I moved to Thailand straight after college graduation with my philosopher boyfriend and our $100,000 degrees to do something different. We knew nothing about the country except what our Lonely Planet guidebooks told us on the plane ride there.
We immediately familiarized ourselves with how not to be the “insensitive tourist.” First, you never say anything bad about the King, or his family for that matter (regardless of his son's bad reputation), with fear of 7 years’ imprisonment in a Thai jail.
Second, when visiting temples, you must dress with skin completely covered despite the 105-degree heat. Buddha images are comparable to Christians’ Jesus on the cross, which means as tempting as it is to pose for photos in front of them, it is not respectful of the sacred. Monks are not allowed to be touched by women, and since your feet are the lowest part of your body (spiritually as well as physically) they should never be pointed toward a Buddha or person for that matter. Likewise, the head is the highest part of your body, therefore the most sacred, and should not be touched.
Be wary of the tuk-tuk (Thai version of a motorcycle taxi) driver telling you temples are closed for holidays, lunch, etc. They’ll lure you to other temples around the city only so they can stop in gem and silk stores to earn a commission for bringing in a naive tourist.
And finally, no shoes inside anywhere. Thai cultural rules revolve around saving face, or avoiding embarrassing themselves or someone else, so it’s necessary to be conscious of these rules because Thais won’ tell you themselves, they’ll just think badly about you.
The infamous Kho San Road from the DiCaprio movie The Beach is where the young backpackers stay and is definitely worth a look around. Burned DVDs and CDs for $3-5, travel books for $4, Beer Chang t-shirts for $5, wooden Buddhas from $2-100 and every kind of accessory line the streets admist reggae music blasting and $1 Pad Thai stands. Drugs abound, young beautiful Thai girls with old haggard-looking foreigners are common, and stories in accents from around the world are shared about the Southeast Asia backpacking loop. Everything at your fingertips with little effort in haggling, interpreting or translating. It's easy there.
Bangkok is an overstimulation of the senses. The sounds, smells, tastes, colors are constant and chaotic. Highlights include the Grand Palace, the most famous wat, but Wat Pho is my favorite with less gold and more intricate tile-decorated stupas, not to mention the best Thai massage ever. The Red Light district is worth avoiding because although the ping-pong and knife stories are true, it's like the car accident affect where you don't want to watch, but you do, then wish you didn't. Muay Thai boxing is relentless and if you like betting, be careful, Thais always win.
Food ranges from $1 to fine dining comparable to NYC. Accommodation is the same variety, with thin-walled, fanned rooms for around $8 to 5-star hotels for less than $125. Thai massages are not as relaxing as Swedish-style, but you’ll get twisted and cracked like someone doing yoga for you for anywhere from $4-20, depending on the spa.
A lot of people travel to Thailand for dentist work at 1/3 of the price and other medical procedures that can’t be afforded in the States. Doctors are reputable, and getting a vacation out of a medical procedure is a new way of thinking about recovery. Thai cooking classes average $50 for an entire day of shopping, cooking and eating, with other Yoga, Meditation, Herbalist and Acupuncture courses available around the city.
Destinations 1-3 hours outside of Bangkok‘s metropolitan cement and smog are amazing. Kanchanaburi is a favorite of mine, with bungalows on the River Kwai (yes, the Bridge over River Kwai is there). From there, Erawan Falls is an hour tsong tao (truck taxi where passengers sit on benches in the back) ride through thick jungle, where you’ll find a 7-tiered waterfall with pools to swim in at the bottom of each fall.
There are countless adventures and small towns to explore, all with fruit shakes, massages, spicy food, and smiling faces ready to share their country with you.