I've gotten all my shots at least...
September 9, 2005 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I'm travelling to Thailand alone and I want advice about staying safe and healthy while I'm there...

On Saturday I'm leaving for a conference in Phuket, Thailand and will also be staying briefly in Bangkok. I'll be travelling alone and will only know one person at the conference.

I travel alone a lot, but generally to countries where I speak the language (or some cognate); these also tend to be richer countries. I've been to poor countries, but never by myself. I've never been to Southeast Asia before and I'm not sure what to expect. I've been told various things like "don't eat fruit unless you peel it yourself" and "tell your hotel when you're leaving and when you'll come back", etc. I'm looking for any advice along those lines. I know that Thailand is a great country, but I'd like to enjoy my stay while feeling well informed.
posted by Alison to Travel & Transportation around Thailand (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Thailand is pushing itself to be on the forefront of the so-called "medical tourism" and there's been a lot of buzz about this in the insurance and international business community. They have world class hotels that cater to Western guests and 1/7th the price of US hospital visits. Most procedures are so cheap the cost is basically free in relation to the travel fees.

Phuket is one of these places (I believe they have package deals where you rejuvenate after a surgery in a resort hotel). If you do get sick don't hesitate to go to the hospital, it's comprable to American hospitals at sweatshop prices.
posted by geoff. at 2:03 PM on September 9, 2005

I heard from a friend who travelled extensively in India and Nepal that he never got sick at all -- his secret was using that alcohol based hand sanitizer stuff obsessively all day, esp. before and after each meal, even using it to clean off utensils in restaurants.
posted by footnote at 2:22 PM on September 9, 2005

Best answer: Here's some info from the Journeywoman site. It seems weighted more towards sights/activities in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, etc., but does have some more general info (tip: take your own tampons!). I've never been to Thailand, but I have two (female) friends who've traveled over there extensively (alone as well as with traveling partners) and they both report feeling very safe.
posted by scody at 2:29 PM on September 9, 2005

Best answer: i've never been to thailand but i've traveled a bit in undeveloped areas in southeast asia. the thing to remember in this part of the world is that you stand out, and that you, as a tourist, are a walking wallet.

the bane of your existence there will be dudes that hang around just outside the airport/bus depot/train station etc. they will want to carry your bags, take you to a hotel, show you around, arrange a taxi, etc. they are annoying, overcharge you by ridiculous amounts and are a good way to get your stuff stolen. avoid them at all costs. politely but insistently refuse their help. if they persist, just ignore them and they'll go away before long.

thing to remember is to ask yourself whether they came to you, offering something, or if you went to them. most towns in this region will have a tourist office or something like that - go there and ask a lot of questions. they will tell you how to get around, where to stay, etc. this is generally more trustworthy advice because you sought it out, rather than having it foisted upon you.

you will have to come to terms with the fact that in southeast asia there is often a two-tier pricing structure for things - one price for locals and one price for tourists. a thing to accept is that you are going to pay more for things than locals will. it will still be a much cheaper trip than most places, but coming to terms with the feeling that you're getting ripped off compared to others is something you'll just have to do.

also, bargaining is a way of life over there. the original price of something is (generally) a bit inflated, and haggling is to be expected. this of course varies - you cannot haggle at a fancy western-style hotel, for instance, and generally food vendors have fixed prices. but if you are buying some souvenirs or something like that, you can probably get a better price than the original quoted one.

as for health concerns - places like phuket and bangkok have a LOT of foreign tourists come through, and are generally pretty good about things like sanitation etc. the peel-it-yourself thing will probably only apply if you're traveling in the countryside or in a particularly grimy spot. most places traveled by tourists will use filtered/boiled water; people will tell you to avoid the ice because it's not. personally i've never had a problem with the water, but your judgement is your best friend. if a place seems scummy, get something bottled.

a fun thing to do in this part of the world is to rent a scooter and zip around on your own exploring. your hotel can usually arrange this at a fair price. go slow and be careful as the motorbike drivers in southeast asia are nutty.

anyway, have a blast! try to get off the beaten tourist track and you'll be rewarded. (:
posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:48 PM on September 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who was mugged in Thailand earlier this year. He got into a fake taxi and was robbed at knifepoint and left in a dodgy area of town. I think his lessons would be:

1. Always call a taxi and take the one you call. Don't hop into random taxis!

2. Don't keep important stuff like your passport and maybe one credit card in the same bag as everything else. That way if you're mugged, you can give the mugger most of your stuff with minimal inconvenience to yourself.

Footnote: his (local) girlfriend at the time was also mugged in a fake taxi. But instead of handing over her stuff she grabbed a brush/comb from her purse and stabbed the taxi driver in the neck with the handle, which apparently got her a story in the newspaper.

Have fun!
posted by fleacircus at 3:02 PM on September 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

What I describe above happened in Bangkok.
posted by fleacircus at 3:03 PM on September 9, 2005

You'll be harassed but probably not in any real danger unless you do something stupid (go wandering out at 3am by yourself, etc).

The rule with fruit is that you don't eat it unless you have to peel it yourself. ie: it needs to have a peel that you don't eat, and it has to be intact.

Drink bottled water.

Beware of salad even if the sign says it was washed in bottled water. Ask for drinks without ice for the same reason -- unless you're in a swanky hotel.

Get yourself a Thai massage. Or ten.

and footnote, I travelled extensively in India and Nepal (and Thailand, Malaysia, Indo, Burma, etc), and no matter how much hand-washing you do, what happens behind kitchen doors is still important. I was effectively a vegetarian for most of Nepal after seeing flies all over meat sitting out in the midday sun at market, waiting to be picked up for those restaurants.
posted by dreamsign at 3:55 PM on September 9, 2005

My friend Kim has traveled extensively in southeast Asia alone and says the following:

She seconds the "bring your own tampons" recommendation.

She had her wallet stolen in a small town by a group of children who surrounded her asking for money. Lesson learned: don't carry valuables in your pocket.

Other than that, she says regular travel rules apply: be aware of your surroundings, etc. And have fun!
posted by bedhead at 4:40 PM on September 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Thailand does not have a high crime rate. You'll be fine.

And the food probably won't give you food poisoning, either. Don't drink the tap water (or use it to clean your teeth)... bottled water ("Nam") is available everywhere, and cheap.

Other than that, don't worry. The ice in restaurants is also completely safe, contrary to what some people will try to tell you. Watch what ordinary Thai people eat and drink, and do the same.

Most Thai people are Buddhist, and while they don't have much money, they are, in general, unusually happy and friendly, and their sense of their own high ethical standards means more to them than stealing a few dollars off a tourist.

Phuket, in particular, has a low crime rate. Compared to any city in the USA, if you're lost alone at night, you'd be better off in Phuket. Which isn't to say that wandering around alone at night is a good plan, of course ... but even if you do, chances are good that you'll be fine.

In Phuket, to take one example, almost everyone rides a motorbike, and it is normal to leave your crash helmet, unlocked, in the front basket of your parked bike. Nobody steals them. Consider whether this would work in the US.

Muggings and petty theft are extremely rare. Consider this story in the local newspaper for evidence of how rare they are.

Everybody hails taxis in the street - it's unusual to call them in advance. I'm not saying there are no dodgy taxi drivers in Phuket, but there are probably less of them than there are in the US.

Tuk-tuks (SUV-like taxis with bench seats in the back) and motorcycle taxis are more common than taxis, and cheaper too. If you can find someone you trust to share a tuk-tuk with you, that's usually your best way to get around Phuket. Motorcycle taxis are extremely dangerous, but fun. The most dangerous thing about Phuket, by far, is the roads. I drove round there on a motorbike for a while, and I saw lots of accidents and scary driving. If you are willing to trust in Buddha (as most of the drivers are) then use a motorbike-taxi, otherwise, don't. Always negotiate the fare up front, but don't push too hard - the drivers are usually looking for a fair price, not a ripoff.

I once had an argument with a motorbike-taxi driver, because we agreed a price of 35 baht, and, after the journey, I paid him 50 baht, intending that he keep the change. He was very offended and upset, and at first I thought he was demanding more money. A Thai passer-by who spoke some English stopped, and explained that no, it was just that he felt offended that I'd paid him 50 baht, when the agreed price was 35, and he didn't have the change to give me the 15 baht back. So, by giving him 50 baht, I was insulting him. Fortunately, I had 35 baht in change in my pocket, and when I gave him this and took back my 50 baht note, he was very happy.

Thai people, as this story demonstrates, are often surprisingly sweet.

Few Thais speak English, but so what? All you need to know are the numbers, to negotiate prices, and "Sawadi Kah" means hello and "Kop Kun Kah" means Thanks (if you're female). That's really all you need. Most restaurants have a menu in English, too.

Enjoy the delicious fresh melon shakes, too, available at every restaurant. And don't miss the back massage. I'm sure you'll have a fantastic time in Phuket - I know I did, and so do most other people, which is why it's one of the world's leading tourist destinations.

Here's a couple more good links.
posted by cleardawn at 4:53 PM on September 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In Bangkok, you will likely get harassed and trailed by tuk-tuk drivers. Many of them are fine, but about 1 in 10 will drive you to the local "rip off warehouse" where they show you how they make necklaces or something, and get you to buy stuff. I've had a few angry tuk-tuk drivers when I refrained from either purchasing anything or even getting out of the tuk-tuk. It's a fine line between being the obnoxious farang at the beginning (no jewelry shops, please!) and being the sucker (what, again?). It really, really helps to a) know generally where you're going, and b) have a map to follow along, more or less. But I also found stellar tuk-tuk drivers that took me to their house (judgement call), took me to an amazing lunch, took me to an out-of-the-way market for the fresh fruit, etc. My general advice is that if you flag down the tuk-tuk, you may be somewhat more likely to get to where you're going relatively fast, compared to choosing a tuk-tuk who is trailing you and bugging you to take his ride. That isn't a failsafe measure, but a pretty good one. I loved the tuk-tuks though, but if you have asthma you won't be a happy camper.

I didn't get sick once there; I did drink bottled water, and peeled most fruits that required it, but definitely ate at the street-side vendors all over the place. Drink the smoothies all over the place, get massages, keep your wits about you, don't carry too much cash at once, keep track of your traveler cheque serial numbers (if you take them), take more than one bank card if that's the route you're going, or do what I do - take a little bit of everything. US cash, local currency cash, travellers cheques, ATM card, etc. I had it all stashed in various places; didn't get ripped off, but if it had happened, as it did to many careless others, it wouldn't have been a huge deal.

When you get to the Bangkok airport, keep going outside -- you will come across any number of "real" taxi stands on the way out there, with badges, id #s, the whole works, but they'll charge you way, way more than the official taxis outside (note that this advice doesn't apply if you already know how much it *should* be then can make sure you're not getting entirely ripped off). Keep walking outside - right before the door is another very official-looking taxi stand that I first accepted, then went outside and realized the predicament.

Bring earplugs for Bangkok. I second the tampon recommendation. I also brought a few rounds of various antibiotics (I was also there and in Vietnam during the SARS epidemic, so YMMV), Amosan, tums, and immodium for emergencies. I also brought a bunch of small kleenex packs for emergency toilet paper. I kept one in my small pouch in my bag with alcohol wipes/sanitizer, a few waterproof band-aids for blisters (no way in hell regular bandages can stay on in that humidity), and a spare $50 that I didn't touch without an emergency.

I'm a female in my mid-20s and I travelled all over SE Asia on my own during the SARS craziness. I didn't have a single problem stemming from travelling alone, travelling as a female, or travelling without knowing more than a few courtesy words. I did make a big effort to have passable bartering, directions and ordering language skills, but obviously their English was almost always infinitely better than my stilted Thai or Khmer. But the effort, as always, went a loooong way. I also brought little maple leaf pins to give away, a few postcards of home to show them my city, pictures of my family to show them, and that also helped with conversations and 'bridging the gap.' You're going to love it; if you have a chance, go kayaking near Phuket.
posted by fionab at 5:24 PM on September 9, 2005 [2 favorites]

I just came back from my first visit to Thailand. I spent 2 weeks in the Nonthaburi area, with occasional excursions into Bangkok and surrounding areas. I have not yet been to Phuket, but I hope to go in the future. Though I was approached by the occasional panhandler, pushy market vendor, and self-proclaimed guide, I rarely felt that I was in real physical danger, except from the heat. (Believe it or not, there is actually a place more hot and humid and miserable than NYC in August: Thailand in August!) The sun itself seems to be twice the wattage it is in NY. Can't comment on the hotel situation, because I stayed in a condo complex with a relatives who had a condo. As for the food, I dared the germs to come and get me: I ate darn near everything, including things in the marketplace/from street vendors, but avoided those that were targets for exceptional numbers of flies. I even drank a glass of the tap water. I only got diarrhoea once, and that was from fresh jackfruit that I did not peel and clean myself (they sell it shrinkwrapped on styrofoam trays). I ate at cheap restaurants, shopped at the traditional open-air marketplaces where the food sat out, and had drinks with ice. I was worried about that initially, but then I met a woman who had been living in Thailand for 20 years. I asked her about the ice, the salad greens, and the restaurants. She told me that the salads and the restaurants are usually OK, and if they give you ice that has a round hole in the middle, which is what you will usually get, that ice is mass-produced with filtered/sanitized drinking water. Some long-term residents have told me that tap water is ok to drink if you live near a water purification plant, the main problem with Thailand's water supply being that those picturesque stilt-house dwellers on the rivers and canals have been peeing and pooping in it.
posted by bunky at 5:48 PM on September 9, 2005

On "feminine protection" in Thailand: if you are in an urban/suburban area, where there are convenience stores, they do have sanitary napkins, and I have even occasionally seen American brands as well as locally-produced ones with Thai lettering on the packages: consumer preference for sanitary napkins over tampons is a cultural thing in many parts of the world where women are supposed to be demure and modest and are "traditional" enough to consider putting something "inside" to be gross or generally suspect. For instance, most stores in Japan (where I visited several times and lived during 1990-1991) had sanitary napkins but not tampons, or perhaps had a couple different varieties of sanitary napkins, but one sort of tampon. Of course you could go to the American Pharmacy to get things not otherwise available in Japan (such as birth-control pills, before the Japanese Government made them legal for the general population), but I do not know if there is an equivalent place in Thailand.
posted by bunky at 6:01 PM on September 9, 2005

...and yes, as a woman, I always carried pocket tissue packs in my purse, because public toilets in Thailand (and in Japan) usually don't have toilet paper provided. (A major way companies advertise in Japan is to hand out packs of pocket tissue with the company name/advertising on them) In "fancier" places, such as museums, and western-style restaurants, there are generally western-style toilets; in less-than-fancy public places, you may encounter "squat toilets". In Thailand, I have encountered a few toilets with a shower hose attached or nearby: this kind of sprayer is what much of the general population often uses (how they get themselves dry without toilet paper, well, I don't know, but I hope they wash their hands well)!
posted by bunky at 6:14 PM on September 9, 2005

I've been living in Thailand for nine years. It is safer here than most American cities.

My advice on eating: If you don't try the street food you're committing a crime against yourself. I have only been sick from the food twice: once was after eating McDonald's, the other after bad pineapple.

Don't take the tuk-tuks.

You'll be fine.
posted by soiled cowboy at 6:26 PM on September 9, 2005

Oh, and don't wear shorts there. Locals think they are mostly for children and not really respectful enough to wear.

I was in Chiang Mai and most of the people connected with the hotel I stayed at spoke English fairly well.

And as far as the language, Thai is a tonal language so get someone to show you how to say sawatdee kai (or krap) etc...it makes a difference.

Don't put TP in the squatty potties. They don't flush like ours do and you will stop them up. Normally there is a wastepaper basket available for that. But yes, the locals use the water. Some places don't have the sprayer type, only a tank of water and a scoop.
posted by konolia at 7:46 PM on September 9, 2005

As for the fruit, don't miss the mangosteen! Peeling it's part of the fun.
posted by Rash at 10:22 PM on September 9, 2005

Get a freshette--also known as Sanifem (and anyone who hovers over a flush toilet without wiping up where she's splattered the seat should get one too).
posted by brujita at 12:04 AM on September 10, 2005

Thailand is great. I ate all the fruit I could get my hands on, and yeah, I did get sick but the fruit was awesome. Due to this experience I can tell you that if you go to a pharmacist and describe your symptoms they'll sell you drugs which handle tourist's tummy fine.

About the taxi thing: the thai friend we visited in Bangkok said "get metered taxis". Tuk Tuk's rip you off. This isn't as true outside of Bangkok.

I know you didn't really ask for touristy recommendations, but... I can't resist it: In Bangkok I can't recommend the snake farm enough (details here) for a tourist thing which is interesting, informative and entertaining. I'm guessing you'll already have plans to visit the Rama I, II and III temples (which are also "don't miss" events).
posted by handee at 2:49 AM on September 10, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice! I leave in a few hours and I'll be testing everyone's suggestions. I am especially thankful to know about the tampons and the toilet paper; I am now prepared.
posted by Alison at 4:29 AM on September 10, 2005

As a note to Cleardawn above: Tuktuks are the little three-wheeled moped-y things. Rotdangs are the SUV-ish busses with the benches in the back (Rotdang is "red truck," and you'll know them when you see them).
In my experience, a five-minute tuktuk was 40 baht, and a Rotdang will usually take you just about anywhere for 25 baht, but they have to already be going in the direction that you are.

(Hopefully you'll get this before you leave..)
posted by klangklangston at 11:32 AM on September 11, 2005

Response by poster: I printed out all of your replies and took them with me. I had a wonderful time in Bangkok. The shopping was fantastic and I never felt unsafe walking around by myself even after dark. I love the weekend market and Thai fruit smoothies.

I didn't like Phuket as much. It's a bit too touristy, but it did have the nicest, cleanest beaches I've ever seen. The sand is so clean that it squeaks. The nearby islands are absolutely amazing.

Thanks for all of the advice! I marked anything that came in handy on my trip as a best answer.
posted by Alison at 7:35 PM on September 19, 2005

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