Bangkok is high on many travelers’ to-visit list for a number of good reasons: incredible food and drink with an abundance of history and culture notwithstanding. Whether you’re a solo female traveler, backpacker-ette, or heading to the Thai capital with your girlfriends, here are a few things you might want to know before your trip starts so you can best plan your stay in Bangkok.
Kha and Khap and getting around
First and foremost, in the Thai language finishes sentences with gender-related titles. Thai people use kha for women and khap for men. This signifies that the other person has finished speaking and you’ll hear it often, even if a Thai person is speaking English.
On public transportation such as the BTS (sky train) and MRT (underground), special seats are reserved for the elderly, monks, children, and pregnant women. Often, you’ll see people give up their seats for older people–especially for elderly women. If a seat becomes free, it is most likely that a woman will take it over a man.
If you’re nervous about taking a taxi, especially alone, then download the Grab app. This is Thailand’s answer to Uber and it is easy, convenient, and cheap to use. Plus, it saves you from having to negotiate with tuk-tuk or taxi drivers who insist the meter is broken.
Meeting new friends and a night out
If you’re staying on the famous Khao San Road, you’re sure to meet plenty of other backpackers hopping across Southeast Asia. However, if you want a taste of city life and the opportunity to meet like-minded people, then meetup.com is a great resource.
Expats, locals, and travelers use Meetups, and there are a couple of women-only groups as well: including the Wonder Women of Bangkok and Girl Gone International. These are run by expat women and events are usually hosted once or twice a week, with activities ranging from Ladies’ Nights drinks to fitness classes.
One way Bangkok specifically serves women is Ladies’ Nights, which means great deals on drinks for women (or sometimes even free). Of course, remember to drink responsibly and ideally bring one or two friends with you. They can help in case anything might happen to go wrong. Ladies’ Nights can be found somewhere in town almost any night of the week, but you might want to call ahead to make sure that they’re still offering discounted drinks for women.
Thailand’s Buddhist beliefs and philosophy mean that crimes rates are usually low. That said, always be mindful (as you would anywhere) and use common sense. Watch your drinks as they’re poured, do not leaving them unattended, and make sure not walking alone at night once the night is done.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, then you might want to report the incident to police, your country’s embassy, and your tour operator if you have one. If you wish to report the crime, then it’s usually best to do it as soon as possible. Insist that you get a police report that can be translated into English–just as you would in any foreign country.
Note that the emergency number (fire, ambulance etc.) in Thailand is 191, but the number for the tourist police is 1155, which may be the best option to call in an emergency situation.
Healthcare in Bangkok is among some of the best in Southeast Asia. As a general rule, most Thais use a pharmacy for injuries or non-emergency sickness and the hospital for everything else. Healthcare is very cheap by Western standards and there are excellent hospitals in Bangkok if you should need them.
Both tampons and sanitary pads are commonly sold at pharmacies, supermarkets, and small stores such as 7-Elevens. More sustainable menstrual products, such as menstrual cups and reusable pads are harder to come by in Thailand, but possible to find in Bangkok via a quick Google search.
Common brand contraceptive pills such as Yasmin can be bought over the counter at pharmacies such as Boots without a checkup or prescription from a general practitioner, though they can be expensive by Thai standards–around $13 USD for one month.
You can also buy emergency contraception in Thailand without a prescription and there isn’t a social stigma attached to asking for it at a pharmacy. If you’re worried about a language barrier issue, ask for ya kun tong and you will likely be given either the Madonna or Postinor brand. The cost is only around $1 USD.
If you need an STD test, many hospitals are able to offer this service as a walk-in. STD tests typically test for HIV, hepatitis, and syphilis, so you may need to ask specifically if you want to be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia. You may also want to consider visiting the Thai Red Cross or MedConsult, Bangkok Expat & Travel Clinic (they also do pap smears).
Attitudes toward Dress
In general, most Thai people dress conservatively and comfortably. However, they will rarely openly judge women on what they wear on their travels–especially in cosmopolitan capital Bangkok. Having said that, there are certain places where you are expected to dress modestly out of respect.
If you’re visiting a temple or other place of significance, then you are expected to fully cover your cleavage, shoulders, and your legs down to your knees. That goes to everyone, not just women. Elephant pants are a good staple, or bring a sarong for moments when you need to cover up. Often, you’ll need to remove your shoes before stepping into a building such as a temple or someone’s house, so flip-flops or slip-on shoes are the best option for their ease.
If you’re relaxing by the pool, then swimsuits are fine, but they are not acceptable as daywear out and about in the city, no matter how hot it is–even during Songkran (Thai New Year, when people take to the streets in a giant water fight). Women sunbathing topless is also unacceptable in Thailand.
Attitudes to Gender and Sexuality
Thailand’s relationship with gender is complex and endlessly fascinating, and Bangkok is no different. This is the city of Soi Cowboy’s infamous gauntlet of bikini-clad girls, yet the country at large is much more conservative in its views and the average Thai finds the topic of sex taboo.
Thai law does not currently recognize same-sex marriages or partnerships. Non-heterosexual relationships can be unaccepted in Thai culture, though bigger cities such as Bangkok and Phuket are more open. It’s common for Thai people of the same sex to hold hands in public out of friendship, but public displays of affection for any couple, regardless of gender, is uncommon.
Having said that, LGBTQ people in Thailand are unlikely to encounter problems during their stay. What’s more, the Tourism Authority of Thailand recently hosted an LGBTQ travel symposium in Bangkok and is currently focusing its efforts in becoming an LGBTQ-friendly destination with the campaign goThai.beFree.
You might have also noticed the prevalence of kathoey (often badly translated to “ladyboy” in English), which are accepted in Thailand as a third gender. These individuals are usually a male-to-female transgender person, or a feminine gay male. Some Thais believe that being a kathoey is to do with a person’s past lives.
However, note that many transgender women in Thailand prefer to use other terms, such as phuying (woman) or phuying prophet song (second kind of woman). Before the 1960s, kathoey referred to anyone who didn’t conform to sexual norms. Kathoey cabaret shows and beauty contests can be seen throughout the country, such as Pattaya’s revered Miss Tiffany Universe.
Read more about LGBTQ culture in Thailand in our roundup of influential LGBTQ storytellers!
Header photo by Lisheng Chang.