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  • Julien Demaret

10 Things to Know Before Going to Thailand

Here are some insights I got from living 3 years in Thailand and sharing my life with a Thai girl.

photo by the author Big Buddha in Pai Thailand Temples are everywhere

Buddhism is the main religion in Thailand, and magnificent temples and Big Buddha statues are numerous. From the little village in the countryside to the touristic island, every place has its temples.

Thai people believe in paradise and hell, even though it’s not mentioned in Buddha’s teachings, it might be a result of Christianity's influence over the years. They are giving money and food to the monk to “make merit” because they believe these good actions will grant them access to paradise.

Actually, this way of doing is great. It allows the monks to live without the need for money, so they can focus on meditation and their duties. Poor families are taking their sons to the temples for them to become monks when they cannot feed them or offer them a decent future.

Monks and temples are also collecting and redistributing wealth in a country where public services and social security are lacking. They regularly get more than they need and redistribute the food to the people in need in the community.

“Thai people like to joke”

This is what you’ll probably be told if you don’t understand Thai humor. Thai people enjoy making fun of themselves or others, but it’s always with respect and with the goal of joking, not mocking or disrespecting.

I suppose self-derision and humor are required to de-dramatize situations that can be tough, where poverty and difficulties to provide resources for oneself are common.

The Land of Smiles

Despite hardship, the quality of life and general happiness in Thailand is stunning. People are always smiling. It is not nicknamed the Land of Smiles for no reason. You will have people smiling at you a lot, especially when you will speak English to them, which brings me to my next point.

English Thai Style

Thai people's proficiency in English is very limited. Outside of touristic areas, people will not even speak a word. They will either try to avoid you or they will smile when you talk to them because they don’t know what else to do.

When they do speak some English, it will be Thai style. The Thai grammar and syntax are very simple. There are no past, present, or future, no articles, no need to use subject, and no conjugation. So they will speak in English with a Thai grammatical structure, and will also use “na ka” at the end of the sentences.

“Na” is a way to speak kindly. “Ka” is used to be polite when a woman or someone who wants to be considered as a woman is expressing herself.

These are examples of what you could hear : Yes you can: “Can na ka” We don’t have this: “not have ka” I hope to see you again tomorrow: “Tomorrow come back na ka”

Last but not least, the pronunciation. The Thai language works with 5 tones, and the end of the words are pronounced in a very subtle way. So subtle that they often disregard it in English. Example : Ice will be pronounced I. It’s will be It or sometimes Ist.

What is more, Thai letters do not have the same pronunciation when they start or finish a word. For example, the equivalent of the letter “L” is pronounced L at the start of a word, but “N” at the end. A final “d” sound will turn into an “s”. Example: A final “ple” sound as in temple will turn into a “tempen”. “apple” into “appen”.

Who needs a table and chairs when you have the floor?

Don’t be confused if you enter a house in the countryside. There will not be a lot of furniture inside. Thai people do everything on the floor, they eat, they cook, and they wash the dishes. Some of them even don’t have a bed and sleep on blankets on the floor as well.

They benefit from this because they are still very mobile and can rest in a deep squat position all their life, while we Europeans sit on chairs and lose our mobility.

Cash is king

In Thailand, you will have to pay mostly in cash. There are very few places where credit cards are accepted, and they most of the time apply a 3% fee.

You’d better withdraw money at ATMs with your card. There will be a flat commission of 250 baht, and some banks allow to withdraw a maximum of 30 000 baht.

According to my experience, Krungsri (yellow bank) is the best to withdraw to for these reasons. You end up having a bit less than 1% commission with this process if your bank at home is not charging commissions on top.

Even the loans granted to Thai people are made in cash. I have witnessed someone borrowing 1 million baht ( around 30 000 USD) in cash in a bank on Koh Phangan Island.

The law is the same for everyone, isn’t it?

Well, the law is the same. But the application of the law might be a little different. If you are a European, you will be stopped all the time when driving a motorbike.

On Phuket island, for example, there is a big roundabout where the police is always posted. If you are a European with your helmet on, driving properly, you will be stopped. While next to you three Thai children without helmets are sharing the same motorcycle and will not be in trouble. Ok, let’s talk about motorcycles.

Renting and driving a motorcycle

If you stay less than three months in Thailand you are not required to pass the Thai driving license. You can drive with a formal international driving license edited by your home country. So you have to ask it in advance. If you don’t have this document, you will pay a fine every time the police stops you. The fine depends on the mood of the policeman, ranging from 500 to 1000 baht. You will then be delivered a paper stating that you can drive for one day. Yes,… You are driving without a license, you are caught, and then you are free to go, as long as you pay.

The helmet is mandatory even though no one really cares.

You can rent anything without showing a driving license.

Everything goes well when there is no accident…

But if an accident happens, you will be the one in trouble, cause you are the one with the money. So you’d better do things properly, and have insurance at home in case of an accident, to pay for your medical expenses, and for the other person as well.

There are a lot of people who ended up having to pay an incredible amount of money because they didn’t have insurance.

Muaythai is a religion

Thai boxing is a religion in Thailand. People are betting money on it even though it is illegal to play money games in Thailand. It is tolerated for Muay Thai.

Thai boxers are trained from a very young age as a way out of poverty. The training regimen is very hard. Twice a day 6 days a week, running, skipping, shadow boxing, smashing pads and hard bags, sparring, clinching… The ones who cannot keep up are sacrificed and a very few become war machines, and then become trainers when they can no longer compete. I have experienced the training regimen to prepare for a fight and gave up. It was too much requiring in energy, time, and focus, I was not willing to pay that price for 10 minutes on the ring.

Elite Thai fighters are superstars and highly respected.

Lady bars and Prostitution

Prostitution is forbidden in Thailand but it’s another example of the “law and application of the law” concept I was talking about earlier.

But it’s not as bad as we may perceive it from a European judging moral point of view.

Lady bars are for most of them going to work in touristic areas to provide for their family back home in remote areas of Thailand like Isaan where the only economy revolves around rice production.

We might think it is a very sordid exploitation of misery. But it’s not as simple as that.

Women in Thailand are still told from a very young age that they have to find a man to take care of them financially, and they will take care of the house duties. They are also told that being with a “farang” (European) is their only chance to get away from misery.

That’s why they become sex workers with tourists, in the hope that they will meet a decent farang that will change their fate.

And they do not have to go with everyone. If they don’t want to go with the customer, no one is forcing them to. Their official job is to be given drinks by the customers, and they get a commission on the drinks paid for them.

Then, if the customer asks for more, and the girl is willing to provide more to him, the customer has to pay the bar owner for the commission that the girl might have brought if she was finishing the night at the bar, and he can take the girl out of the bar. Then the rest is happening between the two of them.

In Europe, you buy flowers, in Thailand, you give the money for the flowers instead.

I had myself a relationship with a girl who used to work in a bar like this. And my opinion on this is based on her story and her friends' stories. So this is not intended to support or put down this phenomenon. It is just based on real-life humans that I met.

Finally, let’s finish with some things you should not do in Thailand.

  • don’t talk about the king, on good or bad terms, and don’t look at him if you encounter his presence. You can be jailed if you do not follow this.

  • don’t walk over someone as it is considered disrespectful. This might come from the fact that food is often on the floor and people are sitting around it. You might bring impurity in the food.

  • Be well dressed when going to visit a temple ( no shorts, crock tops, etc..). Ideally, your body should be covered. You should also remove your shoes

  • Be aware of the signs that ask you to remove your shoes in some shops and when you enter houses.

  • Be careful of the way you are pouring liquids into glasses. You have to hold the bottle by rotating your hand internally. If you rotate your hand externally, it’s a bad sign. Because this gesture is done when someone dies.

  • If you happen to eat a whole fish, do not turn your fish on your plate when you have finished the first side. It is believed it will bring you bad luck on a boat. The boat will sink the same way you turned the fish upside down.

Final words

I hope this will be useful to you. This is coming from my experience in Thailand. My intention is not to make any statement here or to say things are done in a good or a bad way. I am just talking about what I have seen. Thailand is a magnificent country to live in, and Thai people have a big heart and deserve to be known better. I have met a lot of amazing people in Thailand and I will be forever grateful for the time I spent with them there.

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