This post may apply to many countries in Southeast Asia, I have just become intimately close with Thailand. I have been here for five months with a few weeks in Laos. This list began as things I was “getting used to” during my first few weeks in Thailand. It then developed into what you will undoubtedly experience if you spend a significant amount of time in Thailand. Some of these things I will miss when I leave, others… I most definitely will not.
1. Instant coffee. My love of coffee is very deep-seated and developed around the young age of 12. I can still remember drinking my first Coffee Coolatta before a soccer game and loving it. I am grateful that Thailand is better than Ghana in that I can at least find an iced Americano at some cafes. However, the most affordable and readily available coffee is instant. If you are real lucky, you can get a vender to make you black coffee, but usually it comes milky tan filled with condensed milk and sugar. There is even instant 3-in-1 mixes. These packets contain more sugar than any other ingredient. I have also come to truly believe in the placebo effect. I drink instant coffee every morning and I am almost positive there is no caffeine in it. I have tricked my mind into associating the taste of coffee with caffeine, so it helps wake me up. On the days that I splurge and get a Starbucks, I can instantly feel the caffeine racing through me. I cannot wait to be reunited with my Keurig machine when I get home.
2. Dirty feet and hands. I wear flip flops everywhere. I occasionally wear my Toms, but most days when I am not working I am in flip flops. Somehow my feet are disgustingly dirty at the end of every day. I wash my feet in the bathroom every night before bed, if I’m really tired I will do that above all else. Most days I wake up and they are still dirty. I have just gotten used to it. What is harder to adjust to is dirty hands. Hand soap is very rare to come by in public restrooms, including at work. Hand sanitizer just doesn’t cut it, especially hand sanitizer bought here. It has a lot of alcohol and leaves my hands feeling sticky.
3. A range of emotions about soi cats and dogs. Whether you are a cat lover or a dog lover or neither… you will experience everything from love to hatred for the strays that roam the streets of Thailand. I fell in love with a kitten in Hua Hin in September. We named her Storm and visited her often. Then there was the puppy in Trang that followed a group of us down a street and all the way into 7-11. There have been a few encounters where I feared for my safety: like in Laos when Kristy and I had to bark back at the soi dogs to scare them away. Or when I had to kick at a stray as he dug his teeth into my skirt. One of my friends had a motorbike accident because a soi dog ran out in front of him. But yet another friend buys dog treats and keeps them in his pocket to give to dogs throughout our city. My heart still breaks every time I walk through the night markets and see precious puppies and kittens in cages. Their fate is inevitable: they will be bought and once they grow older, they will be abandoned by their owners. XploreAsia is working on a program to educate Thai’s on pet care and the importance of having dogs vaccinated. It was with Jaco on a soi dog feeding adventure that I first experienced the mass amounts of stray dogs in Thailand. We spent over an hour driving around to feed them before going to a dog shelter that was struggling to provide for its inhabitants: it’s a memory I will not forget.
4. The amazingness of 7-11. These convenience stores litter the streets of most Thai cities, towns, and villages. This is not a shop I would visit for really anything in America, rather I would get gas at a gas station and most other small items from CVS. I quickly fell in love with 7-11 for it’s quickly accessible food, candy, drinks, toiletries, pharmaceuticals, and pretty much anything else I needed. I was intrigued to find out you can top up cell phones there, as well as buy alcohol (except between the hours of 2:00pm and 5:00pm). Most recently I bought my plane ticket to Bangkok on the Nok Air website. I was amazed that I was able to pay for my ticket at 7-11! You really can do anything there, and their food is pretty good!
5. Bug bites. You will get bug bites, whether you use insect repellent or not. You will get some weird type of bug bite or reaction at some point. You will think you are dying of a weird disease, but it will go away. Just ask my new friend Pawan who ended up at two different hospitals in Trang to have a blister popped that formed because a bug bite got infected. Or my other friend who had a parasite crawling through her pinky toe. If you are a scratcher like me, you’ll also have a plethora of scars on your legs from all the bites. I will spare you pictures of this.
6. Squat toilets and carrying your own toilet paper. If you are lucky, there will be a bin in the bathroom for you to throw away your toilet paper. Sometimes, you are not so lucky and you have to walk around with it until you find one of the few trash bins placed throughout the country. Kristy and I often joked about how much skill it takes to use these toilets and avoid getting your feet wet. If you are struggling, there are many websites to help you learn how to use one!
7. Drinks and meals. They take forever to come, especially if you order some type of Western food. Thai food always arrives first. If you are eating with friends, give up on being polite and eat when your meal arrives. No-one will mind and they would do the same thing. Sometimes my friends have cleared their plates as I am just being served my food. You quickly learn to be patient. As for your drinks, they usually cost as much as your meal. Do not be surprised to pay only 50 baht for a meal and 60 baht for an iced tea. Also, drinks come with the meal. This is something I still cannot get used to as I like to enjoy my drink while I wait for my food. Either way, try new food and drinks. You cannot know what you will like if you only have the same two dishes.
8. Falling off a scooter. If you rent or buy a scooter or motorbike, you will fall off. You will have an accident. Whether it’s a soi dog running out in front of you, a pot hole, another motorbike sneaking up beside you, or the torrential rain. Something will happen and cause you to have an accident. Wear your helmet. I have been lucky to only sustain minor injuries in my two accidents. The first happened as I was going over the railroad tracks in the pouring rain. My legs were bruised and scraped, but I was fine. The second was worse. A Thai driver quickly put on his blinker and pulled to the left side of the road where I was driving. I slowed as much as I could, but ended up hitting the edge of the road and the bike went down the hill. I went flying forward. My shoulder is still sore from the impact, but my wounds have healed. I now sport a few “Thai tattoos” as most farangs call these scars. Everyone of my fellow farang teachers throughout the country have some story to tell about when they fell off their bike.
9. Speaking Thai. You will quickly learn that greeting people with a wei and “Sawatdee kaa” goes a long way in building a relationship with Thais. The second most useful words are “Khop khun kaa” to say “Thank you.” Thai’s will never correct you when saying these two phrases, but you can guarantee they will correct you on most other words, especially to fix your intonation. So many conversation with my students have gone like this:
Me “Bpid sa mut” (open your notebook).
Student: “Bpiiid sa moot” (sounding just like I said).
Me: “Bpiiid sa moot” (trying to replicate their words).
Student: “No, Bpiiid sa moot” and so forth.
My other favorite conversation is with tuk-tuk drivers:
Driver “Where you go?”
Driver “Arai na?” (What did you say?)
Driver: “No, no.”
Me” “Napalai, big condo, tall” (gesturing with hands).
Driver “Ohhhhh, Napalaaaai.”
I just keep trying, but I realize I will never be able to hear or produce the five intonations of the Thai language. Similarly, my students will never be able to hear or produce the /ch/, /sh/, or /th/ sounds. At least we are in it together!
Now at this point, you may be thinking about how unattractive these nine things may seem. Instant coffee, dirty body parts, peeing in a hole, inevitable injuries… I know, but please take into consideration the tenth thing you will also experience.
10. The amazing kindness and generosity of Thai people. There have been so many times I was beyond grateful for Thai people that have gone out of their way to help me. One time, a group of us were walking up to the Hat Yai Municipal Park. We quickly realized it was quite a ways up and we were on the road, not the foot path. Cars kept driving by us and sweat poured off us as we huffed and puffed. Suddenly, a man driving a pickup truck pulled over. He waved us into the back of his truck and drove us up to the top of the hill. I was ecstatic and we laughed the whole ride up about how it would have been another hour’s walk.
When you befriend a Thai person, they will invite you to dinner. This might be at their home, a restaurant, or a friend’s home. I met Lek at a small restaurant on my second week in Hat Yai. My roommates and I stumbled into a restaurant and we wandered around to find somewhere open to eat. She helped us order and began to speak some English with us. We exchanged information and formed a fast friendship. I met up with her a few more times. One night she picked me up and brought me to her friend’s house. Her friend shared food with us and she was so thoughtful because she made french fries, along with chicken feet and a liver dish. Lek then took me to the club her husband owns and treated me food and beer all night as we danced to the live band.
Then there are the multiple times I have desperately needed help with my scooter. Like the time I ran over a nail on my ride home after a weekend away with my school for English Camp. I was at least 15 km away from Hat Yai and it was nearly 4:00pm on a Sunday. Miraculously there was a truck that was stopped right in front of me when I pulled over. Without even thinking twice he walked over to me, looked at the tire, and gestured for me to put it in the back of his truck. Together we lifted it up and tied it in. He then drove me towards Hat Yai looking for a place that was open to service the bike. When we found somewhere, he talked to the worker, told me the price and refused to accept any money. He just smiled and drove off. Of course with my luck, the same tire blew out only two days later. I brought it into a service center close to Napalai. With much gesturing and my limited Thai, I was able to negotiate with them to fix my tire. It turned out that the valve stem had snapped off the inner tube. They laughed with me and a few short minutes later, it was fixed. It was not even a week before the front tire went flat. As I rolled it into the service center, Nattaporn and his friend laughed. They took the tire apart and showed me the holes in the inner tube and tire from where it had worn down. I had to replace both parts. Wouldn’t you know only a few days later, the same thing happened to my back tire. We just laughed again and they happily fixed it. Of course all of this cost me a ton of money, and it is their job to service bikes, but it was their friendly demeanor that made me feel at ease.
And so yes, you will get bug bites and have to use a squat toilet. You will struggle to communicate with others and you will get frustrated. But you will also experience why Thailand is called the “Land of Smiles.” Strangers are willing to help and embrace you, even if you do not ask for help. All of these experiences, and many more I hope to continue to capture through this blog, are why I love Thailand. (Watch this video, this song is great!)