Thailand should satisfy just about any traveler’s hunger for the exotic, the beautiful, the thrillingly different. But it is a country whose very lure for the foreigner threatens to make it a parody of itself.

It is a country with a deep respect for family and monarchy, and a country with a huge prostitution industry and a corrupt military. It is a thriving place for business, but has serious problems with international copyright and trademark piracy. It is a physically lovely country that is, like many others, being degraded by logging, wildlife exploitation, and overdevelopment. It is a microcosm of all that is right and wrong with tourism, and the traveler’s special role as pilgrim, adventurer, and consumer.

But above all Thailand is Buddhist. You’ll see evidence of it everywhere, in cities, towns, remote villages, deep in the forest. It influences all segments of society and cuts across all economic levels. Anyone who hopes to gain an understanding of Thailand must understand this. Failure to do so would be like going to Ireland with no appreciation of Catholicism, going to Saudi Arabia thinking Muhammad was just a boxer.

This doesn’t mean the country is inaccessible to non-Buddhists. On the contrary, one of the Thais’ singular traits is that they don’t let religion disturb their lightheartedness and love of life. If eating meat conflicts with the Buddhist tenet proscribing the killing of any creature, never mind, the animal is already dead when the Thai obtains it. Likewise, the killing of insects such as mosquitos cannot be helped, and the good Thai Buddhist balances such transgressions by “making merit”, giving donations of food to monks or gifts to temples. When things go haywire you’ll hear the expression mai pen rai, or never mind, it doesn’t matter. Letting petty matters get in the way of enjoying life just isn’t acceptable.

At the same time, Thais take Buddhism seriously. Almost every male spends time as a monk, whether it be a few days or several years. Donning the saffron robe, for whatever period of time, is a highly respected endeavor. Monks are supported by the public, receiving donations of food each day as they wander the streets and byways. This tradition not only provides sustenance for the monks, but also offers a simple way for all to make merit, to learn compassion and generosity, to enhance their progress with reincarnation.

Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized, has a long tradition of outsiders in its midst. There is a word to describe these fair-skinned foreigners from Europe, America or Australia: farang. It is widely used, often without negative connotation, but some descriptions are indeed unflattering. One states that farang. are “exceedingly tall, hairy and evil-smelling.” The slang word kee-nok likens them to bird shit, something that falls out of the sky. Thais are perplexed by farang. g obsession with time and the future and their apparent disregard for the present. They do not understand us, but for the most part they take us in stride and welcome us with a unique warmth, as we should them, should we have the good fortune to go to this marvelous place.

A Note on Spelling, Meaning, Exchange Rates,
and a Warning on Other Matters that Affect the Traveler
As with any tonal language, there are many different ways to spell transliterated Thai words, some of them more correct or less misleading than others. But for the most part we have not tried to be the arbiters of Thai-English spelling, and in most cases have used the spelling our authors chose.

All Thai words are italicized. They are only translated the first time they appear in the text, so for those who dip in and out of the book instead of reading cover to cover, we suggest you turn to the glossary or the index for meaning.

This is not a conventional travel guide, in which prices and accuracy of exchange rates figure prominently. Consequently, we have not tried to convert figures used by authors to current exchange rates as long as they are in a ballpark with admittedly ill-defined borders.

We are not endorsing products used, trips made, or anything featured in the stories in this book. We urge every traveler to consult not just one, but two or three other guidebooks on Thailand, and make careful inquiries about the safety of travel to remote areas. Check with your physician about any health issues that you might face. When in doubt about anything, be a good ambassador.

Above all, talk to people who’ve been where you want to go or who’ve done the things you want to do. There is no better source, no travel habit more worth cultivating.

About James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger:
James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger are the editors of the Travelers’ Tales series. They also write “World Travel Watch,” a column that appears in newspapers throughout the United States.