The number one cause of death for visitors to Thailand is motorbike accidents, especially on the often narrow, mountainous and twisty roads of Phuket and Samui. Drive defensively, wear a helmet, don't drink and avoid travel at night. Violent crime is in general rare, and the foreigners who get into trouble are typically those that get into drunken fights.
Long-simmering tension between pro- and anti-government groups came to head in 2008, with the anti-government People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) first blockading several airports in the South for a few days in summer and in November taking over both of Bangkok's airports for a week, causing immense disruption to tourism and the Thai economy. However, while several protesters were killed or injured in scuffles, by and large the protests were peaceful and no tourists were harmed.
Following the resignation of the prime minister in December 2008, things have gone back to normal for the time being, but the situation remains unstable. Keep an eye on the news and try to keep your plans flexible. Avoid demonstrations and other political gatherings.
Do not under any circumstances say anything negative about the Thai royal family. This will usually land you in prison and your embassy/consulate will have little consular assistance (power) in getting you out.
Bad news again in May 2010 when Red Shirt demonstrators occupied a large area of Bangkok, which was not dispersed for 2 months. This resulted in much violence, arson, etc., and some deaths. This problem is still simmering and although it poses no real threat to tourists it should always be borne in mind that things could easily flare up again.
Thailand's military seized control of government in May 2014, making it the country's 12th successful coup since 1932. Despite sensationalist headlines warning of the dangers of Thailand, travellers using common sense and avoiding potentially risky areas or situations should enjoy a trouble-free holiday.
While not as bad as in neighbouring Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia, corruption is unfortunately still fairly common in Thailand relative to Western countries or Malaysia. Traffic police in Thailand often request bribes on the order of 200 baht or so from tourists who are stopped for seemingly minor traffic infringements. Immigration officers at land border crossings often ask for a bribe of about 20 baht per person before they stamp your passport, though those at airports generally do not ask for bribes. On the road, if you are absolutely sure you haven't done anything wrong and all your papers are in order, be polite but refuse to pay a bribe and stand your ground even if threatened to be taken to the police station, eventually you'll be let go as the officer will have a harder time doing so and probably get into serious trouble with his superiors.
Thailand has more than its fair share of scams, but most are easily avoided with some common sense.
More a nuisance than a danger, a common scam by touts, taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand is to wait by important monuments and temples and waylay Western travellers, telling them that the site is closed for a "Buddhist holiday", "repairs" or a similar reason. The "helpful" driver will then offer to take the traveller to another site, such as a market or store. Travellers who accept these offers will often end up at out-of-the-way markets with outrageous prices - and no way to get back to the centre of town where they came from. Always check at the front gate of the site you're visiting to make sure it's really closed.
Some tuk-tuk drivers might demand much higher price than agreed, or they might take you to a sex show, pretending they didn't understand the address (they get commissions from sex shows). For the same reason, avoid drivers who propose their services without being asked, especially near major tourist attractions.
Don't buy any sightseeing tours at the airport. If you do, they will phone several times to your hotel to remind you about the tour. During the tour, you will be shortly taken to a small temple, without a guide, and then one shop after another (they get commissions). They might refuse to take you back home until you see all the shops. On your way back, they pressure you to buy more tours.
Easily identified with practice, it is not uncommon in tourist areas to be approached by a clean cut, well dressed man who will often be toting a cellphone. These scammers will start up polite conversation, showing interest in the unsuspecting tourist's background, family, or itinerary. Inevitably, the conversation will drift to the meat of the scam. This may be something as innocuous as over-priced tickets to a kantoke meal and show, or as serious as a gambling scam or (particularly in Bangkok) the infamous gem scam. Once identified, the wary traveller should have no trouble picking out these scammers from a crowd. The tell-tale well-pressed slacks and button-down shirt, freshly cut hair in a conservative style, and late-model cellphone comprise their uniform. Milling around tourist areas without any clear purpose for doing so, the careful traveller should have no difficulty detecting and avoiding these scammers.
Many visitors will encounter young Thai ladies armed with a clipboard and a smile enquiring as to their nationality, often with an aside along the lines of "please help me to earn 30 baht". The suggestion is that the visitor completes a tourism questionnaire (which includes supplying their hotel name and room number) with the incentive that they just might win a prize - the reality is that everyone gets a call to say that they are a "winner"; however, the prize can only be collected by attending an arduous time-share presentation. The lady with the clipboard doesn't get her 30 baht if you don't attend the presentation; also that only English-speaking nationalities are targeted.
A serious scam involves being accused of shoplifting in the duty-free shops in the Bangkok airport. This may involve accidentally straying across ill-defined boundaries between shops with merchandise in hand, or being given a "free gift". Always get a receipt. Those accused are threatened with long prison sentences, then given the opportunity to pay USD10,000 or more as "bail" to make the problem disappear and to be allowed to leave Thailand. If you end up in this pickle, contact your embassy and use their lawyer or translator, not the "helpful" guy hanging around.
Theravada Buddhism is an integral part of Thai culture, and it is customary for Buddhist monks to roam the streets collecting alms in the morning. The presence of foreign tourists unaware of local Buddhist customs has led to some imposters preying on unsuspecting visitors. Genuine monks only go on alms rounds in the morning, as they are not allowed to eat after noon, and are also not allowed to accept or touch money. Alms bowls are solely for the purpose of collecting food. If you see a "monk" soliciting monetary donations, or with money in his alms bowl, he is fake.
Thailand is quite safe for tourists. However, there have been some reports about people getting drugged and robbed while traveling on overnight buses. To avoid this, steer away from cheapish and non-government buses, make sure you have all your money stored safely in a money belt or another hard-to-reach place and always check your money balance before getting off. Warning your travel companions about this danger is also advised. In case this happens, firmly refuse to get off the bus, tell the rest of the people about the situation and immediately call the police. It may not be possible to stay on the bus, as your refusal may prompt the staff to unload your hold luggage onto the street and then continue to drive the bus without your luggage, forcing you to disembark or lose it.
Thailand's age of consent is 15 but a higher minimum age of 18 applies in the case of prostitutes. Thai penalties for sex with minors are harsh, and even if your partner is over the age of consent in Thailand, tourists who have sex with minors may be prosecuted by their home country. As far as ascertaining the age of your partner goes, all adult Thais must carry an identity card, which will state that they were born in 2543 or earlier if they were over the age of 18 on 1 Jan 2018 (in the Thai calendar, 2018 is the year 2561).
Some prostitutes are "freelancers", but most are employed by bars or similar businesses and if hiring a prostitute from a bar or similar business, you will have to pay a fee to the establishment called a "bar fine", usually 300-500 baht. This entitles you to take them out of their place of employment. It does not pay for additional services; those are contracted separately.
Bar girls, go-go girls and freelancers are all professionals, who are far more likely to be interested in money you can give them than in any continuing relationship for its own sake. Cases of visitors falling desperately in love and then being milked out of all they are worth abound. Thailand has a high rate of STD infection, including HIV/AIDS, both among the general population and among prostitutes. Condoms can be bought easily in Thailand in all convenience shops and pharmacies but may not be as safe as Western ones.
Some aspects of prostitution in Thailand are illegal (e.g., soliciting, pimping), but enforcement is liberal and brothels are commonplace. It's not illegal to pay for sex due to the "Special Services" exemption in Thai law or to pay a "bar fine".
Thailand has extremely strict drug laws and your foreign passport is not enough to get you out of legal hot water. Possession and trafficking offenses that would merit traffic-ticket misdemeanors in other countries can result in life imprisonment or even death in Thailand. Police frequently raid nightclubs, particularly in Bangkok, with urine tests and full body searches on all patrons. Ko Pha Ngan's notoriously drug-fueled Full Moon Parties also often draw police attention.
Possession of cannabis (กัญชา ganchaa), while illegal, is treated less harshly and, if busted, you may be able to pay an "on the spot fine" to get out, although even this can set you back tens of thousands of baht. It's highly unwise to rely on this. While some police will accept payments on the spot for violating drug laws, others will strictly follow the harsh drug laws to the letter.
Penalties for drug possession in Thailand vary in harshness depending on the following: category of drug, amount of drug, and intent of the possessor. If you do take the risk and get arrested on drug-related charges, you would do well to immediately contact your embassy as a first step. The embassy usually cannot get you out of jail but can alert your home country of your arrest and can often put you in contact with a lawyer in Thailand.
The Thai legal limits the amount of the defending and the usefulness of a lawyer. For minor offences, i.e. peeing positive for cannabis, the penalty can be something like a 2000 baht fine and deportation. However, to actually get this sentencing, someone not familiar with the system would need external help, translations, bail posted etc. As a foreigner not familiar with the system, a hefty bribe at the earliest chance can be the better option. If unfamiliar with both, staying clean from any substances is the best option.
The availability of drugs in Thailand can mislead tourists into making light of the penalties for possessing or selling drugs, but that is unwise.
In 2004, long-simmering resentment in the southern-most Muslim-majority provinces burst into violence in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces. All are off the beaten tourist trail, although the eastern rail line from Hat Yai to Sungai Kolok (gateway to Malaysia's east coast) passes through the area and has been disrupted several times by attacks.
Hat Yai (Thailand's largest city in the South) in Songkhla has also been hit by a series of related bombings; however, the main cross-border rail line connecting Hat Yai and Butterworth (on the west coast) has not been affected, and none of the islands or the west coast beaches have been targeted.
In September 2006, three foreigners were killed in bombings in Hat Yai. Some rebel groups have threatened foreigners, but while targets have included hotels, karaoke lounges and shopping malls, Westerners have not been singled out for attacks. There are Islamist and jihadist groups in south Thailand, such as Jemaah Islamiyah. That said, there is usually a strong Thai military presence in the major towns and cities to keep things in order, and the vast majority of foreign visitors do not encounter any problems.
Make a photocopy of your passport and the page with your visa stamp. A picture of your passport, shot from your phone, will work as well. Always keep your passport or the photocopy with you (the law requires that you carry your actual passport at all times, but in practice a photocopy will usually suffice). Many night clubs insist on a passport (and ONLY a passport) as proof of age. It is not required that you leave your passport with a hotel when you check in.
Motorbike rental places are likely to ask for you passport as collateral. Leaving another document (drivers license, int. drivers license, second passport, ID card) might be the better option. Or consider offering a cash deposit instead.
Carrying your own padlock is a good idea, as budget rooms sometimes use them instead of (or as well as) normal door locks; carry a spare key someplace safe, like your money belt, otherwise considerable expense as well as inconvenience may result should you lose the original. Also consider some type of cable to lock your bag to something too big to fit through the door or window.
Thailand has a few dangerous animals. The most common menace is stray dogs which frequent even the streets of Bangkok. The vast majority are passive and harmless, but a few of which may carry rabies, so steer clear of them and do not, by any means, feed or pet them. If they try to attack you, don't run as this will encourage them to chase you as if you were prey. Instead, try to walk away slowly.
Monkeys may be cute and friendly, but in any area where unaware tourists have corrupted them, they expect to get food from humans. They can be very sneaky thieves, and they can bite. As with dogs, you won't want to get bitten, whether or not they have rabies. Most urban areas do not have "stray" monkeys, but Lopburi is famous for them.
Venomous snakes can be found throughout Thailand, hiding in tall brush or along streams. You're unlikely to ever see one, as they shy away from humans, but they may bite if surprised or provoked. The best course of action when confronted with an unknown snake is to stay still until it leaves. The Siamese crocodile, on the other hand, is nearly extinct and found only in a few remote national parks. Monitor lizards are common in jungles, but despite their scary reptilian appearance they're harmless.
Thais are normally very tolerant of tourists, who are unlikely to encounter aggressive racial abuse regardless of skin colour. However, some visitors may notice their ethnicity attracting some innocent attention. Usually, these situations are limited to stares or unwanted attention in shops. Thais are often curious to find out the nationality of the travellers they meet. Apart from this curiosity, most travellers find it easy to strike up a rapport with Thais.
Do not get into fights with Thais. Foreigners will eventually be outnumbered 15 to 1 (even against Thai people not initially involved) and weapons (metals, sharp objects, beer bottles, martial arts) are usually involved. Trying to break up someone else's fight is a bad idea, and your intention to help may get you hurt.
Southern Thailand is seismically active, with earthquakes and tsunami. The chief culprit is the Indian tectonic plate (carrying the Indian ocean & subcontinent) which, like a skidding truck, is barrelling northwards while spinning anti-clockwise. In this region it collides with the small Burma plate, which carries the Andaman Sea. When the plates grind past each other (a “slip-strike” collision), they cause earthquakes. But the Indian plate is also being subducted – forced beneath the Burma plate – which lifts the sea-bed, displaces the water, and sets off a tsunami. A most violent event occurred on 26 Dec 2004, when along 1000 miles of fault line the sea-bed was suddenly jacked up by several metres. Two hours later, tsunami hit the west coast of Thailand in three waves 20 min apart, and over 8000 people here were killed.
There was, and is, no effective local warning system, as (unlike the Pacific) major tsunamis in the Indian Ocean are seen as a once-in-a-century event: “Not since Krakatoa in 1883” is the stock refrain. But memory of the 2004 tragedy remains strong. Expect frantic fleeing from the coast if an earthquake is felt, with gridlock and traffic casualties. Your decision will be whether to rush out of the building before it collapses, or rush indoors to try and get above the third floor.
The Burma plate is in turn being shunted against the Sundah plate, which carries the Peninsula mainland and eastern sea. This movement is less violent, but this fault line lies right under the western coastline, so these earthquakes have more local impact and tsunami could strike immediately. Central and Northern Thailand are less quake-prone but the 2014 Mae Lao earthquake, centred on Chiang Rai, caused one death.
Thailand is one of the most tolerant countries in Asia with regard to LGBT travellers. There are no laws against homosexuality in Thailand, and LGBT tourism forms a big part of the Thai economy. In the main tourist areas, there is no shortage of gay bars and other gay-friendly establishments to cater to that crowd, and transgender cabarets are also a major tourist attraction. Thailand is one of the world's largest centres of medical tourism for sex reassignment surgery. That being said, same-sex relationships are not given any legal recognition, and transgender individuals are still not allowed to change their legal gender. Thais also tend to be rather conservative, and LGBT people are often relegated to the fringes of societies. Fortunately, anti-LGBT violence is extremely rare.