Table of Contents
When you’re living in your home country, you don’t even give a second thought to most of the basic things in life. You can already communicate with others, you know the culture inside out, you know where to get the food you like, you know how to set up a bank account, and a host of other things. These things, and others, seem so obvious that you assume everyone knows. But when you’re in a foreign country, especially one in Asia, you will quickly realize that almost everything here is different to back home. Everything you took for granted back home is suddenly turned upside down and inside out. This section aims to get you up to speed on the basics that you need to be aware of to get you started.
It would have been good to have had more info about all of these before we came here. It would have saved us a vast amount of time having to hunt down all the answers to the questions we had.
Some of these differences can make you go crazy at first, so you should learn about them now before you arrive. Most people can adapt to a new culture, some quickly, and others over a more extended time. But a significant minority don’t seem to be able to adapt at all. Check out some of the expat forums in Thailand, and you will find a few foreigners who spend all day complaining about how things aren’t like they are back home. But despite their constant complaining, they’re still here. Go figure.
How you adapt depends almost entirely on what type of person you are. The ones that adapt more quickly are the ones with an open mind and attitude, who are willing to go with the flow. The ones that have a hard time are the ones that think that their own culture is right in every respect and that every culture has got it wrong. These people spend years trying to change the culture of a whole nation on their own and are driven crazy. The suggestion is that you keep an open mind when you get here. Try to understand the culture and go with the flow. If you don’t like something, the best thing to do is to smile and let it go. We’ll talk more about culture later, but for now, let’s get back to the basics.
If you plan to stay in Thailand long-term, learn to read, write, and speak Thai. It can be a difficult language to learn, but you will get a lot more out of your time here if you can speak at least a little Thai. If you’re like some expats, and don’t make any effort at all to speak the language, you’ll be excluded from many things, and will most likely end up hanging around other expats that speak English. With a little effort, it’s possible to learn to speak some Thai, so your best bet is to get started right away.
What makes Thai challenging to learn for Westerners is the use of tones. Just changing the tone of a word can drastically change its meaning. What sounds like one word to a Westerner can have six different meanings in Thai, depending on the tone used. There are also regional differences, so it is wise to learn central Thai to begin with, as that’s the most widely spoken. In the northeast of Thailand, in the Isaan region, tones are critical. But in Bangkok, they aren’t used as much, and you are more likely to be understood even if you use the wrong tone. In the south of the country, tones aren’t used much at all. You may be surprised to learn that a Thai person from Isaan speaking with another Thai person from the south may find it challenging to understand each other. So for beginners, learning central Thai is the best option.
Thai Culture – The Concept of Face
In Thai culture, face (respect) is essential. It is one of the most critical aspects of their culture. It would be best if you never let someone lose face in public. So never start an argument or start shouting at anyone. Thais tend to stay calm in all situations. If something makes you angry, smile, and let it go. You will have a very tough time in Thailand if you don’t respect this part of the culture. We’ll talk about this in greater detail in the Culture section of the book.
Thailand has a warm, tropical climate, and it’s mostly hot all year, with temperatures up to about 40C (104F). There are three seasons: the cool season, which runs from November to February, the hot season from March to May, and the rainy season from June to October. These seasons can start sooner and end later, and each year can be different. If you’re coming from a cold climate, the seasons will seem hot, hotter, hot, and wet. Most expats don’t notice much difference in the seasons, as it always seems to be hot. During the dry season, you can have months without any rain at all. Surprisingly, you can also have weeks without rain during the rainy season. When it does rain, it is usually very heavy, but it’s rare for it to last longer than an hour. A typical week in the rainy season might see it rain 3 or 4 days for up to an hour each time. So it’s still dry most of the time.
Thai and Western Food
Most expats who live in Thailand eat Thai food. It’s probably the best food in the whole world, and it’s super cheap. But Thai food can be very spicy, especially in the northeast of the country. There are many regional variations, so visiting all the main regions and trying the food to see which you like best. But most food is cooked right in front of you, and you can ask for it to be not so spicy if that is what you want.
It’s surprising how easygoing it is here when it comes to food. We’ve often been at a cafe, and they haven’t had the food we wanted, so they just went down the road and bought it from another shop. This is quite a common occurrence in Thailand. Once, we had a particularly tasty sauce with the meal, and ask the owner what she used, as we wanted to get some to use at home. She said she got it from a wholesale shop a few streets away. She went to the shop and brought me back a bottle of the sauce. We were very impressed. But that is how helpful the people here are.
For those that don’t like Thai food at all, and there are a few, there is always plenty of foreign food to eat. It doesn’t matter where you are. You’ll still be able to find burgers, pizza, fried chicken, and other Western fare. The big cities, such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, and Chiang Mai, are the best places for Western food. Some small Thai towns may not have a great choice of Western food, so if you need to eat it every day, you should consider living in one of the bigger cities. Big cities will have familiar places such as Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC, Dunkin’ Donuts, and lots more.
If you live in Thailand, you will hear the word farang multiple times each day. Farang is the Thai word for white foreigners. You will be called this by Thai people if they don’t know your name. It’s also what many will call you even if they do know your name. One American guy has a house in a relatively remote area of Thailand, and the Thai people in his village all know him as Farang from Baan Farang. Baan is the Thai word for house. So he is literally the white foreigner from White Foreigner House. Many expats take offense at the phrase farang, as they appear to think is a little disrespectful. But we don’t believe this is the case at all. Thai people don’t go in for the PC culture that is prevalent in some Western countries these days. They say it like it is, and no offense is meant. We think many expats are too sensitive when it comes to issues such as this.
You should know that alcohol is Thailand is usually much stronger than back home. In the US and UK, beer usually has 3-5% alcohol content. Beers in Thailand tend to have 5-7%. So if you knock back a few beers, you may find yourself becoming much drunker than you expected. So beware. The most popular Thai beers are Chang, Singha, and Leo. Another shock to many first-timers to Thailand is when they find out that they serve beer n a glass with ice. It may take you over a year to get used to this, as it just didn’t seem right to be drinking beer with ice. After all, the ice will end up diluting the beer. But given the fact that beer here is so strong, perhaps that not such a bad idea. You will get used to drinking beer with ice, and before long, you would find it odd to drink it without ice. It’s funny how we adapt to new things.
Another thing that is different here is that the beer usually comes in large bottles of around 630 ml. They share the beer among everyone at the table, so you don’t get your own bottle to drink. It can get a little challenging to know how much you’ve drunk, but this is something that you have to get used to and try to avoid drinking too much.
Thais drink a lot of beer, but their favorite drink is whiskey, and you will see this sold everywhere. Usually, a group of people will buy a whole bottle of whiskey, some soft drinks, and some ice. The group of people will share it among the group.
Thailand uses the Thai baht, and at the time of writing $1=30 baht, and £1=45 baht. There are notes in 1,000, 500, 100, 50, and 20 baht denominations. Coins come in denominations of 10, 5, 2, and 1 baht. There are also 50 and 25 satang coins, with 100 satangs equal to 1 baht. But you will usually only get satang in your change at a supermarket. Most other places price goods in baht only.
It’s a good idea to open a bank account if you’re planning to stay for an extended period. As a foreigner, you’ll only be able to open a savings account, although you will still get an ATM card. The ATM card can often be used as a debit card as well. Current accounts and credit cards are almost impossible to get if you are a foreigner. Most banks will require you to have a long-term visa to open an account, so it may not be possible for you to open one right away if you only have a tourist visa. Some people have managed to open bank accounts with tourist visas, but it seems to be getting harder these days. The leading banks in Thailand are Bangkok Bank, Krungthai Bank, Siam Commercial Bank, Kasikorn Bank, Bank of Ayudhya, and Thanachart Bank. Bank charges here tend to be much higher than in your home country, and fees will even occur for some ATM withdrawals.
Accommodations are both cheap and plentiful in Thailand, and there is something to suit every budget. You can get a very basic room for as little as 2,000 baht per month ($70, £45), up to whatever you’re willing to pay. Choosing accommodations is a big topic, so we’ll cover it in much more detail below, including the option of buying property here.
Electricity and Water
If you rent a house or condo, you’ll need to pay for electricity and water. If you rent in the US or Europe, these utilities would usually be in your name. But in Thailand, they stay in the name of the owner, and you have to pay the bills. The bills come monthly, and you usually pay them at the local 7-Eleven store. 7-Eleven stores are everywhere, so there is sure to be one near where you live. It’s also essential to pay the bill right away. You only have around seven days to pay and will most likely have your electricity and/or water cut off if you don’t pay. After the seven days are up, you can no longer pay the bills at 7-Eleven, so you have to go to the head office and make the payment there. You will also see an extra charge for paying late. So if you’re planning to be away when the bill is due, you’ll need to get a friend or neighbor to pay it for you. If you have a bank account here, you can set up a direct debit payment, but these can take up to five months.
There is some debate here about whether you can drink the tap water or not. Most Thai people use bottled water or fit a filter to their water supply. We suggest you do the same. Water is pretty cheap at the supermarkets, with a 6-liter bottle costing around 30 baht ($1, 70p).
Many people in Thailand use maids for one thing or another. They can clean your home, wash and iron your clothes, pay your bills, run errands for you, etc. A full-time maid would likely only be paid around 10,000-15,000 baht per month; so many expats that have families will have a full-time maid. If you’re single, then you will most likely hire one once or twice a week.
It’s not the norm in Thailand to tip when at a local restaurant, so there’s no need for you to tip. When taking a taxi, Thai people usually round up the fare to the next 5- or 10-baht increments. So for a 47 baht fare, they’d give 50 baht. When getting a massage, people generally tip 50-100 baht.
Mosquitoes and Malaria
Thailand has mosquitoes, but you probably won’t be bothered much by them if you live in big cities. If you plan to travel to remote areas, you might want to use some mosquito repellant, and even consider taking anti-malaria drugs. But this is something you should discuss with your doctor, as I’m no expert. So take their advice over mine. Most people that live in big cities don’t use mosquito repellants. I’ve been bitten a few times by mosquitoes, but that’s just part of life here. It only happens once every few months. Steer clear of stagnant water, and you should be ok. It’s no big deal to most people here.
Americans may be surprised to learn that Thailand uses the metric system of measurement. So, you won’t find miles, feet, inches, quarts, pints, or anything similar in Thailand. It can take some getting used to for some American expats.
Another change for Americans and most Europeans is that people drive on the left-hand side of the road, as they do in the UK. This can present some real dangers if you plan to drive here. Thai roads are notoriously dangerous, and the death rate from road accidents is among the highest in the world. So start off slowly if you’re not used to driving on the left. 80% of deaths on the road are from motorbike accidents. So be especially careful if you ride a motorbike here. If you plan to drive in Thailand, you’ll need to get an International Driving License. If you anticipate staying longer than 12 months, you’ll need to apply for a Thai Driving License, which will mean taking a test here.
Health Insurance and Hospitals
The major cities, especially Bangkok, have some world-class hospitals, with many doctors that are trained in the USA. Many expats I know don’t have health insurance, as they prefer to pay themselves when they need treatment. I have found the healthcare here to be of a much higher standard than the UK, with prices that are a small fraction of UK prices. People from all over the world have medical treatment in Thailand, as it is a major global medical hub. Health insurance is available from many Thai companies and is something you should seriously consider if you’re planning to stay here long-term.
Getting around major cities in Thailand is pretty straightforward but getting between cities is not so easy. Bangkok is the best place for public transport, as they have very modern BTS (SkyTrain) and MRT (underground) systems. Prices range from around 10-50 baht, which is super-cheap compared to London or New York. Bangkok also has thousands of taxis, with a starting fare of 35 baht. You can get most places in the city for well under 100 baht. Bangkok also has motorbike taxis that will drive you down the sois. Taxi cabs are on many street corners, and usually cost around 10 baht for a short journey. Bangkok also has a rapid bus system (BRT) that connects to the BTS system, minivans, and songthaews (a kind of shared taxi that looks a little like a pick-up truck).
Other cities have different forms of transport, though. Both Chiang Mai and Pattaya rely almost exclusively on songthaews. They cost around 20 baht for most journeys. You tell the driver where you want to go, agree to the price, and jump in the back. We use these often in Chiang Mai, and they are a great way of getting around cheaply. There are hundreds of them driving around, so you’ll never have to wait more than a few seconds for one. Sometimes you’ll see 5 or 6 lined up waiting for passengers.
For getting between cities, you can use trains, buses, or vans. These are all very cheap options, but much slower than in Western countries. You can also fly between some of the major cities, between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Flights are pretty cheap in Thailand and most of SE Asia.
The major supermarkets in Thailand are Tops Market, Villa Market, Foodland, Tesco Lotus, Big C, Carrefour, and Rimping. You will find these in most major cities, and all have Western food. Villa Market and Rimping probably have the best choice of Western food, although the prices are usually much higher than you’d pay back home. If you’re on a smaller budget, we’d suggest shopping like most Thais do – at local markets. There are also the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores, which seem to be everywhere. There always seems to be one within a few minutes’ walk. We had around ten 7-Eleven stores within 5 minutes walk of the first condo we lived in, in the Silom area of Bangkok.
If you need to contact the police in an emergency, the numbers to call are either 191 or 123. You can contact the tourist police on 1155.
You can pick up a SIM card for your mobile phone at any airport or any 7-Eleven store. You can also easily top-up the card at 7-Eleven stores. It is good to get a new SIM card from the airport when you first arrive. The main cell phone companies in Thailand are AIS, DTAC, and True. If you need to buy a new cell phone, you will find plenty on sale in all large, and not-so-large, cities.
The three main internet companies here are True, 3BB, and TOT. The internet connections tend to be fastest in big cities, but can be a bit hit and miss in more rural areas. If a fast internet connection is important for you, then living in one of the bigger cities will get you the speed you need. Once you have found a place to live, it’s fairly simple to get the internet connected. If you rent a condo the owner or juristic person (person in charge of the condo building) will be able to help. You’ll need to show your passport as proof of ID, and you’ll be connected within a day or two.
If you need a lawyer at all, many people recommend Siam Legal. We’ve heard many good reports about Sunbelt Asia.