Today was The King's Birthday ( I only saw it on TV as he is up in Bangkok) but it was quite the spectacle to watch! Here he is revered with an almost God like status. Keep in mind that it may seem foreign to us Westerners the notion of this man being placed on an almost God like status but, he has been The King since 1946 and he is the world's longest reining monarch. So the vast majority of the Thai population has grown up with him as their “rock” for over 60 years now! Everyone universally loves him here and there is pictures of him and the queen EVERYWHERE. People are SUPER patriotic about it here and if you bad mouth The King or crumple money (his face is on it) these things and anything related to disrespecting The Royal Family are punishable by up to two years in prison! They are super serious about it.
Today they brought him out to see his adoring public (he is in his mid 80's and not in good health) and everyone went wild for him! There was a massive military display and public celebration, today is a public holiday here. He spoke for a short bit and even though I couldn't understand a word he said I knew it meant a lot to the Thai people. When he does pass away it will really throw this country for a sad loop I feel. His wheelchair was like an enormous Lazy-Boy Recliner with wheels and it was covered in gold! I am certain his wheelchair alone was worth more than everything I own haha. It has been a neat experience to be here for his 84th birthday. I hope he does have many more years to come. He has a son next in line for the throne and a daughter (from what I understand some people don't like his son but his daughter is prohibited from the throne while there is a male alive to ascend it next.)
There is songs about The King,public announcements about him,pictures of him,bracelets for him( I am wearing one now!) and many many more things. He is almost universally revered here. When you go to see a movie here whether it is in Thai or English, before your movie starts there is a short “movie” about The King's life. You have to stand up in total silence and respect until it is over. I have seen many pictures of him and always assumed that these pictures are over 20 or 30 years old but seeing him today on TV he looked remarkable young besides some gray hair. I am sure they did him up for TV but he has aged remarkably well! Ok now onto what I wanted to write about...
For those of you who are curious or thinking about coming here for a visit or to move here I thought I would elaborate a little more on life here in the Land of Smiles. Driving here is possible just so long as you throw everything you ever learned about driving out the window haha. The best way I have learned to drive here is to follow the locals. If they blow through a red light/stop sign you should do the same. Because, if you stop whenever everyone else is going obviously you are going to be in an accident. So no matter what logic/common sense tells you just do as the locals do. Stay as far as possible to the left side of the road (if you are on a motorbike) and when someone honks at you it means they want to pass you. My advice is to let them pass LOL. Make sure you wear your helmet :)
People here are super friendly and will go out of their way to help you generally. Thais love foreigners and they love learning English. They appreciate an effort on your part to learn their language but I think they also realise that their language is very difficult for foreigners to learn. The Thai people are extremely non confrontational. Sometimes they are so much so that it is annoying. For example, if you want to know where a bank is and you point say, left. They will agree with you that the bank is on the left even if they know it is on the right!!! It is best not to point at anything and just let them tell you. Thais in general will ignore something and put up with it rather than be confrontational and deal with it. Coming from the Western world this is certainly something I have had to learn to deal with.
My kids at school love speaking English to me if I can get them one on one but, in front of their peers most all of the kids become EXTREMELY shy. The Thais in general hate to lose face or risk becoming embarrassed. This goes for kids and adults alike. So my kids would rather play dumb and say nothing than risk messing up an English word. As a teacher this is something I have had to learn how to deal with. The kids are very curious about America and American culture in general and they treat me with a great deal of respect (all the kids and teachers alike) learning,education and teachers are VERY highly valued here in Thailand. It is such a radical change from our education system in the Western world. I also learned quickly never to give out any assignments right before class is about to be over because in Thai culture leaving something for later is a total foreign concept. They will sit there for an hour after class to finish something even if you tell them it can wait until tomorrow!
Thailand is one of, if not the world's number one exporter of rice so obviously that is a huge part of their diet. They love meat and veggies and rice and soups and have so many amazing dishes here. Cooking in Thailand is done almost exclusively in “street stalls” and you are sitting literally sometimes right next to the chef and the outdoor kitchen. Food is as fresh as you can get it and thus far I have not had a bad meal yet! Food is extremely cheap and for the most part really healthy. I do think their cholesterol is most likely higher than it should be as an overall population but most people here are quite thin and small in stature. The only time you will have food cooked in the traditional restaurant style you are most likely used too is if you go to a most likely expensive and Westernized “sit down” restaurant.
I try my hardest to stay away from Western food though because it is more expensive and just does not taste as good. Condiments in the normal sense don't exist here. You almost never will get black pepper and salt. Ketchup/Mustard are almost non existent as well. Here they have fish sauce (similar to soy sauce) diluted chili sauce (liquid), dried chili powder,sugar and HOT chili sauce. That is what you flavour your food with. If you can't tolerate spicy food well they can and will make it mild for you and you can skip on the condiments. They LOVE veggies and fruit here. Meat is also plentiful. I have been eating more healthy variety of food (Yes mom, fruit and veggies!) here than I ever have in my life!
As I have mentioned before, Air Conditioning and Hot Water are luxuries that in this climate for the most part you can just do without. Sometimes the Internet/Electricity is sporadic, you can't put toilet paper in the toilet (sometimes they don't even have flush toilets here just squat toilets with a bucket) learning how to use the bum gun as I described in my previous blog really makes life easier! Remember to have your own toilet paper though! Life here runs at a slower more relaxed pace once you get out of Bangkok so you have to learn ( I certainly did) that you just can't rush things here. Buses/trains/public transport rarely run on time and that is something you have to deal with. Waiting is just part of the game here. The sooner you can accept that the better :) Public transport here is extremely cheap with varying degrees of comfort depending on how far you are going, how much you pay and what mode of transport you take. There is a half way decent chance you will be sharing with many many people and maybe even some livestock along the way haha. I have paid for bus rides and not even got a seat (they intentionally overbook the bus without telling you and force you to sit or stand in the aisle)
Haggling is a skill you must learn if you are to survive here. This is most especially true in Bangkok not so much where I am living now but if you don't learn how to haggle you WILL be ripped off without a doubt. I want to stress that 95% of the Thais who are overcharging you do it not to be malicious but just because they know if you are inexperienced they can get more money out of you and keep it for their families etc. A good rule of thumb is to to start off offering them half of what they initially quote you and go from there. ALWAYS be willing to walk away and generally speaking they will give you a good price by the end of the bargaining. Keep in mind that almost always what you are buying even if it is “expensive” in Thailand it is much cheaper than what you could get it for back home. So don't be an asshole. Don't low ball them on purpose. It is great to come away from a haggling experience with what you want, and both you and the seller are happy. Almost anything in Thailand is for sell and can be haggled for if you have the money. There is not much that is off limits here.
Bangkok is the city that 99% of people start out in and it is a VERY intense, in your face city. People are constantly all over the place, it is loud and noisy and crowded and sometimes dirty and smelly. People will constantly harass you to get you to buy things. But don't let all that negativity put you off. 99% of the people in Bangkok are nice and friendly and just out to make a living. Underneath all the surface craziness of Bangkok it is a city that really does have a lot to offer. There are many temples and tourist attractions, The Royal Palace and much much more. So my advice to the first timer in Thailand is spend three or four days in Bangkok but no more.
Thailand is a beautiful amazing country with so much to offer! You can go north to the jungle and the mountains of Chang Mai or go south to the islands and be a beach bum. If you have enough time you can do both! I would totally recommend it. Small town life in Thailand is MUCH different than big city life much the same as living in Dallas Texas is much different than living in say San Angelo Texas out in pretty much the middle of nowhere. In Thailand you have your contrast just as you would at home. I recommend getting to see both sides of Thailand if you are here. Almost every Thai woman from the age of 15-45 has this strange obsession of being white. I guess in reality it is not all that strange, seeing as girls in the Western world try everything they can to be tan haha. It seems to be all about looking different than you are. Girls here slather themselves with this whitening cream (God only knows what is in that stuff!) all day long to get whiter skin. I think they feel that if you are rich and don't have to work in the sun you will have lighter skin. It is a sad class system and the media at work telling beautiful Thai girls they need to look different than they really are. Totally opposite of Western girls who actually WANT to be tan. Things women do for beauty, I tell you.....
One last bit of advice from my personal experience. If you plan on staying here and teaching or just being here for longer than one month MAKE SURE YOU CHECK INTO THE PROPER VISA BEFORE YOU GET HERE. I can't stress that enough! It is possible to sort your visa once you get here but if you can get it all done BEFORE you leave your home country it is SO much easier! It is really a pain if you have to do it or change your visa once you are already here. Did I stress that enough? :P Living costs here if you are just visiting here or living can be almost nil if you play your cards right. But I am writing this travel review from a backpacker perspective. You can and will spend a lot of money here if you want too. You can have “Western Standards” of living if you are willing to pay the price for it. If the life style I have mentioned above makes you uncomfortable don't let that put you off from coming here!
You can still have a great time here without going local and bare bones as I do. But, keep in mind if you “live the resort life” the entire time you are here in Thailand you aren't really experiencing Thailand! Try your best to get out of the typical tourist mode and tourist places, treat the Thais and their culture with respect (make an effort to learn basic Thai greetings) and remember that you are in their country. Respect their laws and traditions, The King is almost a deity here so do NOT say anything against him! You will get out what you put in here, if you are nice and friendly you will be treated with the same here. All of this will make your time here so much better! You can and will meet many many foreigners here if you so choose but you can also meet some great locals I would recommend it! The locals are super nice and love meeting foreigners.
New comers here should initially when you start out, be cautious what you eat and drink until your stomachs get used too it. I can now drink their tap water but at first here you should drink only bottled water. If you are getting any street food and it is meat of any kind make sure you ask them to heat it up again on the fire. If you do have any stomach problems at all (which at first you may) it generally is very mild and goes away in a day or two) you can go to any pharmacy/chemist and even if they don't speak a lick of English you can just say “Bangkok Belly” or mime stomach problems and they will sort you out immediately. So to wrap this all up, Yes Thailand is different than home,Yes Thailand can be quite shocking sometimes for first timers, Yes there will be things here you aren't used too (Sometimes Health and Safety here is not up to Westernized standards) but don't let any of that put you off from coming here and experiencing this wonderful country The Land of Smiles has so much to offer and the people are great! It is my hope that you will fall in love with this place as I have. Get out of your comfort zone and eat some real local Thai food. Try scorpion on a stick, its great!
I am off to Laos tomorrow to hopefully finally get my visa stuff sorted so see you on the flip side.
I hope this little review of my new temporary home was helpful. -Tyler