about 100kg of it per year!
- Muay Thai is Thailand’s signature sport. It is similar to boxing and has taken off in the Western world as a form of exercise. It has led to Thailand winning Olympic medals in boxing because of the two sports’ similarities.
- Thailand’s climate is best described as tropical, with monsoon season lasting from May to about October. November marks the start of the dry season, and it doesn’t get too hot until January.
- Sightseeing: Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is Bangkok’s biggest tourist attraction. As a visitor to Thailand, this is the place to educate yourself on Thailand’s rich, religious culture, its 200 years of royal history, and traditional Thai architecture. The Buddhist murals are fantastic, and it’s worth noting that the King or Crown Prince of Thailand changes the statue of the Emerald Buddha’s royal robes at the beginning of each season. (Speaking of robes, be sure to take a sarong with you to cover your arms and legs when visiting temples in Thailand.)
- Shopping: Chatuchak in Bangkok is one of the largest markets in the world. You can spend an entire day here, browsing stalls selling antiques, clothing, jewellery, fruit, pets, plants and everything in between. A special highlight of a day at the market is the constant Thai-style snacking you can do while you shop. Talat Warorot in Chiang Mai is a smaller version of Chatuchak, but its reputation as one of the greatest markets in Thailand is well deserved.
- Island hopping: Ko Samui, Ko Pha-Ngan and Ko Tao are three of Thailand’s most idyllic spots. For hustle and bustle, go to Samui, for more of a laidback vibe, check out Pha-Ngan, and for some incredible diving right off the shore, head for Tao. And to “chill” on the beach while meeting fellow travelers? Any one of these beauties will do. Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and Ko Yao Yai are a few more of the jewels in Thailand’s crown when it comes to sun, sand, swimming and superb snorkeling.
- Jungle trekking: For the best jungle adventures in Thailand, head north. Chiang Mai is a good starting point for most treks, with excellent hiking trails that wind their leafy way past renowned waterfalls and through remote mountain villages in the nearby Doi Suthep-Pui National Park.
- Eating: They say that until you’ve eaten Bangkok street food, you haven’t eaten Thai food at all. Locals eat almost exclusively in open-air markets and at food stalls, on plastic chairs or on their feet, and this is the best way to experience the mingling of the five flavors that make up Thai cuisine – sour, salty, sweet, spicy and bitter – in an authentic setting.
Bangkok is the country’s biggest international airport, and most international airlines fly direct there every day. Many airlines also fly direct to the smaller airports of Phuket, Hat Yai, Chiang Mai, Phuket Krabi, and Udon Thani. Alternatively, you can connect through Bangkok to these outlying airports.