Regardless if you are just thinking about becoming an expat in Thailand or if you have been here for 20 years, you have done as much research as possible before uprooting your life and jumping on a jet. At least I know I did. I read everything I could get my hands on. For the most part the majority of it was very helpful. I am thankful that we live in an age that so much information is readily available. However, one downside to all that information is that a lot of it is sponsored.
We get a lot of info from websites that are created to promote tourism and travel. So while there are some negative reviews and such out there, for the most part we get the shiny version of everything. Which is great, but I wish there had been someone or some website to help me translate the shiny version of Thailand into the real version. I would have still jumped on that jet, but I would have been a bit wiser when I landed in The Land of 1000 Smiles! So here are a few things I wish I had known:
It is not the same as your favorite Thai restaurant back home. I know, they told you there was a sweet elderly Thai lady in the kitchen preparing authentic recipes handed down to her from her mother and her mother’s mother. And that may very well be true. I don’t care, it is not the same. The reason is simple; they are there to make money so it is westernized to appeal to our tastes. Just try and ask for beef in your Pad Thai at a food stand in Bangkok. I dare you! Once the vendor stops hysterically laughing they will make your Pad Thai with shrimp. You’ll pay for it, you’ll eat, and you’ll like it.
Now, please pay attention, this next piece of information could save your life, or at the very least prevent you from spending 12 hours in the toilet convinced you are dying. If you stroll up to a food stand and bravely order something you have never tried before, and the vendor shakes his or her head “no”, walk away, or order something else. This vendor is your new best friend. This head shake can be loosely translated into, “Try again farang, what you just ordered is so hot and spicy it will melt your face off!” I know, you think you can handle spicy, but trust me, nothing can prepare you for Thai Spicy. Mi Pet or Pet Nit Noy. The phrases mean no spice and little spice, respectively. If you don’t learn any other Thai phrases, do yourself a favor and learn these two!
Being from the U.S. I was spoiled by the Super Center supermarkets that are now everywhere in the States. Especially in my home state of Arkansas, home of the original Wal-Mart and the first Wal-Mart Super Center. I never dreamed of finding anything like these giant super stores here in Thailand. I cannot begin to express my delight when I found my first Big C Super Center and I was almost giddy with I discovered my first Tesco Lotus Super Center. But, there are a few things I wish I had known when it comes to the grocery side of these stores, specifically about the meat department.
First, you will find very little of the neatly packaged meat products that we have become accustomed to in the States. You know, the little Styrofoam trays, neatly wrapped and sealed in cellophane, stacked in a refrigerated meat case. What you will find here are large bins right out in the open rounded over with raw meat. No refrigerated cases no neatly stacked and wrapped trays, just a huge pile of meat, a big spoon, and a roll of plastic bags. I was shocked, almost horrified.
Never mind the selection. I am from the Southern U.S. and unlike most of the rest of the country we can find almost anything in our grocery stores. In most stores you can purchase a whole pig head, as well as all the rest of the parts, yes, I said parts. Not to mention frog legs, beef tongues and brains, rabbit, the list goes on and on. So unlike a lot of my expat friends, I was not shocked my the odd selection of meat in Bangkok markets, just by the presentation.
All I could see were huge bins of bacteria and salmonella. So I shopped in the pre-packaged section. I bought meat that looked like what I was used to back home. It was three to four times the price of the fresh stuff because a lot of it is imported. But in my mind it was safe. The price was worth it to me.
Then I got over myself and really put some thought into it. This meat was pre-packaged because it had to be shipped or trucked, which meant that it had to have been refrigerated or even frozen and possibly treated with chemicals in order to keep it from spoiling. Also, because it was so much more expensive that the fresh who knew how long it was in the case before I bought it. So I made the leap to the bin meat. I didn’t die or even get sick. And it was good, so much better that the pre-packaged stuff, after all it was fresh. So do yourself a favor, get over it. You’ll save a lot of time and a ton of money. Dive right into those bins. Go crazy, try something new!
When you first come to Thailand if you end up in a less touristy or less expat friendly area it might be rare to see other farangs. In the beginning you will be fine with this. After all, that IS why you moved here isn’t it? To get away, submerge yourself into a new and exciting culture, live among the people. Well after a while, you will crave some of your own culture. Maybe nostalgia will get the best of you, who knows. Some days you would give anything just to be able to speak English in unbroken syllables.
Don’t make the same mistake that I did. Not every other farang you see wants to be your new best friend. Don’t wave and giggle like you just found Waldo in a sea of Thais when you spot one. It will not be appreciated. While there are many friendly expats here, some of them are not. Some of them came here to get away from the same things you did. Don’t be offended or get your feelings hurt if they don’t acknowledge your existence, most of them won’t. It isn’t like we are all members of some special club and hold meetings once a month. We are all just trying to fit in and carry on with normal everyday life. We already stick out like sore thumbs, don’t make it worse.
To me, talking about Bangkok traffic is a bit like talking about Bangkok weather. It is hot today. It was hot yesterday. And guess what, it is going to be hot tomorrow. The only time it changes is during the rainy season. Even then it is still always hot, but with rain. I have been here over two years and I still can’t figure out for the life of me why some people continue to talk about the weather like they are shocked by it.
The traffic situation is exactly the same. Traffic is bad today. It was bad yesterday. And you guessed it, it is going to be bad tomorrow. The only time it changes it when it gets worse. I have never once heard a single person say, “Wow traffic is awesome today!” Yet, people still seem to be shocked and surprised by how bad the traffic is. When planning to move to Thailand it never once occurred to me that I would never have the urge to drive again. I always assumed that eventually I would learn to drive on the “wrong” side of the road and own a car. After about two months in Bangkok I vowed to never drive again.
The first reason I will never drive in Bangkok is the lack of traffic laws or at least the enforcement of. My husband once commented on how much over the posted speed limit our taxi driver was going, to which the driver replied that the speed limit was just a suggestion. I spent my first six months in Bangkok in the back of taxis white knuckling the arm rests and pumping an imaginary brake. After a while though, I just got used to it. Now I barely even look up. This way of driving seems to work here and I am good with it, now. I just don’t think I could ever do it and that is okay.
The main reason I have vowed to never drive in Bangkok is the above mentioned bad traffic. I do not have the patience or the desire to sit in a traffic jam for a few hours every day. I’m just not wired that way. I would probably go insane and end up on the front page of the Bangkok Post. The headline would read: “Crazy American Lady Loses It in an Apparent Road Rage Incident” and under it would be a picture of me, red faced, hair on end, still screaming even after obviously being tased at least three or four times. It just isn’t worth the embarrassment to myself or my family when there are so many other ways of getting around Bangkok.
My preferred method of transport is the bus. There are pros and cons as with everything, but for me the buses work. They are super cheap and relatively dependable. Taxis are of course ideal but depending on where you are going and the time of day they can be somewhat expensive. Plus you have to be careful that your driver isn’t taking you on the scenic route to up the fare. At least with the bus, you know when you leave point A you will eventually end up at point B for a set price.
Keep in mind though, neither taxi nor bus will help you avoid traffic. You will be traveling the same roads so you are still going to get stuck in traffic. If avoiding traffic is your goal the BTS and MRT are great. If you can use them by all means do. I however, do not live or work near city center so I don’t have these options therefore I don’t have a lot of experience with them.
If you feel brave and your main objective is to avoid sitting in traffic jams I recommend the motorbike taxis. I have to be honest with you though, I lived in Bangkok a full two years before I worked up enough courage to climb on the back of one. I was terrified. But just like everything else in this city, you get used to it. They are able to weave in and out of traffic so you do very little if any sitting. Also, they are much cheaper than a car taxi. My advice, keep calm and hang on. You’ll be fine. You may even enjoy it!
I said all of that just to say this: It is always hot in Bangkok and the traffic is always bad. Always. So leave a little early, don’t make plans that can’t be changed in a pinch, wear lose clothes, drink lots of water, and don’t worry about it. Life is too short.
Thailand is famous for the Thai Smile. After all it is the Land of 1000 smiles! This is not a myth. It is completely true and it is awesome! For the first couple of months you will walk around with a great big smile on your face just like the Thais. You won’t be able to help it, smiles are after all contagious as most of us learned as children. After a couple of months though, you will start to realize that the Thai Smile can have a lot of different meanings depending on the situation.
If you walk away from a market stall and the vendor is grinning from ear to ear shouting something in Thai to the others, you just overpaid, a lot. If your new friend the food vendor mentioned above told you no, and you insisted on your original order, they will have the biggest smile you have ever see on their face when they give you your food. They know that first bite is going to hurt, real bad, and they are happy about that. After all, they did try to warn you.
Lastly, you can bet money that 90% of the time that you catch a Thai smiling at you like the Cheshire cat it is because he or she thinks you are an idiot. Look around, what are you doing, what are you saying? Are you yelling at them because you think they will understand English if you just say it louder? Whatever it is you are doing, stop it. Trust me, save some face and just stop it. Flash your own Thai smile and walk away.
“Mai Pen rai” Learn this phrase and live by it. It is pretty much Thai philosophy. It translates into “never mind” or loosely into “no problem”. This is the Thai way of life. Don’t make plans or schedules that are set in stone. There is no such thing as set in stone here. You have to let go of the compulsion to always be in a hurry or even be on time, because if you don’t, you will drive yourself insane. Calm down and let it go, you’ll be a much happier person for it and you might just learn how to have your own Thai smile!