Living and Working in Bangkok
As the plane banked, I peered from my window seat over a city where everything was a shade of grey. Bangkok. Residential areas adjoined by industrial estates and a mass of drab, grey run-down apartment buildings reminded me of Eastern Europe. There were streams and streams of traffic but they didn't seem to be moving. Thank God I have a connecting flight to Hong Kong and will be in and out of the airport in no time! Thailand hardly looked like a tropical country. My first venture into the country and everything looked so dirty. I then thought of the commercial sex industry and how it is portrayed in the Western media with millions infected with AIDS. Of course the country was famous for its food but is it a bit too hot to really enjoy? Get me away from here, fast!
These were my thoughts just a few years ago when I was flying from London to Hong Kong, with a transit stop to change planes in Bangkok. I would NEVER have dreamed that just three years later I would be going to Thailand for a holiday and that four years on I would be living there. If this trend continues, I could be living in Russia in a few years time – because I sure don't want to go there now!
Bangkok, The City Of Angels. The name conjures up images of the Orient, intense traffic jams, unrelenting tropical heat, extreme pollution, spicy food and an energy and vibrancy that can only be found in the most exciting of all continents, Asia. Bangkok can be confusing and frustrating when you first arrive and this section of the website aims to prepare you for the mayhem that is this city - hopefully without making the same mistakes that many people before you have made, me included!
This page is presented in a no-nonsense manner. There are many sites with information about Bangkok / Thailand but too many just repeat information that is readily available elsewhere. The objective of this page is to provide practical information in an organised manner and to answer the questions that many people new to Thailand who are thinking or living and working there may ask. Basically, what I have tried to do is provide answers to all of the questions I had before I moved to Bangkok!
Remember that while the objective is to provide practical information, I am not shy to state my opinion so you need to understand that this is how I see Bangkok. You could very well see things quite differently! If you have any specific questions about Bangkok or Thailand in general, feel free to email me and I will be happy to answer them.
Everything on here is my own work and is based on my personal experiences. What is written here is all original. I do hope you enjoy this section of the site and I hope that the information here helps you to ease into life in the hustle, bustle and excitement of life in Bangkok. The bulk of this page was first put together in 1999 and 2000 and looking back over a lot of what I wrote back then, I was a bit of a minimalist back then, perhaps a bit too frugal. Hence you might find the tone to be that of someone rather tight with their money! Since then I have gone back and updated things, trying to make sure it is up to date and paints an accurate picture of Thailand today.
A lot of other information about travelling in Thailand is listed in the Travel in Thailand section of this site. Although that section was written as a bunch of hints and tips about travel around the country, it also includes a lot of information about life in Bangkok too so it may be worth skimming over too.
Please note that this page is just short of 100,000 words, hence it is actually the size of a full-length novel. It is not designed to be read in one sitting! You're best to read one section at a time, go away and come back and read more later. If you were to read it all in one go you'd be looking at several hours' reading!
About The Author Problems, Corruption & The Police Orientation Thai Language Thai People Entertainment Weather Internet / Mobile Phone Employment, Visas etc. Miscellaneous Accommodation Cost Of Living / Shopping Food Surviving In Bangkok Transport / Getting Around Must See Attractions
About the author
I have been living and working in Bangkok since the late '90s. I first visited Thailand with a friend on a short holiday in 1997. Unlike many who come to Thailand, I did not fall in love with the country on that first visit. In fact even before the end of the holiday I was ready to go home. Despite the fact that we were staying in a great hotel next to a really fabulous beach, the overwhelming heat got to me, and that, along with a bout of very nasty food poisoning were enough for me to want to return home. I returned to my homeland and while reflecting on the holiday, realised that I'd had a good time and would like to go back again some time.
I had always wanted to live and work in a foreign country and have the opportunity to learn a foreign language to a high level, experience another culture, quite different to that of my own country.
It wasn't a hard decision to make but I did I give up a very comfortable, but relatively boring and largely predictable lifestyle, to pursue a new and potentially exciting lifestyle in Phuket. Yes, you read that right, Phuket, not Bangkok. But somehow that never quite happened. I spent 3 and a half weeks on Phuket followed by 2 and a half on Ko Samui before arriving in Bangkok which I quickly realised would be a better place to search for work.
In the time that I have been living in Thailand, I have spent most of the time employed as a teacher, initially as an English teacher in a language institute and then later as a teacher in a high school. In between these two jobs, I took the best part of a year off to study the Thai language formally in a language school, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed and one I would actually like to do again in another country. I have also had a few sidelines, as many teachers do. Teaching might be an honourable profession but if you want to maintain a decent lifestyle, well, teaching will really only pay the bills and not much more.
I have travelled around much of Thailand, including all of the major centres as well as many smaller places and out of the way spots. I've visited more than half of the country's 76 provinces and particularly enjoy making it to out of the way places, the sort of spots where there are few fellow foreigners. That said, is there a corner of Thailand where you don't find foreigners now? I doubt it! While I have enjoyed every place that I have visited, I always feel like I have arrived back home when I return to Bangkok.
I am male and I arrived Bangkok single but after five years in the Kingdom I married a local lady, something I had previously vowed never to do! Ahhh, we have all said some silly things in the past, haven't we?! In fact my life changed a lot in the first five years which I guess was around the point that I decided that yes, my future probably really was here, in Thailand. At the five year mark, I finally moved out of the small, cramped down apartment I had called home into a larger place a little outside the central city are. I then started leading a life quite different to the tourist like existence I had previously led.
Although most people consider me a bit of a nice guy, I do tend to be argumentative and have a few strong opinions on a few controversial issues. I'm not afraid to say that I really think and the concept of political correctness abhors me. Some of these strong opinions are represented here although I have tried to emphasize the factual information rather than harp on about my own opinion too much. So, you have a bit of a mix of facts and opinions and I try to qualify things so you know which it is! I do not purport to be any sort of expert on life in Thailand or anything silly like that - I just simply enjoy writing about life in Thailand for Westerners. I hope you enjoy reading my nonsense ramblings.
Bangkok, a city of over ten million people has experienced phenomenal growth in the last thirty years. In the early '70s, the city had around 2.5 million but now has well in excess of 10 million inhabitants as many Thais from the rural areas have moved to the big smoke in search of employment, and a better lifestyle. This rapid growth meant that Bangkok grew too fast for its infrastructure and the centre of the city could accurately be described as organised chaos and with this in mind, Bangkok is a little unusual in that it doesn't actually have a city centre as such.
Some people consider the heart of the city to be the Silom and Sathorn Road area which is the financial district and the commercial centre where many of the banks, financial institutions, international corporations and embassies have their offices. This is also the area where you will find many office buildings, airlines and some of the best hotels. Others consider Siam Square to be the centre of Bangkok where one can find three major shopping centres at the intersection of Rama 1 Rd and Phyathai Road. It's the main hangout for Thai teenagers and the trendy set and is thus a very good area for shopping. The prestigious Chulalongkorn University, acknowledged as the best university in the country, is nearby. But there are others still who say the heart of Bangkok is Rajadamri Road where it meets Ploenchit Rd. In this area you have shopping centres such as the Central World Plaza (previously known as the Bangkok Central World Plaza) and Gaysorn Plaza plus Pratunam Market, a few embassies and a few of the more luxurious hotels plus the all important Erawan shrine. All three areas are hubs for buses going just about anywhere in the city and Bangkok's sky train services all three areas too.
One of the easiest ways to orientate yourself in the city is via Sukhumvit Road which runs into Ploenchit Road and that in turn runs into Rama 1 Road. This main arterial route runs east-west through the city from east of the Chaopraya River all the way to the east of the city and beyond. It is intersected by many major roads running north-south such as Phyathai Road, Asoke, Rajadamri Road and Rachadapisek Road. Sukhumvit Road and all of the lanes (sois in Thai) running off it are popular places for farangs to find long term accommodation in Bangkok.
Although there is a trend in the West towards moving shopping and entertainment into the suburbs, no western city that I know of can match Bangkok for the distribution and decentralisation of shopping centres and entertainment facilities. No matter where you are in the city, you are never too far away from a shopping centre, cinema, market or any of the many types of entertainment that are popular in Bangkok.
Bangkok could never be described as a particularly pretty city. Despite there being a beautiful Buddhist temple in every neighbourhood, it seems you cannot escape the drab Chinese shophouses, uneven and poorly laid footpaths and roads, derelict down and out beggars and clusters of electricity and telephone wire hanging haphazardly. Litter clutters many roads and sois (a word you will hear often which simply means lane), rats run around, all contributing to the Thai capital having a very distinctive smell. The sprinkling of temples, canals and even the gently swaying palm trees do their best to dress up the city but ultimately, they fail. Having said all of that, I haven't met a person yet who has come to Bangkok for the aesthetics of the city. Where Bangkok thrives is in the vibrancy and energy that you feel, no matter where you venture. Once upon a time, Bangkok was described as the Venice of the East because of all of the waterways and canals throughout the city and the many wide, leafy boulevards. However, as the city is storming its way towards being a truly 21st century city, the development has happened so fast that many of the city's better features have been ruined as largely unplanned and poorly co-ordinated expansion have seen the city sprawl out in every direction possible, encroaching upon the bordering provinces in much the same way as London grew out over surrounding villages, 100+ years ago.
Bangkok's beautiful Grand Palace.
There are many reasons why people decide to move to Thailand - the tropical weather, the exotic culture, the paradise-like islands and beaches, the delicious food and the fact that one can have a decent lifestyle for a modest amount of money. But in addition to all of these reasons so often given, the Thai people themselves are an attraction. The majority of Thai people are friendly and often when you smile at a Thai you will receive a pleasant smile back. Certainly of all of the places that I have been lucky to visit, I have never met a nation of people as friendly as the Thais. Welcome to Thailand, the Land Of Smiles!
There is a real community spirit amongst the Thais, and a feeling of national pride. The Thais seem to get along with each other a whole lot better than us lot from Western countries. Where in the West there always seems to be some sort of conflict, in Thailand the locals seem to get along a whole lot better. A good example can be seen in schools. In the West, bullying is a problem with the bigger, tougher kids often picking on the younger, weaker ones. This sort of nonsense does not occur in Thailand (though they do have some really fierce inter-school battles with knives and guns as is reported in the press from time to time). You also see it in everyday folks' lives. Many Thais go out of their way to help their neighbours, far more so than I have seen in the West. When cooking food, one person may cook extra and walk around the community, be it an apartment building, a village or wherever, and deliver bowls / plates of food to their neighbours. This all contributes towards creating a warm spirit amongst the Thai people.
The Thai smile itself needs some description. Thais will frequently smile at all manner of situations, but the Thai smile should not be interpreted the same way you interpret smiling in the West. In the West if someone smiles it usually means they are happy or pleased about something. That may be the meaning in Thailand, but it is just as likely something different. Thais may smile as a form of apology. They might smile if they are asked a question to which they do not know the answer. They might smile in an attempt to diffuse a situation. Most importantly, a smile in Thailand does not necessarily mean the same as a smile on the West. Thais do however look favourably upon people who smile frequently and often. So smile as much as you can! Thailand is a rather litigious society, with many disputes not necessarily solved in court, but rather in a police station and I have sometimes wondered if one of the reasons Thai people smile so much is so as to not piss off others!
The Thai people are incredibly patriotic and love their country. Ask the average Thai where they would like to go for a holiday and they will usually say somewhere in Thailand - even if you state that money is not an issue. Hypothetically, give a Thai the option to emigrate to another country and they would usually turn it down. As one of my Thai teachers once said to me, "I feel very lucky to have been born in Thailand" and she then looked at me as if being born in the West was based on some sort of bad karma, a sin that I had committed in a previous life! The Thais really are happy in their own country and this contributes to making Thailand a really nice place to live. How many other countries have you ever been to where the people genuinely love their country and are simply disinterested in going elsewhere?
Thais are very proud people and their love of their country is very strong and although you may hear Thais complaining about the Bangkok traffic and pollution, the economy, politicians, corruption and various other facets of life, you should be very careful about making such criticisms of Thailand yourself. To do so could be taken as a huge insult to the Thai and would not endear you with that person at all. As nice as they are, Thais are not very good at dealing with criticism, even if it is light-hearted, or even meant as a joke or an ice breaker. This is something that one needs to be aware of. Thailand is still a developing country, and there are a few things that happen that Westerners often wonder about. While these issues may occur, often it is best NOT to talk about them, or at least not highlight them in conversation with Thai people. They know that such things exist but would prefer not to be reminded of them. Intelligent conversation and discussion about some of the problems and issues that exist in Thailand is not always easy to find, especially amongst those people with a modest education - which really is a good percentage of the population.
Thai culture is extremely complex and even the most conscientious and diligent foreigners who have lived in-country for a long time and have made an effort to understand as much as they can will inadvertently make cultural mistakes, yet Thai people are generally very tolerant of foreigners. Foreigners continually make cultural mistakes in Thailand, yet the Thais will more often than not waive these cultural errors, choosing to overlook them and continue to smile and be happy. This happy go lucky attitude and the level of tolerance in Thailand makes it a very easy and pleasant place to live. To a certain extent, Thailand has isolated itself culturally, distinguishing the country from so many others, though the Thais understand that they need to be tolerant of those who do not understand Mother Thailand's ways.
I often feel that I discover something new every day about Thai culture but while I am learning more, it can at time feel like it all just seems to become more and more confusing! But have no fear for so long as you are polite and make an effort - as you should in any new country that you visit, you needn't be aware of all of the complexities and peculiarities of this unique and rich culture. A colleague once described the situation as being similar to peeling an onion. You peel away at the onion and feel that you are getting closer and closer to the centre. But really, you are not making a lot of progress and there are literally 100's of layers to go until you reach the centre. You may live and work in Thailand for a long time but unless you move to Thailand from a very young age, you will never reach the centre of the onion.
There is a very distinct class system within Thailand. Business and the distribution of income in Thai society is largely dominated by the wealthy - the predominantly Bangkok based Thais, many of whom are ethnically Chinese. The Chinese Thais, as they are often referred to, can be recognised by their fairer skin and more Chinese look. At the other end of the spectrum are the villagers and farmers from the countryside, the rural Thais, who are easily recognisable by their darker skin and generally smaller, often stockier stature.
It doesn't matter what strata of society one comes from, Thais are very concerned about their appearance. Don't go thinking that the casual attire you see one the islands and beaches is the norm in Thailand. Thais are very concerned to look good and tend to dress a little more conservatively than your average Westerner. Just a trip to the local shopping centre, or even the supermarket will see Thais make sure they are "politely dressed" with men usually in long pants or jeans and women wearing something decent. Women always make a point of making sure that their hair is done and their make up is applied. It is not really that common for Thais to go to any sort of public place apart from parks, beaches or sports facilities looking casual. Judgment is made on one's appearance very quickly in Thailand and Thais are conscious of this and do their best to look decent.
The class system in Thailand is a little different to that in certain other countries where the lower class Thais do not resent those in the upper class. In fact, the lower class may look up to the upper class and aspire to be in a similar situation. While the wealth in Thailand is predominantly in Bangkok, there is also a lot of money in the south of Thailand where a number of industries thrive.
While they live together harmoniously enough, many people from these two particular groups have very definite opinions about each other. Some "native" Thais consider Chinese Thai to be greedy because of the Chinese Thais' apparent love affair with money and their reluctance to part with it. As employers and when in business, some Chinese Thais have the reputation of being real penny pinchers, negotiating every price down to the last satang (1/100 th of baht!). Further, the Chinese Thais do not tend to be as friendly as the native Thais. The Chinese Thais do work hard and tend to be more driven and business oriented, like so many Chinese people throughout SE Asia and around the world. I have heard some Chinese Thais describe the Thai Thais as lazy. One could argue that the Thai Thais do not have the best work ethic in the world and some things tend to be done at their own pace and in their own time. Indeed, wherever you are in Bangkok, you will likely see peoples laying around, maybe even sleeping in the middle of the day. And I often join them because of the heat! I maintain that Thais as a race are amongst the most friendly people you could ever hope to meet. (The people in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia are very friendly too.) Notwithstanding these racial differences, there are not the same social problems in Thailand that exist in Malaysia, and especially Indonesia where there is real tension between the "Chinese locals" and the "native locals" - and indeed legislation in place that gives advantage to some groups.
Males and females are brought up in a very different manner in Thailand. Girls are taught to be prim and proper and to do everything in a most polite and feminine reab roy way. At times it seems the girls in Thailand today are brought up much the same way as they were 100 years ago, but as Thailand becomes more and more influenced by the West, girls are starting to become a little more rebellious, and not necessarily conform to the traditional model. Young boys on the contrary are given freedom and encouragement to roam and have fun. You can see symptoms of this within Thai society on a day to day basis. Only a small percentage of Thai females smoke and those that do tend to be from either the very high or the very low echelons of society, where smoking will not damage their social status, which is already secure. As a percentage of the population, many mire Thai males smoke than females, but not nearly as many as in the West. Watch Thai children in public - public transport is a good spot to observe. The Thai girl will set there quietly, minding her own business while the boys, in many cases, will be yahooing around having a riotous time! As their lives develop, some Thai men may become quite promiscuous whereas a married Thai woman would seldom stray away from her husband. While these stereotypes do still predominantly remain, things ARE changing - and in 20 years time, some people question whether Thai society will not be all that different from the West, notwithstanding that the current Government is doing all that it can to keep Thailand in the 20th century and retain the traditional Thai values and morals.
I'm not so sure I like the way the wealthy in Thailand seem to do things to protect their position in society by removing opportunities for the poorer folks and continually pushing them down. A bright kid from a poor background may miss out on the chance to study at a good school because of bribes paid to that school by the rich parents of a less intelligent kid to allow their kid to get a place that he / she really shouldn't have had. Yep, I have seen this first hand and have even had certain wealthy people tell me exactly how much it cost to get little Somchai into a good school. It is so often a case of the wealthy buying their way in society and trampling the opportunities of the poor. And then there is entry to certain prestigious institutes and establishments. This old boys club continues right through one's life time and the poor are almost slaves to the rich in many cases. This really winds me up so I had better leave this here.
This class system takes many, many forms. The very clothes that people wear are an indicator of what sector of society people where - not just fashion names here, but the styles that they choose to wear. The places where people go, the way they choose to travel, the places that they eat and God damn it, even the food they choose to order! Whatever you do in Thailand, it so often seems that you are being looked at, examined, and your place in the hierarchy is determined. Another example is sport. Bangkok Thais tend to like soccer which would be their favourite sport whereas in other parts of the country, Muay Thai is more popular, at least in terms of participation. Some Bangkokians may consider Muay Thai to be a "peasant's sport". People from poorer provinces with dark skin continue to struggle to be accepted in Bangkok and often find it difficult to get work other than unskilled labour.
Upon meeting someone new, Thais will often ask a few questions based on age, job, education, family and other general information to gauge the other person's status. They will then address them accordingly with pronouns and honorifics that reflect their relative status. Someone of superior status would be addressed as pee followed by their nickname while someone of a lesser status would be addressed as nong and then their nickname. As a foreigner, I don't like to use these terms as I feel they re-enforce aspects of the Thai class system, something that I am not fond of.
Thai people have both a "full name", that is a first name and surname, which tends to be used on all official documents, in employment and generally used at more official occasions. In addition to their real name - or cher jing, all Thais will have a nickname, or cher len. Thai names can be long and may be difficult for a non-Thai to pronounce correctly while the nicknames are conveniently short, usually one syllable. Examples include Nok, Daeng, Noi or Fon. When meeting a Thai person for the first time, they will usually offer you their full name but if you get to know them better and become more familiar with them in a social context you will be probably refer to them using their nickname. Some nicknames are just an abbreviated form of the full name such as the name Suripon which may be shortened to Pon, as a nickname. Many Thai nicknames have a literal meaning and a few of the more common nicknames are listed here.
Gai - chicken
Daeng - red
Fon - rain
Jeab - baby chicken
Sanuk, the Thai word which means fun or enjoyment is paramount in the Thai way of life. The Thais believe that for something to be worthwhile, it really should be sanuk. If it's not sanuk, it may quickly become boring to the Thais. Thais can frequently be seen laughing and enjoying themselves in whatever they are doing. If the enjoyment wanes, the activity may well cease. This carries on all the way into employment and a Thai may resign from their work if it is not sanuk although as often happens, economic necessity may compel them to do something that they do not necessarily enjoy.
The whole idea of living a lifestyle where everything is fun is great in principle, but it doesn't always work. One example is that there are certain things in life that are quite frankly a hard slog and there are times when you imply have to do the hard yards. In certain situations, the locals can get fed up easily and not want to do the hard yards. A classic example is in the study of English where certain parts of it, particularly the grammar parts, can be difficult and require extra work. Thais can get very bored when it comes to things like this and complain that it is not sanuk. The other situation when things get take the other way is when they try and make something sanuk and it gets out of hand. Take the case of an auction. We got to an auction to bid on an item but the idea is to try and get it for a god price. Take a simple household item like a glass. Such would sell in a department store for perhaps 10 baht. But if you were to auction it off to a bunch of Thais, the whole idea of bidding against each other is deemed to be fun and they will keep bidding well beyond the 10 baht price and son of them, the "winner", might end up paying as much as 100 baht for it, ten times more than they should. Yep, sometimes the idea of sanuk gets taken just too far!
All Thai people, from every strata of society, and every religion, are very, very fond of His Majesty The King. The world's longest reigning monarch has dedicated his life to his country and his people. Not only are there many, many royal projects that his majesty has overseen, he is a visionary whose philosophy drives the Thai people. His majesty has impressed upon his subjects the importance of self-sufficiency and this has now become a part of Thai people's philosophy. One should never make any negative comments whatsoever about HM The King or the royal family. To do so is the ultimate insult to Thai people, Thailand and the country's most respected figure. Any negative comment may result in an extremely harsh reaction from Thai people. It is also a very serious breach of the law. The seriousness of this cannot be overstated. Simply do not joke or even make the slightest criticism of HM The King or anyone in the Royal Family.
The vast majority of Thai people are Buddhist and while people are free to follow any faith, you should also be careful about discussing anything religious related, especially about Buddhism. While in the West intelligent discussion is encouraged, irrespective of the topic, here in Thailand, religion and the monarchy are best not talked about at all if you have any negative opinions whatsoever.
Buddhism is the dominant religion with the vast majority of the population claiming to be Buddhist, well over 90% of Thais. There are a few provinces in the deep south, just north of the Malaysian border, that have a greater number of Muslims than Buddhists to the point that even though they are geographically Thailand, you could be mistaken for thinking you were in Malaysia. Funnily enough, in these particular provinces, the culture really does not feel so Thai and I have never felt entirely comfortable down that way. And it should be noted that over the past few years there have been safety issues. The deep south of Thailand is the one part of the country where it is wise to seek out travellers information from your embassy before venturing there.
Thai people are generally friendly, charming and hospitable but unfortunately many lack the opportunities, or money, to get a good education. With agriculture still the largest industry in terms of employment numbers, many Thais work in a position that in the West would be classified as unskilled labour. With limited opportunities for employment in the countryside there is no real requirement for a higher education there. Having said that, those who reach a higher education are certainly admired in Thailand.
With 50 odd students in classrooms in government schools, students don't get the same amount of individual attention and to further exacerbate the problem, the Thai education system quite simply does not emphasis the need for students to think for themselves. Student-centred learning has been mentioned a lot in the press, though whether the curriculum changes to introduce this more modern teaching style, who knows? Having had the pleasure and privilege of teaching English in some Thai schools, I have had the opportunity to observe the way the Thai teachers teach. Their teaching methods are a little dated and many simply stand at the front of the class and preach at the poor students who are expected to sit there and listen and lap it all up but they quickly bore of it - it's not exactly sanuk is it?! This contributes to an education system with room for improvement. That said, with 50 students in a classroom, teachers cannot give the students too much flexibility for fear that they will run riot - they simply have to keep the lessons tight and standing up in front of them and talking at them, followed by giving them some exercises. Rote learning is alive and well in Thailand and Thai students are very good at remembering things. Critical thinking is sadly not high on the list of Ministry of Education.
Outside of Bangkok, many students only go to school for 6 years, which used to be the minimum requirement, meaning that they received a very limited education. (For some of the really unlucky kids, they may have got even less.) Fortunately, the powers that be are seriously looking at overhauling the education system, and with a bit of luck replacing the current one with a system that will hopefully produce more well-rounded students. Part of the reason that some kids get such a limited education is that the parents simply don't have any money to pay the school fees, buy school books and uniform. Of course this is extremely sad. Another reason is that the parents simply pull the kids out of school so that they can help around the family business which is often a farm.
In Thailand there is often a rule or a way that things get done - and almost everyone (but not foreigners) knows it! The fact that most people do something a certain way is probably because they quite simply aren't encouraged to try and think outside of the square and do it differently. You have to be careful because if you question others, someone may lose face - and you really do not want to be responsible for that! This can be rather frustrating at times. There is not a lot in the way of challenging the way that things are done and trying to do them "better". This means that when mistakes are made, or when a system is being used that is not entirely efficient, it will in all likelihood continue to be conducted in that manner and improvement or change will be very, very difficult. Foreigners unwittingly stray from the rules every day. A classic example of this is in McDonalds where I will ask for an iced coffee without ice and you will get some mighty strange looks from the attendant. Iced coffee without ice? Is he crazy? Fortunately, Thais who have been educated overseas or have had exposure to foreigners seem to realise that some people do things a little differently. Actually, I have noticed things changing a lot and I guess it is because there are more and more foreigners in Thailand these days, that is more and more people doing things differently.
Sometimes we have to remember Stickman's little rule: For foreigners two plus two often feels like it equals three! Don't try and think about it too much because that's the way it is. As foreigners living and working in the Kingdom, we do have to remember that Thailand is not our country and that we are here as guests, often uninvited guests! While some aspects of life in Thailand can be frustrating, try to look in the bright side and at all of the positives, of which there are so many! My advice is to just get on with things and try not to let the little things bother you too much. That really is one of the tricks to enjoying a happy life in Thailand. If you are the type who sweats the small stuff, you might struggle.
Loosely related to this is the Asian notion of "face". Face plays a big part in life in Asia and cannot be underestimated. Every effort should be made to understand the issue, and how to operate in such a way as to not cause others to lose face. Face is sort of like one's reputation or image and concerns one's demeanour, their way of doing things and indeed their very success in life. It concerns so many things from the clothes that one wears, to the way that one goes about their daily routine right through to job and possessions. Someone with a lot of gold jewellery gains face because the gold shows that they have been successful in one way or another - maybe they had a job that gave them enough income to buy the gold in the first place or perhaps they have a wealthy boyfriend who lavishes them with gold jewellery. Why do you think many folks in Thailand openly wear their mobile phone (or phones!) on their belt or outside the body where they can be seen? Everyone can see that they have this expensive device and they gain face! Contrast this with a poor farmer whose clothes are old and less fashionable. This fellow will potentially lose face, or at least not be looked at favourably, due to his presentation and his perceived position in society.
Back in my homeland, I like the fact that I can go out and wear pretty much anything. People will not pass judgment on me. This is one thing I prefer about my own country over Thailand, though even back there, one does not want to look too much like a homeboy for fear of being negatively stereotyped!
When a Thai makes a mistake or does something wrong and this is pointed out to them or perhaps worse still, others are made aware of it, the Thai who made the mistake loses face. This can in fact be quite hurtful to a Thai and if a Thai loses face badly enough, there is no knowing how they may respond, and quite frankly, there is no limit to what they might do.
I am of the opinion that this can become a problem in the workplace. Someone makes a mistake but the error is not pointed out. So, as the error has not been brought to their attention, they continue to behave / do things in that manner and the mistake continues to be made again and again. This inhibits one's ability to improve, develop and make progress. In that way, face can be detrimental.
You can however use the concept of face to your own advantage. Praising someone in front of their friends / colleagues / peers will make them gain face and you will find that they may suddenly become more helpful and / or more receptive towards you. If someone is being unhelpful or not providing the level of service that you require or expect, rather than complain as you may in the West, consider complimenting them on something that is positive about themselves and you may find that the level of service increases! I don't like pushing Western values and the way of thinking upon those within Thailand, but one cannot help but wonder if face can hold things back. Certainly, as Western investors continue to invest in Thailand, many will struggle to accept this. The issue of face is a big one and you need be aware of it.
Another way to look at face, or the way that many Thais may look at it, is that they want people to view them in a positive manner, and they want to be seen as good people. To a small number of Thai people, they may be more interested in being seen to be a good person than actually being a good person. Contrast this with most people who are more likely to genuinely want to be a good person and less concerned (though still concerned somewhat) with what others think of them.
In Thailand, remember that things may happen in Thai time. Arrange to meet someone at a certain time and they may well arrive quite late - sometimes as much as an hour or more - don't be too surprised because Thais operate on this concept of Thai time which basically means, they'll turn up when they are ready. I have got to say that for me, frankly, I don't like it nor I do I accept it. I always tell Thai friends that I may be meeting that for me, this is totally unacceptable for them to be so late. Some people may find it shocking that someone would mention this, but it does mean that they are almost always on time. Generally speaking, folks from the higher end of society are far more punctual than those from the lower socio economic sector. Hardly PC to say this but hey, in my experience that is how it is!
The Thais are generally a friendly bunch and charm first-time visitors. But everyone has their limits and you don't want to upset a Thai. If pushed too far, some Thais may not just lose their temper, but go absolutely berserk. My theory as to why this happens is due to the concept of remaining calm at all times despite what is happening around you. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of this in principle and it has got to be a good thing. Dare I say it though, I think we all need some sort of outlet for our frustration and anger at times and this concept denies this much needed outlet. It seems that some folks have all of this pent up anger and if they flip, good God, they have the potential to go crazy!
Be very, very wary if you get into an altercation with a Thai. Unless you have some military training, are accomplished at martial arts or are armed, they will likely kick your butt good and proper. Thais who are prepared to roll their sleeves up and get involved in a confrontation on the street tend to be hard and wily. And be aware that if there is an altercation involving a foreigner and a Thai, other Thais will often side with his compatriot, notwithstanding that they do not even know what the dispute is about! A colleague of mine once said "If you get into a fight with a Thai, you are fighting all 65 million of them". However, don't read too much into this paragraph as you are very unlikely to ever have any such problems unless you are the type of person who attracts trouble.
Traditional Thais deplore violence as much as the average Westerner but Thais from a rural background might see violence and using their fists as a typical way to end a dispute. It is said that Westerners should avoid getting too friendly with Thais from the lower classes who have had a few drinks but my experience is quite the opposite and that these people are very hospitable and quite a laugh. Hey, if nothing else it is a great way to practice your Thai language skills! Please do consider that most altercations Westerners are involved in occur late at night, usually after midnight - and involve alcohol. They often originate in the naughty nightlife areas so with a bit of luck elsewhere you will be just fine.
A lot of foreigners living in Thailand seem to have a love / hate relationship with Thailand and the Thai people. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Many Westerners get frustrated at the amount they put in to Thailand, both in terms of investment and in terms of effort, but are then given very little in the way of rights. There is a very real feeling that Western residents of Thailand, even long-termers, those people who have been here for many, many years, that we are no more than long-term tourists. We cannot buy land. We must always go and pout our hand out for a new visa every year. We have to pay more to enter national parks and to buy various products and services and we are so often made to feel that we are nothing more than walking ATM machines. It is true that Westerners relocating to Thailand will never be afforded the same rights as Thai citizens. It is no use complaining about it as that is the way it is. I simply recommend that you deal with it. That works for me.
Not that different from this feeling that some people get that we are welcomed for out money, and only our money, is that it is very unlikely that anyone will hit you over the head with a piece of wood, or stick a knife into your ribs and demand your money and valuables. That said, local con men have no qualms about tricking it out of you, or telling you downright lies to get their hands on your hard-earned. The belief seems to be that if you were silly enough to give it up then you deserved it - even if you were cheated!
A few examples:
- A friend had the misfortune to be in police custody. A policeman asked where the fellow came from and my friend replied New Zealand. The policeman then started going on about how he would love to go to NZ and could my friend help him with 20,000 baht for the ticket. This simple request was turned down and was not accompanied by any bribe - like hell the policeman wanted to go to NZ!
- Another friend went out with a work colleague to a restaurant. The bill was modest - less than 300 baht. The Thai colleague who was older, more senior in the company and probably better-paid insisted he had no money even though my friend had seen a few thousand baht in the fellow's wallet earlier that evening! This even goes against the Thai system of the oldest / most senior person picking up the tab. The fact that no other Thai saw the manager essentially shirking responsibility for the bill meant that he didn't lose face. Curious.
- I have heard of some people who have asked their farang friends for a loan for this or that but never paid the money back - in fact they probably never had any intention of paying it back in the first place. I hate to say it but loaning money in Thailand - to a Thai OR a Westerner - should be seen as giving a gift, so only give it if you can afford to, and are prepared to lose it.
This is where another important concept needs to be mentioned. A lot of Westerners do give the Thais grief about this and that, but I have found the average Westerner in Thailand to be no better, nor no worse. Thailand doesn't always attract the best of the West - and that is being polite.
I have always thought that the Thais are a wonderful race of people, so friendly and gracious as hosts, but that money has this nasty habit of marring some. This is easily overcome by not flashing a lot of money around, not disclosing your financial situation and simply not getting into discussions on the subject of money or income. Downplay any conversation that swings your way and concerns money, income or assets, especially money earned in Thailand. I admit that it can't be easy for locals who work hard all of their life for a relatively low salary and see foreigners coming to their country earning what really can seem to them to be obscene amounts of money. The highest paid foreigners earning as much in a month as a Thai doing menial work might earn over their entire life! Unfortunately, money can, at times, buy respect, and that is a hard pill for many Westerners to swallow. Yep, it is those with the most money and the most toys, the most gold and the most Mercedes Benzes who get the most respect.
There are several phrases that you may hear the Thais use that concern fundamental concepts that are practiced in daily life in Thailand. A lot of these phrases use the word "jai" - which means heart. Following is a small guide to some phrases that you are bound to hear in Thailand.
Jai yen - literally translated as cool heart. The idea is that you do not lose your temper and that you remain coo, calm and collected at all times. If you ever show impatience or show strong emotions, you will not impress the locals. The Thais often use this phrase when someone gets hot and bothered. It should also be noted that loosely related to this concept is that men should never lose their temper with a woman. It is considered seriously bad form.
Jai dee - literally translated as good heart. It is used to mean that someone is kind. Kindness, especially to people who have less than you, or the doing of good deeds, is looked upon very fondly in Thailand. What does get me a little irritated is when someone is referred to as jai dee for giving money, such as a large tip in a restaurant. I personally see the concept as being separate from money.
Jai ron (often pronounced jai lon - note the "l") - this is literally translated as hot heart. It is often used to describe people who are hot tempered or impatient, particularly farangs. It is not quite an insult, but neither is it endearing. If someone describes you as jai ron, you may want to try and cool down a but.
Greng jai - this concept is one of the cornerstones of life in Thailand and is very difficult to translate into English. The closest word is consideration, but really that does not come close. Greng jai is considering other people's feelings and may also refer to deferring to someone of superior status. It therefore deals with the hierarchical position in society that every Thai citizen is aware of. An example would be the employee who has discovered a problem in the workplace. Whereas in the West we would expect the employee to report the issue to their superior immediately, in Thailand they often will not say anything as by "Greng jai-ing" their superior, they do not want to provide that person of higher status with a problem that needs to be solved! For us Westerners, this is a fairly difficult concept to grasp and it took my quite some time in Thailand before I could get my head around it.
Mai pen rai - this could just about be the national phrase of Thailand - the phrase that so many of us use to identify many things Thai. Main pen rai means no problem, never mind, it doesn't matter as well as host of other things. Thais use it liberally, and if one wants to survive in Thailand, one will find that they really should use it often. Failure to use it can result in one getting oneself worked up and tense. However, this phrase can become problematic when a Thai starts using it in a situation when the farang considers it inappropriate. Case in point is when you are politely pointing out to a vendor or a service provider that there is an issue with said service. God knows how many times the service provider has said to me mai pen rai and wandered off as if the problem was solved! Just imagine that in the West: You make a complaint and the service provider says "never mind" and wanders off!
T.I.T. (This is Thailand) - This is not a Thai concept at all but a coinage of the great Bernard Trink, a columnist in the Bangkok World and later the Bangkok Post. Trink wrote the nightlife column that seemingly every farang male in the country immediately turned to when he opened Friday's Bangkok Post. "T.I.T." is often uttered from the lips of farangs when they get frustrated at aspects of life in the Kingdom.
It is not always easy to understand Thai people and their ways of doing things. While they share many similar traits with people from other Asian nations, there are also a few concepts and principles that are unique to Thailand and the Thais. The important thing in Thailand is not so much to understand the Thais - I doubt you'll ever be able to *really* understand Thailand, but rather to make sure that you operate in such a way so as you fit into Thai society and do not make a habit of upsetting the Thais or rocking the boat along the way. I think too many Westerners feel that the Thais are trying to pull one over them when they aren't. Just because the Thais may do some things differently to Westerners does not mean that these things are wrong.
Remember, you are a guest in their country, often uninvited, so you really should do everything that you can to fit in! If you find yourself constantly complaining and criticizing the Thai ways of doing things, perhaps it is time to go home? Having said that, there is nothing wrong with questioning what is going on around you, and of course you should NOT blindly accept everything as being ok! Just remember, and most importantly learn to accept, that this is Thailand, and try as you might, you will never be able to change the Thais and their ways - and neither should you even try!
I like to use the example of a person who wants to swim up a river. The problem is that the river has a very heavy current and the water is flowing down-river rapidly. You can jump into the river and try and swim up-river but all you will succeed in doing is expending a lot of energy, becoming tired and ultimately get nowhere. It's the same with trying to change things in someone else's country. You'll get yourself all hot and bothered with little or no result - so don't even bother in the first place! There are many good things about Thailand - and of course there are a few not so good things too. It's the same in EVERY COUNTRY! Often it is just a case of accepting the good with the bad.
Along with learning the language, one of the best ways to help you understand Thailand and the Thai way of doing things is to develop a bunch of Thai friends. By this I do not mean the people working in your apartment building who you smile at each day, but real friends, people of a similar background, with similar jobs and of perhaps a similar age, who you meet up with or go out with from time to time. Such Thai friends are invaluable in helping you to understand Thai ways. And if you ever have any serious problems, they would likely know the best way to approach it. The sad reality is that many farangs living in Thailand may not have many Thai friends, if any, and this can result in some farangs living in Thailand having a somewhat narrow perspective. One needs that balance of having friends from different backgrounds.
A good number of the Thais living in Bangkok were actually born outside of the capital. Bangkok has grown at a rapid pace, increasing from around 2 and a bit million inhabitants in the early '70s to around 10 or 12 million today - no-one is quite sure how many people currently reside in what is said to be the world's 20th most populous city. With this in mind, and taking into consideration the diversity of Thai people, you will see many types of communities in Bangkok. You can find parts of the city with large gated communities housing well-to-do, wealthy Thai families whereas in some areas you'll find genuine slums. Bangkok is actually quite diverse.
While outside of Bangkok, both the cities and all of the countryside are largely populated by Thais, Bangkok is quite cosmopolitan with many minority groups represented. As far as Westerners go, the Japanese are said to make up the largest expat group in Bangkok with over 23,000 Japanese nationals registered with their embassy although the embassy claims that it is probably more like 30,000 Japanese citizens living in Bangkok alone. There are a lot of Americans and Brits here too. Every nation, even North Korea which has a consulate in the eastern part of the city, is represented in Bangkok
A good chunk of the Western expat community is centred around the Sukhumvit and to a lesser extent, Silom and Sathorn areas. It pays to be prudent in your every day business when dealing with other Westerners as the expat community is only so big. If you upset someone, particularly someone at your place of work, you may suddenly find doors closing all over the city. Case in point: There are only so many jobs available to Westerners and if you did something silly or stupid, word would travel around the farang grapevine quickly. The next time you were applying for a new job, you might discover that your errant behaviour precedes you and may preclude you from getting that position.
Over the years there have been a few high profile instances involving Westerners up to no good in Thailand. Word spreads like wildfire and everyone knows what is going on.
Westerners tend to stick together in Bangkok and socialise together at what is really a limited number of venues. This along with the emergence of a number of Thai-based Western expat discussion forums online means that there is always someone else aware of just what *you* are up to! Jealousy is an issue for a lot of Westerners, particularly poorly paid Westerners who have lived in Bangkok for a long time and have never really lived their life here the way they wanted to, largely due to earning a relatively small amount of money.
As we get older in life, we tend to make friends less quickly and less easily as compared to when we were younger. As a newbie to the Bangkok scene, it is likely that you will arrive without any friends or with just a few drinking buddies who you met previously while on holiday. Take your time to make friends and be aware that as someone who may be a little lonely, and craving the conversation of other Westerners, you may be willing to make friends quicker than would be considered prudent. There are plenty of dishonest, insincere farangs about who would like nothing more than to make a new friend who they will try and hit up for a few baht with tales of woe. Take your time and select your new friends with patience and care, just as you would back home. Loneliness is a small price to pay when you take the time to choose real friends.
For all of the good things about living in Bangkok, the Western expat community is a bit of a mixed bag. There are many really nice, quality people and through this website I have met and made many new friends, great people who I have huge respect for. There are also a lot of really questionable folks and Bangkok being Bangkok, that has to be expected. But one thing I have noticed about the western expat community is the lack of any community spirit. Many seem to look after number one and many seem to perceive new arrivals as a threat to their lifestyle. Bangkok doesn't have nearly the same community spirit that say Pattaya does or for that matter, just about any other part of the country where Westerners tend to be very helpful to one another. It is sort of weird really. But don't let it bother you too much. The huge number of Westerners living here means that there are just so many people here, so many sports teams, clubs, organisations and so on that you will have no trouble meeting some like-minded people, and if you stay here for a while, you too will meet some great people and friendships will be formed.
I guess Westerners in Bangkok tend to socialise most with others in a similar income bracket. English teachers tend to stick together. Professionals and expats tend to stick together and a lot of retirees spend their free time together. Remember that the average Western resident in Bangkok has probably only lived in the city for a handful of years so we all tend to make new friends here. It is not like our old school buddies or rugby mates are around to hang out with. The transient nature of being a foreigner in a country where essentially it is very difficult to get permanent residency means that the friends you make do tend to move on in time.
It is no secret that many Westerners in Bangkok, and other parts of Thailand, don't have the best reputation. I raised more than a few eyebrows when I announced to friends back home that I was moving out here. But don't let that put you off. If you don't spend your life down at the naughty bars you will avoid much of the flotsam.
As far as folks from other developing countries go, there is no shortage of Indians in Bangkok and there is a small Indian-dominated area called Pahurat where you can buy all sorts of Indian bits and pieces such as Indian made bangles and jewellery etc. A lot of the Indians in Bangkok front the city's many tailor's shops, particularly those targeting foreign tourists. But don't be mistaken for thinking that that is the only industry Indians are involved in. Plenty of Indians have property interests and many bought at the right time many years ago. Big chunks of Sukhumvit Road and the side sois are or were until recently Indian owned. There are also more than a few Indians in the money lending business. Despite the less than positive reputation that the Indians have with the Thais (which I personally put down to jealousy due to the Indians' relative success in business) the majority of Indians are great. I've always been fond of Indians and enjoy hanging out with them, eating with them and discussing life. Unfortunately, the Thais don't have the highest opinions of the Indians (along with other nationalities from the sub-continent like Pakistanis and Sri Lankans).
Bangkok's bustling Chinatown is close to Pahurat and always seems to be a hive of activity - and has without a doubt consistently the worst traffic jams in Bangkok - and that's really saying something! You can buy all the usual Chinese stuff down here. Around Sukhumvit Soi 3 is a small Arab / Black African area where transients from these parts seem to stay short to medium term. It's is a great place to get some good, reasonably-priced Middle Eastern food.
Beautiful temples scattered throughout the city clearly illustrate that Buddhism is clearly the dominant religion in the Thai capital. Beautiful Buddhist temples and shrines can be found all over the city, but there are small pockets where Muslims can be found. There is something about the Islamic Thais that I find much less endearing than the average Thai of a different faith. The Thai Muslims seem to be much more serious, can be quite intense, and don't always have that happy go lucky attitude that many Westerners find so infectious. Mosques can be found in many parts of the city, but the major areas for Muslims that I know of are in the Prakanong area, up near Ramkhamhaeng and also in the Patumwan area, near the Saen Saeb canal. There have been major problems in the south of Thailand with the Muslims although for the time being, Bangkok doesn't seem to have been caught up in it.
Remember that Thailand is the only country in South-East Asia to never have been colonised and the Thai people are tremendously proud of this fact and with it are VERY nationalistic - it's not just pride, it goes way beyond that to a point I would term semi-extreme nationalism. In a way it is a shame that Thailand was never colonised because all of the neighbouring countries have reaped benefits from colonization including better infrastructure (Malaysia), strong language skills (EVERY country bordering Thailand) and an understanding of the world around them. Thais are friendly people who try and make foreigners welcome, but some can be ignorant of the world around them. Just remember not to criticise them or their country and you'll be right!
I cannot refrain from mentioning the PC, that is all of this politically correct nonsense, that is plaguing the Western world in the 21st century. One of the joys of living in Thailand is that the PC nonsense largely hasn't caught on here...yet. In job ads it is not illegal to specify exactly what sort of person is required i.e. you CAN say that you want a pretty university graduate who is aged 25 - 30 and over 165 cm tall. Thai people often speak their mind and there is no problem telling someone that they are fat, if in fact, they are actually fat! Now this might all sound somewhat negative and mean-spirited to a PC Westerner, but I think the nonsense of PC in the West has gone way too far and fortunately, it seems as though this disease has not spread to Thailand, as I say, yet.
Located in the heart of tropical Asia, Bangkok is hot for much of the year and I remember reading somewhere that it is the second hottest major city in the world. There isn't a great variation year round in the temperature with the average daily high around 36 degrees Celsius in April, the hottest month and about 30 in December which is the "mildest" month. Many Thais joke that Thailand has three seasons - hot, hotter and hottest!
Most agree that the cool season is the most pleasant time of year in Bangkok. Overnight lows run from a low of about 20 in the cool season to mid to high 20's in the hot season. While long term Western residents may disagree, anyone visiting from abroad would think that Bangkok never really gets cold although some parts of the country, especially parts of the North, can get a lot cooler overnight at this time of year. It is hot most of the year and after a year or two in country you do sort of get somewhat used to the heat - it took me a couple of years. One thing's for sure, after you have stayed for a while, if you decide to return to the west, you will most likely find it VERY cold when you return! The hours of daylight do not seem to vary too much throughout the year and the sun sets after 6:00 PM and before 7:00 PM. The sun comes up in the morning between 6:00 and 6:30 AM in Bangkok and it varies little nationwide.
Bangkok is a VERY heavily polluted city and wherever you go in the central city, the air is just about thick enough to chew. It's a murky cocktail of vehicle fumes, factory smoke, rubbish burn off and God only knows what else. As you move further out into the suburbs, the quality of the air improves, a little, but it's still not great. This pollution can make Bangkok feel even hotter than it is and it all contributes to the distinctive smell that many associate with Bangkok, a smell that initially makes you gag but in time becomes something that you slowly get used to and in time, perhaps even like. Returning to Bangkok after a period of time, you actually appreciate that smell, because you know that you have arrived home!
One of the most frequently asked questions about Bangkok weather relates to the monsoon, or rainy, season. Just how much does it rain, and how does it affect life in the city? Let me say first of all that the rainy season is not quite the same every year. Some years it rains a lot more than others. In 1998, my first year in Bangkok, it seemed like it rained every day in the rainy season, and rained for quite a few hours every day. It was absolutely relentless. But then in 2003 I remember the rainy season was really mild and by the time we reached the cool season we were all wondering just what had happened to the rainy season. When it does rain in the rainy season, should you find yourself outside then escaping the rain is impossible. You only need to be exposed to it for 10 - 15 seconds to be totally drenched right through. To make matters worse, parts of Bangkok can flood really badly.
The city administration has introduced measures to reduce the flooding but short of covering the city with a massive great waterproof dome, flooding will probably continue to be a problem in the rainy season. If it rains really heavily and you are unfortunate enough to find yourself outside, under the elements, you will get wet no matter what you do or what you wear. The rain absolutely hoses down, the traffic slows to a crawl, travelling any distance in a car becomes painfully slow and everything slows right down to a snail's pace, sometimes to a stop. In my first year here, I heard many stories of people coming to / from work taking 4+ hours each way! (Back then there was no skytrain nor underground.) This really does vindicate my advice elsewhere on this page to live close to where you work. Quite simply, when it rains, it is often quicker to walk to work / home than rely on public transport. It tends to rain most heavily late afternoon and sometimes into the early evening. It's worth getting a sturdy umbrella as some of the cheaper ones, particularly the 99 baht variety, just get blown to bits by the swirling winds and driving rain. Having said that, the smaller ones are convenient if you're not sure if it's going to rain as they can fit inside a bag or briefcase. I keep an umbrella at home and another at work, just in case. At the end of the rainy season, just before the deceptively named "cool" season, you get a lot of really loud thunder, and this is a sign that the cool season is almost here.
The city feels "fresher" in the rainy season and a lot of the haze that sits over the city, and in fact much of the country, in the hot season, gets blown or rained away. The idea of visiting Bangkok in the rainy season puts many off, but really it shouldn't. It doesn't rain for that long, and when it isn't raining the city is much more pleasant than at other times of the year.
"Officially", Thailand has three seasons but I really feel it is more like four and I would classify them as follows:
mid-November - February : Cool season
March - mid-June : Hot season
mid-June - early-September : Fringe season
early-September - mid-November : Rainy season
So what the hell is this fringe season that I am talking about? No guide book nor website mentions that! Well, during this time, the weather is awfully changeable and unpredictable and you cannot really refer to it strictly as the hot season or the rainy season. You get some days that are very hot, some days that can be wet and it is usually pretty damned humid but then you might get a few days when it is cooler - it's a bit of a lottery really. Note: Stickman's season guide applies to Bangkok only and not other provinces which may have the same weather but a little earlier if up north or a little later if down south.
During the hot season, it gets uncomfortably hot (around 38 degrees Celsius most days but sometimes 40+) and if you have to travel around the city, you should try and jump from air-con to air-con, be it skytrain / shopping centre / restaurant / taxi etc. to avoid sweating like a pig. Although these temperatures aren't actually a lot hotter than other times of the year, it seems to be much more humid then. Walk more than a few hundred metres and you'll even see the Thais sweating. Walking at a slower pace, jumping in and out / through air-con buildings and walking at a relaxed pace in the shade can all contribute to keeping you cooler. At this time of year, you may find yourself changing your clothes once or sometimes even twice a day. Needless to say, you'll start to understand why the locals shower at least twice a day, everyday. In the hot season I have sometimes found myself taking 4 showers a day.
The cool season of 1999 was unusually cool. While the temperatures usually drop to about 20 overnight in Bangkok, in December of 1999 the overnight low dropped down to 12 degrees on three separate occasions and some days, the daily high only reached 23 which is remarkably cool for Bangkok! This was a lot colder than normal and it was novel to see so many people walking around with jackets and pullovers on. Still, this is not normal and most people find they do not need any "warm clothes" at all in Bangkok.
Apart from being hot most of the year, the air in Bangkok is also very heavily polluted. The first time I came to Bangkok, I was only here for three days but picked up an horrendous cough that took almost two weeks to shake off. When I returned home, the people I worked with said that it sounded like I had smoker's cough and they genuinely believed that I had started smoking. The worst pollution seems to be in the central areas, namely around the Central World Plaza and around Silom Road. The further out of Bangkok you get, generally the better the air gets.
For me, the worst season is the hot season. It is quite simply too hot. The rainy season can be annoying for an hour or two each day when it actually rains, as well as the ensuing hours when there can be traffic chaos, but generally, the rainy season isn't that uncomfortable. The hot season can be really unpleasant and actually is the time of year when I feel inhibited to do certain things. I enjoy walking but in the hot season if you go outside any time between about 9 AM and 5 PM you'll break out into a sweat in minutes. And if you happen to find yourself outside in places where there is no air-conditioning like an outdoor market, especially a busy one - Chatuchak (also known as the weekend market), it is almost unbearable in the heat of the hot season. Other parts of town, such as Chinatown, pictured here, can also be very difficult and uncomfortable to negotiate in the heat of summer, a time when tempers often get tested!
It is ironic that many Westerners say that they like to escape the cold of their own country for the heat of Thailand. The heat is all very well if you are at the beach, but in the heat of the hot season, Bangkok and much of the country can be incredibly uncomfortable. I personally think that the heat is worse than the cold, but that's just one man's opinion. I also think that the weather in Thailand is not better than the weather in the West, in fact far from it. The cool season is pleasant, and that lasts all of about 3 months of the year. The rest of the year the weather is not all that comfortable - meaning that for 9 months of the year the weather isn't that great. Most places in the west have several decent months of weather.
Thai people seem to have an uncanny knack of being able to accurately predict the weather and I sometimes wonder why they bother with weather forecasters here. Want to know what the weather is going to do today? Simply ask the nearest Thai person - their forecast will likely be fairly accurate! But having said that, while they may know that it is going to rain, they still often forget to take their umbrella with them, even in the rainy season...
Employment, Visas & Work Permits
Perhaps the most popular job for foreigners in Thailand is English teaching but there are many other types of job available. The great thing about English teaching is that virtually any foreigner can do this - although how well they do it is another story altogether... The bad thing about English teaching is that comparatively, it doesn't pay that well, averaging at about 30,000 baht per month - and far less for positions outside of Bangkok.
In contrast, there are many professionals in Thailand working for big multinationals. This really is the way to go as, depending on your qualifications, experience, luck etc., you could potentially earn 500,000+ * baht a month - an absolute fortune in Thailand that would allow you to lead the most hedonistic lifestyle you could ever desire - and truly not want for anything more! (Actually, you'd be doing extremely well to spend even half of this in a month.) Such positions are usually advertised and recruited for outside of Thailand. The more popular industries include finance and engineering. There are some lucrative computer jobs also but you really need to be a specialist or have a bit of luck to secure such a position. One must consider that there are many, many qualified Thais who would be quite happy to do the job for a fraction of the cost that the foreigner would do it for. Further, they are far more familiar with Thai workplace culture and are fluent in the local language. Since the Asian crisis of 1997, there have not been nearly as many such positions advertised targeting foreigners. * The figure mentioned here of 500,000 baht is what at least two guys I knew here earned. Over the years, many people have questioned this figure, saying that it can't possibly be true in Thailand but believe me, it is. Remember, a lot of Westerners working in their homelands may accept a position in Thailand. The deal is generally their Western salary plus a 10% bonus, plus a 10 - 20% hardship allowance. They will usually get a car and driver provided, housing or a housing allowance - which can be substantial - around 100,000 baht per month is no out of the question and a few other benefits such as free education for the kids at one of the local international schools where fees are awfully high. Anyway, to further explain the 500,000 baht per month figure. Let's say we have an executive earning $US 100,000 per year in the west, roughly 3,400,000 baht a year. Add 30% to that and we are over 4,500,000 baht and with the housing and other benefits, we are up to over 6,000,000 baht per year, which is over 500,000 baht per month. These figures are realistic. Oh, how nice would it be to earn that much in Thailand!
Let me first say that the workplace in Thailand can be an unusual environment for the uninitiated foreigner and quite different to what you are used to at home. While you may suffer culture shock when you first visit or move to Thailand, you will suffer it all over again when you join the workforce here! Things are much more relaxed in Thailand but this aside, a lot of the other differences concern issues that anyone with a background in management would consider to be very negative. As harsh as it sounds, Thai culture interferes with productivity in a fairly major way and for this reason alone, so many things are much less efficient than in the West or in some cases, they just never get accomplished. An example: Your boss is older than you, presumably wealthier than you and his position as your superior demands respect. There happens to be an issue for which a solution has not yet been devised. As a younger person, you may quite possibly have a superior education to your boss and may have a few potential solutions to offer. However, as you don't want to risk your boss losing face by having the suggestion come from you - a person of lower status, you will just quietly sit on those ideas... There are so many other examples. I have taught English within the offices of companies and usually, the younger students speak better English than their older counterparts who tend to have higher ranking positions. Ask one of the younger students in a class with some older colleagues a question and they will just sit there quietly and won't answer. It's face, again.
In the Thai work environment, I often feel that second best is accepted, the work ethic is not as high as perhaps it should be, people can be seen sleeping on the job, staff will hang up on the phone with customers if the situation gets too difficult, internal office communication is terrible....and the list could go and on. While one could argue that things are far worse in Thailand than they are in the West, you are better off to simply acknowledge that they are different. To survive in the Thai work environment, you really have to forget a lot of what you are / were used to in the West - but without letting go of your convictions. To openly criticise the Thai way of doing things will put you on the outer really fast and may even jeopardise your employment.
You spend a huge amount of time at work and life in the workplace can influence other aspects of your life. With this in mind, do your best to fit in with things in Thailand and like other parts of life in the Kingdom, don't try and fight the system because it'll eat you up and spit you out. While you may have been hired because you are a foreigner, possibly even an expert in your field, you still need to be aware of the Thai way of doing things and the day to day issues of the workplace in Thailand.
Obviously companies with a high percentage of foreigners will operate in a manner more akin with what we are used to in the West, but many still have that Thai flavour. Even the embassies, multinational companies and schools employing foreign teachers have a workplace culture that is far more Thai than Western.
Much of what goes on in the Thai workplace by the Thai staff could be termed empire building. Thai staff will do all that they can to impress in their younger years and go out of their way for their immediate superior. This work will not go un-noticed and in time, that person will become known as a hard worker, someone who can be relied upon and someone who is not expendable. As this goes on, they will be given more and more tasks which assuming they complete them satisfactorily, eventually they will be rewarded with greater responsibility.
I have also noticed that Thai people across many different types of employment really do not seem to be that interested in act in a way that would be considered professional. They do not necessarily see work a anything else than a means of making money. OK, perhaps I am being harsh here, because many professionals such as teachers, medical professionals and the like do take a pride in doing their job to the bets of their ability - but many others see employment simply as a means of making money - and not necessarily as a way of developing themselves professionally and doing the best they can, which is all rather sad really.
So where does this leave you as the foreigner in a Thai workplace? More than anything, you need to be aware of how things work, and don't try and change things too much, if at all! Sure, there will always be room for improvement but to step in and suggest sweeping changes will only contribute towards indirectly criticizing the existing system, the people that implemented those systems, and causing those people, some of whom probably still work there, to lose face. To make another person lose face in the workplace can only be detrimental to your longevity in the position and your success at that company / organisation. Things happen a lot more slowly in Thailand and you shouldn't try to change too much too fast.
The hierarchy within Thai society plays a big part in interaction in the workplace. Classic examples are staff like maids, drivers, security guards and cleaners who may be treated poorly. I have often heard it said you should not go out of your way to be too friendly with employees who find themselves a lot further down the food chain than yourself. To do so may make the Thais wonder why you would associate with someone from such a background. The Thai staff may question that if you are associating with someone from that sort of background, perhaps you come from such a background yourself!
Thais DO gossip in the workplace and Western staff often find themselves watched intensely with your every move discussed by the local staff. Don't worry about this too much as they are likely to be fascinated by you and your ways, more than being nosey as such. They may also be interested in learning not just English, but about Western ideas and the Western way of thinking.
I am of the opinion that Thais don't tend to work as fast, nor as efficiently as people in the workplace in the West. What the reasons are for this, I can only wonder, but lower rates of pay may provide less motivation. The hot weather also needs to be factored in. It can really drain your energy levels. Some menial tasks can take forever and something as simple as sorting some documents into sets and stapling them together may take an entire morning or afternoon for a small team of workers. Again, let them go about it in their own way and don't interfere! Yes, it could be handled in a far expedient manner... Companies in Thailand seem to prefer to employ a lot of people and pay them poorly which may result in their slower output, as opposed to employing a smaller number of people, paying them well and expecting greater productivity. It's different from the West, but don't think it's wrong. Things are done for a reason, which may not always be obvious.
Even more so than in the West, I would strongly recommend against work place romances in Thailand. Any female who dates a male colleague will find herself the butt of an unbearable amount of gossip. And if you go out with a girl in your office for a long time and the relationship eventually goes bad, she may feel that she has to resign, the "I told you so's" and the huge loss of face that follow could be too much to handle. Far more so than in the West, the way that you conduct your life OUTSIDE of the workplace, comes under scrutiny in Thailand. It's all part of the way that in Thailand one's image is paramount. This means that you really do have to be aware that while you may be the consummate professional at work, you can't necessarily be a renegade outside of company hours. All it takes is for one person to see you doing something considered questionable and bang, you could be down the road... I have heard it said from some foreigners employed in Thailand that they feel that some Thai companies as employers almost feel that they own their employees.
For Western men who develop a relationship with a local lass, your company will take an interest in your new girlfriend / wife and her background. God forbid if she comes from the naughty bar environment (yes, many western men DO marry prostitutes in Thailand) or even if she is just from a poor, rural background, be careful of introducing her or inviting her to company functions. This may have the effect of reflecting not only badly on you, but also on the whole company - and in a worst case scenario you may find yourself out of a job! Many a farang has had his marching orders for showing up at a company function with an uneducated, uncouth village girl. For what its worth, she is probably not that interested in going to such a function anyway and would feel way out of place and out of her depth. She would feel awkward, wouldn't know how to dress, what to do and may not even have many people to chat with. In my early days in Thailand, I made the mistake of inviting my then girlfriend, a girl from a very poor background, to my place of work to meet me for lunch. I later got a warning from my boss about it who said that it was totally inappropriate and not to let it happen again. I actually argued with him over it at the time, trying to state that she was another human being just like him and I - and he should be ashamed for discriminating against her like that. But that just showed how green I was at that time. For if any of my students (I was teaching in a very upmarket language school) had seen the girl that I was knocking around with, odds are they would have wondered what I was doing with her and may have even left the school and gone to study elsewhere! Yes, Thais are very status conscious. At the end of the day, the rich don't socialise with the poor in most countries. Thailand is class conscious and one has to be very careful who they associate with and who they are seen with.
One Western manager who had been in Thailand for some time once told me that his company wouldn't hire a single Westerner who had recently arrived in Thailand. He explained that his company had had too many problems with such guys losing the plot with the local women and that it was much safer to hire someone who was already married, or who had been in Thailand for some time. This is similar to what I was told by my boss at a language school who said that he much prefers to hire people who had been in Thailand for a while as anyone fresh to Thailand inevitably make the sort of mistakes that can go on to affect their work. I have to admit that if I was hiring Western staff, I would be exactly the same. The learning curve to life in Thailand isn't steep per se, but it does take time to get used to the way things are done and to become aware of the huge importance of "fitting in" and not rocking the boat.
Remember Westerners often earn many, many times as much as the Thais they work alongside. With many professional expats earning 200,000 - 300,000 baht per month (this is probably the average band for most salaried expats - though some earn more as mentioned earlier), they may find themselves working with staff on a tiny fraction of what they earn, such as a driver who gets just 5,000 - 8,000 baht a month and maids and cleaners who earn even less. Yes, they know how much you earn so do not flaunt it and do every little bit to play it down. And when these people do that little extra to help you, a small gift or gesture of thanks such as taking a group from work out somewhere nice for lunch will go a long way towards breaking down any barriers and improving the relationship. Actually, this is one very god way to break down some of the barriers in Thailand. Tip generously and buy small gifts now and then for those less fortunate that you who have been good to you and your popularity will soar.
Salaries are generally paid monthly in Thailand and you need to have a bank account with the same bank AND branch as the company paying you. In this respect the banking system is not quite as developed as the West. Needless to say, at the end of the month when people receive their salary the shopping malls are full and taxis can be much more difficult to hail. Bars and restaurants do a good trade at this time too.
Sick days are taken more often by Thais than would be the norm in the West and no-one seems to ever question why people are away. One can take a few days off before a doctor's certificate is required, 15 or more paid sick days per year about the average in an employment contract - but many people actually have an allowance of 30 sick days per year! With family members often looking after their older relatives, younger family members may often take time off, classed as sick days, to care for their dependants. There are numerous public holidays per year, about 17 I believe, but those with a regular 9 to 5 job may have just the minimum six elective holidays per year. Many of the locals seem to see sick days as their right to take each year, sort of like part of their holidays!
Folks on an expat package, especially those hired from abroad, will usually have terms and conditions much the same as they would have in their own country. For Westerners seeking employment in Thailand, if at all possible get hired from abroad as you will no doubt be on to a much better deal. Local hire contracts tend not to be as lucrative as contracts picked up from abroad. The difference in salary package between someone hired locally and someone hired from abroad can be more than two times, and if hired from abroad, you might get free accommodation as part of the package too.
Thai companies are forever having functions and you, as a foreigner, will be asked to attend, in fact at times you may well feel like you have been put on display, the solitary farang or one of a group of farangs that seemingly all are gawking at! If you are a professional on a big package, it will be important for you to be present, but if you are further down the food chain, it may not be quite so important for you to be present. These functions tend to be dreadfully boring but more often than not, the company will put on a fabulous spread. Such functions are important to Thais and they often waste a huge amount of work time and money organising them.
Personal presentation in the workplace in Thailand is of greater importance than in the West. It goes without saying that all business attire should be in tip top condition, shirts bright white, neatly pressed and shoes shined. Any item of clothing with even a small mark or imperfection should be discarded from your work wardrobe. You will notice some of the less well paid Thais in clothes that are in less than perfect condition, but their salary is but a fraction of yours, so it is not such an issue. As foreigners, we fall outside of the square and the Thais really do not know what to make of us so their impressions of us come almost exclusively from the clothes that we wear and the way that we present ourselves. Those favourite old, tatty clothes should be reserved for being worn inside your home where no-one can see you!
In the West, it is quite possible to be thrust into a junior management position straight out of University and in no time be in a middle management position with a lot of authority, decision making power and staff who may have a lot more experience and, significantly to Thai culture, be older than you. In the West, as long as the person selected is suitably qualified and ready for the job, this situation generally works ok. We happily accept that age isn't everything and that their may well be people younger than us who are better suited to a senior job than we are. In Thailand, it would create a big, big problem with people not knowing where they fit into the swing of things. Therefore, you seem to find a lot of older people in positions of responsibility. In many cases, these people simply may not be the best people for the job but the status thing again gets in the way of others doing that role. There are stacks of other issues in the workplace here that make working in Thailand a constant challenge. But once you break through these barriers and start to get a feel for the vibe of the Thai workplace, I am sure you will find it more fin than a similar environment in the West. Quite simply, things are different in Thailand and the work environment could really get you down if you dwelled on the negative aspects of it. If you concentrate on the positives, I am sure you'll have a great time!
One curious aspect of the Thai workplace is absenteeism and it seems that folks are allowed to avoid going to work for any of a zillion reasons. The most common is of course that one is sick, and this is flaunted by many. A curiosity being that many companies give 15 days sick leave a year and do not insist upon a medical certificate unless someone has five or more days off. Illness to family members, particularly dependants such as children or parents and your boss will not even bat an eyelid. But then there are all sorts of other excuses given such as having to go the bank to get things sorted out. If you are on a monthly salary, your salary will not be effected for taking the time off, though this is all offset by the fact that if your boss wants you to stay late, citing your contract which states that you finish at XX o'clock will not win you any brownie points at all.
One never goes hungry in the workplace in Thailand and it can seem like your colleagues are forever bringing in food. Your Thai colleagues who venture home at the weekend - read upcountry provinces - will usually bring back some item of food from their part of the country, usually a large bag / pack / portion which is then shared. It is not expected that anyone venturing on holiday, even if just at the weekend, must bring back food for everyone, but it is considered good form. If you go away somewhere and bring back items of food, ordinarily something that that part of the country is known for then you will be looked upon favourably by your colleagues.
The various embassies, of which there are many in Bangkok, occasionally look to hire staff locally and ads pop up in the Bangkok Post from time to time. However, many of the embassies advertise internally through their own Government departments in their respective countries. Clerical positions in embassies range in salary with some of the embassies of the not so wealthy countries offering a monthly salary of around 30 - 45,000 baht, a bit more than say English teaching, but with a more "regular" 9:00 - 5:00 schedule. However, if you can get a job with the American Embassy, who always seem to pay well, your contract will be paid in $US - you get a cheque in $US and I believe there is no tax to be paid either! I have heard rumours of salaries at the US Embassy that are well over one million baht a year for standard clerical type jobs but these are unverified. If true, this could be a very cushy number for a very nice salary and easy, yet secure job. I do know that the better positions pay EXTREMELY well!
Computer positions are available but they can be a bit hit and miss. I know of people doing web design type jobs earning as little as 35,000 baht per month and I know of others who do contract work and can make 500,000+ baht a month. To secure such a highly-paid position, you'll have to prove that you can offer something that a Thai can't. If you're a computer expert and a specialist in your field, you may be able to get a really good high paying job with a multinational. I receive emails from IT professionals wanting to know the low down on job availability here. Basically, before the crash in mid 1997, there were a number of computer related opportunities for foreigners. I am told that these days there are less such positions within big companies. There are of course many people running their own computer companies, keeping in contact with their customers who may be found all around the world visa the internet. If you are earning a lot of money in in the computer industry and are hoping to replicate that salary in Thailand, you may be being a little optimistic! Remember, A Thai company could employ about 20 suitably qualified Thais for the same amount a specialist in the West earns - and each of the Thais speak the local language fluently, know the culture and the workplace ethic etc and are, frankly, more of a known quantity who won't rock the boat. There aren't that many companies in Thailand these days that will take on foreign computer professionals with a package that comes anywhere near meeting the foreigners' lofty expectations. There are so many qualified people here already prepared to work for much less. If you want to pursue such a career, you are best off securing a job in the West and holidaying in Thailand frequently.
You can of course set up your own business here and there are endless opportunities to do this here with REAL OPPORTUNITIES to make money. The problem here being that the odds are against us as foreigners setting up here. If you are serious about setting up a business in Thailand, take your time. I would recommend getting a good grasp of the language first and talk with as many people as possible. Many, many people have been burnt because the system really is against us. If you have any business ideas or wish to start some sort of business of your own in Thailand, it can be done. It's all a bit tricky and you really need to register a company and get yourself the necessary licenses and work permits. Note that in the past the cost of registering a company used to be outrageously expensive if done through on of the firms who advertised, targeting farangs. But no longer! Well-known and respected local firm SunbeltAsia can register a business for you all up for something like 50,000 Thai baht.
If you do something small that doesn't require a front (office, shop) such as import / export or internet sales, then you could do quite well without drawing any attention to yourself. I imagine you would have to keep a low profile though. Strictly speaking, you should have a work permit to do such things and frankly, that is the best way to go. Keep everything legal and then you can enjoy your life without stress or worry. There seems to be a growing number of farangs moving to Thailand and doing their work via the internet. Some are self-employed while others are employed by companies back in their homelands. Basically if you earn money in Thailand you are supposed to have a work permit.
As far as non-skilled white collar work goes, there have been a few customer service based jobs advertised in the Bangkok Post from time to time. The jobs centered on answering calls from English speaking callers in the Asia Pacific region who wanted to buy products that they had seen advertised on some cable / shopping channel. The jobs were paying around $US 200+ per week plus commissions. I guess this could be an alternative to teaching if teaching isn't for you. You're looking at a dead end job though. Not to be confused with this though were the boiler room operations that were big throughout 2000 and the first half of 2001 until one day in late July 2001 when 87 foreigners were arrested on the premises of two suspect companies. The foreigners, many feigning innocence, went on to be convicted of working without a work permit and fined. To make matters worse they were deported and BLACKLISTED, i.e. banned from EVER returning to Thailand. Do not get involved in any such jobs and, perhaps just as importantly, ensure that any job that you take on comes with a work permit!
There seems to be a lot more scrutiny into farangs and what they're doing in Thailand these days. While in the past it was no secret that many farangs worked without a work permit, it has to be said that this really isn't recommended. If you're caught working without the magic little blue book, in a worst case scenario you may find yourself deported from the country and blacklisted from ever returning. I would strongly discourage you from working for any company that does not offer you a work permit. It is normal (though still illegal) for people to start the job while their work permit application is being processed.
You could pursue work as a journalist and the two obvious choices are the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I imagine that they would only consider suitably qualified people and between the two newspapers, there can't be that many openings. There are a lot of other English language publications but such work doesn't pay a great amount, only providing enough to live a fairly basic lifestyle on. There is always the option for a bit of freelance work.
The top end hotels are invariably managed by foreigners and there seem to be a lot of managerial / supervisory positions available in the better hotels for suitably qualified and perhaps more importantly, those with international experience in the hospitality industry. No idea what such positions pay but it would probably be fairly good as whenever you see a farang working in a hotel, they are impeccably dressed in European suits that must cost at least a grand US.
There are many, many bars run by foreigners in Thailand, many in the "naughty nightlife" areas. While some of the bigger bars apparently do OK, the owners of smaller bars seem to have a tough life and really, I would not recommend that as a way of life. There are all sorts of potential problems and if even a fraction of the horror stories you hear are true, bar ownership is for those with experience in the industry, or the daring! The industry has many unique problems including that of tea money, licensing laws, lease issues and a myriad of other challenges.
If running a business in Thailand the lease issue is a funny one. You *buy* a lease for a certain length of time and then on top of that you also pay rent to the landlord!
There are a number of missionaries working in Thailand. Many seem to have a holier than thou attitude who think they know everything about Thailand because they have come to work for free, or for God. What a croc! What is amusing is that some actually get an allowance in the region of 80,000 - 100,000 baht a month! Little do they know that this is actually a lot more than many Westerners and highly-paid Thais earn, doing an honest day's work! Unfortunately for the poor folks, bless their hearts, they complain that this really isn't enough and doesn't cover all of their expenses and they struggle to get by. They can often be found in the countryside and many of the church groups employing them insist that they study Thai to B6 level (grade 6 / 11 year old) before they begin God's work.
People often email me asking for suggestions of things from the West to sell in Thailand and items from Thailand to export abroad. As far as importing into Thailand goes, I really don't know as most mass market items are available, in Bangkok at least. One has to think about who their market is - the general population or just the expat community. I think marketing to farangs would be a whole lot easier than trying to sell to the masses although it is never easy doing business in a small niche - if something happens the niche could be gone. With regards to items to export, anything that has a high labour content involved in its production will be cheap in Thailand as labour here is SO much cheaper than the west. Further, there are some industries here that produce goods at prices far cheaper than the West. Printing is one example and the likes of greeting cards and prints / posters are so much cheaper in Thailand than the West. So long as you are not exporting copyrighted designs, I bet there could be a market for this sort of thing. There's probably money to be made in Thai handicrafts and the like but I don't know too much about that sort of thing. Basically, there are all sorts of possibilities and if you have an entrepreneurial streak, you could do very well.
Finally, I have met quite a few people who spend their time here trading stocks on the Internet. They all seem to be doing OK out of it but it seems a mighty risky business to me. You'd really need to have a bit of a buffer, financially, to do this. I for one wouldn't be able to sleep knowing that my continued existence is based purely on the performance of my stocks. Having said this, if you are someone that wants to live off your investments, Bangkok can't be a bad choice because the costs of most things here are a lot cheaper than elsewhere and the Internet infrastructure is pretty good these days. For work such as writing, programming, internet-based jobs or jobs where geographical location is unimportant, Bangkok provides an ideal base to work from.
I seem to be meeting folks all of the time who have taken early retirement and many are young, some haven't yet hit 30! Isn't this just a little bit early? At this point in one's life, Bangkok may appeal but who's to say it won't change? You don't want to spend some of the best years of your life in Thailand doing little to nothing and then later look back on those as wasted years. Further, as with the stock trading boys, it doesn't take a great movement in the markets for one to become a little nervous. Basically, whatever you do in Bangkok, try and do something productive and keep busy. And if you are contemplating early retirement in Thailand, make sure that you have enough money or assets / capital so that if things go badly, you can return to your homeland and are able to retire there - or have the skills / ability to get back into full-time employment. People retiring in Bangkok early seem to live their life as though they are permanently on holiday and go through no small amount of money. Basically, if you are planning on retiring early, think very carefully about it.
One of the benefits of getting a job in Bangkok is that as long as it is above board, a work permit should be included. To get a work permit, you need to first get a non-immigrant type B visa. This can only be obtained from a Thai embassy outside of Thailand and to get it you need a letter from a prospective employer saying that you have accepted a position within their organisation blah blah blah. Once you have this, there is all sorts of paper work to fill out, a medical certificate to get, a large number of photos to be taken and then leave it all to your employer to arrange the rest. It can take a few weeks for everything to come through. Strictly speaking, you shouldn't start work until the work permit has been issued but in reality, that is seldom the case. There are quite a few companies that will offer you work but will not provide you with a work permit such as some part-time positions, some English teaching positions and some jobs that foreigners are not supposed to be doing. There are also a lot of companies operating in what could be considered a bit of a grey area and these companies seldom offer work permits.
Thai companies don't always make the best employers and what I would consider abuse of employees is rife. Employees might be employed to work Monday - Friday, 9 AM - 5 PM, but seldom may leave the office until much later on in the evening, sometimes as late as 8 or 9 PM - and in some cases this may be almost every day, not just in the case of a special project or something like that. Thais pay a huge amount of respect to their boss, simply because of their job title, and that is the person who pays their monthly salary. Obviously Westerners are quite different. I always tell people to brush up on the labour laws in Thailand. While it is important to do your best to fit in, and not rock the boat too much, neither do you want to bend over and accept unfair terms and conditions that are outside the spirit of fair play. As a farang in Thailand, your lack of knowledge of the local ways of doing things as well as the local labour laws can be used against you and companies can mess you around with virtual impunity. Do what you can to educate yourself on your rights as an employee. Thailand is not indifferent to the rest of the world where the labour court tends to side with the employee in an employee vs. employer dispute. And yes, they have been known to award in favour of the Westerner when he has taken on a Thai!There are several visas available to you as a foreigner entering Thailand. While the regulations may change at any time, as at early 2005, all holders of passports from North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand are, for the time being, all subject to the same rules and regulations. What most people visiting Thailand get is a 30 day stamp upon entry to the country, often mistakenly referred to as a tourist visa - which actually it is not. This is essentially an entry permit, and not a visa as such, and are issued at all entry points in to Thailand.
In the past you could simply exit the country and re-enter with a new 30 day entry stamp or a tourist visa, seemingly forever. Some people did this for years and years without any real problem. They were simply too lazy to get the more appropriate visa for long-stayers - or they did not qualify for the said visa. Many years ago I predicted that this loophole will be plugged and in October 2006 it was. The Thai government enacted new visa rules that clearly state that foreigners entering Thailand can only spend 90 days in a 180 day period in Thailand on the 30 day entry stamps. That means you could exit the country to a neighbouring country and re-enter immediately. You could do this three times after which point you could not return for 90 days (assuming you used the entire 30 days). Alternatively, you could get 10 of these 30 day entry stamps and use each one for 9 days, meaning a total of 90 days. This was then repealed and you can now come and go as you wish without any limit although existing in Thailand indefinitely on tourist visas or visa waiver stamps will eventually raise the eyebrows of an Immigration official, I reckon.
There are two types of tourist visas available to you and these must be applied for at a Thai consulate / embassy outside of Thailand. The first is the 60 day tourist visa and the second is the double entry tourist visa. The first time this type of visa is applied for it is usually issued without any problem. You usually just have to fill out a form, submit a couple of passport photos and pay the fee. The 60 day tourist visa can be extended while you are in Thailand for, I believe, a period of 30 days (though this may have changed so it is best to check with Thai Immigration for up-to-date information). After that, I believe you may have to exit the country and get a new one and return. You can also get a double entry or multiple entry tourist visa. These allow you to exit the country and get another 60 days which in turn can be extended for 30 days in country. Confused? You should be, because the whole issue of visas can be very confusing.
The Thai authorities have indicated that they will not continue to issue tourist visas ad infinitum, as had been the case in the past. Too many foreigners took advantage of the system and were working in-country illegally. The Thais welcome foreigners but they want us to be in the country legally - with the appropriate visa. Actually, they do make it quite easy for most to continue to reside in Thailand without any real problem. If you really do want to stay in Thailand it IS possible to find a way to do it legally. Obviously, while you have a tourist visa, you are, strictly speaking, not allowed to work or perform any task that results in you making an income.
The next category of visa is the non-immigrant B. This is the visa is for those coming to Thailand to work or to conduct business. To get this type of visa, one must apply at a Thai embassy or consulate outside of the country with a letter of support, whether from your future employer or from the company for whom you will be doing business. Some consulates and embassies require more documentation. It should be noted that if you have your own company, you can simply write yourself a letter on your company's letterhead paper saying you are going to work in Thailand and voila, you'll get the visa. There are two types of non-immigrant B visa - the single entry which is good for 90 days and is predominantly issued to those applying for work, and the multiple entry variety which is usually issued to those people who will be coming and going while on business. Ordinarily, you cannot get a non-immigrant visa without a letter of support.
Another visa many Westerners apply for is the non-immigrant O visas, the "O" standing for "other". They are issued to those in some sort of relationship with a Thai national such as those who are married, have children with a Thai national or who wish to retire in Thailand.
MBK Shopping Centre, where you can find almost anything.
It is illegal to work in Thailand without a work permit. It doesn't matter what the work is, be it English teaching, working for a Thai company part-time or full-time, doing consulting work, working for important or influential Thais, or even doing internet based work that has nothing to do with Thailand. If you work while you are in Thailand without a work permit, it is illegal! Now that is not to say that it doesn't happen. In my estimation, for every Westerner working legally in Thailand there is at least one working illegally! And there are many, many Westerners in Thailand who have a work permit but are still not entirely legal. An example would be an English teacher who has a work permit for their main job, which may be a Monday to Friday affair, but they may also do some part-time weekend work at a different school, for which they do not have a work permit. Work permits allow the work permit holder to perform a specified job for a specified company and are not "open-ended" so to speak.
The Thai authorities are fairly pragmatic about this. They know that there may be a need for the foreign labour, especially in positions like English teaching. Crackdowns are not common and on the few occasions when there has been a crackdown or a work permit check, it has usually been prompted by something i.e. someone pissed the cops off so they crack down to make a point. But this does not mean it is ok to work without a work permit. If you are working illegally, you are always vulnerable. All it takes is for someone to tip off the authorities and you could be trouble - and trouble in this instance could mean deportation and in a worst case scenario, perhaps even being blacklisted from ever entering the country again.
If you wish to get legal - and you should - there are options available to you. If you are working for an organisation, insist on them getting a work permit for you. If they do not want to provide you with one, then leave. Remember, if you are working without a work permit then you have no protection whatsoever should there be any problems. And sadly, it is not unusual for some organisations to point out to their staff that as they do not have a work permit, they should not complain. I know of more than a few cases where Westerners were exploited by their employer and when the Westerner threatened to go to the authorities about this or that, the employer simply told them to go ahead, clearly pointing out that as they were working without a work permit they should expect that that would now become an issue. A very nasty business indeed!
If you are working for yourself, or wish to start up your own company, you can register your own company and get a work permit. There are a number of firms advertising such services in the newspapers and in other publications. The cost of registering the business and getting a work permit seem to be in the range of 60,000 - 70,000 baht, all up. It might sound like a lot but once you have done that, you are legal - and will not be subject to any of the problems that someone working without a work permit may. It will also remove the need to exit and re-enter the country every time your visa is about to expire, a process which can become time consuming, costly and downright boring. Remember if you are in Bangkok, the nearest exit points out of the country are a fair way away and all but Malaysia (Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia) require that you obtain a visa to enter that country - which just increases the hassle and the cost. And Malaysia is a long way from Bangkok! So, not only is it time away from Bangkok and work, it also costs a bit to get there.
In the old days, that is back in the '90s, it was almost the norm for people to do visa runs for years and years, but these days, most people cringe at the idea of having to exit and re-enter the country regularly. It is a lot easier to become legal these days and if you wish to operate a business, or work, or simply wish to stay in Thailand long-term, you should look at a long term solution.
Another option, although a very foolish and illegal one, is to retain the services of one of the companies that offer a mischievously named "visa service". What these companies do is send your passport out of the country and have someone take it through all of the immigration exit and entry points where it gets stamped with all the exit and re-entry stamps done. The visa is acquired illegally but the visa itself is apparently, genuine. The problem with using such companies is that what they are doing is HIGHLY ILLEGAL and should anything happen while your passport is in their possession, you could be in a lot of trouble. Also, who's to know just who uses your passport? They might have a terrorist or criminal use your passport to enter and cross international borders. You do not want that!
As crazy as it sounds, this sort of carry on was very popular in the past. A company called Thai Visa operated such services for many years and they were apparently used by many expats before they were busted. The owner actually had a shop on Sukhumvit Soi 23 where this service was offered from was expelled from the country, back in 2000. I remember reading a large article in the Bangkok Post about them, where the Post unwittingly profiled an illegal business!
It should be noted that Thai citizens over the age of 15 are required to carry a national ID card. As foreigners, we do not have such a card. The law says that we are therefore supposed to have our passport with us at all times but in actuality few people do. If you get in any difficulties while your passport is out of the country, things could get rather embarrassing to say the least. THIS SENDING THE PASSPORT OUT OF THE COUNTRY SERVICE IS HIGHLY ILLEGAL! DO NOT DO IT NO MATTER WHAT YOU MAY BE TOLD! On the subject of carrying your passport on you at all times, what I personally do is have a laminated copy of the main page of passport in my wallet at all times, as well as a photocopy of the visa page. I have never been asked to produce my passport but I am sure that if I was asked this laminated copy and photocopy would suffice.
Be aware of overstaying your visa in Thailand. While many foreigners overstay and don't have too many problems, it could become a big problem if you are picked up on an expired visa before you exit the country. The official policy on overstayed visas is that the overstayer pays a fine of 500 baht per day, up to a maximum of 20,000 baht - 40 days overstay. One might just let their visa expire and pay the fine as they exit. Truth be told, the Thai authorities are generally very easy on us and even someone who has overstayed for a long period of time is usually allowed back into the country - unlike folks who overstay visas in the West and might find themselves unable to return for a period of time. Where all of this gets a little complicated is if you are caught in country with an expired visa. There are a number of things that may happen including deportation or even a trip to the dreaded Immigration Detention Centre. I urge you to make sure that your visa is ALWAYS valid.
I personally know several people who have overstayed their visas - everyone was treated differently.
- Person number one overstayed a tourist visa for four years. He was caught in Pattaya after his ex-wife ratted on him to the immigration police. He went to court, was prosecuted and did sixty days prison. He since came back to Thailand and overstayed his tourist visa for another year before leaving. Some people obviously do not learn.
- Person number two overstayed by nine days and exited at Don Muang airport and was not even fined. Nothing was said and he was just stamped out of the country. He had made every effort to go out neatly dressed and well presented as is important when dealing with officials in Thailand so perhaps that helped?
- Person number three overstayed his visa by three years and exited the country overland. After a bit of a scare, immigration accepted the 20,000 baht fine - he had prepared the money in advance - and let him exit without charge and he subsequently re-entered an hour later with a new, totally legal entry stamp!
- Person number four exited overland at Nongkhai / Laos eight days after his visa had expired. He was charged 1,600 baht and of he went to Laos and returned three days later, no problem, with a new visa.
- Person number five was one day over his visa. He had already bought a ticket to fly out of the country the next day and was planning to pay what would have been a two day overstay fine at the airport. He was unfortunate to be caught in a random immigration raid on his apartment building. Notwithstanding that he had a ticket to exit the country the very next day, he was locked up in what he describes as truly hellish conditions in the Immigration Detention Centre. He was released a few days later after his embassy got involved to get him released. A policeman escorted him to the airport and he managed to get a flight out and return a few days later. He described it as a harrowing experience.
- Person number six had a visa that had expired by two days and he was somewhat nervous about it. He approached one of the visa services that promise to efficiently deal with overstays. His passport went out of the country and came back with stamps indicating that he had exited the country BEFORE the visa had expired. The visa service offering this service got busted by the police a few months later but the visa turned out to be fine and when he later left the country, he had no problems. He was very lucky.
If enough foreigners continue to flaunt the immigration rules and overstay their visa, the Thai authorities might make things more difficult than they currently are. For this reason, we should all try and make sure our visa status is in order. Remember, it is a privilege for us to visit or live in Thailand, and not a right - and we need to respect that. If you do get caught for overstaying, a note to that effect is stamped in your passport and who knows, a little flag may go into the immigration computer too. Don't do it - it's really not worth it! One day, these past indiscretions may come back to haunt you. While I cannot confirm it, I believe that if you get deported from Thailand, it has an effect on entry into all of the countries in the ASEAN region, but like I say, I cannot confirm this for sure.
While many foreigners work in Thailand for years and years, few ever become Thai citizens, with a right to live and stay in Thailand forever. Even if you marry a Thai citizen and have children and raise them in Thailand, you are forced to extend your visa each year and it is only ever extended for 12 months at a time. Getting permanent residency in Thailand is possible, but it is said to be a complicated process that few go through. Going down to Immigration each year is worrisome, knowing that there is always a chance, no matter how small or trivial, that you may be denied a visa extension and told that your stay in Thailand won't be extended.
One also needs to be aware that if you commit a crime in Thailand, are arrested, charged and subsequently convicted then you are supposed to be deported, irrespective of how long you have been in the country, irrespective of how small the crime is and irrespective of any ties you may have, be it family, business, property etc. This all contributes to making one's stay in Thailand seem as though it is somewhat impermanent. Trust me, no matter how long you stay in Thailand, you will always be considered farang (or Indian, African, whatever your nationality may be) by the Thais. With all this said, a number of people have been found guilty of a crime in Thailand and not deported, while others have been deported and have returned to the country on the next available flight and been allowed to enter as if nothing had ever happened!
A foreigner residing in Thailand for more than three years, for which they can show the appropriate visas (tourist visas are not accepted), can apply for residency. This requires a mountain of paperwork, background checks, interviews at Immigration and it is long, drawn out process. For full details on this you would be best off to go and ask for more details at the Immigration Department at Soi Suan Plu. I believe that the cost of applying for residency status is either 95,000 or 190,000 baht, the price dependent on whether you are married to a Thai national or not. There are various advantages in achieving residency but to be honest, I am not clear on just what they are.
A good friend of mine who had visited Thailand a few times decided to relocate to Bangkok for a period in an effort to help decide whether he wanted to stay in the country long-term. He was able to work a job for customers back in his homeland whilst in Thailand using the internet but in the end he decided, for various reasons, that Thailand long-term was not the best option and it would be better to move back to his corner of Farangland. These words describe how he reached that decision.One of the most important factors was that I felt like a second class citizen in Thailand. I would never be able to own my own land, never have the right to vote and maybe even never be able to become a Thai citizen. This was not important at first, but it started to bother me later. I found it way too risky to build my future in a country where I am basically at the mercy of the Thai government, and with the change in power, I was not so sure things would go my way. People with no tangible prospects should really consider if they want to have their possessions, a wife and a family in a land where they have a very uncertain future. I mean, what would you do if you own a condo, have a wife and kids and you go to the Immigration office and you get told to leave the country within 10 days, that your visa will not be extended? People should consider if they want to (and can) put up with this. I heard stories about people who always got nervous when their visa was about to expire and had to do a visa run again. Work permits do not come with a guarantee, either.You spend so much of your life at work that as good as Bangkok is, one still wants to get a job that they enjoy - or at the very least, tolerate. I wouldn't recommend coming to Thailand blindly and looking for work without any real plan as you may end up with something that you don't like.
the late Chris Spekreijse, The Netherlands, 2001
Bangkok has a huge range of accommodation options from houses to apartments, guesthouses to hotels, condos to mansions. Foreigners staying long term generally initially choose an apartment over a house because they are more readily available and tend to be cheaper to rent as well as being more secure. The cheapest apartments start at about 1,500 a month but really, that gets you little more than a dive, a place with four walls and a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. You might not even get a fan and you'll almost certainly be sharing the bathroom which is down a dark, dirty corridor with all of the other unlucky souls who have found themselves in such inauspicious surroundings. Fortunately, few Westerners end up in such digs. At the other end of the scale, prices can go up to and exceed 200,000 baht a month for the most luxurious executive properties.
My attitude is that you battle a lot in Bangkok and that the environment can be, while certainly not hostile, shall we say "a challenge", that the place to stay should be as nice as you can realistically afford and with a bit of luck, tranquil and relaxing. Your rent will probably be your biggest expense but in my opinion it's worth spending a little extra to get something that where the feeling is right. Decide where you want to live, which will probably be largely dictated by where you work (of if you are retired, by where you tend to hang out), and then start searching in that area. Take your time and look at as many places as you can before making a decision. If at all possible, talk to other foreigners who are staying in the area / building and see how they have found it. Ask them about any problems they may have had and how those have been dealt with by the apartment staff.
Searching for and selecting the ideal rental property in Thailand is not that different from the West. Look at the upkeep of the premises. Are things clean and maintained? What is the security like? Are there many guards? Can anyone wander unchallenged into the building / compound? Is there a car park and is it secure? The principles of accommodation hunting in the West apply in Bangkok too.
Whatever you desire in terms of accommodation, Bangkok has it. From executive condominiums, fully serviced apartments and luxury houses to cheap and nasty, dimly-lit rooms in slum neighbourhoods where you couldn't swing a cat, Bangkok offers a huge choice and rage of accommodation options. The nature of accommodation in Bangkok with the city centre full of high rise apartments and the suburbs full of houses means that most Westerners go for an apartment over a house. Apartments are both plentiful and affordable while houses, in central areas at least, tend to be a lot more expensive. If you could find a house to rent in downtown Bangkok you'd probably have a heart attack at the asking price, a reflection of the land prices in the downtown area. Notwithstanding this if you don't mind living out on the edges of the city, houses in the suburbs can be surprisingly good value for money. The problem is that Bangkok is a very large city and this could put you quite a distance from downtown as well as other areas.
The Sukhumvit Road (pictured below) area has traditionally been the location where Westerners have settled for a medium to long term stay in Bangkok. It's an area with a lot of hotels, farang-oriented businesses with book shops, restaurants and bars as well as entertainment areas and is home to some shopping centres. It's not known as the farang ghetto of Bangkok for nothing. The familiarity that many Westerners have with this area from previous visits as a tourist makes it an easy option.
Sukhumvit Road is longer than you think...it goes all the way down to Pattaya and beyond, more than 150 km away, but for all intents and purposes here, we'll just discuss the section of it in Bangkok. The start of Sukhumvit Road at the expressway just west of the JW Marriott Hotel, sees it in a very central area and as you'd expect, property prices in this area are high. Still, as is the case in Bangkok, you can still find some remarkably god deals if you are prepared to look hard. Anywhere between that section of the expressway and Soi Asoke (Sukhumvit Soi 21) is generally going to be fairly expensive because you're paying for the location. The further down Sukhumvit you go (as the soi numbers get higher), generally the prices of accommodation fall, although there are some upmarket neighbourhoods that break this rule such as some of the sois around the Emporium shopping centre where a lot of Japanese live (as with most everywhere, wherever the Japanese are found, prices tend to be much higher than elsewhere) as well as the upmarket area of Soi Thonglor, home to some very expensive apartment buildings and many well-to-do Thais and successful foreigners.
Sukhumvit Road, where many Westerners choose to live.
Like much of central Bangkok, traffic on Sukhumvit Road can be a nightmare, especially when it rains. You can find yourself stuck and unable to get anywhere in a hurry. Still, as long as you are no further down than Sukhumvit soi 77 (Soi Onnut), you're never going to be too far from a skytrain station.
The Thai word "soi" is one you will hear frequently in Thailand. Streets running off a main road in Thailand are called sois and they are numbered. The odd numbered sois are on one side of the road and the even numbered sois on the other. The numbering system on Sukhumvit Road is a little irregular so on one side on the road you may be at soi 39 but directly opposite, it is soi 24.
While you can find reasonably priced Thai food and general services anywhere in Bangkok, the lower numbered Sukhumvit sois (read: West of Soi Asoke, sois 1 - 19) are a major tourist area featuring many big name hotels such as the JW Marriott, the Sheraton Grande and The Landmark as well as being ground zero for much of the Westerner-orientated naughty nightlife area of Bangkok. With this in mind, prices in the are quite a big higher than further down Sukhumvit Road. There are a lot of more expensive restaurants and other tourist-oriented businesses. Much of what is for sale in the area between Emporium up to the expressway above Sukhumvit soi 1 is more expensive than many other parts of Bangkok. You can live in this area on the cheap - there are inexpensive apartment options and cheap food vendors in the area - but you may have to look a little harder than elsewhere, and be a bit further away from the main road. Having said all of that, there are some excellent restaurants in this area so if you are happy to spend extra, the area may just appeal.
For me personally, Sukhumvit just has too many foreigners for my liking and there is a bit of a Sukhumvit clan like in the area. I often feel that many of never really escape Sukhumvit to go anywhere else and I guess they don't have to because just about everything one wants is there. But then that is not my idea of fun and hanging out with other foreigners all the time and eating Western food is not the reason that I came to Thailand in the first place.
My preferred area to live used to be Patumwan, specifically the area surrounding Siam Square and the MBK shopping centre. What I liked about that area is that one is close to major shopping areas meaning not just regular shops but supermarkets and restaurants too. There are a number of living foreigners in the area and many of them are there because they are one of the number who want to live in a central area but explicitly want to avoid Sukhumvit. I lived in that area for 5 years before moving, part of the decision made because I felt that I lived a lifestyle that was somewhat like a tourist, the convenience of living there really is that good! Other than the fact that I worked in a central area, it's close to the major shopping centres, is a short bus / sky train ride to the areas popular with farangs at night, but perhaps most importantly, from this area you can easily take one of a number of forms of public transport to virtually anywhere in the city. Many Westerners I know living here have followed a similar pattern to me where by they started off their Bangkok life living in a central area such as Patumwan or Sukhumvit but in time gravitate out towards the suburbs where you can get a bigger place for less money. Nowadays, almost everyone agrees that the best place to live is a maximum of 10 minutes walk to any skytrain station. 10 minutes is ok but anything more than that and one starts to sweat a lot - and that is hardly ideal if you are on your way to work. With this trend, the prices of accommodation on or within walking distance to the skytrain have soared but for some strange reason, rental prices have not moved much at all. Funny that.
If time is of the essence, or you are new to the city and hopelessly disoriented, you can also enlist the services of a property agent to help you find a place. There are many agents all over the city. Traditionally they used to be Thai nationals who advertised daily in the Bangkok Post and their tools of the trade consisted of a mobile phone and a car but the modern Bangkok real estate agent has a website with a number of listings and a car and driver. The agent has a number of properties that they have agreements with and they will run you around all over the city showing you all sorts of places in the area / price range that appeals to you. You do not pay them directly so if they are unable to find something that you like, their service is essentially free - though some of them might get a bit shitty at you because Bangkok traffic being what it is, it is conceivable that they could spend all day with you, with only enough time to show you a handful of places, none of which you like! Generally what happens is that for every placement they make, they get an effective commission of one month's rent. They are paid by the apartment building if they introduce you to a building and you decide to take out a contract. Note however that this may reduce your chances of bargaining down the price.
Although cheaper places exist, you will probably need to spend 3,000 - 5,000 baht to get somewhere very basic and not too far out in the sticks. 3,000 - 5,000 baht will get you a small (about 20 square metre) studio apartment in the central areas or a slightly more spacious (35+ square metre) apartment further out. Places in this price range are strictly English teacher material! Obviously, the further away you are from Central Bangkok, the cheaper the cost of accommodation gets but even then, and possibly contrary to what you have heard, 5,000 baht will never get you anything great in Bangkok. Paying any less than this and you are starting to look at some real doss houses. The cheapest place I have ever seen was this room for 1,000 baht a month - to say it was awful would be a major understatement. We are talking about a single room in a shophouse that had been divided up into lots of smaller rooms, all rented out at a mere $US 20 per month! Yeah, $20 gets you a few square metres and NOTHING else. Paying around 10,000 baht will get you a reasonable, centrally located studio around 30 - 40 square metres that should be nicely furnished including TV and fridge. You usually need to pay more than 10,000 baht if you want a newish, centrally located place with either a separate bedroom or kitchen or both. As a rough guide, figure around 15 - 25K baht for a pleasant, clean, secure centrally located one bedroom apartment, 20k up for a centrally located two bedroom place. Obviously, the bigger the place, the better the facilities and the better the location, the more you will pay, so these prices should be looked at as a guide and no more. Note: In many of the smaller places, particularly studio apartments, kitchens are not that common. Space is obviously at a premium and Thais may find it easier to eat out - and it may even be difficult to cook in for less money (and that is forgetting time and hassle) than you can eat out! Balconies are nice but too often the balconies in apartments in Bangkok are so small that you can barely fit one or two small chairs out there. Still, if you can get a place with a balcony, you can sit outside, sink beer and bitch and moan about life in Bangkok while watching the nice sunsets like this one pictured here from a friend's old place. Bangkok pollution being what it is, if you are in a centrally located area, it is best to keep your balcony closed most of the time as you wouldn't believe the amount of dirt and crap that can build up. If you wash your own clothes, a balcony is extremely useful as you can hang your clothes out there to dry.
If you are a professional on a big package, you can get some beautiful fully EVERYTHING apartments from around 35,000+ baht a month and could pay up to, or even well over, 100,000 baht or so per month for something that could only be described as opulent. In a city where the traffic moves at a snail's pace, location becomes even more important and you should consider getting an apartment AFTER you have found a job and know where you will be working. Bangkok traffic is an absolute nightmare and you will want to be as close to where you work as possible to reduce travelling time. Obviously the facilities will vary from place to place but you want to consider the following: Does the apartment have good security, a restaurant, laundry facilities, a balcony, a gym or a pool? How old is the building? Good security is paramount - the other services are really to your personal preference. I also believe the "culture" of an apartment building is important. Try and look for a building with a mix of both Thais and foreigners - this type of apartment building will be geared for providing service to foreigners, notices and bills will be in both English and Thai etc. (Alternatively, you may want to be in a predominantly Thai occupied building which is fine if you want to save or simply don't have a lot of money.) Unless on a real budget, I don't think it would be a good idea to be the only foreigner in an otherwise all Thai occupied building - unless of course you speak quite good Thai. While most Thais are very helpful, being unable to speak Thai will make is tricky if any issues arise.
There are some really incredibly beautiful apartment buildings in Bangkok but like I've said, the prices are not cheap. I personally like the Evergreen Apartment building on Phyathai, not far from the Asia Hotel. Very good quality everything, right across the board, and for 30 odd thousand you can get something that is really quite nice - and priced reasonably. Moving further up, there are some really nice apartment buildings near Soi Lung Suan, the road that runs down from Central Chidlom to Lumpini Park. This is prime real estate, right in the heart of the city, convenient to most place and thus some of the buildings in this lane are very expensive and you could easily be looking at 100,000 baht a month for apartments in this area. All around town, you'll find various upmarket buildings. Bangkok is a little unusual in that you often find a really good building in a very average area, or vice versa!
As far as cheap places go, there are virtually unlimited options, though these places tend to have higher occupancy rates and tend to be full most of the time - and it is often chance to get into a really cheap building. Over the last few years, occupancy rates in the cheaper apartment buildings in central areas seem to be either 100% of just a little less. While finances may force you into a cheaper place, try not to go too down-market because the cheaper places are fraught with problems, noise being the biggest one, but security is also a major concern - and as a Westerner you are a real target! Also, it doesn't seem to take long before a building becomes cockroach infested and once you've got them, they are bloody hard to get rid of.
If you do decide to go down-market, there seems to be a big difference in the quality of the apartments either side of the 5,000 baht per month mark. Pay less than 5,000 baht and you get a dump - it's as simple as that. I have yet to see anything reasonable for under 5,000 baht and really, this is for poor teachers only. The average Westerner wouldn't dream of such a place in the West and I am shocked that so many Westerners live in such places here in Bangkok. Still, that is their choice and not mine... Between 5,000 and 10,000 you are generally looking at something basic, something which could be considered satisfactory, but really no more than that. One thing you most definitely need to consider is the type of people living in your building. In the cheaper places, you get the Thais who are perhaps not so well off and some of these folks tend to lead a lifestyle that doesn't make them the ideal neighbour. You might find them up all night, with the TV volume turned right up or God forbid singing karaoke while piling into cheap Thai liquor. They may have undesirables around playing cards or they might get the whisky out at 3:00 AM. Their friends may come and go at all hours or in a worst case scenario, they may be a bunch of service workers who return in the middle hours of the morning every day. Basically, this can keep you awake at night and for me, there are few things worse than a bad nights sleep. On top of all of this, as a farang in such a building you may be a target for theft, whereas in a better building, the chances of theft are far, far less. Many people have a great time in the cheaper apartment buildings and it is a great way to meet down-to-earth Thai people and make some Thai friends, but for me, the cons outweigh the pros and I would rather a pay a bit extra to avoid any of the potential - and often inherent - problems.
The sweet spot for apartments for foreigners in Bangkok seems to be in the 10,000 - 20,000 baht per month bracket and in the last two or three years it has become quite difficult to find vacancies. It seems that when a Westerner has a place in this price range and moves on, on or other of their friends is ready to step straight in, meaning that it never actually becomes available on the market as such. In the late '90s it was very easy to find such apartments but like I say, now, in 2005, it is much more difficult.
Reality check: You might be surprised at exactly what is termed an "apartment" in Thailand. Often it is just a 20 square metre room with an add on toilet / bathroom. Back in the West, if someone says apartment to me, I think about a nice lounge / living area with full sized kitchen, bathroom, a couple of bedrooms and of course, a decent balcony. Of course, such apartments are available in Bangkok but a new one in a good location will be quite expensive.
Be wary of slightly older apartment buildings. Once an apartment building is several years old it can become a hive for cockroaches and other undesirable pests. The better apartment buildings will spray the entire building including each room every month and this service should be free but in the cheaper apartment building, this simply doesn't happen. Don't be shy to buy lots of insecticide and use it liberally because once you have got cockroaches or other unwelcome guests, it is really hard to get rid of them!
I don't know if it is me, but I have had terribly bad luck buying groceries at some of the minimarts operating on the ground floor of apartment buildings. Whenever I buy Coke it seems to be flat, ice-cream is stale as are potato chips and other products invariably have some problem, often due to age. Turnover of stock in some of these stores can be very low and as the minimart is often just run by the apartment building (and not privately managed), rotating stock is not always a priority. With that in mind, stick to supermarkets for your groceries where possible - and the supermarket will be cheaper too!
A swimming pool is always nice, like in the apartment building pictured below. In the heat of Bangkok, it is very relaxing to come home to a place that has a pool and go for a later afternoon dip. And in such a hot climate, swimming is one way to get exercise. Full marks to those guys who run here. I tried it a couple of times and gave up. It's just too hot!
If you want to use the internet, the telephone will be important to you. Most apartment buildings have a limited number of phone lines so when you make a call, there will be a time limit after which the call gets cut off and you have to dial again - and you have to pay each time! Time limits vary between 5 and 60 minutes - hardly enough to keep an internet junky happy. Calls from apartment buildings usually cost 5 baht flat rate for a local call. You can get your own direct phone line installed which bypasses the apartment switchboard giving you 3 baht phone calls with unlimited duration. The two most popular companies offering direct lines are the TOT and True. The installation cost of your own line is about 4,000 baht of which about 2,000 baht is deposit. The monthly rental charge runs at 100 baht per month. Some buildings will allow you to install a direct line in while others will not - some may even have the audacity to charge you an extra 500 baht per month for this (God only knows why - bunch of greedy so and sos...) If you do have a direct telephone line, you will get much better, faster internet connections...and then you can tune in to the Stickman Weekly each week without any problems! Now there's a reason to get a dedicated line!
Most apartment buildings have a laundry within the building where you can drop off all of your smelly, sweaty clothes and get them back in an umm, err, well, you get them back - most of the time! The quality of the work provided by apartment building laundries is variable... Some do a great job while others quite simply butcher your favourite garments. Generally speaking, there are two different types of services, either a per piece charge whereby every piece of clothing has a certain price e.g. jeans 15 baht, shirt 10 baht etc. This service usually includes washing and ironing. The other service offered, and the one which is more popular in the cheaper types of buildings, is a bulk service. Some laundry services have a system whereby they will wash all the clothes that you can throw at them for a certain monthly charge - usually 1,000+ baht per month. Other places have a deal whereby you give them one load (maybe max 4 - 5 kg - whatever the machine can take) and the cost is say around 100 baht. These places have a deal that may be something like 15 pieces for 100 baht. Lastly, and perhaps the most popular is where you pay an upfront cost of around 500 - 800 baht and they will wash anything from 50 - 100 pieces over whatever period of time. The prices vary from place to place, as does the service. Some places will wash and iron, others will only wash. Some will deliver to your room while others you have to go and collect it. I must say that I have had a lot of bad luck with laundry services - and I know I'm not the only one. In summary, I have had some items lost - never to be seen again, items shrunk, white shirts come back pink, the hot iron put on garments that have a warning tag saying expressly not to do that. Basically, if you find a good laundry service, stick with them! And if you have a live in Thai girlfriend, be wary if she wants to wash your clothes by hand as these Thai girls tend to use a hard brush and they scrub and scrub and scrub and while they get the clothes looking clean, the brushes that they use have very coarse bristles and have a tendency to tear the fabric to bits! If you have any favourite or expensive items of clothing, it sometimes pays to wash them by hand yourself, or get a decent washing machine in your apartment and do it there.
When choosing where to live, you also need to consider the price per unit for electricity and water. Generally speaking, the way it works is that the apartment building has a contract direct with the electric and telephone companies whom they pay at the standard rate. However, the rate that the apartment building charges you will invariably be higher and you pay the apartment who tack on their surcharge. The standard power rate as charged by the electric company is 2.61 baht per unit, but many apartment buildings charge their tenants between 3 and 5 baht per unit and this surcharge can really add up! Some of the very low end apartment buildings, usually the real dives, may charge an all inclusive fee which includes water and electricity - though places like this tend to be places without air-conditioning, the most power hungry appliance.
Beware that power for the air-conditioning unit, especially in the hot season, can easily run up to 5,000 baht a month if you have an inefficient air-con unit operating at a low temperature every day and night - and this is worth keeping an eye on if you are on a budget. English teachers take note! Purchasing a fan (500 - 700 baht for a small Japanese brand) will save money because fans don't consume much power at all, especially when compared to an air-conditioning unit. A fan should be the very first item that you purchase and it is better to go for a bigger one, as opposed to one of the smaller sizes. The bigger fans seem to be a little quieter and less prone to breaking down, at least in my experience. Further, the bigger fans are definitely more effective. A couple of fans can be almost as good as air-conditioning. Actually, on the subject of household appliances, where ever possible, try and avoid the cheap Thai brands. The locally made goods are always much cheaper than the imported goods and upon initial inspection usually look ok. However, I have had nothing but trouble with Thai made household goods and now always buy Japanese brand names. Kettles, fans, clocks, basically all of the Thai brand goods that I have bought have died. While I want to support the Thai economy and do my little bit for Thailand, buying goods that later die and then having retailers refuse to honour the supposed warranty has taught me a lesson - buy Japanese! The funny thing is that so many of the Japanese appliances are still made right here in Thailand. Buying cheap goods seems to be a bit of a false economy. I went through four kettles in less than a year, all Thai brands! When buying such appliances, make sure you keep all of the receipts - though remember that unless you bought the item from a large store, a refund may not be available.
A lot of apartment buildings will provide a partial cable TV service to you. When I say partial, I say this as you do not get the full service with all of the channels. The main cable TV provider is True Visions, previously known as UBC. Their standard service provides about 30 odd channels and many of them you can select English or Thai soundtrack. Many apartment buildings offer a limited cable system where in addition to all of the free to air Thai channels, you get a handful of the UBC cable TV channels too, usually all included in the cost of your apartment. The pirate systems, prevalent in so many apartment buildings do not allow you to select the soundtrack language though. Also, the pirate systems usually only have a limited number of channels to select. Still, it is essentially free so wile you don't get the full service, it is nice nonetheless! I am not impressed with cable TV in Thailand. You get a mish mash of material, much of it very old. The sports channels seem to be very big on British football and shirk most other sports. In recent years, their rugby coverage has been very poor, and their cricket coverage virtually non-existent.
In addition to True Visions which is available nationwide, there are a few smaller cable TV providers. Sophon Cable is a Pattaya based operator with 60 odd channels but a lot of them are really obscure and not necessarily the sort of thing that appeals to your average Joe. For example, there is one channel that seems to feature Sikh funerals, that is 24 hours a day of Sikh funerals! For fans of British sports - read cricket and rugby - your best bet is to buy a satellite dish which will set you back around 30,000 baht and then you can pick up South African cable TV which is available for a small monthly fee. That way you get all of the decent British sports as well as some of the other more popular cable channels. I am not a big TV junkie so the poor cable really doesn't bother me but if you like your TV, then Thailand may disappoint.
Apartments usually require a deposit of one month's rent and two month's rent paid in advance. (If you are an English teacher or someone moving to Bangkok without a lot of capital, you need to consider this.) Many apartments insist on a twelve month contract but you may be able to negotiate this. Rates too are up for negotiation but if you are going to be there for a short period of time, they may be less willing to negotiate. Figure on knocking at least 10% off the asking price in places over 10,000 baht a month, and a lot more on places over 20,000 baht a month. Rental rates in the cheaper apartments tend to be less negotiable and dearer apartments tend to be far more negotiable but obviously it depends on many factors - take a Thai friend along for best results if you don't speak adequate Thai or don't really know or understand the market. Of the people that I know who have broken apartment contracts and left early, they have always lost their deposit, even if there was only one month to run - keep this in mind if you are unsure how long you are going to stay. Other than this, Thai proprietors seem to be ok with returning deposits - at least in the experience of both me and my friends. If you are moving into an apartment building without any recommendations from people that you know and trust, it may be an idea to sign up for a minimum contract, just in case. Like many things in Thailand, you never know what might happen and it is nice to keep your options open.
Paying bills in Thailand can be a bit of a nightmare. If you live in an apartment building you will probably pay everything at the end of the month to the apartment building office, with your rent, water, telephone and electricity all easy to pay in the one place, all itemised on the same bill. However, if you are in a condominium or have separate, direct accounts, with the water, telephone and electricity companies, you cannot pay the bill in your condo office. (In some instances you can but that is a different story.) Generally speaking you can pay the bill for various utilities at the office of the service provider, a bank, or in some cases at other locations such as any branch of 7 Eleven. However if your bill is even one day overdue, you can generally only pay it at the office of the service provider, and sometimes not at just any office, but just one particular office. Now this office could be on the opposite side of Bangkok, miles away from where you live. It might not even be the head office. It's a crazy system! The moral of the story is simple do your best to pay your bills on time! Oh, and Thailand is not a cold country so you're not going to die of exposure to the cold. With that in mind, the electric company does not send you out multiple reminders of your outstanding bill as well as reminders of the overdue amount. They just cut you off. Bang, done!
There is a lot of development going on in Bangkok and you should do your best to make sure that none of this is too close to your apartment. If it is, you will not be getting any sleep because construction in Thailand is often a 24 hour a day business!
If you are in the market for executive style apartments, the internet and the Bangkok Post are good places to look as they tend to have listings for the dearer, more upmarket places. Most places that advertise in the Bangkok Post are considered expensive. In addition to all of the websites that have sprung up advertising the rent or sale of Bangkok properties, there is a Bangkok apartment guide that is published and available at book stores like Asia Books for around 200 baht. It is printed on high quality paper and has many luxurious and super flash places available. You know the prices in it are dear as the info is not just in English, but also in Japanese! Still, if you are in the market for an upmarket place, this is another place to look.
The power system in Thailand is not quite as stable as what we are used to in developed countries and power cuts are not uncommon although the power usually comes back on within an hour or so. Such power outages are especially common in the rainy season. I'm not sure what the causes or contributing factors are but the state of the wiring in Thailand is quite unbelievable. Whatever street you walk along it seems to be a veritable bird's nest of wires as you can see in the photograph here, taken in a soi right in the heart of the city!
Strictly speaking foreigners cannot buy property (i.e. house and land) in Thailand but can legally buy condominiums so long as they are on level 4 or higher of a building. There are a few other regulations such as the money must be transferred into Thailand from abroad and there can only be a certain percentage of foreign owned condos in the building. While it is only my opinion, if you are thinking of investing, be careful. The Bangkok property market is totally different to that were used to in the West. The determinants of price are different and buyer behaviour is total different. Many Thais, especially those with money, do not like to buy second hand so while your place might increase in value, it might be very difficult to actually sell it - and you might be forced to try and sell it to a foreigner which makes it a very small market indeed. The property market crashed in Bangkok just a few years ago and with the economy heating up again since around 2003 / 2004, just what is going to happen in the future. Also, we are talking about buying a place in a building here, a building which you have very little control over. The care and maintenance of such buildings in Thailand is not quite what it is in the West and once a building is 20 - 30 years old, just what condition will it be in? If you intend to live in the building for a long time, then perhaps it would be god purchase but property speculation and the option that property increases in value by 10% on average every year cannot necessarily be applied to Thailand. Yeah, odds are, a purchase would probably be a good decision, but then, you just never know what might happen. Me, I'm in no hurry to buy.
I have heard the following story which may or may not be true but certainly sounds plausible. Foreigners with a Thai wife can buy land in Thailand up to a certain size. However, what the foreigner must do is transfer the funds for the purchase of the property into Thailand from an offshore account. Once the funds have arrived in Thailand, they must then be transferred into the wife's bank account and from there, the property can be purchased and it is put in her name. The apparent reason for all of this is that if the marriage later dissolves, the records will show that money for the purchase of the house came from the wife's account and that therefore the property reverts over to her. Like I say, I'm not certain of this one. A number of long term foreigners who want to buy property but are nervous about the anti-foreigner laws that cover property purchases buy a place and put it in their wife's name but then take out a 30 year lease on it in their own name. Others still buy a place and put it in their child's name.
The way the Thais live is a whole lot different to the way that we farangs reside. As the Thais generally have a far smaller salary, they will often be more in one residence than we would be used to. In the case of living in Bangkok, extended families may all live together or in the case of Thais from the countryside who have moved to Bangkok in pursuit of work, they may live three or four to what is usually a very small apartment. Such an apartment, typically 3,000 - 4,000 baht per month may even house an entire family. By night, the floor will have many fold away mattresses laid out as everyone kips down and sleeps on the floor together. In fact the Thais may even sleep two or three of the same family members in the one bed. Farangs living alone is just one of many things that the Thais do not understand about us. They find it particularly strange that we choose to live like this, not just because of the higher costs, but also that we are not scared of ghosts at night...yeah, I'm serious!
It is not that common to find foreigners in a shared accommodation situation in Bangkok. I guess it jut goes back to the fact that accommodation is so cheap in Bangkok and that it is unnecessary to share with others as there is no need to have to reduce the cost. Still, I'm surprised that more people don't do it as you can get some decent three bedroom places for around 20,000 baht a month, and almost all three bedroom places will have a large lounge and kitchen and at least a couple of bathrooms. This offers a nice alternative to living alone in a basic studio for say 6,500 baht a month. Still, my days of sharing are long behind me and I couldn't imagine sharing with another foreigner. Anyway, it is an option and a way to get a much nicer place than you would likely otherwise have. From my experience shared living is more common amongst younger Western females in Thailand, particularly those teaching, than any other groups.
With the cost of labour so low in Thailand, many Westerners have a maid to help keep their place nice and carry out all those awful tasks like doing the washing up and my pet hate, ironing! There are two major options here apart from getting a maid through an agency which costs a lot more. The first option, and this is really only for those who have a lot of money, a big residence, or both, is to get a live in maid. The maid will not only be responsible for keeping the place clean and doing everything from sweeping and mopping the floor to scrubbing the bath etc, but also things like the dishes, the washing, the ironing, pretty much all of the domestic help. Some maids will even do the cooking too. Rates paid to live in maids vary greatly and I have heard of some working for less than 5,000 baht a month, but they also get free board and food. What I perhaps more common is to arrange for a maid to come in each day or perhaps a couple of times a week and to give your place a general clean up along with doing the washing and ironing. How much one would pay a maid for service like this, I am not sure, but I am always surprised at how little these poor women are paid, and I can't help feeling sorry for them. One friend gets a maid in every day, Monday to Friday for a couple of hours each day and she does all the cleaning as well as the washing and ironing. He pays her a bit over 2,000 baht a month, meaning about 50 baht an hour. Some people say that this is a fair wage but I think it is a bit cheap...but that is just me. Personally, I prefer to do all of this sort of stuff myself and the idea of an outsider in my apartment when I am not there is not something that I find thrilling.
One reason to steer clear of the cheaper apartment buildings is that the occurrence of theft in such places is much higher than in the more expensive places. Even if your building has good security with numerous security guards, key card access etc that prevents outsiders from entering, some of the cheaper apartment buildings are home to some decidedly dodgy characters who may take a fancy to some of your goodies. And as a farang, rightly or wrongly, you stand out as a rich individual and an ideal target. Lastly, as bad as it sounds, it is sometimes the security guards who are involved in the theft. I know of a few cases where apartments have been turned over and it was the security guards who did it. This is not common so don't be unreasonably concerned. Actually, I have found most of the security guards to be a great bunch and always enjoy joking around with them.
Most apartment buildings don't allow pets so if you are an animal lover, you will have to consider where you stay carefully. A lot of apartments also don't allow gas canisters for cooking in the units as they are scared of them exploding. Some of the better apartment buildings try to prevent tenants from hanging their laundry out to dry citing that such is an eyesore but in reality, this doesn't stop them!
Of course one doesn't have to live in an apartment and there are plenty of houses to choose from if you desire a larger place. However, unless you have SERIOUS amounts of cash, if you go for a house you are going to be out in the suburbs, a long way from the central city and quite possibly a long way from the skytrain. While most foreigners tend to prefer the convenience of an inner city apartment, houses can represent much better value for money, at least in terms of the size of place you get - and if you have got a family with kids, then the last place you want to be is boxed up in an apartment.
If you look at some of the "deals" offered by Sukhumvit Road real estate agents or some of the fancier agents with websites, you may have a heart attack at the prices for house rental which can range from reasonable money to way over 200,000 baht. Yes, $US5,000 per month up!
But there is no need to fret as houses can be found in the suburbs for around 10,000 baht or so. The advantages of a house over an apartment are obvious and thus don't need mentioning, but the disadvantages are less obvious. First of all, security can be quite a concern and talking with many, many Westerners resident here, most people who have been burgled are those people who lived in a house. You obviously have a garden to take care of although you can pay a small amount of money and have that done for you. If you have a family, a house would be ideal but as a single person - as so many Westerners are in Bangkok - or at least start out that way, a house can be a bit on the large side. Apartments usually come semi or fully furnished whereas houses tend to have little, if any furniture, meaning you have quite an outlay to make, which is fine and dandy if you are planning on staying in Bangkok for a long time, but a pain if you are unsure how long you'll be around for. Admittedly furniture and household goods are a lot cheaper in Thailand than they are in the west. When you first arrive here, a visit to Chatuchak Market would be the way to go as you can get just about everything you need for a new place there. The only problem is you might need a few friends to help you carry it all...
A lot of the houses in Bangkok are within their own complex - gated communities - called a "moo barn" which is Thai for village. These fenced off complexes have their own shops and even their own security so that anyone entering or leaving the moo barn has to pass through a security point. Security guards can also be seen cycling around the moo barn, keeping an eye on things. It is not foolproof by any stretch of the imagination but this does offer a bit more protection than say a stand alone house in a street with other such structures.
If you are wondering about buying a house in Bangkok, you used to be able to buy a place out in the sticks for around 1,000,000 baht - though that would be a very small place - and prices go up from there to sky high levels. In the moobarn (Thai word meaning village or housing estate) pictured above, a typical place like those pictured would go for around 4,000,000 baht up, though there are obviously many, many variables that determine the price of real estate. In reality few foreigners buy houses in Bangkok though a lot of Westerners have bought a house in the provinces. Since around 2003, property prices in Bangkok have really moved upwards. In late 2003, you could pick up a condominium within walking distance of the skytrain with a couple of bedrooms and perhaps 100 square metres in size for around 4,000,000 - 5,000,000 baht. These days you are looking at potentially 6,500,000 - 7,500,000 baht for the same place! Anyone who bought pre-2003 would be very happy with what has happened to the value of their property.
To me, food is one of life's pleasures and in Thailand, we are spoiled. Wherever you happen to venture to in the Kingdom, food is tasty and inexpensive. You will have few problems finding good cheap food anywhere in Bangkok and at any time of the day - one of the great things about the city is that when it comes to food, it really is 24 hours. Bangers is full of zillions of great restaurants and places to eat so if you enjoy your food as much as I do, you'll have a great time! For low income Westerners resident in Thailand, your apartments may not have any kitchen facilities (and may not even have a fridge!) so you may be virtually forced to eat out anyway - damn, no cooking, how I hate that! I believe that you couldn't make the food nearly as well and certainly not as cheaply as any of the street vendors do so why bother even trying? Eating out is quite simply a way of life in Thailand.
First, let me state that many of the big American fast food stores are particularly well represented in Bangkok so if you crave it, a Big Mac fix is never far away. Fast food is a lot harder to come by outside of Bangkok basically because beef is still not that popular with the Thais. The reason for this is because traditionally, Thailand has had an agriculture based economy and buffaloes are used to work the fields in Thailand. To eat an animal so useful is considered a sin by many in Thailand - much the same as the Indian belief. A 1999 Bangkok Post article stated that 58 of the 64 McDonalds restaurants in Thailand are in Bangkok - though new branches are starting to pop up elsewhere. But hell, you are in Thailand, with one of, if not the best cuisine in the world, so why do you want to eat McDonalds et al now?
Western style food can also be found relatively easily in Thailand and frankly, it's pretty good too - if you are willing to pay for the good stuff. Want a good American steak? Yep, you can find that! Succulent New Zealand lamb? No problem! German sausages and sauerkraut? Yep, some great German restaurants here. A good rich, creamy Italian pasta? Yep, that's no problem too. In the more central areas of Bangkok, you will be falling over all manner of authentic Western style food places. However, while I still enjoy, perhaps even *need* my western food fix, I tend to find that this sort of food is less agreeable with my body in the heat and humidity of Thailand. Eating Thai food simply seems to allow my body to function better in this environment. (When I first arrived in Bangkok, the opposite was true.) Make no mistake, the Western food here is as good as anywhere in the world! About the only Western food that they don't seem to do too well here is bread but if you go to the more expensive bakeries then you can still get decent stuff though it's not cheap.
Good restaurants can be found all over Bangkok. Service tends to be fast and the food that you order is usually brought to you fairly quickly - much quicker than it would be at most restaurants in the West. Usually you won't get all that you ordered at the same time, but often you will get a plate or two at a time...this is indicative of the Thai way of eating where everyone shares every dish - it works with Thai food but not really with farang style food!
Virtually all restaurants in the popular areas, tourist areas, shopping centres etc have menus in English and functional English is usually spoken by the staff. Thai waiting staff have a damned annoying habit of giving you the menu and then standing right over you, waiting for you to order, without giving you an time to look over the menu. Don't be shy to shoo them away and tell them to come back in 5 minutes.
For wine drinkers, the prices charged for a bottle of wine in restaurants varies and can range from unreasonably expensive to totally outrageous. You can take a bottle of wine along to most restaurants and the corkage charge ranges from 200 - 500 baht although some restaurants can charge as much as 1,000 baht and then charge you tax and service on top of that, meaning almost 1,200 baht or in real money, $US30! If you have a big group or are spending a lot, you can often negotiate for the restaurant to waive the charge. Don't be shy to ask. I have found a big smile often works! One of the sad things about the extortionate rates charged for wine in Thailand is that Thailand has a very low duty free allowance with each passenger only allowed to bring one litre of alcohol into the country duty free, irrespective of whether it is beer, wine, whisky, whatever!
There are many good local restaurant chains in Bangkok with branches all over the city. S&P have decent food though the portions are a little small for the price and the service can be a bit slow at times. Their penang gai is a favourite of mine. Another decent bet is Bua that serves food which is fairly traditional in the way it is prepared. See Fah isn't bad and has been in business for over 50 years and 13 Coins is a chain that remains popular and serves large portions - they also have a very extensive menu - but to me, their offerings are not great in the quality stakes. There are several chains offering suki style noodles such as MK and these always seem to be full. Nooddi Bar has a few branches selling all manner of excellent noodle dishes - very reasonably priced with most dishes around 60 - 70 baht. Little Home Bakery have several stores around the city and have reasonable breakfasts, especially if you like pancakes. There are several other chains and most of them are worth trying.
A street vendor where meals typically cost 25 - 30 baht.
If you want to eat cheaply, the street vendors in Bangkok serve tasty food at bargain prices. A meal can be had at a vendor as seen above for 20 - 30 baht. If you want to eat at the top end of the market, head for the glitzy 5 star hotels like The Oriental, The Regent, The Dusit Thani, The Peninsula or The Shangri-La where you could easily spend 1000+ baht per person. One of the great things about Thai food is that even those on an extremely tight budget can get a decent meal for very little money. As an example, a gra-pow gai rard khao (chicken with chilly and basel leaves on rice) at 25 baht on the street or 100 - 200 baht in a flash restaurant won't be that different in taste - it is possible that on the street it may even be better! I used to eat at a favourite street vendor several times a week for a few years before I moved to another part of town. If you are on a budget it is hard to justify going to better restaurants when the food served on the street tastes so good.
The difficulty with eating at street vendors is that there is usually no menu - or if there is, it will invariably be in Thai, incomprehensible to most foreigners. The odd street vendor may have an English menu but you should find that vendors speak some very basic English and “fried rice” is usually understood (though you don't want to limit yourself only to that boring dish). When you decide that you are prepared to eat at such vendors, it is a good idea to take along a phrase book with names of the dishes written in Thai and point to what you want. Point at the phrases and the vendor will be able to make it up for you.
There are various different types of food vendors, usually specialising in just one style of food. Perhaps the most common are the vendors selling barbecue grilled pieces of meat on a stick, pictured here. These vendors usually also sell sticky rice which makes a nice accompaniment. The typical price for a few pieces of meat on a short stick is 5 - 10 baht. Noodle soup vendors are everywhere and sell different types of noodles in a watery soup with a few pieces of meat thrown in for good measure. Known as gooey-deow in Thai, it usually goes for about 20 baht a plate. Many vendors sell pre-cooked curries sitting in trays. You tell them what curries you want (most people get two or three) and they will put them on top of rice. Usually 20 - 30 baht a plate. You may wonder what this food tastes like when it has been sitting there for an hour or two and is cold? Well, because it is spicy, you don't usually realise that it isn't actually hot (temperature) because the spices will hit you. My favourite type of vendors are those who have a wok there and make the food fresh to your order. This type of vendor will typically sell fried rice, chicken / pork with basil leaves and so forth and such dishes usually go for around 25 - 30 baht a plate when bought on the street. Popular with the Thais are the som tum (papaya salad) vendors. These are the folks who you often see pounding a salad in a bowl. There are all sorts of other interesting things that you can buy on the street and you should experiment. At these prices, you can't go wrong.
Many people pass up the opportunity to eat at the street vendors as they feel that the preparation of the food and general conditions are not hygienic. Just remember that all of the food is bought freshly at markets each morning and that the meat is usually stored in a cold box with plenty of ice. I have never found eating at such a place to be a problem - and I don't have the proverbial stomach of iron. I strongly recommend you have at least one meal at a street vendor – it's the way that the Thais eat and after one, I'm sure you'll eat there again and again! If you are still concerned, look and see if there are any expat foreigners eating at the vendors – if there are, that is often a sign that the food is good. I have heard that avoiding vendors on busy roads is wise as lead poisoning is a real danger but I don't know this for a fact. I try and eat at street vendors at least once a day. If you are on a really tight budget, you could eat four meals from street vendors or small street-side restaurants, have a couple of portions of fruit, and a few bottles of generic brand water, all for under 150 baht a day.
There is a certain romance for Westerners eating Thai style on the street amongst the Thais and watching everyday life. But let's be honest about it, hygiene is pretty bad at many of the street vendors. The person who cooks the food is the same person who prepares the food is the same person who collects your payment for the food and gives you your change - and washing hands between each step just doesn't happen. Food dropped on toe ground may not be thrown away but still cooked up and the rag used to dry their hands or wipe the sweat from the vendor's forehead may be the same one used to dry plates. As disgusting as it sounds, I kid you not!
There are many food halls located in shopping centres all over Bangkok. Meals in food halls usually range from about 25 - 60 baht with most meals around 30 - 40 baht. I've never figured out why, but the dishes served in food halls never seem to be quite as tasty as those served at vendors based outside, on the street. Maybe it is just that with the outside vendors, you get a free dose of pollution with your meal?
With the cost of good food being so cheap, you should try and eat well as often as possible. A chocolate bar at 25 baht costs about the same as a plate of fried rice or half a pineapple and a big bunch of bananas. Leave the junk food alone while you are in Bangkok - it is worth visiting this city for the food alone! Many, many restaurants and food vendors will put MSG into the food that you order so if you have an aversion to MSG, you may want to tell them not to put it in.
If you have never visited tropical Asia before, the first thing that will hit you is the unrelenting heat. Newcomers to Bangkok should drink at least two litres more per day than you had been drinking at home. This will reduce the chance of you becoming dehydrated. Note: many people who come to Bangkok suffer diarrhea early in their trip. This is usually attributed to bad food - which may have been the cause. However, it is just as likely to have been due to dehydration so remember to drink as many fluids as you can. If you are offered water, drink it - even if you don't feel thirsty. If you start to feel thirsty, chances are that you are already a little dehydrated. 950 ml bottles of water can be found from as little as 3 baht, but are usually sold at around 5 baht a bottle. I used to drink this type of water when I was new in Bangkok because I was super cheap, but I long ago gave up on them. I tend to stick with the branded bottles of water such as Singha, Minere and Aura. 1.5 litre bottles usually go for around 12 - 15 baht and 6 litre bottles for around 30 - 40 baht. Frankly, I do not trust the cheaper bottles of water and from time to time one reads articles about them containing all manner of impurities. Any water that is offered to you, at someone's house, in a restaurant or in a business situation will be bottled or distilled water and should be ok. I say "should" be because there have been numerous articles in the local press reporting how bottled water is not always that different from tap water... In fact I know of some locals who actually drink water straight out of the tap. It is claimed that many areas of Bangkok are reportedly safe. For peace of mind however, it may be best to stick with the bottled stuff and if you are really paranoid, go for the name brands.
For the drinkers out there, Bangkok can burn a big hole in your wallet. Drinking in Bangkok is often no cheaper than the West if you drink beer, wine or imported spirits in bars that target Westerners. If you are brave and like to try the Thai whiskies, then you can drink cheaply but watch out for those nasty hangovers! Alcohol varies wildly in price but as a very rough guide, a small bottle (330 ml) of Singha beer costs about 60 baht up in Thai style bars, 90 - 150 baht in gogo / girly bars and upwards of 200 baht at the flasher places such as flash bars and discos and the bars in the better hotels. Still, if you want to drink in your apartment, you can get a large (630 ml) bottle of Singha for around 50 baht and other Thai brands such as Leo or Chang a lot cheaper - sometimes as little as 30 baht. A few of these big bottles of beer will see you right. Singha beer has 6% alcohol content which makes it strong by beer standards. Thai whiskies are dirt cheap but some, particularly Mekong, can you give you the hangover from hell. There are a few other local beers available other than Singha including Leo (pretty good) and Chang (not to the Stickman's liking at all). Heineken and Amstel, two great Dutch beers are both brewed locally, decent beers at decent prices - around 35 baht for a small bottle or can in a supermarket or corner store or around 60 - 65 baht for a large bottle (640 ml). Carlsberg, the popular Danish beer, used to be brewed locally but due to some problems between the parent company in Denmark and the Thai operation, it hasn't been available since 2004. You can get most popular spirits imported from around the world here but as you'd expect, they are a hell of lot dearer than the local stuff. As an example of imported beers, in a supermarket, Corona / Budweiser beer goes for around 100 baht per bottle - and a hell of a lot more in a bar! The deal is the same on wines and a bottle that goes for just a few dollars at home costs 500 baht up here! Yikes! I notice that at certain supermarkets, and even some better / bigger department stores, they have a pretty good selection of wines. The biggest that I have seen seems to be in the excellent Villa Supermarket in the Ploenchit Centre - wine lovers, be prepared for a huge shock on the prices of wine! For wine lovers, whenever you have friends visiting from abroad, get them to bring you several bottles at a time - you'll be amazed at how much money this saves!
You can find the excellent Beer Lao in Thailand these days, particularly in Bangkok and other centres popular with Western tourists. Beer Lao is brewed in Laos and was originally created by Czech brew masters, I believe. Many beer drinkers claim it is the best, or at least one of the best beers, brewed in this part of the world. I am of the opinion that it is clearly the best. At this point in time it is only available at a limited number of bars and pubs, many in the Sukhumvit Road area. It is not yet available at the supermarket or at minimarts but it is hoped that that will change soon. Many of us believe that the Thai breweries are preventing its mass distribution in Thailand for fear that it will take over the market. Yes, it really is that good (and the local Thai brewed beers really are not that good at all!)
In 2005 legislation was passed which made the sale of alcohol in supermarkets, minimarts and the like prohibited between 2 and 5 PM - unless you buy 10 litres or more which makes it ok! Yes, this was all rather unusual, and you will see signs in most convenience stores and supermarkets stating clearly that alcohol cannot be sold between the hours of 2 and 5 PM.
There are supermarkets all over Bangkok, some good, some just adequate. The biggest stores are those of Tesco Lotus which are generally massive and pretty much everything is competitively priced. I'm not a great fan of Tesco Lotus because despite the prices, they are bland supermarkets that can get very busy - not a good place if you don't like large crowds. Tops is, I believe, a Dutch chain that carries some imported products, but not a lot of high end products, generally. A few of the smaller supermarket chains carry a better range of imported products and foodstuffs. The Foodland chain, which is about ten supermarkets or so, has a good range of both local and imported goods. For the best range of imported goods, try the Villa Supermarkets which carry both local produce and the best range of imported products. There are a handful of stores in Bangkok but two conveniently located stores are in the Ploenchit Plaza on Ploenchit Road and another not far from Emporium Shopping Centre near Sukhumvit Soi 33. I hear that they have opened a new branch on Thonglor Soi 15 which is supposed to be great, but I have yet to go there myself. The supermarket at the top of Emporium near the food court called Emporium Market is pretty good. In the Isetan department store on level 5 of the Central World Plaza also has a reasonable range of imported products including a lot of Japanese imported products.
While Thailand is a huge exporter of food and food products, there are obviously some food items that are hard to come by in Bangkok. Good coffee can be obtained but not that many cafes or coffee houses (especially the Thermae Coffee Shop!) actually make a good coffee - and for a cheap bugger like me, there really are not that many inexpensive places that do a good, cheap coffee. It's sort of ironic having to pay up to 100 baht for a good coffee when one can pay as little as 25 baht for a plate of food. And there is absolutely nothing worse than paying good money for a supposedly good coffee only to be served it with non-dairy creamer (that's powdered milk). Good, inexpensive red meat is also hard to come by. Coming from a Western country where we are spoiled for everything dairy related, the red meat here really is disappointing. Again, you can get good stuff but it will almost certainly be imported and thus be very expensive. Good lamb is especially hard to come by, unless you are prepared to spend an arm and a leg.
A note about Thai food in Thailand compared to western countries. When you eat Thai food in the West, restaurants tend to stock "gourmet" friend Thai food (arharn dtarm sung in Thai) such as chicken with cashew nuts, tom yum etc. Dishes like this are obviously available in many restaurants but many street vendors and food halls may not carry such dishes. Some Thai street vendors or streetside restaurants only offer one type of dish, or on style of food. They often have plainer dishes like khao mun gai - chicken on oily rice. Try and sample a variety of Thai dishes - not just what you may have previously tried in your home country. Some of the dishes may not sound quite so exotic but are usually delicious. Street vendors also sell all sorts of sweets and desserts at virtual give away prices. I have no idea what half of them are, but more often than not they taste very good. Up until August 2000, street vendors in Bangkok were prohibited from trading on a Wednesday due to a local bylaw that was in place to ensure that the city stayed clean - Wednesday being "cleaning day" but the new Bangkok Governor of the day, himself a gourmand, repealed this bylaw and now the street vendors can legally trade any day of the week - yippee! Update 2006 - Monday is the day when you won't find street vendors.
A friend in Bangkok once told me that the Thais can make anything delicious. When you get in to a few of the less popular styles of food, you will see that all sorts of things are available and from time to time, you may pass street vendors selling insects that look like cockroaches. Yes, the Thais eat these! A warning about them though. These insects are sometimes killed using a DDT based insect killer, a poison. The Thais seem to be able to stomach it ok but farangs eating insects killed with it can suffer nasty allergic reactions and in fact back in the year 2000, two English guys died from eating such "Thai delicacies". Just to make matters worse, some of the insects on sale for consumption are extracted from the shit of buffaloes! You've been warned!
I must say that I always thought the Thai food back in my native homeland compared very well with what is available here in Thailand. I told some of my Thai friends this and they scoffed off at me as a bit of a fool so I dismissed it as a figment of my imagination. I have since learned that pretty much all of the ingredients needed to make authentic Thai food are available all around the world. Recently, a student of mine went to Germany for a holiday and when he returned to Thailand he told me that the Thai food in Berlin was the best Thai food he had ever had!
For the Thais, eating is a very important time and they will usually eat together either with their family, their workmates or their friends. For a Thai, eating alone is a very lonely experience and the ritual of eating together is very much a bonding experience with those close to them. Not only do Thais eat the three main meals but they will often snack throughout the day too. For a Thai, the "pain" of being hungry is actually quite a big deal. While us Westerners are often able to battle on with a busy schedule and miss the occasional meal and make up for it later, a Thai will be most distressed if they do not eat when they feel hungry. While the stature of a Thai is not as big as the average Westerner, they seem to put back a truckload of food!
The way Thais eat is in groups and eating a alone is considered a very lonely experience for a Thai, something many will do everything they possibly can to avoid. Everyone shares the food and with Thai food this works well, but if you go to a farang food venue and are dining with Thais, don't be surprised if some of the diners start to pick things off your plate! Western educated Thais would seldom do this but those from other echelons of society who are less sophisticated may not realise that in the West, we tend to order what we want and at it ourselves! Also, do not be surprised when dining with Thais if they way over order with dish after dish after dish coming in what really can only be described as avarice. Unfortunately when there is a farang at the table - especially in instances when the farang is expected to pay - the Thais may order a ridiculous amount of food. Also don't be surprised when a Thai orders a dessert before eating their main meal! The norms of dining in the West really do not apply in Thailand.
Thailand has a huge selection of fruit and vegetables and a visit to a local market is a must. Some of the fruits that may be common at home such as apples, oranges and pears are not able to be grown in Thailand, are imported and are therefore fairly expensive. I got a hell of a fright once when I went to buy a peach which I thought was 89 baht a kg but was told that it was 89 baht a piece! Also, when strawberries are in season in Thailand, you are looking at about 20 baht for a small bag of locally grown strawberries. A similar sized bag of imported strawberries costs around 150 baht. Basically, imported fruit and vegetables can be very expensive. Imported packaged foods are expensive, but the prices are not usually this steep.
However, Thailand more than makes up for this with some truly wonderful fruit available. The Thais love durian, referred to locally as "the king of fruits". It is just too hard to describe and most Westerners are put off it by it's odour which, the first time you smell it, is not the most pleasant of aromas. However, if you persevere, durian is one of the most wonderful delicacies that one can experience. Mangosteen is another fruit that I have never had back in the west and again, it's just about impossible to describe. Sort of like smaller and sweeter than a pear but much bigger than a grape. I guess the closest thing to it is rambuttan, another fruit that is abundant and delicious, though funnily enough, this is one fruit that I actually prefer to eat canned, as opposed to eating fresh. Lumyai is another of these South East Asian delicacies and my lack of writing skills are shown in my inability to describe these fruits. Rumour has it that some of these Thai fruits, particularly durian, can be dangerous if you consume a lot of it and mix it with alcohol. Urban legend or not, I don't know. Further, durian is said to be the least healthy of all fruits and is incredibly fattening - so don't get addicted otherwise your waistline is going to get a lot bigger. Actually, most farangs don't seem to go for durian which is very much an acquired taste. My personal favourite of the Thai fruits is ripe mango served on top of sweet sticky rice and topped with a sweetened coconut milk - truly delicious.
A great variety of fruits are available at the many markets all over the city where you can get them very cheap. Produce in the supermarket may be dearer but you usually get the good stuff - but can pay quite a bit more for essentially the same thing. All over Bangkok you will find fruit vendors with small carts with ice cooled portions of various fruits for sale - usually 10 baht, sometimes 15, a portion. You get pineapple and watermelon year round and the other fruits tend to vary with unripe mango, cantaloupe, guava, grapes and oranges making up some of the others. At 10 baht, it's a quick, cheap, refreshing and nutritious snack.
Getting good coffee in Bangkok used be a somewhat arduous affair but that is changing and over the last few years the number of cafes with genuinely good coffee is on the increase. While some cafe like establishments are starting to spring up, Bangkok neither has - nor will it probably ever have a cafe culture like Western Europe, quite simply because it is too hot most of the year to sit outside and enjoy a coffee! You can find branches of Starbucks on every corner and there are a couple of local coffee house chains, Black Canyon, and Coffee World. They are about as good as it gets in Bangkok. Some of the better hotels serve decent coffee but they charge silly prices for it. For example, a simply cup of hot coffee at the "library" at the Sheraton Grande on Sukhumvit will run to almost 200 baht - that is almost $US6 - and that is not a fancy coffee, just a regular hot coffee! To make matters even worse, many establishments serving coffee use that horrible Coffeemate milk powder instead of real milk, reliving memories of the old school camps drinking coffee while sitting around the camp fire. If you have any favourite coffee beans, or brands of coffee, you might want to bring a decent supply from home. The cheaper brand coffee can be purchased at local supermarkets affordable enough but the good stuff, say the likes of Illy and Lavassa, are much dearer than home. Damn it!
Sometimes one just craves farang food and no matter how cheap, nutritious and downright delicious Thai food is, sometimes one just HAS TO have their farang food fix. Here are a few of my favourite mid-range places for farang food. I'm not saying that these are the best places to ear or anything silly like that, but simply, these are a few affordable places in central areas that I frequent and enjoy.
The Londoner - Located in the below ground at the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 33, it might be British in name but The Londoner is more of a cross between a British pub and a German beer hall. The beer brewed on the premises is not to my taste but many people enjoy it but the food is pretty good. Decent sized portions and they use imported ingredients - but it isn't cheap, at least not by Bangkok standards. But don't worry too much about the prices because there are a number of specials and promotions. On Wednesday nights all drinks are 2 for 1. There's also a deal whereby if you spend 1,000 baht or more, you get a voucher that gives 50% off the food on Monday or Tuesday nights. Cocktails and house beers are two for one before 7 PM.
Offshore Fish & Chips - Located on Sukhumvit Soi 23, this is a favourite spot for British, Aussie and Kiwi locals to refuel and get a bit of sustenance in the belly before they hit Soi Cowboy, just around the corner. Laid out like a typical grease pit takeaway from back home, they do a good job of replicating greasy, fatty takeaway grub! The staff can be surly and the service is slow, but the prices are reasonable and the offerings fill a gap. If you are from one of the aforementioned countries, make sure you ask for chips, and not french fries as they are two quite different products. Chips are the fat variety and french fries are ala McDonalds.
Bradman's Bistro - Located less than 100 metres into Sukhumvit soi 23 and almost across the road from the Offshore Fish & Chips outlet is Bradman's, an Australian-owned and run single-shophouse bar and restaurant that does very decent food at reasonable prices. Food here is decent and about 30 - 40% cheaper than what you will pay in any of the British pubs where Western food tends to be a little pricey. It's also an excellent spot to watch sport and if you're an Aussie, they have all the Aussie Rules, league, rugby union and cricket shown live. The venue is a little cramped, but the food is good. Oh, the service is mediocre at best - I only ever eat there and have one drink and then am out of there! It's a great place for food, but I would not want to stick around and watch an entire sports event there.
Molly Malone's - on Soi Convent, just around the corner from the Sala Daeng skytrain station, this Irish pub is fairly busy on weeknights, but not nearly as busy at the weekend, due to the lack of residential housing in the immediate area. They do decent Western food but truth be told, the prices are high - often higher than what you would pay in a similar venue in the West i.e. a cheeseburger and fries at 350 odd baht is not cheap! In addition to the standard menu, they have a good value roast diner buffet every Sunday from midday until 7 PM which will set you back 399 baht - which is a good deal by Bangkok standards.
The Bus Stop - Australian-owned, this Sukhumvit soi 4 institution has decent Western food at very reasonable prices i.e. a cheeseburger and fries will set you back not much over 100 baht. The major downside with this venue is that it is open air so you can get a bit sweaty if you wat there during the day or in the hot season. They show most Australian sports on the many TVs spread around the bar. There are also a few women on the premises who may be available - which may or may not be to your liking.
Bourbon Street - Located in Washington Square, a dingy down-market area just off Sukhumvit Road soi 22 popular with older Americans, particularly Vietnam vets. Amongst the bars in the Square is Bourbon Street, an American owned and influenced restaurant. The menu has a very American slant and as American friends tell me, it is the closest thing to an authentic American bar and grill in Bangkok. There's a small hotel upstairs so the restaurant open for breakfast at around 7 AM and is open all day until late, figure around midnight or so. Bourbon Street runs a special on Tuesday evening when there is a decent Mexican buffet, just 295 baht for good quality, all you can eat Mexican. Also, the eggs Benedict makes an excellent breakfast. The criticisms I have of Bourbon Street is that the Thai food is seriously overpriced and in my opinion, nothing special and all of the prices are subject to ++, being +10% service charge and +7% tax.
Finally, if you really want to have a big farang food pig out, head to one of the better 4 or 5 star hotels that will have the usual evening buffet dinner. Prices vary but at the better places expect to pay around 500 - 1,200 baht++ (the ++ is tax (7%) & service (10%)) for a quality and quantity. My favourite buffet in Bangkok is that of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit - if you're really hungry and want to treat yourself, even at 1,250++ baht it's a good deal.
Funnily enough, after eating Thai food for a while, you may find that you are not able to shovel down as much Western food as you used to back when you were living in Farangland. This can often mean that while you have a truckload of sumptuous food in front of you, you are only able to nibble down a little and you might wonder at the end when it is time to pay the bill, if you would have been better off just getting a single plate of food. My eating habits have most certainly changed during my time in Thailand. Initially, the idea of a buffet of Western and Thai food would have gone down a treat, but now, I simply don't eat as much as I used to and it would seem like an awful waste of money to pay 500+ baht and only eat a relatively small amount.
The restaurants in the better hotels in Bangkok are amongst the best restaurants in the city. While they may seem expensive by local standards, most offer excellent value for money if you compare to similar places in major Western cities and are in all likelihood subsidized by the room rates which in the 5 star hotels typically go for $US150 - 200 per night. The better 5 star hotels will usually have several restaurants, any of which would likely be a good choice. And at such establishments you are almost always guaranteed of getting good service. The better hotels have to offer this in a place like Bangkok where traffic is so bad and getting out from a hotel to a place to eat can be a nightmare. Many travellers look at the chaos, noise and pollution outside their hotel and figure it is easier to stay in and eat. Speaking of Bangkok traffic and dining out, it seems to be the Bangkok way that people make reservations and while they may have every intention of dining in that particular establishment, if the traffic is bad on the journey there they may just stop and eat somewhere else instead - and not bother cancelling the reservation. This simply seems to be the way here!
I cannot talk highly enough about the selection of international restaurants, the quality of food and, despite significant increases in prices over the past few years, the fair value offered in Bangkok's fine dining houses. If you are looking for fabulous food, it can be found in countless venues. There are just so many such places that I could not possibly name them all. If you are looking for a fabulous setting, two restaurants really stand out, Sirocco which is atop State Tower and Vertigo which is atop the Banyan Tree Hotel. Each of these restaurants is open to the elements and about 60 storeys up in the sky. Sirocco is very pleasant and I am sure Vertigo is too, but I have not dined there myself. Do take your credit card with you though as you're looking at around $US100 or more per head, on average.
In years gone by I would eat out at cheaper restaurants in lower mid-range restaurants but these days I tend to eat at the better places. This is not so much due to increased salary or a change in lifestyle but more that I often felt let down when I went to cheaper establishments. It seemed that there were always mistakes made. The wrong food was brought to me (and sometimes they even lied about it, insisting that what was given to really was chicken, when in fact it was pork). Disinterested service, meals for different people coming at different times and poor service put me off several venues I used to dine out regularly.
Please remember that the information on this site is specifically about Bangkok and it is important to note that outside of Bangkok, specifically in the areas where fewer tourists go, it can be a lot more difficult to find good food. The quality of the meat is not so good, the grade of the rice not as high etc. Finding quality Western food in areas where there aren't a lot of Westerners can be something of a lottery. Yes, you can get good Thai food anywhere in Thailand, but just as in the West, there are plenty of restaurants that serve food that is not nearly as good as the place next door. It is a complete fallacy that every single Thai restaurant serves wonderful food. Some places are overpriced, some have a limited menu, some are not clean and some simply don't make nice food! Talk with other Westerners, or better still, get some Thai friends of colleagues to take you to some of their favourite places - Thais tend to be fussy about food so if they recommend something, it will usually be pretty good. (Just be careful about who is expected to pay!)
Transport / Getting Around
For a city of more than 10,000,000 people, a population that has mushroomed over the past 30 or so years, that growth has met with growing pains and getting around Bangkok can be challenging for the new resident. But there are many transport options available and once you have an understanding of the different transport options available, it is not nearly as bad as it looks. Really!
Let's start by saying that the nightmare stories you have heard about traffic in Bangkok are all absolutely true! The traffic in Bangkok is absolutely appalling. Living here you sort of get used to it but whenever I go away from Bangkok for a few days and then return, I wonder how the hell I live with it. Even outside of the peak times, a journey of 5 or 6 km can take an hour. At peak times, and especially when the weather is bad, particularly in the wet season, journeys by road can take a ridiculously long length of time. Basically, getting around by road is at times, an absolute nightmare. In the rainy season of '98, I can vividly remember waiting at the bus stop for more than an hour and the traffic just didn't move at all, and I was eventually forced to walk home! Some of the cars had even turned off their engines! In the end I just thought bugger it and walked home, getting absolutely drenched! A friend tells me a story of how we was driving home over the Rama 9 bridge and traffic stopped, for 4 hours! But perhaps the worst story of all, and a heartbreaking one in many ways concerns a former student of mine. She was a wonderful young woman, so keen to learn English and truly joy to teach. She had a morning class with me, one on one tuition from 9:00 AM. She never showed up for her morning class, which was very unusual. As I was waling out the door just after 4:00 PM, she arrived at the language school. The bus she was coming in on had got stuck in a traffic jam and she had been stuck in it, on the expressway, for over 6 hours! The poor girl was heartbroken that she had missed her lesson. But things aren't as bad as they used to be. With the skytrain running since 1999 there is at least one fast and efficient transport service - although it only covers a limited area - that is arguably the most popular area for foreigners in terms of where we live, work and play. There are actually many other different forms of transport available to help one get around and try to avoid travel by road.
I wonder if the problem of traffic jams and horrendous traffic congestion in Bangkok will ever be solved as there are several contributing factors. First, the population of Bangkok is forever increasing as people from the provinces come in looking for work. Second, the city streets seem to have been very poorly planned with little in the way of expressways or highways feeding from the central areas out to the suburbs. Third, some of the central areas have a lot of one-way streets, bus only lanes and intersections where you are prohibited from turning in a certain direction. Forth, cars are a major status symbol in Thailand and the rapidly growing middle class are buying more and more cars. Finally, the standard of driving would be considered poor by Western standards, with recklessness and risk taking seemingly the norm. The worst thing about traffic problems in Bangkok is that the whole roading infrastructure is for want of a better word, fragile. All you need is an accident, road closure or mishap of some sort in a central area, and traffic can be effected for mile and miles. Take the example of the opening of the Siam Paragon Shopping Centre, the huge monstrosity next to the Siam BTS station. The day before it opened there were heaps and heaps of trucks going in and out, trying to get everything ready at the last minute. This caused a traffic jam all the way to Bang Na, which must be several miles away, at least!
DRIVING A CAR AND CAR OWNERSHIP
The nature of the car market in Thailand is quite different to most Western countries. To start with, new car prices are a lot higher in Thailand than they are in the West. Example prices are as follows: A brand new Honda Civic 1.8 automatic is around 800,000+ baht = about $US 24K. A Honda Jazz new runs for around 600,000 baht and a fully optioned Toyota Corolla could get up to as much as 1,000,000 baht! If you look at cars with larger engines, prices become a lot higher than they are in the West. Car prices are dear due to the tax levied on them and the larger the engine capacity, the higher the tax rate. Luxury European cars can be outrageously expensive and forget the exotics like a Porsche or a Ferrari which are about 2.5 times the price for the same vehicle back home = silly money.
Cars devalue in price at a much slower rate in Thailand than they do in the West. Vehicles that are 7 or 8 years old with well over 100,000 km on the clock still sell for around 40 - 50% of the new vehicle price so with this in mind, buying new here is not the killer financially that it is elsewhere. Add to this that Thai driving standards are low and that the locals seem to prang their cars often and that servicing here is not that big a deal to a lot of people and you can suddenly see that buying new is not such a big deal after all.
Of course one can buy second-hand, but the prices are awfully high. And it is very difficult to buy a much older car, say as a run around. In the West, $US 1,500 or equivalent may get you an older, but perfectly reliable vehicle, the ideal run around that if something happens to it, you will not be significantly out of pocket. This amount of money in Bangkok would get you an absolute bomb. Even a 20 year old car will often go for around 100,000 baht! You often see taxis with 500,000+ km on the clock still going for 100 - 150K baht!
Car servicing is, as you would expect, a lot cheaper than in the West. Franchise dealerships charge around 350 baht per hour for labour. Parts cost much the same as the West. Go to a mechanic operating out of a corner garage and prices drop way down but would you trust their workmanship, especially with a near new car? If you have a ding, panel and paint work is very cheap and the quality of the workmanship seems to be very good. Just as well because it seems that everyone has a prang before too long.
The list of difficulties when driving here is endless. The big one is obviously the driving standards which are abysmally bad. This all stems back from the driver testing and licensing system which is antiquated. Getting a Thai driver's license revolves around an easy written test, an eye test, attendance of a seminar on driving rules and regulations and a laughable practical test where you have to drive a car around a tiny circuit that proves simply that you can park a car - and frankly, little else.
Bangkok is notorious for its traffic jams, but give a Thai an empty stretch of road and they will put their foot down. Given the chance, they drive fast alright, it's just that it is not always possible. The bane of the Bangkok motorist is the army of motorcycles who zip in and out of lanes, squeezing in between cars and generally riding like men possessed. Cheap as can be, Bangkok must be home to a million or more, and few of them are ridden in a responsible way. I read somewhere that motorcycle accidents are one of the leading causes of deaths in Thailand and if it is indeed true, I am not at all surprised. Fortunately there is a reprieve for motorists known as the expressways. You have to pay a little extra to use them but motorbikes cannot go on them and usually the traffic flows well, apart from at peak hour. Basically, if you can use the expressway, do it. The small cost is offset by the amount of time saved and the reduction in stress.
The quality of the roads in Bangkok is variable but some of them are really horrible. Tight corners, camber that occasionally goes the wrong way, badly sealed or even heavily cracked roads with huge gaping potholes and poor signs all contribute to making a motorist's task of getting safely from A to B even tougher. It is horribly annoying to see the sign for exactly the place you were heading for AFTER the street or turn off. Not uncommon at all. And doing a U-turn or trying to go back can be a real nightmare. If you get lost, you can waste a huge amount of time. Bangkok is largely flat and there isn't a lot in the way of landmarks, so do expect to lose your way once or twice!
Personally, I have had no problems with the police in Thailand EXCEPT for when I have been behind the wheel of a car. Police checkpoints are numerous and one can find themselves being pulled over often - easily as often as once a month. (In fact some of my friends complain about being pulled over EVERY week - in some neighbourhoods such as the Rama 3 area the cops are out in force often.) Often it is just a quick check to make sure that your vehicle registration is up to date and that the driver holds a valid license. However, it seems that just as often, you are accused of doing something that you never actually did! This is a shakedown for a small donation to the “feed a policeman's mia noi” fund.
I personally have no problem with slipping a copper 100 baht if I have indeed broken the law, but I resent being shaken down when I drive more safely than most of the population. Yep, white skin and a big nose will make you become awfully popular with the boys in brown. There is more in the section on dealing with police on just how the “transaction” takes place.
Many people have told me that insurance costs are a lot more here than in the West, but my experience is that they are much the same. The cost of insuring a brand new vehicle worth, say, 800,000 baht is around 15,000 - 20,000 baht. If you have an accident, the first thing you should do, once you have established that you're ok, is call the insurance company who will send out a representative. That person will handle things for you. I gather that if (when?!) you have an accident, you are not supposed to move your car until a copy comes along. He will make the ground where the accident happened at which point you are allowed to move it.
Drink driving is a major problem, not just with the locals, but unfortunately, with expats too. I don't want to lecture anyone on driving safety, but there is something seriously wrong when an expat jumps into his car after having just sunk 10 or more beers. I hate to say it but I see it all the time. While this sort of thing is considered downright wrong and is rapidly becoming socially unacceptable in the West, it is common enough here - and even if caught, a couple of hundred baht will not only see the cop disinterested in you, but he will no doubt allow you to continue on your journey, irrespective of the state that you are in.
It should also be noted that in 2008 the government introduced laws prohibiting the use of mobile phones while driving a car and they have been cracking down on it big time! Police officers have been issued with digital cameras to photograph people chatting on the phone while driving with infringement notices and fines sent to the vehicle owner in the post. Using a mobile with a hands free kit is ok, but holding it or wedging it between your shoulder and ear while driving is now very much illegal!
Thankfully, once you get out of Bangkok, traffic is much lighter and driving is more like the pleasure that it can be in the West.
It's a big ask to be able to justify purchasing and / or using a car in Bangkok. Generally public transport will get out where you want to go faster, less stressfully and in the long run, it will be cheaper too. Still, there is a certain convenience in having a car, especially when it comes to getting away from the city at the weekend and holiday periods. If nothing else, there is a great deal of prestige and face associated with car ownership in Thailand. If you own a car, you are someone! But the for me the big thing, and something which I think is seriously under-rated in Bangkok, is that travelling by private car is in many ways stress free. Whatever other method you choose to travel will be fraught with many pitfalls and there is something placating about sitting in your own car, listening to the music of your choice and not having to put up with other people and their noise. Yep, even on the crazy streets of Bangkok, driving can be one of the most relaxing options of getting around.
There are a number of scams that are pulled out gas stations and the two most popular are the gas station attendants failing to zero the pumps when they start filling up your car, so that the counter might actually start at 100 baht, or even higher, you paying for the previous person's gas (which they had already paid for themselves) as well as the gas for you. The other one is when you ask for your car to be filled up, the gas station will zero the pump as soon as it is filled, quoting you a higher price than it should be. This sort of thing is annoyingly common.
And with petrol prices soaring these days, many people are electing to go for pick up trucks and the like. These vehicles are included in a lower tax bracket than regular sedans and thus the purchase price is a lot lower. The price of diesel was pegged for a long time at 14.59 baht per litre, meaning the government was subsidizing it to the tune of 3 baht a litre, for every litre sold nationwide. but this subsidy cost the government billions and in February 2005, the subsidy was removed and diesel is now sold at the market rate. Still, even with diesel now sold at its true price, if finances are tight, a pick up might be the way to go.
Of course, if you have a lot of money, you can always buy your own car or motorbike. Cars are relatively expensive here due to a luxury goods tax imposed on them and other than Singapore, I don't know of any countries where you'll pay more for a car. As an example, a new top of the line Honda Civic with the usual extras will cost about 800,000 baht. Used cars seem to hold their value pretty well and do not depreciate nearly as much or as fast as they do elsewhere in the world. If you hunt around, you can get a good deal on a used car but you will still end up paying a lot more than you would in the West. The problem with car ownership in Bangkok is not only the dreadful traffic jams but also the fact that parking is hard to come by. The major shopping areas and entertainment complexes do have car parks and they are usually very reasonably priced if not free, but often they are full and sometimes even the parking buildings have traffic jams and gridlock (witness the Panthip Plaza car park!) A car is useful for jaunts out of Bangkok or maybe if you live in the outskirts of Bangkok and commute in that immediate vicinity but once you actually come in towards central Bangkok, driving a car becomes a real chore and the traffic jams will no doubt contribute towards driving your blood pressure through the roof. Further, roads here can be poorly sealed, signed (usually signs are in both English and Thai but not always) and some of the unmarked super sharp corners are nightmare material. You can always buy a motorbike and a little get-around-town like a Honda Dream can be very cheap. Still, it's a brave man who jumps on a bike in this city. I've seen too many accidents for comfort and if I am going to get on a bike, I am sure as hell not going to ride it myself for that would truly be a disaster! If you didn't know, they drive on the left in Thailand - most of the time. Finally, with regard to car ownership is the service history - insist in getting a car with a full dealer history. Like many others in Asia, particularly the Japanese, many Thais seem to just drive and drive their car until something goes wrong before getting it serviced - and some of the places where they get them serviced look pretty damned dodgy too.
TRAVELLING BY BUS
The cheapest and most extensive network for getting around Bangkok is the bus system. There are several different classes of bus ranging from the 5 baht small Mercedes green buses and the huge fleet of red buses, the white buses with fans, the older blue air-con buses, the new blue air-con buses, the modern air-conditioned orange buses and the Microbus company. Don't worry, it doesn't take long to figure them all out. The red and the green buses drive around with the windows down which allows a cool breeze to flow through the bus, helping to keep you cool. Most of the year these are ok, but in the hot season, one really wants to get on an air-con bus if possible. However, the red and green buses can get a bit hot and sticky if you are stuck in traffic and the bus isn't moving and therefore there is no breeze flowing through.
If you're on a budget, or want to get a feel for the city, bus travel sure helps that. Admittedly it is somewhat slow, but travelling around somewhat slowly with the vehicle stopping frequently gives you a unique chance to really get a feel for Bangkok. If this appeals, buying yourself a bus map is one of the first things that you should do when you arrive in Bangkok. Although it may seem confusing at first, the buses operate an efficient and very cheap service and if you want to save money, you should utilise them as much as possible. Buses are so cheap that it almost makes transport costs seem as though they are free. Unfortunately, while the prices may be cheap, this is offset by some of the drivers who appear to have a death wish and drive like absolute dickheads. Speeding along at breakneck speeds, literally standing on the breaks and overtaking at the worst places may all seem like a bit of a joke at first, but when you realise that almost every driver is like this, you do get a bit worried about your personal safety. The red bus (far and away the most common type) drivers are easily the worst. The drivers of the newer air-con buses seem to be a little more careful - only Buddha would know why.
All of the buses are numbered and usually have their destination listed on the side of the bus. These signs used to be in Thai only but a number of buses, particularly those that ply routes popular with foreigners, now have signs in English too which is very helpful. Once you have got onto the bus, you pay the conductor who roams around but frequently misses passengers. Don't worry though - you are a farang and stand out and it is unlikely that he / she will miss you! The buses are cheap and range from 3.5 baht for the small green buses or the red buses up to 16 baht for a long journey on one of the blue air-conditioned buses. Buses run frequently and some routes run 24 hours. Take note of the bus numbers that pass by your apartment or the areas that you live or frequent. If you are out and about in an area that you are unfamiliar with and want to return to your apartment, you may notice a bus with a number that you recognise from home passing by. Jump on and it will take you back to the area where you live - saving you an unnecessary taxi fare. At certain times of the day, particularly peak times and late at night when few buses are running, the buses can get ridiculously overcrowded with people hanging out of the doors and those inside barely being able to move. Crowded buses can be a haven for pickpockets so be careful - especially ladies carrying handbags as these seem to be the biggest target. It seems that less and less Westerners in Thailand use the buses these days. The bus services are fine and are certainly cheap, but they can get really, really crowded, so much so that it can be hard to get off and if you are on a really crowded but and know your stop is coming, try and make your way to the exit - though that can be more easily said than done.
Bus, and indeed public transport etiquette, is very different in Thailand to the West. Unlike the West where a child may offer or be forced to surrender their seat to a full paying customer, in Thailand it is the opposite and you will often see an adult giving up their seat for a young child! Still strikes me as bizarre this but I guess it goes along with the way that Thais seem to spoil their children. Obviously, decent folk will offer their seat to the elderly, the pregnant and those who are invalided. Note that there is a single ticket price on public transport and there are no discounts for children or oldies (senior citizens to you PC folks). Infants do ride free though.
The late '90s saw the introduction of the Lady Bus and the Culture Bus. The Lady Buses ran on a few of the more popular routes on the last few days of the month. Petty crime had been a problem on the buses, particularly theft around the end of the month (when everyone gets paid) and it was often women who were often the victims. Further, a lot of Thai woman complain that Thai men "rub themselves up against the women using conspicuous parts of their body"...hence the introduction of these buses. Men cannot get on board. Don't worry, they have large pink signs in both English and Thai clearly saying Lady Bus so you can't miss them. The culture buses were introduced after the Lady Bus and I have yet to work out exactly how they differ from the regular buses but someone told me that on these buses, men are compelled to offer their seat to women if all other seats are taken! In a country where men have far more power and status than women, I have yet to figure out why this is termed the "culture bus". I do not know if the lady buses or the culture buses still operate. I think they were done away with. A novel concept that may not have worked.
The Microbuses are a more comfortable alternative to the city run bus service in that once all of the seats are full (no-one stands on one of these buses), the driver will not pick up anyone else. You pay the driver when you get on and a flat rate fare of 25 baht is charged, irrespective of the destination. These buses are more comfortable and sometimes have a TV on board and occasionally even free newspapers. Like the lady bus and culture bus, I am not sure if the Microbuses still run these days or not. I haven't used a bus in a few years, and don't recall seeing the Microbuses any more, so this paragraph may be largely redundant.
The reality of the situation is that the longer people stay in Bangkok, the less and less they tend to use the buses. Taxis are cheap and the skytrain and underground service much of the area where Westerners live and play, so there is no real need to use the buses. Bangkok buses are far from comfortable as they can get horribly crowded and even if you do manage to get a seat, you might find yourself with passengers around you, almost sitting on top of you. If the bus that you are on is really crowded - as they often get - be aware of when your stop is approaching and TRY and make your way to the door. Many a time I've been stuck near the back, trying to get near the door, but ultimately finding it an impossible task - and the bus had long past my intended stop by the time I actually managed to make it to the exit! Also, be careful how you position yourself. If you lift one foot of the ground, perhaps to scratch the back of your other leg or something like that, when you go to put it back down there may not be any space to put it!
If you want a lesson in the politeness of Thai people, watch how they orderly queue to get on and off a bus... Unfortunately, you will quickly learn that the only way to survive is to follow their example and barge your way on and off the buses too. Note that sometimes the buses don't actually stop - you may have to jump on or off while it is moving - albeit moving very slowly. And always keep an eye out when you get off a bus as it is not at all uncommon for motorcycles to pass buses on the inside, between the bus and the curb - very dangerous but hey, this is Thailand!
Monks ride on the buses for free and will take the seat on the left hand side, immediately behind the door. If the bus is full when a monk gets on board, whoever is in that seat will stand up and allow the monk to take the seat. Men are allowed to sit next to monks but women cannot due to monks not being allowed to touch, or be touched by, women.
Bus routes do change from time to time so you need to keep abreast of these changes if it is a route that you are dependent upon for work or important social events! Unfortunately, this is somewhat difficult for most people as the changes are usually announced in the form of a notice inside the bus IN THAI. Another thing to be aware of is that on some routes (29, 8 and 11 spring to mind), some buses will use the expressway, while others won't. Buses taking the expressway tend to operate at peak hours in an effort to get people into or out of the city quickly and usually operate on the longer routes. The sign for expressway, again, is only in Thai. Usually it is a largish yellow notice, placed both inside the front window and also next to the entrance / exit. Bus prices are as follows, although with the price of fuel skyrocketing, these may become out of date fast!
Small green buses 7 baht Red buses 10 baht White buses with fans 10 baht Older blue air-con buses 12 - 20 baht Newer blue / orange air-con buses 14 - 24 baht Microbuses 25 baht
While one can get by using the bus service, they are not at all comfortable and you can waste a lot of time as they are relatively slow. The only farangs using the buses regularly tend to be budget tourists or underpaid English teachers.
Bangkok has perhaps the cheapest reasonable standard metered taxis of any capital city in the world. Bangkok taxis are metered and the taxi driver is obliged to use the meter. That said, if he perceives that you are new to the city or do not know your way around nor know the etiquette, he might try and negotiate a price upfront which will always be in his favour, more than the trip would cost by meter. Only take a taxi if the driver turns on the meter. If the driver, 99.9% of them are male, wants to negotiate a fare, just get out of the taxi and get into another and odds are that the driver will agree to use the meter unless he is one of the lazy buggers who waits in a heavily touristed area waiting for a sucker tourist who will accept the negotiated price and he therefore gets a prime fare.
A relatively small percentage of Bangkok's taxi drivers are actually Bangkok born and raised career taxi drivers. Some drivers are moonlighting - they have another job but driving the cab gets them some extra income - their other job may be anything from a labourer to a cop! The biggest group of all the taxi drivers is upcountry folk, predominantly from Isaan and many of them are rice farmers! Yep, when the rice needs planting or collecting, or whatever they do with it, the farmer heads upcountry to tend to the family rice fields and when the work on the farm is complete, he makes his way back down to Bangkok and gets behind the wheel of a cab. Remember, upcountry there are not nearly so many opportunities for work so the good upcountry folk come down to the big smoke in the pursuit of employment. It seems the majority of the drivers fall into this latter group.
With this in mind, if the driver has not been in Bangkok for a long time, he might not know the best way to get to your destination. While you may be inclined to believe that his lack of knowledge of the streets is a scam or that he is taking you home via the long route so he can charge you more, that is actually very, very unlikely! The take the long route home scam is just not practiced here. The reason he is taking you an odd way might simply be that he doesn't know the best way OR he does know a route that is quicker than the route you know. The Thai words for directions should be one of the first things you learn in Thai! Drivers prefer to take the expressway because it will be quicker - but that is surely good for both you and him. Obviously in such cases you pay the expressway fare.
The cabs drivers are almost entirely male (females make up about 1% of all of the drivers, if that). While they may predominantly come from the poorest parts of the country, the drivers are still able to speak enough English for most foreigners to manage to communicate where they want to go. There have been various initiatives over the years to help taxi drivers improve their English so that they can provide better service to foreigners and now you can see signs like the one here stating that the driver is comfortable with English.
When telling the driver your destination, it is usually best to talk rather than show him a map or give him an address written in English. Maps are not easily negotiated by taxi drivers and you will often see them holding a map, nodding away that they know exactly where you mean, yet they are looking at it upside down! An address in Thai or a brochure of the hotel that you are going to with an address in Thai is better.
I much prefer to get into a cab with an older driver than a young guy. The older drivers tend to driver better i.e. not as fast, and they tend to be more polite. Some of the young drivers can be quite rude, and can be a bit hot-tempered, driving way too fast and doing some silly things behind the wheel. I also tend to get into newer cabs rather than the old ones. Bangkok cabs run 24/7 and they get beat up pretty fast. If you are going to be stuck in the cab for a while I figure you may as well choose one that looks a bit more comfortable.
Many of the cab drivers do stupid things behind the wheel and with there usually being no seatbelts fitted into the rear of cabs, you can sometimes feel like your life is very much in a stranger's hands. There was a very sad news item in September 2007 when a young female Australian resident in Bangkok was killed in a taxi. A speeding driver caused a 4 car crash and the poor Australian girl broke her neck and died at the scene. Fatalities in cab accidents are a very real issue...
There was an article in the Bangkok Post once about how there is a surplus of about 20,000 taxis in Bangkok so if one driver refuses to turn on the meter, getting another one will be no problem. After 11:00 PM, it seems that more than half of the cars on the road are taxis. Note that in the rainy season, getting a taxi may be a little trickier when the rain is pelting down. Just before it rains, a taxi driver may refuse to pick up passengers because when it starts raining, he will have no problem getting a fare and may attempt to negotiate an extortionate fare. When it rains, the taxis fill up quickly and getting one can be a lot more difficult.
The taxi flag fall is 35 baht and this includes the first kilometre. After that it is around 5 baht per kilometre for the next 10 km and the rate gradually increases the longer your journey, up to 8 baht a kilometre. Often the taxi is stuck in traffic and in this case, when the taxi is moving at less than 6 km per hour, you pay a supplementary 1.25 baht premium per minute. Taxi fares increased in mid 2008 for the first time since 1994 but still remain a very inexpensive means of getting around.
I used to recommend the yellow and green taxis. These are driven by owner / operators or the folks that the owner subleases the car to and in my experiences they were less likely to have any problems. I have since found that the blue and red taxis seem to be slightly newer and have less wear and tear. But really, it is a bit of a lottery with the particular car that you get in. The general condition of taxis varies from vehicle to vehicle with some being new, comfortable and clean, while there are others are absolutely awful. Awful can mean anything from old to having clapped-out suspension which sends vibrations up your back as the cab goes over bumps to the worst of all, those where the air-con doesn't work.
The odd cab may have a dodgy meter but don't let this concern you too much, I have only had a handful of taxis with obviously rigged meters in all my years here, and even then, the extra cost was perhaps only 20 baht. Yeah, the principle of it is bad, but at the end of the day, 20 baht won't break the bank. One time I was taking a journey of a route that I used to take often. I knew the exact distance and the usual fare which fluctuated depending on whether the taxi was caught in traffic or not. I didn't take any notice of the fare until we arrived and when we got there, the distance was twice the usual BUT we had taken the same route. I casually mentioned this to the driver in Thai who suddenly got extremely nervous. Apparently diddling the meter is quite a serious crime so when I said that I would pay what the fare should have been, the driver seemed quite relieved.
Most of the taxi companies hire the cars out to drivers by the day. I have heard various figures banded around but it seems that 500 a day is the average, though for a bit less they can get a real clunker! The driver then has the car for twelve hours and it is up to them to make as much money as they can before they return it. Some of them will do OK but others will struggle - a lot of it comes down to luck. Folks who speak little or no Thai may struggle with some of the taxi drivers who can play silly games from time to time but if your Thai is ok, they will usually be fine. Just like when getting out of buses, you need to be aware of the countless motorcycles passing on the inside, between the footpath and the taxi and many a time have I seen a taxi door opened on a moving motorcycle driver. CRASH! The results are messy and as a farang, you may be pressured to foot the bill - even though what the motorcycle rider is doing, passing on the left, is technically illegal. Many taxi drivers do drive like absolute maniacs, fast when there is a stretch of open road in front of them and zipping in and out of traffic in an effort to get you to your destination as fast as possible. Apart from their dreadful driving, I find most of them to be very pleasant and always enjoy chatting with them, even if the conversation is much the same every time. They are just decent upcountry folks trying to eek out a living. Despite the fact that I am tight with money and despite the fact that many of them drive appallingly bad, I almost always tip them. My choice, and whether you choose to do so is up to you. I reckon they are underpaid and I know I couldn't do their job, driving in Bangkok traffic, 12 hours a day, everyday. Even though the cost of petrol has gone up by a huge amount over the last few years, taxi fares have not gone up at all. Though that said, 95%+ of the cabs run on natural gas.
Tuktuks are a novel way of getting around and if you can negotiate a price that you know is cheaper than or about the same as a taxi far would be then perhaps you may care to take one. However, tuktuk drivers can be a greedy bunch and they will fleece you if you do not know what the corresponding taxi fare would be and with this in mind they are therefore best used for routes you are familiar with. It helps to speak some Thai to negotiate with the drivers as most of them are from small villages in the Northeast of the country and speak little English. Being a foreigner, they will immediately quote an outrageous price - often about twice what an air-con taxi would be! As in many circumstances, speaking some Thai will give you a real advantage. Tuktuk drivers are another bunch who drive like absolute maniacs and being a passenger in a tuktuk is not for the faint-hearted. You also get an unlimited free sample of Bangkok's heavily polluted air on a tuktuk ride. Remember, tuktuks have little in the way of safety features for the passenger and accidents can be fatal. If you've seen how badly tuktuks fold up in accidents, odds are you would never want to use one.
Beware of tuktuk drivers who offer to take you on a "shopping trip" or to a gem store / tailor's store / duty free shop. Also, beware of tuktuk drivers who want to take you somewhere of their choice for a low 10 or 20 baht. They will make out that these stores are something special but believe me, they aren't and they're only taking you to these stores as they will get a commission if you buy anything. You can waste a lot of time if you accept one of their seemingly kind offers. Still, whenever I have friends visit me in Bangkok, I always take them around in tuktuks for the novelty value. Perhaps the best way to overcome these silly unwanted city tours is to hail a cab or tuktuk that is actually driving along the road - they will be keen to take you where ever, usually without a problem. The fellows who park up in predominantly heavily touristed areas would rather wait for one big fare from a tourist than 4 or 5 smaller fares from locals - lazy buggers! What's a fair price in a tuktuk? Hard to say but I usually pay about the same to 20% less than the same journey would cost in a taxi so if it's 50 baht in a taxi, I usually find that with a bit of haggling, 40 baht can be achieved. It's novel to watch Thai high school students get into a tuktuk, often immediately after school and on their way to the local shopping centre. Sometimes they get 10 or more of them (yes, really, hanging on the outside and all!) in a tuktuk with some of the kids sitting on top of each other, at least one hanging out each side and three perched on the back.
There are some samlors (in Thai, this means three wheels, but they are known in other parts of Asia as trishaws or rickshaws) in a few of the outer suburbs of Bangkok but these tend to be less common in he capital and more common in the provinces. Budget on about 20 - 30 baht per kilometre and ALWAYS agree on the price before the journey. (You can get rides on them for less in the provinces.) I had a nasty experience with a samlor rider in Kanchanaburi who tried to charge an outrageous price in a dispute that had to be settled by the local boys in brown. You will not see these anywhere in central Bangkok though they are popular and usually very reasonably priced in most other parts of Thailand. There is a certain romance about the samlor, but really, they are a slow form of transport and best used if you are in no hurry! While samlor journeys should be cheaper than a taxi, the drivers are usually old and doddery and with many years spent peddling in chaotic traffic are lucky if they can even hear you, let alone understand any of that funny mumbo jumbo that we call English! It has been my experience that you can usually get a better deal in a tuktuk. Samlors are seen less and less frequently in Bangkok - you only see them in the suburbs in the very outskirts now - and in the next ten years, there is talk that they may even become extinct. That would be said for there is a certain romance associated with them.
If you are in a real hurry and absolutely must get somewhere quickly, the best bet may be to take a motorcycle taxi. Motorcycle taxis were introduced to the city some time around 1990, when the city's traffic jams were said to be at their absolute worst. Motorcycle riders can be seen in clusters all over the city, usually parked at the end of sois, intersections or near busy shopping centres. They are easily identifiable by the vest that they wear - which used to be a different colour in different areas but these days is invariably orange, making the motorcycle taxi riders very easy to spot. It should be noted that unlike regular taxis, the cars that is, motorbike taxis do not roam around looking for customers but are domiciled to one spot where customers come to them. Once they have taken a customer to their destination, the motorcycle will return to their original location. They will not pick someone up at the destination where they just dropped someone off. Motorcycle taxis are not for the feint-hearted and in many ways, I do not recommend using a motorcycle taxi unless you absolutely need to get somewhere very quickly. Accidents are far too common and the result of them range from awful to fatal. I have to admit a fairly major case of hypocrisy here because as my life gets busier and busier - and as Bangkok traffic seems to get worse and worse, I find myself using these motorcycle taxis more and more often. However, one does need to understand the risks. A former American colleague of mine had two accidents in three months on motorcycle taxis - luckily he wasn't badly hurt in either of them.
As with all road accidents in Thailand, the problem may not necessarily be the accident itself but what happens next. I have had the misfortune to see several motorcycle accidents and within seconds of the accident happening - and the results are messy. What ultimately happens is that the injured are picked up off the ground with little or no consultation as to their condition and hauled into the back of the nearest tuktuk or pickup truck which then takes them to the nearest hospital. So much for the idea of immobilising the person so as not to exacerbate any possible injuries! Obviously the same happens when a tuktuk or regular taxi is involved in a prang. It is just that the chances of serious injury is greater on a motorcycle taxi than in any other form of transport. Motorcycle taxis charge about the same as tuktuks and taxis for longer journeys but can be quite economical for shorter journeys, such as up and down a soi, when the cost may be as little as 5 or 10 baht. Prices for motorcycle taxis are often about the same as what it would cost in a metered taxi, the big advantage being the speed. Even in a traffic jam, they can weave their way in between cars and can get your to your destination quickly. Aside from the danger factor, beware taking them either when it is raining or just after it has rained and the roads are wet. Spray from the wheels of other vehicles will make whatever you are wearing absolutely filthy in no time. No white shirts on the motorbike taxis when it is raining because you'll never be able to clean them and your wife / maid will curse you no end! (Yep, I found this out the hard way!) The law says that everyone on a motorbike, both rider and passenger(s), must wear a helmet. In the case of motorbike taxis, it is the responsibility of the rider to provide you with a helmet. If stopped by police, the rider is liable for a 200 baht fine - usually a ticket is issued and he will pay it later. He might try and ask you for the 200 baht but you do NOT have to pay it. (Still, what were you doing on the back of one without a helmet - bloody dangerous!) Police in areas where there are many farangs, such as Sukhumvit do not tend to be strict about this law, though police in other areas are. From time to time there are crackdowns on this. The 200 baht fine aside, surely you would want to protect your head with a helmet?
One sight that I still chuckle at in Thailand is the way that females tend to sit side-saddle when a passenger on a motorcycle, many of which travel at breakneck speeds with her on the back, seemingly quite comfortable and balanced. Even after many years living in Bangkok, this is one sight I still chuckle at. Just how do they manage it?!
Often you will see people jumping on the back of a motorcycle taxi being taken up and down long sois. The fare is usually 5 or 10 baht. These motorcycle taxis run up and down the same route all day long, saving the passenger from having to walk in the heat of the sun.
BAHT BUSES / SONGTAEWS
In the same mould of the soi motorcycle taxis are what are commonly referred to as baht buses - called songtaew in Thai. These vary from pickup trucks to the little converted Subarus as is pictured here to weird, largely unrecognizable vehicles. They usually have two rows of seats, one on either side of the vehicle. On long roads such as Sukhumvit soi 77 (Soi Onut) or ChokChai 4 Road of Lad Prao Road, where there are very few (and indeed sometimes no) bus routes, you will see the baht buses running up from one end of the street to the other. You simply jump on the back of the baht bus, which will stop if you wave it down and while on board, you press a button when you want to get off. Prices vary from area to area but are usually around 5 - 7 baht irrespective of where you get on and where you get off. These are very much a form of "local transport" and if you live in an area where such a service is operated, you'll quickly work out ho to use it.
On some of the canals (klongs in Thai, a word that is often used in English by Westerners resident in Thailand) are river boats that run commuters up and down the city's canals, stopping at the makeshift jetties. While cheap, you really need to know where you are going - though getting lost can be part of the fun! Travelling by this means is very fast compared to road based means of transport and therefore saves a lot of time. The boats, like the taxis, are also relatively cheap. Getting on and off the boats can be a bit of fun - mind you don't slip into the canal! Some of the klong boats are cancelled if the weather in the monsoon season gets really bad but this is typically only a handful of days each year. The aroma of the klongs is one of Bangkok's treats! A typical klong boat, one of the boats that runs up and down the Saen Saeb Klong, is pictured below. The Saen Saeb klong canal boat runs a very useful route from way out past Ramkhamhaeng in the northeast of the city, through to The Mall Bangkapi, down along Petchaburi Road to The Central World Plaza where the main hub is and then on to Rachadarmnoen Road, not too far from Khao Sarn Road. Depending on the distance you travel, the cost was from 5 - 15 baht although I have not used them for a few years and I imagine prices have crept up a few baht.
Canal boats can be convenient, but be careful getting on and off!
An excellent way to get around is the Chao Praya Express Boat that runs up and down the Chao Praya River, the main river in Bangkok. It goes from Nonthaburi in the north of the city, all the way down to an area south of Sathorn Road. It is very reasonably priced at a flat rate 13 baht, irrespective of how far you go. Apart from using the service to get around, this boat is a bit of a tourist attraction and it is well worth getting on it and running from one end of the route to the other as you get an excellent view of Thailand's most famous and busiest river. Sit back and enjoy the ride. Up and down the Chao Praya River at various points you can find river ferries that cross the river from one side to the other and the cost is just 3 baht.
BANGKOK BY FOOT
I have always enjoyed walking as a means of getting around. However, in Bangkok, with the unabating heat and the dreadful state of the footpaths, you may want to re-consider the idea of pounding the pavement. The footpaths are a mess, with huge holes and in many places very poorly laid tiles / brickwork. In addition to this, and as much as I hate to criticise, Thais tend not to like walking and when they do, they walk at a snails pace and they walk like they drive – bloody appallingly - zigzagging backwards and forwards without any indication of the next movement! If you happen to find yourself walking behind a bunch of Thais and you are trying to get past them, try and gently get past because even if they are aware that you are behind them and want to get past, they will not necessarily make way. They seem to weave their way all over the show without any real pattern to the route they are taking. The other annoying habit that they have when they walk is that they often don't look where they are going! It often seems that they scan ahead to make sure that there aren't any fixed objects in their way but they don't seem to consider that maybe someone might walk into that space. So, as they are walking in one direction, they are often looking somewhere else! It can be frustrating at the best of times! If you are looking at a Bangkok map and see the place you want to go to and it looks like it is in walking distance, think again.
Walking can be a slow, energy sapping process and unless you are walking in the cool season, you will likely arrive at your destination a sweaty, smelly mess, something which is seriously uncool in Thailand. Be very careful when you cross the road and even if it is a one way street, remember to look both ways! With the traffic being very heavy, it can be difficult to cross the road and there are a lot of pedestrian over-bridges allowing you to cross the road without risking your life on the tarmac itself. Sometimes you may have to walk a bit out of your way to find a pedestrian over-bridge but believe me, it is best to do so. (In 2003 there have been a number of muggings and robberies and even rapes on some of these over-bridges late at night. While the victims are predominantly women (and the readership of this website is predominantly men) it still pays to be careful.)) The Thais don't like walking anything more than a very short distance - Westerners who have lived here a while tend to emulate this pattern but I am an exception and walk as much as possible - gotta work off all that beer! Lastly, the footpath is not always the domain of the pedestrian. Cars, tuktuks, motorbikes and even the occasional elephant can be seen making their way down the footpath and other than the poor old elephant, all of the others move along at a fairly dangerous speed so be careful! While in the west we would fiercely hold our ground if a cyclist approached us on what is obviously a pedestrian walk way, it is not like that in Bangkok. It often seems that people give way to the biggest vehicle so in the best interests of self preservation it is best to allow bikes to pass by unhindered.
In early 2000, a silly wire fence was erected on Silom, Sukhumvit and Rama 1 Roads, right in the middle of the road, preventing pedestrians from crossing except at marked crossings and pedestrian bridges. There used to be signs quite clearly in both Thai AND English stating that there is a 200 baht fine for jaywalking so beware - though these signs seem to have been taken down. Another law that one needs to be aware of is the "littering law". I truly believe that this law was introduced as an instrument to derive an extra "tax" out of foreigners. If you drop rubbish on the streets of Bangkok and either a policeman or one of the "litter officers" (uniform similar to a policeman but with a green badge on the shoulder and no gun or handcuffs) spots you, you are liable for a 2000 baht fine. In fact in some tourist areas, it doesn't even say fine 2000 baht - it says fine $US 50 - see what I mean about targeting foreigners! If you are stupid enough to drop litter and you get caught, this can obviously be negotiated down - figure on 100 - 500 baht, depending on whether you speak Thai or not. It doesn't matter what you drop, even a cigarette butt is enough for them to nab you. It is my understanding that for the police to successfully get you on this charge, they need to retrieve whatever it was you disposed of. If it looks like they are about to grab it and there is a chance that you can, for instance, push it down a drain from where it can't be retrieved, then it is worth doing that. No, I don't condone it, but hell, if it is going to help you avoid a fine, then you've gotta do what you've gotta do!
If you are planning on doing a lot of walking, you seriously need to think about footwear. There are two viewpoints you can take here. Some people prefer open footwear like sandals or thongs that allow your feet to "breathe". Others, like me, prefer a good solid pair of solid shoes, such as hiking boots, which provide protection from the poorly constructed footpaths and roads. The footpaths in Bangkok are real shoe killers and I'd rather they killed my shoes than my feet! The only thing about walking in Bangkok is that while you see a lot more with regards to what is happening on the streets, all the street life, vendors etc, the city is hardly pleasing on the eye. Still, just the atmosphere alone on the streets is enough to keep me on foot - along with all of the great street vendor food.
SKYTRAIN AND THE UNDERGROUND
The skytrain development stage 1 has finished and it provides an easy way to get between the Silom, Siam Square, Sukhumvit and Chatuchak areas. There are plans in store for it to extend a lot further into the suburbs of Bangkok and when that happens, Bangkok will really start to open up. While it may be useful, this ugly monstrosity dominates what is hardly a pretty city but certainly helps getting around. The fares have been set in a progressive range from 15 - 40 baht. This is not actually that cheap and if there are two or more of you, it may in fact be cheaper to take a taxi, but likely slower with Bangkok's traffic. However, for speed, the skytrain cannot be beaten. An all day pass, allowing unlimited rides on the skytrain (note: skytrain only, NOT the underground, costs 120 baht.)
If you use the sky train regularly, you should consider buying one of the stored value cards. Basically, it is just a card with a credit on it. If you don't have a stored value credit, you usually have to queue up to get change for the ticket machines, and then queue up for the machines themselves. If you have a student card (they only accept Thai student cards) then you used to get a 35% discount. You can buy a 30 ride card for 540 baht which equals 18 baht per ride, a very good deal for people who use it every day. If you are taking rides of three stations or more, then this will work out in your favour. Just note that the card has a limit of one month within which all of the rides must be used. There is a student card which gets 30 rides for 360 baht, just 12 baht a card but buying one of these without a student ID may be a little tricky... For the snobs out there, some consider the skytrain to be the most civilized form of transport and I must admit that the fact that it doesn't suffer graffiti or louts like many comparable subways in other countries is a good thing. The skytrain operates from just before 6:00 AM until just after midnight and very occasionally runs 24 hours - such as New Years Eve. You never have to wait too long for a train, though wait a little longer at night than during the day, when there are fewer passengers. At every skytrain station you get the officious security guards who enjoy blowing their whistle at you and getting in a song and dance if you cross the yellow line, near the platform, when the train is not there. Actually, it's quite funny playing games with them and then pretending that you don't speak Thai when they try to say something to you!
Different to the skytrain, the new underground opened in July 2004. It runs from up around MoChit across to Lard Prao, down Rachada and Asoke, crossing Sukhumvit to Rama 4 Road and then along to Hualumpong. This has opened up new parts of the city and while it might no service as many places where farangs live and party like the skytrain does, it really does open up new places to live in the city. Since the day the skytrain opened, seemingly every Westerner living in Bangkok has said to property agents that they want to live within 5 minutes walk of the skytrain and this contributed to a drop in supply of the number of such apartment vacancies. Now with the underground open, it really does give us more options of where to live. So long as you live close to the skytrain or the soon to commence underground, you'll be able to get to most places farangs like to go quickly. The underground is cheap with fares ranging from a bit over 10 baht up to 30 odd baht. The stations are clean and modern and really do resemble the underground in Singapore.
It's a journey we all have to make, and some of us on a fairly frequent basis so here are a few hints and tips about getting from the airport to the city. Taxis from the airport used to ask exorbitant fees but now any taxis joining the taxi queue at the airport must follow the airport regulations meaning they charge you the metered fare plus a 50 baht surcharge plus any expressway tolls. This will result in fares of about 300 baht to Siam Square, Sukhumvit Rd or Silom Road areas and a bit more to Khao San Road. If you don't have a lot of luggage, you can save money by using the bus, but you won't save that much - I believe the bus from the airport is now about 150 baht. If you want to take a taxi but do not want to pay the 50 baht surcharge, walk upstairs to where the taxis are dropping off departing passengers and you can save the 50 baht. Strictly speaking, taxis are not supposed to wait nor pick up from that area but if you are quick, no-one will get too bothered about it.
Perhaps the least obvious mode of transport, at least as far as tourists or those new to the city are concerned, are the privately run minivans which run certain routes all over the city. They tend to run long main roads and usually take advantage of the expressways. Difficult to spot if you don't know what you're looking for, they have very signs with their destinations, often hand-written - and always in Thai. One seldom sees farangs using these, although they would be only too happy for you to jump on board. All around the Victory Monument area you can find these minibuses which will take you anywhere from Bangna to Laksi. The fares are cheap, usually around 20 - 25 baht and the big advantage is that they are generally much quicker than a bus would be, and cheaper than what a taxi would be. The best way to find out about them is to talk with Thais who are familiar with your local area. These really are a convenient way to travel.
Whatever mode of transport you select, getting around Bangkok will not break the bank. The buses are cheap, in fact so cheap they are almost free. Taxis are good if you want to ride in "relative comfort" and go directly from point to point - and the traffic isn't too bad. They're also good if you have a lot of shopping to carry. Motorcycles are great if you need to get somewhere in a hurry but remember, they are dangerous - and around 50 people a day die on Thailand's roads, many on motorbikes! But nothing beats the skytrain. For people living near the skytrain it is invariably their preferred way to travel.
It takes a while to work out the most efficient way to get around Bangkok but do try to do this quickly as it will save you both time and money. For instance, if you want to go from Siam Square to the Central World Plaza, a journey of not much more than 1 km, you could walk, bus, sky train, motorcycle, boat or tuktuk. Which would be the quickest? The bus! Which would be the slowest? Unless you walk at a snail's pace, probably the taxi as because of the way the streets are in that part of town, you must do a huge detour to get there by road - except for buses!
Problems, Corruption and the Police
Despite the appearance of Bangkok as a modern city, Thailand is still a developing country with numerous social problems, some serious, and it is certainly possible that at some time during your tour of duty, you may have the misfortune to experience some of these problems first hand.
First, let me qualify this by saying that Bangkok feels much safer than any other major city that I have visited with the exception of Singapore. One can feel as though they can walk around at night alone, down dark deserted alley ways, even while totally inebriated and unless one foolishly flashes money or valuables around they believe that they will be fine. This is a dangerous mindset to get into and the truth is that many Westerners seriously underestimate the safety aspect in Bangkok. It is true that in the most heavily-touristed areas of Sukhumvit Road, Silom Road and Khao Sarn Road, one is unlikely to have any major problems, at least in terms of violent crime against one's person such as muggings or robbery, but outside these areas, Bangkok is not that safe at all. In fact many Thais are horrified when they hear Westerners say that they feel Bangkok is safe.
Thais usually feel relatively safe in their own neighbourhood but when they venture out into other areas and neighbourhoods, especially at night, they will scurry along and make eye contact with as few people as possible. It should be noted that a lot of street crime, muggings and the like, happen late at night. There are fewer people around, it is dark of course - and often the perpetrators have had a bit to drink or worse still, are on drugs.
A lot of foreigners see Thais smiling and think that there is no danger. Just because they're smiling doesn't mean it is safe! Thais smile in almost any situation! Trust me, if the Thais say it is dangerous then yes, it is dangerous! They know what is really going on and they have a much better feel for danger. If you're not sure whether a place is safe or otherwise, ask some locals - NOT other Westerners!
When any serious crime is committed against a foreigner, it usually becomes fairly big news. And if it becomes fairly big news, the spotlight falls on the police and how they go about investigating and solving the case, and with a bit of luck, bringing the perpetrator to justice. The pressure is therefore on them to solve it, and in most cases, they do. A Thai criminal does not want to commit a crime knowing that more resources than usual will be deployed to catch them. Further, any crimes against tourists or high profile expats get reported back in the victim's homeland and this negative publicity only serves to damage the tourism industry, hence the police being more diligent than usual. Thailand really hates it when they get bad press in the West and they do everything they can to prevent this from happening.
But I am afraid to say that random acts of violence are on the increase. Let me give you a few examples. In late 2005 a young foreign gentleman was on the back of a motorbike with another foreigner near the intersection of Rama 9 Road and Rachadapisek Roads late at night. This is a fairly central area. They were set upon by a bunch of teenagers on motorbikes who had machetes of all things! One of the foreigners suffered horrendous injuries, was rushed to hospital where a leg was amputated and he failed to recover from the injuries and died 48 hours later.
In another example, a reader of this site was surrounded by a bunch of what he described as rough looking locals in their '20s and was told to hand over his wallet, which he did. He was then roughed up a bit and the locals took off, never to be seen again. This happened at the mouth of Sukhumvit Soi 12, an area with a lot of tourist foot traffic.
But don't let me worry you too much. Even for females walking alone, you are unlikely to have any problems in the central, well lit areas of Bangkok. But, it still pays to be careful and as a rule, you shouldn't do anything that you wouldn't do in your own country. Obviously if you're walking down the street with 1,000 baht notes falling out of your pocket or other valuables in sight, then it might be a different story.
Another major concern is to try not to get into any sort of serious confrontation with Thais, which sadly is easier said than done. The Thais are generally a friendly bunch but when they feel aggrieved the ante can be raised to uncomfortably high levels very, very quickly. If you ever feel that things might be getting a little out of control, smile, apologise and get away as fast as you can. Even if you do not feel you are in the wrong, apologise!
I always advise people to steer clear of Thais drinking heavily. Even if you speak Thai well and have a feeling for the locals you just cannot predict how the situation may change. Thai men can become unpredictable once they have had a few drinks and alcohol is often a factor in crimes, especially those committed after dark, in Thailand.
But it is not only the Thais you need to be careful of. There are plenty of really questionable foreigners in Thailand. Plenty of Westerners get themselves into financial difficulty and run out of money. Desperate people turn to sensate measures and anything is possible. Again, plenty of problems happen when guys have had a bit much to drink so be aware of people who look like they may not handle alcohol well.
In my time in Thailand, seldom does it seem a month goes past when there isn't another reasonably high profile case when a pretty young Western backpacker is raped, or a foreigner is murdered or dies under mysterious circumstances. Every week in Pattaya there are farangs perishing under mysterious circumstances and the Western embassies report many of their nationals die in Thailand every year.
If you dispute my claims that Bangkok is dangerous, have a look at the photographs of dead bodies on the front page of some of the Thai newspapers. As a foreigner, you really do not want to get caught up in anything - even if you are an innocent bystander. If you witness anything or if you see some sort of fracas taking place, it is often best to quietly become scarce rather than intervene. While you may have the best intentions, you could well get arrested and charged with an offence that you didn't even commit, or even have money extorted from you! Sadly, it does happen and yes, I know of incidents where this has happened to people I knew. I knew a guy who was arrested because he was close by when a fight took place and there was a small amount of blood spatter on his shirt. He had nothing to do with it and he was locked up for the night and had to pay 3,000 baht to get out. Crazy! Never forget that a foreigner is seen by some as a walking ATM machine.
On a similar note, I also recommend that you do not get involved in things that don't concern you, even if it goes against everything that you believe in. Some years ago now, a friend and I were on a road trip in southern Isaan. We were driving through the countryside when we came around a bend and saw an accident right in front of us which looked as though it had just happened. A motorcycle was on the ground, the rider several metres away. He must have hit the car pretty hard because the damage was considerable. We debated quickly whether we should stop to render assistance or not, but decided against it. We were concerned that we might get blamed for something even though we had stopped to help. Later on, I was told by Thais that the best thing to do, as much as it pained us, was to just to proceed as if we had seen nothing. We felt bad, but at the end of the day we could have been charged with any sort of crime, we might have suffered a backlash by the people involved or, as I have heard of, we might have been asked to contribute towards some of the damage. Madness really that we could not help. Note that whenever there is an issue in Thailand that the Thais will stand around and watch, but no-one will actually do anything!
Slum housing next to the Saen Saeb Canal.
Note: March 2000. There have been some problems with tourists and some other foreigners being attacked and in some cases murdered. A bunch of foreigners were murdered by an unlicensed taxi driver who picked them up from the airport before taking them to meet the grim reaper. An Australian girl was attacked in Surat Thani and raped and murdered in an isolated temple. Another Australian couple were attacked up in Chiang Mai, again in an isolated area.
Addendum: August 2000. In three separate, seemingly unrelated incidents, an English backpacker was raped and murdered in a Chiang Mai guesthouse, a farang's rotting corpse was pulled out of a canal in Banglamphu (near Khao San Road, the backpacker area) and a farang was found dead, dumped in a bag in Sukhumvit soi 5.
Addendum: November 2004. In what has become a very high profile case, a Kanchanaburi based policeman was charged with the murder of two British backpackers. The two were shot dead late at night and after going into hiding for some time, the policeman turned himself in and admitted to it. Then after a period of time he changed his statement, requested bail and it was granted, much to most people's astonishment. What this case did for many Westerners in Thailand was simply re-enforce the belief that if one is the victim of a crime in Thailand, redress may not be available and justice may not be served. Whether the accused is guilty or not is a moot point, but what little confidence Westerners in Thailand had in the justice system when they are victims of crimes was totally ruined by this case.
DEALING WITH THE POLICE
Let's cut to the chase. The Thai police do not have a great reputation. Many Westerners talk of corruption, ineptitude, a lack of willingness to help Westerners when in difficulty, and a definite bias in siding with Thai nationals if they find themselves in a dispute against a Westerner.
I always say that you should only get in touch with the police in Thailand if you absolutely have to. As one of my friends once said, don't make the evil look at you.
If you ever have any dealings with the police in Thailand, it helps to understand that the whole system and the way the police work in Thailand is very much different from the West. First of all, very minor offences, or offences deemed to be minor by the police, are often not put through the system. The perpetrator may be asked to pay a (usually) small amount of money, and that is the end of it. No going to court, to wasted police time, no prison or criminal record and in all likelihood, no receipt for the fine paid. In the case of a civil dispute where one person makes a claim against another, the police will help liaise so that an agreement is reached. Some of the money paid would go to the person who made the complaint (if the police upheld it) and in all likelihood a small amount would be paid to the police.
It is often said that to get the police to do follow up some things, you may have to pay. Unfortunately I have seen evidence of this myself, first hand. Very disappointing indeed.
If you ever find yourself as the complainant, you need to understand the system - and a big part is the status and connections of the person you are making a complaint about. Irrespective of whether you have been hard done by or not, a complaint against someone of status, or someone well-connected, will likely not be investigated as you might expect. It is very possible that the case is deferred and little or nothing done. Of course, if the complaint involves something very big, or very serious, then the police might be forced to do more. But generally, you have got to understand that as a Westerner complaining against a Thai, you might be up against it. It is all somewhat complicated and people's status DOES come into it.
Let me give a couple of examples. A farang complains to the police about a taxi driver who ripped them off. The police will almost certainly act on this as taxi drivers are usually from a poor background and don't usually have great connections. If the complaint is upheld, the farang will likely “win” and an agreement would be reached with the likely outcome that the farang's money is returned. Another example might be the case of a farang complaining to the police about a landlord who refused to return their deposit on a rental property. The landlord might be a wealthy and well-connected businessman who perhaps has police friends or even built a police traffic control box (yes, this is quite normal - private individuals and companies finance the air-conditioned police control boxes you see all around the city). In this case, do you think the cops are going to side against that guy? UNLIKELY! Thailand is a place where a farang really does have to choose their battles carefully. If you go to the police for anything, it is often worthwhile checking with Thai friends first because they will ordinarily understand the system a lot better than you ever will.
Also, even if your case against a Thai is taken, you have to be aware that they might seek revenge against you. I once heard a farang ranting about the local police and how they hadn't handled his complaint in the way he had hoped and how he was going to make a complaint against the officers involved. Nothing could be more stupid. There would almost certainly have been retribution.
I hate to say it but as the victim of crime in Bangkok you can very much feel as if you are on your own. OK, if it is a really serious or high profile crime then the cops will do their job as best they can, but for less serious issues, don't expect a great deal of assistance.
When you go to the police station to make any sort of statement, complaint or whatever, you should take your passport with you. And for goodness sake, make sure your visa is valid and hasn't expired. Unless you have a VERY good grasp of the local lingo, I would take a Tai along with you.
The police in Thailand are a law unto themselves and many, many Thai people (and Westerners resident in Thailand long-term) are downright scared of them. Problems of all sorts including alleged corruption are often reported in the English language newspapers.
If you are able to befriend any police officers or have an opportunity to do any coppers a big favour like giving them or their children free English lessons, computer / internet assistance, translation or the like, you may begin to develop a little "insurance policy". If you have any genuine problems in the future, go back to your friendly copper and ask for help - I'm sure they will see to it that the problem is resolved, or at least provide some assistance. This is not a get out of jail card for any problem, but they could and usually will help with any small, minor issues. However, this situation can potentially become nasty so don't take them for granted. Also, if you have influential Thai friends, it may well be worth consulting them if you have any problems. If you do get yourself in real hot water, no amount of money or influential friends will get you out of it. It has to be remembered that there is always the concern that the authorities will make an example of a farang who gets in trouble and plaster his / her name and mug shot all over the press.
As far as dealing with the police goes, and their attitude and willingness to help goes, obviously it varies from station to station. Some stations are known to be farang friendly and this manifests itself in many ways. The Prakanong Police Station has a very good reputation and the locals generally have a good feeling towards them. The police in that particular district are less likely, for example, stop and fine a farang on a motorbike who is not wearing his helmet. It is almost as if they recognise the value of farangs to their community, and turn a blind eye.
In my limited dealings with the Thai police, I have been impressed by their friendliness. Like most Thai people, at an individual level at least, they are pleasant. I also get the impression that they are a little worried that if they do not meet the farang's expectations, complaints may be forthcoming - and that is the last thing they want.
In addition to the regular police, you can always get in touch with the tourist police, although they exist for tourists - and not necessarily for Westerners resident in Thailand. There is a misconception that the Tourist Police are an English speaking branch of the Thai police, there to help all foreigners. That is true, but they are here to help tourists, in tourist areas. You will not usually find tourist police in non-tourist areas. I guess you could purport to be a tourist and consult the Tourist Police though I imagine that when they realised it was not something to do with a tourist or tourism related, they would refer it to the local police.
One of the problems with the police force is that they are very lowly paid and under resourced. Officers have to buy their own weapons, uniform and various things that we would consider essential tools to do the job. The police are thus forced to try and make money so that they can recoup their own costs. Each police station apparently has a central fund that the coppers can dip into to finance the tools of the job. Yes, it is a shame that they are so badly under-resourced and under-funded that they are literally forced to extract money from the public to enable them do their job. Obviously, the cops are so poorly paid that not all of the money ends up in the station's central fund, but in their pockets. While corruption is never a god thing, when anyone is so poorly paid, this is inevitable. It's simply the way things are in what is still, at least when compared with the west, a poor country.
Many cops get money from all manner of crooked folk, be it the managers of the gogo bars who want the girls to dance topless or even nude (which is against the law) or the local con men who is up to who knows what.
There are often stories in the press of big drug lords making millions of dollars peddling their poison across the Kingdom and beyond who are said to push money the police's way. Basically, anyone who is doing something they shouldn't but would like to keep doing it may make certain contributions to the local police. With this in mind, there is potential for conflict of interest. What happens if you make a complaint about someone who is, for want of more subtle words, on the police's payroll? In a typical scenario, the police will be in an awkward situation and may move very slowly and eventually the case will be closed without any real resolution. As unlikely as it is that you will ever face this situation, it is still useful to know how the system works. If you have any general problems such as you lose your wallet or your camera is stolen, the police will be helpful enough although such petty crimes concerning foreigners seldom seem to be solved. In fact I would go as far to say that often such crimes aren't even investigated and all that happens is that you are given a police report to use to claim against your insurance.
It must be said that while many Thai policemen are obviously bent, they generally deal with farangs with courtesy and politeness. On the odd occasion when I have had to talk with the police, this has always been my impression.
If you ever get caught for a very minor offence or are subjected to a shake down, it is probably best to use English instead of Thai (assuming you speak some Thai) when dealing with the officer. The idea here being that they do not want to unduly upset a foreign tourist BUT if you live here, there is no harm in shaking you down for a few baht...after all, as a local, you know the reality of living in Thailand. If you are subject to a shakedown and feel it is unjustified, I have heard it said that the best approach is to simply ask the officer if you can make a phone call. Inevitably, the cop will get worried and ask you who you want to call to which you should reply "never you mind" or something to that effect. Now you have the cop guessing and if it is something very minor or a shakedown, you will be left alone. If he insists to know who you are calling, respond that the ambassador at the American Embassy (or someone similarly placed in society - but someone who it would be reasonable to expect that he is not close friends with) is a close friend and bingo, the copper is out of there! It is important to remember that while you might be targeted as a farang - you have money and you might be easy prey -the Thais get shaken down just the same. I know, that doesn't make it any easier!
Whenever you deal with the police, BE EXTREMELY POLITE. If you have to go to the police station to make a report, wear clean, neat and tidy clothes. The more respect you give them and the more polite you are, the more helpful they will be. NEVER be rude to a policeman in Thailand EVER. Never say anything rude or insulting and leave sarcasm outside the station's walls. If a Thai policeman wanted to make your life difficult, he could, so under no circumstances provoke them or give them any reason to do so. (This should be stating the obvious but you'd be amazed how many idiot farangs are rude to the police in Thailand. DUMB!)
The Thai police don't always deal with the accused, or established guilty parties, with compassion. Stories of people being knocked about while in custody are not unusual, though for this to happen to a foreigner, they would likely have to be accused of a serious crime against a Thai national. I have heard numerous stories over the years of Thai policemen beating up smart-mouthed Westerners so please, do not say anything you shouldn't. There was a very high profile case a few years back in Kanchanaburi where a Thai policeman claimed he was abused by two British backpackers and that caused him to cause significant loss of face. He then went and killed the two of them, shooting on and running the other over, if my memory serves me correctly. Not nice at all.
In the unfortunate case of a dispute between a Thai and a farang, there is no guarantee that the mediating policeman will look at it impartially. Some cops will, some won't. You need to be aware of this. If you get involved in a situation with a local, there is a very real chance that being a foreigner up against a Thai, irrespective of the circumstances, will count against you. This is why I always recommend that you do your very best to avoid any sort of conflict or dispute with a Thai national as it has the chance to get really ugly - and you may not receive justice.
Again, I have heard of countless stories of Thai women and their farang boyfriends having problems. In what is a very common theme, the Thai woman pulls a knife or a weapon and attacks her boyfriend, causing him various injuries. Generally speaking he is able to overcome her despite his injuries and he may push her back or try and restrain her. Even though he was merely defending himself against a frenzied attack, if she gets so much as a small bruise or cut, in all likelihood it will be him who is found to be in the wrong. There is no shame in running away from a problem in Thailand. In such a situation, I would run. Avoiding a problem before it even happens is the best means of sorting out issues in Thailand. Once a problem escalates it can be very hard to get it sorted out.
But perhaps the very worst scenario is that where a foreigner has an issue with another foreigner and the Thai police are called. Most likely neither party has any status, and neither party is willing to pay the police to investigate. The police now have to try and work out what has happened, while speaking English, and try and resolve it. The Thai police really do not like situations like this. There is nothing in it for them!
In summary, and as much as I hate to say it, the Thai police are often looked upon, by both Thais, and Westerners in Thailand, as a group not trusted and best avoided.
From time to time, one hears stories of police harassment of foreigners here and often it may be an attempt by a third party to get money out of someone by getting the police involved. The classic story is the idiot who buys drugs and then the police miraculously turn up in no time. Well guess what - the guy you bought the drugs from tipped off the cops because not only did he make a profit on the drugs that he sold to you, he's going to make a profit from the tip-off money too!
Anyone who gets involved with drugs in Thailand in any way at all is taking a significant risk. Anyone involved in drug trafficking is just plain dumb. Two books written on the topic of Westerners caught trafficking drugs out of Thailand and who later ended up spending many years in Thailand include "The Damage Done" (Also published as "4,000 Days) and "Forget You Had A Daughter". The first is the story of an Australian male and the second the story of an English female, both who got caught smuggling drugs out of Thailand. The drugs problem is taken VERY seriously in this part of the world so don't be an idiot - stay well clear of them.
At a number of entertainment venues in Bangkok random drug testing occurs from time to time so if you have used drugs and frequent such venues, you may well get test positive for drug use. This could be very embarrassing, even if the drug use took place outside of Thailand. I hate to say it, but try telling that to a Thai policeman or worse still, a Thai judge. You may indeed be totally innocent and have a valid defence, but frankly, I think it wouldn't fly.
Being a foreigner in Thailand charged with any drug offence doesn't bear thinking about. Every year there are idiot farangs who get caught trafficking drugs. They are just about the craziest, most daring people on the planet because anyone caught will get likely end up with a 50 year prison sentence.
DON'T TOUCH DRUGS IN THAILAND. IF ANYONE YOU KNOW HAS OR USES DRUGS, GET AWAY FAST!
It is often said that anyone who is caught for minor drug offences in Thailand is given a chance to pay their way out of the situation. True or not, I do not know, but for sure it is possible. It is also said that any chance to pay one's way out of the situation should be seized. Now I do not want to condone bribery of an official here, but really ,drugs and Thailand just do not mix!
THE PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT OF BANGKOK
Bangkok suffers from dreadful pollution which can cause health issues. When I first visited Thailand and returned to my native New Zealand, I took with me a dreadful cough that I attribute to the city's awful pollution. It really is that bad.
And neither is Bangkok a pretty city to look at it. If it's a cloudy day the city looks grey and drab, but as I have often said, it is the vibe that makes the city, and the zest that the people have for life, not the physical environment of the city itself. There aren't that many green areas but there a few big parks you can escape to and getting out of the city at the weekend is easy with many interesting places to visit within an hour or two in every direction.
Although Bangkok is dirty, one thing that isn't seen nearly as often as it is in the West is graffiti, although that is slowly changing and it can be seen more and more these days, including profanity in English. Who was the English teaching plonker who had to teach them those words?!
While I find that I personally am able to overcome the fact that Bangkok is dirty, the pavements grubby and crooked and quite capable of tripping you up and bringing you down, it's the beggars that get to me. And it isn't the fact that they are begging that upsets me, it's the fact that some of these poor folk are in an awful state. There truly are some poor wretches in a bloody terrible state and if you have never been to a developing country before, it can all be a bit of a shock. Amputees, the homeless, lepers, the deaf, the blind and quite frankly, the horribly deformed, are all competing for the jingle of a few baht that they hear in your pocket.
Many of these beggars are often put on the streets by organised gangs and while they may collect a reasonable amount of money each day, it is taken by their captors who but provide them with a place to stay and food to eat. How else can you explain that these unfortunate folk move daily from prime location to prime location, day after day, in search of the compassionate tourists' loose change? Many Thais have believe in wasana, or fate, and many believe that someone who is born with deformities deserves it because they must have done something really horrible in a previous life. All I can say is that if all of this is true, with the huge amount of corruption in Thailand at present, there's going to be a great number of crippled folks in the next generation...invest in wheelchair manufacturing or some related industry!
Of course there is a real problem with children being put out to beg too. Sometimes they are controlled by their parents and sometimes by gangs. Worst of all, they are often put into the nightlife areas - read red light districts - and are not allowed to go home until they have sold X number of whatever it is they are selling, often flowers like the little girl pictured here. Very sad business indeed.
Speaking of people in a bad way, unfortunately one sees a lot of animals, mainly dogs, in a similarly dreadful state. All I can say is that the SPCA in the West would have a nightmare if they saw the state of some of these beasts. And of course rabies is a problem too. Do your level best to avoid being bitten by stray dogs because rabies is a problem in Thailand. If you get bitten by a dog, it is recommended that you go to a hospital immediately and get started on a series of rabies shots. You don't get them all at once and have to return every few days for a few weeks, I believe.
LAWYERS AND LEGAL REPRESENTATION
Let me just say a quick word about lawyers and the legal profession in Thailand. In my time in Thailand I have used just one lawyer who came recommended by a friend and he was really excellent. As he tells me, lawyers in Thailand often deal with all aspects of the law, be it civil or criminal matters, the transfer of property, registration of a business, assistance getting work permits - whatever! Many simply do not specialise in one area of the law but do it all!
The lawyer I used was Thai and he charged VERY reasonable fees. Once I consulted him for an hour on a personal issue and he charged me 1,000 baht. What is even more incredible is that he drove to see me! Another time I called him, outlining an issue I had and what I wanted to do. He drove to see me, a distance of some 25 km, met me, and discussed the problem. He said that a complaint needed to be made at the local police station and he accompanied me there and we went over the whole complicated issue the police. The total time was about 2 and a half hours and this was on his day off. The total cost for this? 3,000 baht. Try getting a Western lawyer at those rates!
There are a number of Westerner practicing in Thailand as lawyers. Actually, they are not lawyers as such in that they cannot enter a court of law. I guess you could call them "legal consultants". So, while these guys might be able to do everything for you if you are looking at something which does not need any interaction with the Thai authorities, or will not go to court, they may not be able to help you otherwise. I guess you could look at them as "legal consultants". They can explain the law to you, advise you on your options and point you in the right direction, but if you need to interact with the authorities then they will ALSO have a Thai lawyer to help, meaning that you essentially pay for two lawyers! And then you have the translation problems as the Western lawyer tells the Thai lawyer, or the Thai lawyer nods but really doesn't understand entirely. I am sure there are some very good Western lawyers in Thailand, but they can charge astronomical rates and the rates I often here are 4,000 - 8,000 baht per hour. Ouch, that hurts! There are many very good Thai lawyers so if you need a lawyer, I would actually recommend going directly to a Thai - just try and get a recommendation!
On of the most annoying things about living in Thailand is the inability to put a wrong situation right. What ever problems you experience in Thailand, there is often little recourse available to you. If your employer craps on you, don't expect them to put it right by simply going and talking to someone in the HR department or even the MD. You're essentially forced to get a lawyer and take them to court. It is good to know that contracts in English ARE legally binding and the Labour Department or if it comes to it, the Labour Court, often sides with the employee - as seems to be the way worldwide, notwithstanding that it may be a farang making a claim against a Thai organisation. If you buy goods that turn out to be faulty, unless it is a brand name from a big store or a store where you know the proprietor well, don't expect a refund or an exchange. A lot of stores have a very clearly stated no refund or exchange policy.
Take a careful look at yourself and if you are someone who always squeals when something doesn't go quite your way and you frequently cry consumers / contractual / legal rights, then you may find Thailand a little disconcerting. Basically, a lot of the rights that are taken for granted in the west simply don't exist here.
Although it goes without saying, one does not want to get into trouble with the Thai authorities as they can be ruthless. A friend was involved in a crime that was quite profitable - the Thai authorities caught up with him and it cost him a huge amount of money (read more than 1 year's salary in the West) to get his way out of trouble and settle the issue. Had he been unlucky, he may have done some time in the slammer, then been sent home on the first available flight and possibly even received a stamp in his passport prohibiting him from ever re-entering Thailand. It's not worth it! Also, if you go to court and get found guilty, it usually means instant deportation and you risk becoming persona non grata, blacklisted from ever returning to Thailand again. Further as the Immigration Department, the Foreign Minister and your Embassy are all notified, there might be other consequences. The bottom line to remember is that the judicial system is very tough in Thailand, much tougher than anywhere in the West.
As crazy as it sounds, the truth is not always the solution to one's legal problems in Thailand. One area where this manifests itself is in the laws of slander and libel. These are both criminal and civil issues in Thailand. If someone cheats you in the West or does something and you simply say what they did, i.e. state the facts, then you have most likely not broken any laws. In Thailand it is quite different. If you say, write or publish something that causes someone to lose face, EVEN IF IT IS TRUE, then you may be liable. One rule of living in Thailand, no matter how crazy it may seem, and no matter how hard it may be for you to do it, do not cause another person to lose face through your comments, announcements, writings or whatever.
But really, one wants to avoid getting into any legal problems in Thailand in the first place. The whole legal system is confusing and different laws are applied differently to different people. Penalties can be severe and some of the reports I have both heard of and read about concerning court cases would make anyone ending up before a judge extremely nervous. Mark my words, you want to avoid getting into trouble in Thailand - and court should be avoided at all costs!
TRAFFIC AND BEING BEHIND THE WHEEL
If you do a lot of driving in the City Of Angels, it is inevitable that you will be waved over by cops at a random checkpoint. And one day, you are going to meet someone at a checkpoint that has not been set up only in the interests of road safety or vehicle fitness certificate inspection but also in the interest of collecting revenue! The routine generally goes like this: You will be waved over and approached by one of the coppers who will almost always be very friendly and polite. You will be informed of the (alleged!) infringement that you have made and that there is a fine payable (they are generally in the 400 - 800 baht range). He will pull for invoice book and start writing up a ticket, slowly, ever so slowly! At this point, it is up to you to offer him some money there and then. The general excuse that most people use is that they don't have enough time to go to the station to pay it and that they would prefer to pay it here and now - and damn, they don't need a receipt either! Although some people pay more, a drivers licence handed to the cop with 1 nice bright red 100 baht note will usually suffice. 100 baht is not always enough for Thai people but often it will cost a foreigner 200 baht. Note, the cop will NOT ask you for money outright - if he does and you were to have taped the conversation, this guy is for the high jump. When paying your 100 - 200 baht, make sure he doesn't see all of the 500s and 1000s in your wallet otherwise he may deem 100 - 200 baht to be too little! Be polite at all times and you shouldn't have any problems. Also, when paying off the cops, do it VERY discretely and don't be an idiot and start counting out the notes into his hands for all and sundry to see! Remember that technically you are as much in the wrong as he is. I am told by people who have driven in Thailand for a long time that these days it is not common to be asked to pay when you had not actually done anything wrong. The one big exception is the famous toll both on the expressway heading north out of the city. Coppers wait at the second to last toll both on the Don Muang expressway and will accuse you of all sorts of things. One friend of mine was accused of doing 190 km/h, a speed his car couldn't possibly reach. This spot seems to be a real "target the foreigner zone".
If you do get a ticket for traffic infringement, the police officer will usually take your driver's licence from you. You are required to go to the police station (the one which this pleasant fellow who just issued you with a ticket) works out of and pay the fine within 7 days. If you take longer than that to go and pay it, the fine increases. When you pay the fine, your licence is given back to you. One reason to avoid getting tickets is that each time you are given a traffic infringement notice like this, you get a number of demerit points on your licence. Once you reach certain number of points within a certain period of time, you lose your licence, that is if you are driving on a Thai driver's licence. If you were driving on an international licence or a licence from your home country, no points are deducted obviously as you are not in the Thai driver's licence computer system.
From time to time, you might find yourself in a taxi that is pulled over at a police checkpoint. More often than not, you will just be waved along, but there is always a chance that the police might want to see some form of photo ID, preferably your passport. A pedantic policeman could insist on seeing your passport and if you do not have it, he might get a bit shirty. Smile, be pleasant and polite and they'll usually just let it go. A photocopy of your passport in your wallet may well help. In Thailand, all Thai citizens aged 15 and over must have their ID with them at all times and it is no different for foreigners. Strictly speaking, we are supposed to have our passport with us at all times but generally speaking, a copy of it, or another form of ID will suffice. If you have a Thai driver's licence or a an ID from your local place of work, that is generally good enough. Just remember though that strictly speaking, we are supposed to have our passport and they might insist on seeing it.
Try and avoid being involved in a vehicle accident (easier said than done!) Things can get a little messy and often the foreigner is considered at fault even if he / she is clearly the victim of a local driver's error. The argument often cited is that this is Thailand and if the foreigner had not come to Thailand in the first place, the accident would never have happened! Excellent! A comprehensive insurance policy is obviously a must if you choose to drive here. At the risk of sounding cynical, Bangkok is a good place to verify the bad reputation that Asians have behind the wheel. If you do have an accident and you are at fault and someone else is injured, you are expected to pay for their medical attention there and then! If you do not have enough money on you, you are expected to go and get the money! As a foreigner, you will probably be asked for a silly amount like 1,000 baht for a minor injury when 200 - 500 baht will suffice. Yes, as silly as it sounds these amounts sound, they are most definitely negotiable. In the case of a road accident, you must leave the vehicles where they stopped and call not just the police, but your insurance company who will dispatch a representative to come out, analyse the situation - and this person will deal with the police on your behalf. This is one very good reason for having a mobile phone. Keep your insurance company's phone number close by at all times!
As with many developing countries, two tiered pricing is a sad fact of life and is prevalent throughout not just Bangkok but all of Thailand. Two tiered pricing, also known as double pricing or dual pricing, is when different prices are charged for exactly the same good or service, with the price based on the purchaser's nationality. This racist policy happens at a variety of places from national parks, to temples, to various businesses, many of which target tourists and it sometimes even goes right down to small, street stall style restaurants. Often the price difference is huge, not just a few baht but as much as ten times! Possibly the most well known example of dual pricing is The Grand Palace, also known as Wat Phra Kew. Entry is 200 baht for foreigners but free for Thais! This is perhaps fair enough as the Thais visiting this temple are predominantly Buddhist and this is the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand. At many other interesting or historic temples, the entry price is 20 - 30 baht for foreigners and either free or just 10 baht for Thais. It starts to get annoying when one has to pay more at tourist attractions that are not related to religion or not government owned and operated. In the case of government owned and operated businesses, one could argue that the locals getting in for free is because it is their taxes that paid for it all. Annoyingly, the argument so often given at these places with dual pricing is that foreigners are richer than Thais and that they can therefore afford to pay more! This argument is totally invalid, especially when you see a Mercedes Benz or similar full of locals arrive at one of these places, each member of the group wearing brand name clothes, an expensive Swiss watch and carrying a top model phone, all clearly demonstrating that these are people not hard up for cash.
From a temple in Phitsanulok city, entry is free to Thais - but not to foreigners!
If you speak Thai to a reasonable level, you can simply ask for the Thai price or hand over the correct money for one ticket at the Thai price. If you can read Thai, you will be able to read the Thai price as funnily enough, establishments where dual pricing is prevalent are amongst the few places you will still see Thai numerals used. (In most of Thailand they use the same number symbols as we do.) Some places will accept your work permit or a local ID card that you are locally based and therefore accept the local price. Still, this is not a lot of help to people in Thailand on holiday. The Thais do not seem to understand that this leaves a really bad flavour in our mouth, being forced to pay more like this. I know that they would be up in arms if this sort of thing happened to them when they were abroad. Notice that if you ever go out with a bunch of Thais and you are asked to pay more, they feel great shame...and so they should.
Even in places where double pricing isn't prevalent, endemic corruption can result in the bill being padded with frivolous charges. This is often done in a very subtle way and can take on many guises. In some restaurants, you will be shown a menu but once you have ordered your food the menus are taken away. When the bill comes, it is often just a small piece of paper with a single number on it, the total of all of the dishes and drinks combined. Any establishment operating like this is just asking you to check the bill. I have been mis-charged so many times that it just starts to get ridiculous. When asking for a breakdown of the bill, the staff will take their time and often get creative in an effort to make everything tally up with the figure written on the paper. One is forced to call for the menu and literally, more often than not, you'll see that you have been overcharged. The people doing the overcharging vary from place to place - sometimes it is quite simply management practice and at other times it is the waitresses and / or the cashier pulling a sly one and pocketing the difference between what you paid and what the actual cost should have been. The worst thing is that complaining about it falls on deaf ears and you just know that the next people are going to get the same treatment.
Buy a bottle of water from a street vendor in the vicinity of tourist attractions or in an area where tourists may frequent and you may end up paying 10 - 20 baht whereas a local may very well pay less. Many shops, ranging from small restaurants to transport providers, and even including the odd barber, have the prices listed on the wall in Thai with one set of prices and in English with another. I remember getting a haircut once in the Pratunam area and the difference between the Farang price and the Thai price was 20 baht for a haircut, 50 for a Thai 70 for an "English speaker". I argued the point and got the haircut for the Thai price but was pretty much told to fxxk off and never come back.
Suwan Siam, often called Siam Park in English, a water park on the north-eastern edge of Bangkok, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Chok Chai Farm in Saraburi and the Bangkok Crocodile Farm are just a few of the many examples of places where the price for farangs and Thais is OPENLY different. One set of prices written in Thai for the Thais and another for the foreigners written in English. This is absolutely diabolical! Another way to get around this is to send your Thai friend / girlfriend to buy the tickets with you well out of sight! No problem for us expats who can actually read Thai but for others, it can be a pain. 5 baht here, 10 baht there won't break the bank but the principle annoys quickly. Also, quite a lot of this dual pricing is set at Government level - while on one hand one can understand that the taxpayers have essentially paid for some of these things but surely this seems somewhat hypocritical given that Thailand is trying to promote tourism? Around 2001 the national parks revised their prices with entry to Thais being set at 20 baht and entry to all other nationalities 200 baht - which has since gone up to a whopping 400 baht! This includes the likes of Erawan Waterfalls in Kanchanaburi and the beaches at Ko Samet. The Thai Government really should look at itself with shame over this decision.
Victory Monument, often plagued by heavy pollution and a traffic jam from hell!
GETTING BY IN THAI SOCIETY WITHOUT PROBLEMS
Don't rock the boat! There are some people involved in all sorts of dodgy deals and dodgy businesses and unless it is DIRECTLY affecting you, just ignore it. When in Asia, don't mess with some else's rice bowl! Yes, child prostitution DOES happen here (but it is almost exclusively for the Thais - NOT the foreigners). Yes, unscrupulous vendors do sell the latest version of Windows XP for 100 baht and yes you can buy a fake Rolex for 500 baht. Yep, that tuktuk driver is about to rip off those two tourists off and take them on a high pressure tour of some jewellery and tailors shops that they're not interested in but which he stands to make quite a commission from. LET IT BE! Don't go complaining about things that don't concern you! Many Thais struggle to earn a living and if you do anything to detrimentally effect their income - be it legitimate income or otherwise - you may find yourself in all sorts of hot water and the situation can quickly get out of control. And remember, in a lot of cases, the cops know about what is going on and are receiving a cut so a complaint to them may go nowhere - and just bring unwanted attention to yourself. Basically, keep your nose out of other people's business. Disclaimer: This doesn't mean that I condone some of the things that go on. If things get really ugly and you piss off someone enough, well, let's just say that I have heard banter that the price on a life, even a foreigner, can be as low as 50,000 baht... In Thailand it is VERY important to accept what you cannot change or influence, especially if it does not directly concern you! People who stick their nose in where it doesn't belong, even if they have the very best intentions, will get their comeuppance in Thailand.
One needs to be a little wary of some of the other Westerners in this city. Just because they are white / speak English / the same nationality as you does not mean that they are immediately trustworthy. People tend to make friends easier in Bangkok than back in their homeland and tend to be less choosy about who their friends are. Despite the excitement of life in this city, people get lonely and crave conversation and interaction with their own kind. Remember, back in your homeland, you have probably known most of your friends for years and those relationships and trust have developed over a very long period of time. In a new city, when one may be fighting to become established and make new friends, one can lower their guard and become a little too trusting. Choose your friends with care, an be aware that there are a few foreigners in Thailand mixed up in some really questionable stuff. There are also a lot of Westerners here living hand to mouth and they will do whatever they can to part you from your money. This is one of the huge unspoken shortcomings of life in this part of the world – the caliber of the people who float up on the beach here.
As crazy as it sounds, there are more than a few foreigners around who have really lost the plot. It's the usual story - drink, drugs or women, sometimes all three! I'll never forgot one fellow who somehow scammed 7,000 baht out of a friend of mine and then tried to hit me up to put a brand new laptop on my credit card! "I'll pay you back next week when a cheque arrives from the States." Wake up! This same guy had some serious problems and became a real nuisance until told where to go. They are everywhere, but they tend to hang around in the Khao Sarn Road or Sukhumvit areas more than anywhere else, basically the farang ghettos. From time to time, you might even see a farang begging, and then you know they have really reached rock bottom. There used to be a farang with a North American accent who begged for almost a year around the Erawan shrine - then one day he was gone.
I hate to say it but I am not that impressed by some of my fellow farangs living and working here in Thailand. The number of farangs living here is significant so it is to be expected that there will be some questionable folks amongst them, but frankly, the number of folks who fail to impress make up a much higher percentage of farangs in Thailand than what you would find at home. You get farangs up to no good, leading really questionable lifestyles. You get farangs who have lived in Thailand for many, many years and can't string together 10 words of the language and you get no shortage guys who are doing the same thing they did when they first arrived and are on the road to nowhere. Don't get me wrong, while these are all things that are hard to admire, it isn't adequate reason to view them in a negative light and I do not necessarily have anything against such people – they can live their lives as they please and it would be totally wrong for me to suggest otherwise. What I do have a problem with however is the Westerners who cast aspersions on anyone who suggests that Thailand is anything less than perfect. You often hear Westerners resident in or travelling through Thailand who will comment on various aspects of life here – and not always in a positive light. Sometimes they will tell stories of how this or that happened and how they wee the victim – and some of the things complained about may be genuinely bad. I have read a number of stories of Westerners being victims in their dealings with the police, including being scammed on the road, or, in worst case scenarios, actually being beaten up by police. What I REALLY HATE is when other Westerners come along try and defend the actions of the perpetrators and tell the victim that either they were in the wrong or that they should put up with it, shut up or even leave Thailand! You see, there are some people who had no life at home, before they came to Thailand, for whatever reason. Maybe they were unpopular, or never got ahead in life, were career criminals, or whatever. Despite problems at home, their lives in the Land of Smiles are the complete opposite. In Thailand, the locals smile at them and treat them nicely. In return, these questionable farangs will defend the Thais to the hilt, even if it involves something very clearly questionable or downright wrong. This drives me crazy and is one of the reasons I seldom read the local internet discussion forums these days. There are some Westerners who find Thailand to be their personal paradise and are prepared to overlook anything, even things that border on a minor atrocity – and they will vociferously criticise anyone who questions their idea of paradise! This is one of the huge unspoken shortcomings of life in this part of the world – the calibre of the Westerners here.
Corruption is so endemic in Thailand and so many people are so corrupt that they do not even recognise that what they are doing is actually corruption - it has become so institutionalised and in many cases it's just considered the norm. A friend tells a classic tale about when he started working as a teacher at a school. It is the school's responsibility to get and pay for all of the work permit documentation. Along with some from the administration department at school, they had just about completed all of the paperwork and were sitting in the office of one of the immigration big wigs who signs things off. He was told by the administrator that the cost of the visa would be 500 baht. My friend says I'm not going to pay it - the school pays it. They haggled over this for a minute or two before the administrator pulled 500 baht out of her wallet and gave it to the immigration official. My friend asked whether that was her own money and she replied, "no, it was from the school". My friend then said, "you just tried to rip me off" to which the administrator just smiled as if this was perfectly normal. See what I mean? They just can't help themselves! Spend enough time in Thailand, especially in a business environment and you will see corruption at almost every level. I have no answers as to ho on gets around it. Try to fight it and you will lose. It is a sad fact that the endemic corruption in Thailand is holding the country back and until they really get it under control, it is going to hold them back, and slow their development.
If you do have the misfortune to suffer any serious problems or get into any major trouble, it goes without saying that your embassy would be the best people to contact. They will be able to give you sound advice on what to do though some of the embassies, the Brits in particular, have the reputation of being less than helpful. Remember, if you have broken the local laws, there isn't anything that they can do to assist you other than recommend a lawyer, possibly give you some advice and liaise with friends and family. Don't get the embassy involved unless you have to though, because once it's on paper, it's official and once that has happened, the chances of you being able to "pay" your way out of any situation you maybe have got yourself into are all but eliminated. But don't take the idea of being able to pay off the police lightly. Yes, as with other countries that have not reached industrialized status, some policeman in Thailand will take a backhander to look the other way. Attempting to bribe a policeman is still a very big deal, apart from traffic offences, or alleged offences, where quite frankly, it seems to be the norm.
Freedom of speech does exist in Thailand but in reality, there are some things that are best not mentioned. NEVER say anything negative about HM The King, the royal family or about Buddhism. These are things that Thais hold very dear to their hearts and any comments, even for the purpose of intellectual conversation, will not be appreciated unless they are of an extremely positive nature. In addition to this, any comments made that reflect on Thailand in a negative nature do not seem welcome either. Thailand does have some laws that say something to the effect of "anything published that may harm or damage the reputation of the Thailand is illegal".
The Thai Language
Although many Thais under 40 speak some English, it's a good idea to start learning Thai before you come to the Kingdom. Speaking reasonable Thai is the best way to assimilate yourself into Thai society. The foreigners who speak some Thai will befriend more Thais, will be able to negotiate better prices, will find out all the best places to go and most importantly, will gain a far better insight and understanding into the way that Thai society works.
The Thai language is tonal and is totally unlike English and for that matter, just about any other Western language. While Thai has imported quite a lot of words from English, particularly medical / scientific words and computer / technology words, there is very little else similar between the languages. The grammar is completely different and in addition to the language being tonal, the phonemes (or sounds that make up the language) are different too! On top of this, Thai uses it's own unique script. All of this contributes to making Thai tricky to learn. You can get to survival level easily but getting beyond that often requires formal study. As a Dutch friend who speaks English fluently and seems to have a bit of a propensity for learning languages said, the Thai words do not seem to "stick" in your head like words from other languages do.
As with any country with a largish population, several different dialects of the language are spoken. Bangkok or Central Thai is what you will hear in the capital, the central region and generally what is heard when listening to TV or the radio. In the Northeast (also known as Isaan) of the country, many, but not all, speak "Isaan" which is very much like the language of Laos. I gather that it is primarily different when spoken and that when written, they write in Thai....confused? I am! In the North they speak Northern Thai and as I have only been there once, I know little about this except to say that the women often use the polite particle jow instead of ka. In the south, they tend to speak faster and very close to the Malaysian border, Malaysian will be understood. In some provinces near the Cambodian border, particularly Buriram and Si Saket, Khmer / Cambodian may be spoken and it may even be the first language for some folks although they will also speak and understand Thai.
There are many different ways to learn including chatting with the girls in the bars (probably the most common), buying cassette based self learning courses, attending language schools here in Bangkok or hunting down Thais in your own country and learning from them before you come away (recommended). Before I came to Thailand I was lucky enough to learn to read and write at the local Thai temple back home. With Thai communities throughout the world, this is a great way to give yourself a head start before your arrival. This GREATLY assisted me in my ability to kick on and rally start to get a decent chunk of the language under my belt. I don't care what anyone else says, the only way to pronounce the language clearly, understand the tones and to really get a good grasp of the language is to be able to read and write it. The inability to read and write Thai, especially the all important vowels, will hamper your ability to learn quickly and also go on to reach a high level. Most foreigners who live in Thailand only learn spoken Thai - some people know diddly squat and still get by because at the end of the day, Bangkok is VERY cosmopolitan and the Thais in any service industries are virtually forced to use English due to the number of customers who simply cannot speak Thai.
Local ladies shading their face from the skin, and the dreaded dark skin!
If buying cassette self based courses, I recommend the Linguaphone course. Both Essential Thai and Colloquial Thai aren't bad either. (Note: there are a stack of other courses but these are the only ones that I have had a good look at.) The Linguaphone course, produced by this famous English company of the same name is a very thorough course that is particularly well structured and set out. The edition comes with two hardback books, one paperback book plus four cassettes and is set out over 40 units. The company that produces it has a history of producing such courses and the course allows you to self test yourself to see where you are at. To do the whole course properly with enough opportunity to absorb it and practice it would take the best part of a year. There is even a book included that teaches you how to read and write! At about $US200, it is expensive but in my opinion, worth every last satang. Colloquial Thai is far more basic and unfortunately doesn't include the Thai script. It is still worthwhile and is available in Bangkok at 795 baht and includes two cassettes. Finally, Essential Thai which is published by the Bangkok Post is another reasonable course. The best thing about this course is the excellent reference book that comes with it which is very well laid out and easy to follow. Although this course may be available outside of Bangkok, I have only seen it here. It is a bargain at only 495 baht. Asia Books, which has about ten stores in Bangkok, stocks many different courses including Essential Thai and Colloquial Thai but the excellent Linguaphone course does not appear to be available in Bangkok. Phrase books are useful initially but should not be relied upon as a means to learn the language, rather as a communication tool when out and about.
Benjawan Poomsan Becker, an American based Thai has released a self study three series course which is available at all Asia Books stores in Thailand. Each course is only 595 baht and comes with a very good book which includes lessons, examples, good clear explanations and also a set of three tapes! The three series are Thai For Beginners, Thai for Intermediate Learners and Thai for Advanced readers. For both value for money AND quality, this series is well worth looking at.
It's quite difficult to find a decent language school that teaches Thai. Many schools use dated teaching techniques such as rote learning, use copied course materials, use teachers who are not actually qualified to be language teachers and often seem to have no real course objectives. It should be noted that the Thai educational system is very different to what we are used to in the West and for a while now there has been talk of a change in approach to a more student centered approach. The problem of students copying each other's work is appalling and even at University level, plagiarism is widely prevalent. Further, too many schools seem to "teach for the test" meaning that language students are taught how to pass the Pratom 6 school exam and not how to actually use the language for everyday communication! The P6 exam is run each year by the Ministry of Education and tests Thai to the same level as a grade 6 Thai student.
Many Westerners end up studying Thai at Union Language School which, on the surface, looks reasonable. An 80 course which runs for four hours a day, Monday to Friday for four weeks, total 80 hours, costs 6,500 baht which is quite reasonable really, given what the Thais pay to learn English. Union initially offers six different modules, each one month / 80 hours in duration. The courses move at a brisk pace and if one is keen, they should be able to make good progress. After these six initial modules, other elective modules are available including one on social problems, a couple of newspaper reading, a couple of religion and a couple that are specifically tailored for those who want to prepare prior to doing the Government P 6 exam. Note, Union doesn't introduce written Thai until the third module which in my opinion is a big mistake. The course that Union offers is thorough but it seems more like a study of the language than a course in how to use the language. It is so academic based that I wouldn't be surprised if the course was a part of someone's thesis for a doctorate. One of the big problems at Union is that some of the higher level books that they supply are marred due to the high number of errors in them. Give the Newspaper 1 course book to a Thai speaker along with a red pen and get them to circle all of the mistakes - some pages have more than 10 spelling mistakes! Although it is not of any major importance, the English used in the vocabulary sections is VERY poor too. The premises at Union really could do with a lick of paint as they are really starting to show their age. (These comments about Union were valid as at the end of 2000 when I finished studying there.)
Union is mixed up with a Christian church and I believe that it may even be owned by the Christian Church of Thailand. If you are a missionary, you get a 1,000 baht discount on courses and get preference when course openings become available. The waiting list can be quite long and in a worst case scenario, you may have to wait up to three months for a course opening to become available. This school has a good reputation amongst the Thai language schools in Bangkok but on the negative side, they are more than a little strict and at times, treat the students like children. Still, their courses seem to be effective, if a little inefficient. Union courses run in the mornings only - no afternoon, evening or weekend courses are run although one on one tuition at 300 baht per hour or 400 baht per hour outside the school is available. If you can get your hands on Union's course books for modules 3 & 4, these make up the best material that I have come across for learning the Thai script and it is all done with explanations in English! Union does not like to have students come and study for just a short period of time and about the first question they will ask you is, "how long do you expect to study here". A response of just a month or two will result in them telling you that they do not want to teach you so whatever your plans may be, tell them that you want to study for six months+!
Many years ago I met a Spanish fellow in a bar who spoke very, very good Thai and I asked him where he learnt. He studied one on one tuition at Thonglor Institute in (from memory) Sukhumvit Soi 38. They sell 30 hour blocks of tuition for 7,000 baht which again, is very cheap. Learning one on one is a much faster way to learn than in a classroom environment so long as you are taught by a skilled teacher. Some people praise AUA for their Thai department but my experience inquiring there was very poor. I found the staff unhelpful and the methodology that they use to be questionable (Hey, I'm a qualified language teacher so I've got a few clues about this!) AUA expect students to sign up for 400 hours of listening classes before you can even start talking, let alone reading or writing. Sounds like a bloody clip joint to me but then some people swear by it, so who knows? Give it a go yourself. I have heard that the books they produce for later levels, which include Thai script, are pretty good. (If you teach at AUA, you get a 50% discount on the cost of the Thai courses there.)
Nisa Language School is apparently run by a former Head Teacher / Manager of Union. They run courses in all levels of Thai and have a pretty good reputation. I know someone who studied privately there and if you buy a block of enough tuition, you can get the price for one on one tuition down to 230 baht an hour, very good value for money indeed. This fellow studied at both Union and Nisa and said that Union was better for learning to read and write and Nisa better for actually learning to speak. He said Nisa was a little more laid back than Union. Their classroom courses are a little expensive at 19,500 baht for a ten week course and for this you get three hours a day in class, meaning the total course is 150 hours. This is actually dearer than a lot of the good English language schools charge Thai students.
Baan Parsar Thai is located on Ploenchit Road in the Ruam Rudee building, virtually next door to the Ploenchit Road sky train station. The school is very small in size but from my solitary visit, seems reasonable. They do a little bit of outside work and have contracts with some big multinational companies such as GE. Courses are 30 hours being made up of 20 X 1.5 hour classes and cost 5,400 baht per course which really is quite expensive - even more than some of the best English schools charge for tuition. Private tuition is available at 300 per hour or 400 for and hour and a half session - further, if you study 4 X 1.5 hour sessions in a week, the rate drops to 375 baht per session. They seem to only have three different levels of study and while they offer an extra course in reading and writing the language, it is not so popular. I have no idea about the quality of tuition but the teacher I spoke to there was very helpful, friendly and spoke particularly clearly.
Somchart Language School in Sukhumvit Soi 19 is gaining popularity. They offer both study in a classroom setting or private study. If you book enough hours of private study, the rate becomes very reasonable and as an example, prices start about 5,250 baht for 20 hours to 10,500 baht for 80 hours. Whereas it is said that the teachers speak good English, doubts have been raised as to whether they're properly trained. Still, it is supposed to be ok there.
IDA Language School seems to offer a mish mash of English courses, test preparation courses and also Thai language instruction. Their prices are 2,900 baht for a 20 hour course learning in a classroom with other learners or 6,900 baht for 20 hours one on one with a teacher. Not a lot of feedback from this place other than the fact that all of the materials they used are copied - though that shouldn't come as a surprise! Also, instructors tend to talk predominantly in English which is not going to do a lot for passively developing one's listening skills. IDA is a little hard to find and is down the road from the Phyathai BTS station, opposite the Asia Hotel.
Chulalongkorn University offered (not sure if they still do?) nine different courses in Thai with three courses at each of three different levels ranging from Basic 1 - 3, Intermediate 1 - 3 through to Advanced 1 - 3. The more difficult intermediate level courses are supposed to be around "Baw 6" level and the advanced courses are purportedly very difficult with the use of a lot of genuine material such as TV news, newspapers etc. Each course is 100 hours, 20 hours a week, Monday - Friday 10:00 - 15:00 with a one hour break for lunch. The material is supposed to be very tough and they really apply the pressure. This would be a great place to study but for the cost of the courses - 25,000 per course which is quite frankly, quite hard to justify. There are between 5 - 10 students in a class and the students are predominantly Japanese and many of them have studied Thai for years in Japan or may even have jobs in Thailand working with the Thais and using the language. This is probably the best place to learn high level Thai but really, it is expensive. However, some feedback suggests that the beginners courses are not really beginners at all and rather a mish mash of stilted low level and high level vocabulary, not really suited to genuine beginners.
Inlingua, the big international chain language school, is offering two different types of Thai tuition. First there is Express Thai which is offered at their Silom, Chidlom and Bangna branches. This is remarkably similar to the Survival Thai course as offered above by AIE, but the Inlingua version seems to be a little more complete, shall we say. The idea is to give you a basic vocab of about 200 odd words in quick time. They offer courses in the morning and in the evening in very small groups, and the course fees are 4,500 baht for a 20 hour course. In addition to this, the other Inlingua branches offer private one on one Thai tuition, but this is not a regular course but rather tailored to your individual requirements. There is a sliding scale of prices with the price varying depending the time of day you wish to study, and the number of hours you study for, but tuition works at around 500 baht an hour.
Walen School of Thai created waves when it first opened, not for any reason of language instruction, but because their one year course fee were a very reasonable 29,000 baht (and much cheaper now) also got you a one year educational visa which secures your ability to remain in the country and negates the need to do visa runs out of the country! Providing the visa is a great marketing ploy by this school. Walen now has four locations with two in Bangkok - Sukhumvit and Ladprao as well as Pattaya and Chiang Mai. They have since lowered their price which is now 24,960 baht for a 14-month course including the ED visa.
I note that the Times Square Building, that is an office building connected to the Asoke skytrain station by one a "skywalk" seems to be becoming something of a hub for Thai language schools. There are at least five different Thai language schools in that building providing an excellent chance for prospective students to check out and compare different schools all at the same time. The newest school in the building is the curiously named Thai Language Station. Some of these schools use quite different methodology and some have special offers, such as the ability to provide you with an education visa, so take your time to ask lots of questions and choose the school that is best for you.
One of the frustrations that I have with studying Thai is that there are a lot of schools offering tuition and they can all get you up to what I would consider a satisfactory level. However, if you want to actually get to quite a high level, few if any schools offer this. I deduce that the problem is that no one school is prepared to develop the necessary resources needed to teach to that high level. Therefore it seems that you can study at most of the language schools up to a certain point and then after that, you are on your own to pick up what you can. You could always get a private tutor but that is both costly and not the most fun way to study - in my opinion. Also, one on one tuition requires a teacher skilled at teaching one on one, and they should be focusing in on a student's needs, but I seldom see that happen. They just tend to teach every student the same which means that studying this way is wasted money. Union does offer some quite high level classes but the teaching is very one dimensional and you just do the same thing day after day after day which becomes terminally boring. The quality of education in Thailand is poor when compared to the West and this can result in somewhat inefficient teaching of the language i.e. you will learn the language but it takes a lot longer than it really should. Another of my frustrations is that the level of customer service offered at virtually all of the Thai language schools in Bangkok is VERY poor. They seem just so interested in getting your money and little else. Oh, the possibilities for a farang to open a school are immense but you can bet that the Thai authorities would baulk at the idea of a farang offering tuition in their language.
One thing you should try and avoid at all costs when learning Thai is writing Thai words in English. Unless learning to read and write is the first thing that you do, it is hard to avoid this but trust me, it can be detrimental to your progress in the long run. There is no correct way to write Thai words in English. There is a royal guide to be published which outlines guidelines but this is not always followed. With this in mind, I have walked down Ploenchit Road and seen the name of the road spelt four different ways on various signs, all within a couple of hundred metres of each other.
For folks learning English, there are many, many publishers worldwide of excellent course books and learning materials and resources but for Thai, the demand is relatively small. This contributes to a lack of good material and resources out there. There are a few CD-ROMs available with the Rosetta Stone Thai language course probably being the pick of the bunch but in my opinion, it's still not great. Be careful as some of the CD-Rom based courses only cover reading and writing and frankly, I am not at all convinced that this is the best way to go to learn the Thai script. Even at 150 baht for a copied version of the CD at Panthip Plaza, I still wouldn't bother - except for perhaps the Rosetta Stone disk.
Also with English, there are various tests that are accepted worldwide to test the level of your English such as TOEFL, IELTS, Cambridge Certificate etc. Thailand does actually have a national testing system run by the Ministry Of Education called the P6 exam. This exam is somewhat farcical as it predominantly tests reading and writing with a little bit of speaking and listening but no genuine two way communication. The exam is in five parts: 1) Write an essay on a specified topic 2) Write a letter (one of six different formats) 3) A multi-choice reading comprehension 4) A dictation (good God...) 5) A pronunciation exercise where you must read a passage of Thai aloud and you are marked on your pronunciation. Foreigners who pass this test are supposedly at the same level of Thai language as a P6 student (11 year old). The problem is that this test really doesn't test a hell of a lot other than your ability to read and write - the other components border on farcical. Various schools such as Union and Nisa offer P6 preparation courses. The P6 test is only offered once a year, in Bangkok only, in December. In my opinion, there is no real need to do it. It is predominantly taken by missionaries whose employers require them to take it if they wish to work in Thailand. Assuming no existing knowledge of the Thai language, 9-12+ months full time study is required to reach a level at which you would expect to pass.
When you first come to Thailand, you will no doubt have an interest in learning the language. If you are a male, you are bound to get the advice that you should get yourself a sleeping dictionary, meaning move in a Thai girl. While this is a good way to learn, be careful of moving in a bar girl and learning Thai from her. A lot of the bar girls use very coarse terms and really, you do not want to be using a lot of the language that they may teach you or that you pick up from them. A bit of formal study before moving in a girl is the way to go!
It is well worth your while investing in a dictionary and you should consider getting a dictionary that has both English to Thai AND Thai to English translations. This will facilitate communication both ways if you are attempting to communicate with a Thai who has poor English. There are a large number of dictionaries on the market though you should take your time when selecting. A lot of the cheaper dictionaries have print that is too small to read - REALLY small. Some of the dictionaries have unusual translations. I have a few different dictionaries and none of them are perfect but when used together, they make a valuable resource. A lot of old hands swear by the Mary Haas dictionary as being he ultimate. This dictionary ONLY provides Thai to English translation and not vice versa. It has print that is readable but the problem is that it was released in 1964 and is starting to show its age. If you really want this dictionary, the only place that I know of in Bangkok that has a stock of these is the bookshop in the basement of the CCT Building on Suriwong Road. Cost is a princely 1,600 baht! Many male expats swear by the long haired sleeping dictionary as the best one to go for - problem is that this model often has too much slang and is missing any high level / advanced vocabulary.
Actually using your Thai and hoping to learn more by using the language can become a somewhat difficult affair. Thailand is very much a segregated society with fairly well defined class lines. As a foreigner, you will have the opportunity to talk to people from all the different levels of society. Generally speaking, those from poor backgrounds and with a modest education often use fairly simple language themselves - and some can use some quite coarse terms, meaning that you may pick up some language that you really shouldn't. Socialising with folks from the upper echelons of society and you will often find that not only can they speak good English, but they WANT to practice their English. All this means that finding people to practice decent Thai with is not that easy. One of my pet hates in Thailand is when you are out and about town with a Thai friend and you start talking to another Thai in Thai and even if your Thai is fluent, the other Thai will often reply to your question in Thai, but to your Thai friend and not to you. So even though you might make a super diligent effort to study Thai, you may at times find it frustrating searching for people to use it with!
No matter what people will say or admit to, I believe that everyone makes some sort of judgment about another person when they first meet them. We all factor in different things into this judgment - some people look at people's shoes, other at the person's watch. Some people judge people on the they way they conduct themselves and others on how well presented the person may be. While I may factor in some of these points, when I meet an expat in Bangkok for the first time, I am always keen to know just how good their Thai is as this alone can tell you so much about them. Beware of anyone who has been in Thailand more than a year and speaks no Thai or has only reached a very basic level. People who have been here more than two years and who speak little or only rudimentary Thai should also be watched. Sure, there are exceptions to these rules but... Anyone who claims to know a lot about life in Bangkok or Thailand will only do so *if* they speak Thai very well.
It takes a while to get to a reasonable level and if you have plans to live in Thailand for a long time, it is well worth your while to go and study in a language school soon after arriving. Everyone is different and some people have a bit of a gift with learning languages but I would suggest that unless you study formally, it will take you a couple of years at least to get to any sort of even reasonable level. it can take a lot longer to really get to a level where your Thai is considered strong. Fortunately, very few foreigners need to use Thai in the workplace so it isn't essential to speak it well, but certainly useful. On top of this, many Thais talk about things at a very basic level, things such as food, weather, family & friends, TV shows etc. You really do not need to have an extensive vocabulary and superior command of the language to communicate in most situations.
* If you know of any new Thai language schools or courses, please do let me know. Also, please do tell me of your experiences with any of the schools here. Places change over time and it would be nice to keep this section of the site as up to date as possible.
Whatever your pleasure, Bangkok will serve you well with seemingly unlimited entertainment options available. Bangkok has long been known as a party town, a place where almost anything goes.
The cinema is a reliable source of entertainment and tickets are cheap ranging from 100 - 160 baht depending on where you go. Movies at many of the most popular and centrally located cinemas in Bangkok are screened in English with Thai subtitles though you should check because some places may have an English version at one time and a Thai dubbed version at another time! (In provincial Thailand movies tend to be dubbed in Thai). Movies are played loud and most cinemas are comfortable with reclining seats and very efficient air-conditioning. HM The King's anthem is played before the movie starts and you are expected to stand and pay homage to HM The King. Cinema etiquette in Thailand is not what it is in the west and young Thais may natter to one another through the movie and in a worst case scenario may even chat away on their mobile phones! A few harsh words in English will usually shut them up! TIT - This is Thailand!
There are various snooker and pool halls located here and there. Ask at your apartment and they will be able to tell you where the closest hall is. The costs vary but are usually about 100 baht an hour. The nicest facility in my opinion is The Ball In Hand which is located down Sukhumvit Soi 4 in the Rajah Hotel complex. Great tables and this place is farang owned and run, that is owned by farangs who are passionate about snooker and pool. And if The Ball In Hand is full, you could always go further down Soi 4 where you'll find Brunswick, which is also very nice. There are numerous ten pin bowling outlets and they are usually quite flash with all sorts of facilities available. I have been told that the bowling centre in Mahboonkrong is very good.
There are many types of Karaoke bars but I guess a number of foreigners will distinguish them as two different types - the sort where you go with a group of friends and sing songs for fun, I guess you could term them entertainment venues, or those places where you go along and an attractive young lady sings for you, sits with you and you try and chat her up. The variety where the attractive girls work tend to attract a lot of Thai, Japanese and other Asian customers and I gather that some girls in some of these places may offer extra services. I also understand that these Karaoke bars can be very, very expensive. All in all, not my cup of tea.
Bangkok has many large discos and they are located all over the city. Royal City Avenue (RCA), just off Petchaburi Road is a street with lots of bars that tends to be patronised mainly by young affluent Thais - you will find very few foreigners here at all. In fact, every time I go there, the crowd seems to get younger and younger. Many of the 15 year old students that I teach pride themselves on being able to gain entry to some of the bars. RCA isn't nearly as popular as it was a few years ago and has more than a bit of competition with an area of bars having popped up in Sutteesan, which intersects Rachadapisek Rd, near the Chaophya Park Hotel. RCA was very popular 2-3 years ago but is less popular now. The bars at Sutteesan are better in that they seem to attract both the middle and upper class Thais - not just the richer Thais like RCA does.
Soi 4 on Silom Road is a good bet if you like a bit of variety in your nightlife. You get all sorts down there from the majority of gay bars to alternative bars to the downright weird. I'm not gay, but I still find it a fun spot. One thing's for sure, soi 4 is never boring! If you like to people watch, there are a lot of tables set up outside the various venues that allow a ringside view of the glamorous parading for all to see, as they make their way to their favourite bar. This is one area where drinks are a lot more reasonably priced than some of the naughty bars or true upmarket venues.
One of my favourite venues to kick back, sink some awful Thai beer and chew the fat are any of the many beer gardens that pop up around the city in the cool season. Operating from around mid November until late February, the most well known of these are the large beer gardens that set up outside the Central World Plaza. They get going each day late afternoon as the after work crowd escapes the grind in pursuit of a drink and way to wind down after the long Thai work day. The beer garden outside the Central World Plaza is excellent in that it is subdivided up into areas where you can buy beer from each of the main Thai breweries. There's usually a big Singha area, Kloster and Carlsberg too. There are also lots of food vendors offering the usual Thai food at reasonable prices. It's a great atmosphere and it gets really busy so, if you get there later on, getting a table can be difficult. It's also a great place to meet some Thais. If you spot someone you like the look of, the Thai way of doing things is to get the waiter / waitress to deliver a note to that person from you. After exchanging one or two notes, you may swap mobile phone numbers and call each other. If you like the sound of each other, then you may just move table... *If* you can read and write Thai, then ANYTHING is possible!
Note that in many bars and discos in Bangkok, you do not usually get just a glass of Jack Daniel's (or whatever your poison may be), you buy the whole bottle! Yes, you pay anything from 1,200 - 2,500 baht and you get the bottle along with mixers and ice. If you do not finish the bottle that evening, they will keep it there, label it with your name and you can delve into it the next time you go back. At many of the places where I have been, they seem to keep the bottle for about three months. Alternatively, you can take the bottle home with you.
Many of the night-clubs and discos are hunting grounds for freelancers and high class prostitutes. If you want to avoid the girls of the night, go to an establishment with a reasonable entrance fee because that helps to keep them out. A lot of the venues that do not have an entrance fee may have some working girls hanging around. You may not notice them but they'll be in there, often all in a certain corner of the bar - all the regulars will know. As a farang, you may well be approached by some of them and not realise that they are actually after money, and not your rugged good looks...
Going to the toilet in a Thai disco or nightclub is often a real experience. First, a lot of the better places will have a very nice selection of after shaves and fancy fragrances for you to use, but this is only the start of it. Like so many places in Thailand, there will be a bunch of people working in the toilet and don't be surprised if there is up to ten of them! Each person will have a specific task which may range from sweeping the floor (yes, really!), to giving you a wet cloth to giving you a massage. For men, perhaps the most disconcerting thing here is that in some places, when you go to the urinal, you will feel someone put their hands on your shoulders and start to give you a massage - and sometimes there is more than one person doing it! Worst of all is that if this is unexpected, it can really effect your aim. Far from being the pleasant experience that they think they are providing, it is a total nuisance and a downright embarrassment. Pleas for a substantial tip even after you have told them that you do not want the damned massage can fall on deaf ears. I have resorted to taking a leak around the back of many a nightclub to avoid the nonsense in the loo.
For those who wish to indulge in the city's world renowned women of the night, Sukhumvit Road of service girls waiting for you in Bangkok, indeed throughout all of Thailand. This is, rightly or wrongly, a reason why many people choose Bangkok as their new home.
If you are a TV junky, you might cable / satellite TV in Thailand disappointing. Once called UBC and now known as True Visions, the major national cable operator really has only the basics with the news channels like CNN, BBC and CNBC (Fox News is not available), the movie channels such as HBO and Cinemax as well as a few local channels. There are three packages but even the top package really has a poor selection. Channels like Discovery and National Geographic seem to show stuff that is really old and a lot of the newer stuff that is shown elsewhere around the world is shown here really late. The installation cost varies whether you want satellite or cable and the monthly cost of cable runs between 850 - 2,500 baht depending which package you sign up for. As far as coverage of sport goes, English soccer - which is extremely popular amongst Thais - gets very good coverage. We get all of the Formula 1 and most of the golf and tennis. My two favourite sports of rugby and cricket get very little coverage. Some of the American sports are shown live, but from what I gather - I am not American and not really into the sports that are popular in North America - not that many. It should be noted that many apartment buildings actually have some sort of pirate cable system installed meaning it is free to all residents, as mentioned in the accommodation section.
In 2006 we lost the only 24 hour all English radio station, Metropolis 107. Now there are few radio stations with much in the way of English speaking DJs or English news. Metropolis was great because everything, apart from some of the advertising, was in English. You had English music, English DJs and the news was read in English - by native English speakers, no less. But this station was shut down. Prior to that we had Virgin 105 of which most programming was in English but that has since changed format. It is said that an all English programming radio station just is not financially viable in Bangkok, but that surprises me. Anyway, for the time being, there is no English radio programming in Bangkok and no radio station pitching to the local expat population, which is a real shame. I listen to radio programming from abroad via the internet these days.
There is a real lack of parks and sports grounds in Bangkok and while opportunities do exist to play sports, many require that you join a club. Most sports seem to have a local league of some description going and as I know that there is an ice hockey league - yes, in this heat, I would suggest that just about any sport can be played in Bangkok. On the whole, it seems that Thais prefer to watch sports rather than play them - can't say I blame them with the heat and all. As far as spectator sports go, you occasionally get big name football teams coming to Thailand to play the national team and sometimes, just sometimes, the national team wins like when they beat English team Arsenal in 1999. The Bangkok Rugby Sevens held around the end of the year is getting more and more popular with international teams coming along. You can always go along and see Muay Thai which is something everyone should do once. Do *not* get a seat ringside but rather opt for a seat up in the stands amongst the Thais which is far more fun. Farangs are usually shepherded to the counter selling tickets for ringside but these seats are largely for tourists only.
Internet / Telephones / Mobile Phones & Technology
With the hectic lifestyles so many of us lead these days, even here in laid back Thailand, we are more and more dependent on modern, reliable and easily accessible communication systems. It's more than a decade since the likes of the internet and mobile phones were a gimmick. Now they play a very important part in the modern man's lifestyle. Given that it is not yet a country with "fully developed status", the communication infrastructure in Thailand, that of the landline telephone system, the mobile phone system and the internet, is not bad at all.
For anyone wanting to use the internet, there are a variety of options. The most accessible for people who are only in the city for a short period of time, or who do not wish to have a computer at home (What, are you a dinosaur?!), there are internet cafes all over the city - and I mean that, all over the city. Even in dark dingy neighbourhoods that might resemble something of a ghetto, the kind of place you really do not want to be wandering around after sun down, yes, you can find internet cafes even there! Internet cafes are even more common than 7 Elevens - and you can just about find a 7 Eleven on any corner.
There are a huge range of internet cafes, from small, cramped cafes in the suburbs full of spotty faced teenagers who use the premises more to play online or networked games, than to surf the net per se. Such Internet cafes may charge as little as 10 baht per hour for the use of a computer. At the other end of the scale, if you use the business centre in one of the city's better hotels, you could pay up to 500 baht an hour for net access. Yes, the range in prices and quality is that great.
But the vast majority of internet cafes are somewhere in the middle. A typical internet cafe will have 6 - 10 computers sharing one ADSL connection with a speed on anywhere from 512k to 4 Mbps. This might not sound like a great amount of bandwidth but given that the majority of people who use an internet cafe do so for email, it is actually plenty. There is not always a true correlation between the charges in an internet cafe and the quality of the establishment or internet speed, so it can pay to shop around if you're not happy with the service. There are a number of venues where all of the computers are fast new machines and all equipped with 19 inch flat screen monitors, where the price is only 20 baht an hour. You might have a venue around the corner where 5 year old computers share a relatively slow connection at the price is 60 baht per hour. Speaking of which, 40 - 60 baht an hour, or 1 baht a minute, seems to be the standard price in a lot of internet cafes in the tourist areas these days.
Some internet cafes, particularly in the areas where you predominantly find tourists, may have a membership system whereby if you become a member, you get to pay a cheaper rate. The way it works is that you buy a number of hours and the more hours you buy, the cheaper the per hour cost is, so whereas one hour might be 90 baht, 10 hours might be only 500 baht.
There are no internet cafes that I would particularly recommend. There really are so very many to choose from and location is probably more important than anything. I would however caution against conducting any particularly sensitive transactions from a Bangkok internet cafe. Over the year I have received a number of emails from people who did things such as make a purchase online using their credit card, or do some banking online, from an internet cafe in Bangkok. Later there was some fraudulent access made against their account and they are a certain that the abuse was due to using a computer in Bangkok. MANY computers in Bangkok internet cafes are riddled with spyware and keystroke loggers, programs which record all of your keystrokes, including your passwords for any accounts you access from that computer. I personally am VERY reluctant to even access my email from internet cafes in Thailand, such is the abuse and prevalence of such rogue software on the computers.
If you have your own PC in Thailand, you will almost certainly want to get your own internet access so that you can surf the net from the comfort of your apartment / condo. Everyone uses high-speed ADSL connections and I don't know of anyone still on dial-up. The most popular local ISP (internet service provider) is True. With True, you can get a 4 megabyte unlimited time, unlimited data (meaning you can have the internet connection on 24/7 and download as much as you like without supplementary charges) for around 600 baht per month. I believe they offer up to 16 MBps at about 2,000 baht per month. Most people I know go for the 4 or 8 megabyte packages.
The other major ISPs offering ADSL internet are CS Loxinfo, KSC and Buddy Internet. There are a few more but these are the big three, so to speak.
Now if you are in a condo building, there might only be one ISP who provide internet to that condo, or even that immediate area. If that is the case, you may be stuck with them. Simply ask at the office in your condo building and they will be able to tell you what your internet options are. Assuming you are in a condominium, you should be able to get an ADSL connection without any problem at all.
If you are in an apartment building (that is where everyone rents from the same building owner) - and where you might not have your own phone line but rather have an extension of the apartment buildings main dial in number, then you might not be able to get an ADSL connection, as is sadly the case in some buildings. If the internet is as important to you as it is to me, check this out before you sign any lease agreement. The rule of thumb is that if you have a phone number and account in your name and are billed directly by the phone company then yes, you can get ADSL. but if you are in a building where your phone is essentially an extension within the building then you may or may not be able to get ADSL. Like I say, check it out before you sign the lease agreement!
If you are an internet junkie or you require high speed internet for work, you shouldn't be disappointed. In the old days the performance of the internet in Thailand was really bad, but these days it really is quite acceptable. OK, it might not be quite as fast as what is available in some other countries but I really think it is totally acceptable these days.
But don't expect to be able to access every website in Thailand that you can access at home. A number of websites have been banned in Thailand over the last couple of years - more than 100,000 of them! Apart from gambling sites, I don't think I know anyone who has a favourite site which cannot be accessed from Thailand.
On the subject of email, don't rely on this form of communication for business or getting things done in Thailand. Over the years I have sent emails to numerous Thai offices of Thai companies about a variety of things and I seldom get a reply - which is mad really. Even when they do reply, the level of English can be poor to the point of confusion. If a business is going to advertise an email address, you'd think they'd at least be responsive. Where this can become really frustrating is when you're applying for a job. You can find yourself wondering if their failure to reply was because they didn't get the email - or because they've discarded your application? Actually, this is not just an email thing. If you are really unlucky and make a telephone to a company and reach someone who is not comfortable in English, they might simply hang up on you rather than work out just what it is you want or who it is you want to talk to! Oh, the number of times this has happened to me!
Wireless internet connections, that is wi-fi, are common and there are many, many establishments offering free wi-fi connections. Many bars and pubs offer this service and I maintain a list of free wi-fi spots nationwide on this site. Wi-fi is a great way to be able to access the internet when you are out of the office or away from home. You'll see many people in the likes of British pubs and cafes accessing the internet using wi-fi connections. Some of these connections are free, and some you need to pay to access. Unfortunately the pay to access wi-fi connections can be a little on the expensive side at around 150 baht or so per hour. These days most establishments recognise that there is demand for free wi-fi access and it is provided.
Of course GPRS is always an option and it works well in Thailand. If you are unfamiliar with GPRS, it is essentially a protocol which uses your mobile phone to connect to the net. The transfer speeds are faster than dial up, but slower than ADSL, so while not ideal for hardcore internet users, it is still good enough to get the daily news, check out your favourite sites and of course, access email. There are various GPRS plans offered by each of the local mobile phone network providers. DTAC offers one plan which for, I believe, 900 odd baht a month, gives you unlimited internet or if you don't require an all you can eat plan, a few hundred baht will give you 100 or 150 hours. This is really good if you have a laptop because it essentially gives you unlimited internet access nationwide. The other mobile phone companies, AIS and Orange also offer GPRS but I believe DTAC is the local leader.
3G is available through one provider in parts of Bangkok and parts of Pattaya but that is it. There are some problems getting 3G going in Thailand and this does not look like changing in a hurry (late 2010).
TELEPHONES AND LOCAL CALLS
You can get a permanent fixed telephone line from either TOT (Telephone Organisation of Thailand) or from True. Installation and deposit runs around 4,000 baht, about half of which you get back when you have finished with the line. It should be noted that a few people suffer the problem of there being no numbers available in a particular area and they are simply unable to get a new phone line. I know of at least 3 people personally who have suffered this fate and it is dreadful because no fixed telephone line means no ADSL connection or even dial up Internet connection either. So one thing that one should be aware of when looking at moving into a property is that there is an existing phone line in place, or that the phone company has confirmed that lines and phone numbers are available.
Local phone calls from a landline phone, that means calling anywhere within the immediate calling area, usually the same city or district, cost 3 baht per call, irrespective of the length of time you talk for. Line rental for landline phones is a very cheap 100 baht per month. Using a fixed line or a mobile, international calls run around 20 odd baht a minute to Europe, North America and Australia / New Zealand, though for the latest rates, you should contact your provider. There are a number of cheaper options, many of which simply require you to make a phone call with a 3 digit prefix. The price then drops to around 10 baht a minute and there is no discernible difference in sound quality.
As far as international calls are concerned, the rates have dropped a lot over the last few years. The usual warnings apply about making international calls from hotels or even apartment buildings who are not adverse to hiking the rates and making a very tidy profit.
If you are in a building where a phone line is provided and you are billed by the apartment building, you will likely be subject to a higher cost per call (often 5 - 10 baht per call) and there will most likely be a time limit, meaning after x number of minutes the call is cut off. For voice calls this might not be such a concern unless you happen to chat on the phone for long periods, but for internet access this is a very real problem. In many apartment buildings, the phone cuts off after 30 minutes.
In the very cheapest apartment buildings, you might not be able to get any sort of phone in your room, although it has to be said that places that cheap generally don't attractive foreigners.
After gold and designer handbags, the mobile phone used to be the ultimate status symbol in this country where one's appearance is all important - seemingly more so than just about anything else. Thankfully those days are gone, when mobile phones were extremely expensive in Thailand. I can remember in the late 90s when you couldn't fine a mobile for less than 20,000 baht - and mobiles purchased overseas and brought into the country could not be used on the local system. Thankfully all of that has changed and you can pick up a basic mobile for next to nothing today. Prices are comparable with the West although when it comes to high end phones like the top end IPhone and the like, they are still cheaper outside Thailand and you're probably better off buying the US or Hong Kong.
A basic phone will set you back less than 1,000 baht. That will get you a basic GSM phone that will allow you to make calls, send SMS messages and have a reasonable memory. Fancier mobiles with a camera, colour screen and GPRS capability, amongst other features, go for 2,000 baht up.
The most popular place to buy mobiles is the centrally located shopping centre, Mahboonkrong. The 4th floor in particular is jammed full of mobile phone shops. In fact you could choose any shopping centre in Thailand and be certain that there are a large number of mobile phone stores there.
It doesn't matter what level of society they come from, Thais are conscious of the mobiles they use, and the phone that others use. Your mobile says something about who you are and along with your watch and your pen, many locals will look at your mobile phone and make a judgment about you based on the model you use. Ah, the class-conscious society.
The cost of running a mobile phone in Thailand is very, very cheap.
There are a number of mobile phone network providers, with three major companies. AIS is, the largest provider followed by DTAC and then True (which used to be known as Orange). Each provider offers many different calling plans which can be broken into two main types, pre-paid and post paid. With pre-paid you buy credit before you can make calls while with post paid you get a bill in the post at the end of each month. To get yourself a post-paid account you need to have a work permit and you also need a Thai national to act as guarantor which frankly is a bit of a hassle. For 99.9% of foreigners in Thailand, pre-paid is the way to go.
One reason why foreigners buy SIM cards on pre-paid plans is that there is no need to provide any of the paperwork required to get a post-paid plan. Even if you have a work permit and all of the documentation, pre-paid really is so much easier. There is no need to give any personal details such as your name name or address when you initially sign up.
To top up the credit on a mobile in the old days there was but one option, buy a pre-paid card which came with a set of numbers you had to key in to the mobile and then you would receive a message advising you that you had X amount of credit. You can still use that method of topping up the credit and pre-paid credit top up cards can be bought just about anywhere. Mobile phone stores, 7 convenience stores, book stores, minimarts and a host of other outlets all sell these cards. With some pre-paid plans you cal also top up the credit at an ATM machine. You simply enter in your mobile phone number and then choose the amount of credit you want to top it up with. Just make sure you enter your own number otherwise someone else is going to get the credit!
The most popular pre-paid mobile phone plan is One-2-Call from AIS. Once you have a phone, you buy a One-2-Call SIM card at a convenience store or at a mobile phone outlet. There are no ongoing monthly charges although the validity of the SIM card depends on the plan you are on. Generally each time you top up the credit in your phone the further it extends the validity of your SIM card although, as I say, every plan is different.
The plan I currently have bills each minute at 55 satang (i.e. less than one baht a minute!). This is the rate irrespective of where I call in Thailand and at what time. It is ridiculously cheap. If I call a number that is on a different phone network provider then the first minute is charged at 3 baht, I think. It really is so cheap that I don't even think about the cost of using the phone.
This is one of the problems of mobile use in Thailand. People literally use them all the time because the costs is SO LOW. But what it means is that people often call you for no reason, and with the busy lives we all lead these days this can be a bit of a pain!
Of course you can use your mobile phone from abroad if it is set to international roaming - but that will almost certainly be much more expensive than if you use a local Thailand SIM card.
All mobile phone numbers in Thailand start with "08" so if you dial a "08" number you know it is a mobile.
The telephone system in apartments and condominiums in Thailand is not always great and for many foreigners, they don't even use that number. Their mobile is their only phone number, this possible because of the low cost of making calls. I personally don't like mobiles and mobile phone culture (sending nonsense messages frequently etc.) but you really do need a mobile in Thailand.
CDs or tapes are readily available with the cost of original cassettes being very reasonable at 90-100 baht for a new release album. Pirated versions of all sorts of items is rampant in Bangkok and copied audio cassettes are readily available at about 50 baht each. However, the quality is variable and you are often disappointed. The reason that the originals are so cheap is to encourage people to buy the originals as opposed to the copies - and Thais simply don't have a lot of discretionary spending money. Buying copied cassettes really is a false economy - buy the original! CDs cost about 400 - 450 baht each - copies are available all over the show for 100 baht per CD and with CDs being digital, the quality should be perfect - but often it isn't. Other options for buying cheap music are to buy CDs with MP3 music on them or use the CD player in your computer hooked up to some decent speakers to negate the need to buy a stereo system. CDs from Panthip Plaza with 10 - 15 of the latest music albums in MP3 format, at near CD quality, can be bought for 100 baht a CD representing incredible value for money BUT they are copies. It's well worth listening to some of the Thai artists as some of them are really good - Loso, Bird and Fly all have a space in my collection - Loso and Bird in particular is damned good. As hypercritical as it may sound, do the Thai artists a favour and buy the originals. I tend to buy original Thai artists' work and copied Westerns artists.
Various Information / Miscellaneous
Shopping, Banking, Medical, Customer Service, Tipping, Emergency Services
Thailand is a funny country when it comes to getting service from vendors and service providers. I can confidently say that I have received both the very best and the very worst service in my life, right here in Thailand.
Thai people working in the service industry are generally very friendly and helpful. They usually do their best to make sure that you are happy with whatever product or service you are purchasing from them. This can manifest itself in many ways and they will often run around and do all sorts of extra things for you - well beyond what would be considered the call of duty in the West.
When I think of examples of great service I have received, I think back to the staff in my first apartment building. Someone telephoned me but they could not get through to me as I was already on the phone. A member of staff walked up several flights of stairs when the lifts were out of order to specifically deliver to me what was a non-urgent message. In another example, my favourite soi food vendor asked me what my favourite Thai food was. I told him that it was a certain type of noodle - and he was sad that he didn't stock it. He then started stocking that variety of noodle just because I mentioned that I liked it! There are so many examples like this where the Thai people do as much as possible to accommodate customers. Further, vendors are usually extremely friendly and polite and, particularly in the case of female sales staff, more often than not are grateful for the sale. In department stores, the staff are all on a retainer plus commission, so whenever they sell a large price item, there is something in it for them.
I also find that the quality of many seemingly basic services in Thailand to be a lot better than in the West - both the quality of the work and the extras offered. Get a haircut back home and you may end up feeling like a sheep being sheered but in Thailand they are so much more thorough - and I'm talking cheap places here, not fancy salons. Not only do they cut your hair, they'll give you a shave an even clean out your nostrils and ears if you so desire! Go shooting snooker or pool and when the frame has been completed a lovely young lady will run over, quickly set up the balls for the next frame before disappearing back into the shadows. This is her job and you only need tip her a very small amount when you leave. These extras can make living in Thailand that much more comfortable. With such a large population - many of who sadly have but a modest income, there is plenty of labour for these menial tasks. As a foreigner with cash in your pocket you get to take advantage of this - so enjoy it!
Many businesses in Thailand have a lot of staff on hand and it seems to be that in Thailand it is better to employ a lot of people and pay them a small amount rather than employ a smaller number of people and pay them a higher amount. This all contributes to reducing the potential number of unemployed and also means that wherever you go, there is someone to help you or service you. If this situation existed in the west, we would consider that the business was overstaffed. I have got to say that the system works pretty well in Thailand - especially for us impatient Westerners!
However, it's not always plain sailing and sometimes when things go wrong, misunderstandings can occur and frustration can lead the odd farang customer to get annoyed. I once ordered chicken fried rice but when it arrived it clearly wasn't chicken, but pork - and I am not a great fan of pork. I pointed out that I do not eat pork and was told, "sorry, chicken finish already". They knew this even when I ordered the dish but chose not to tell me and simply give me something else! I explained that I was a little disappointed and that I would go elsewhere and get what I wanted. They still tried to charge me for the pork but I refused to pay which somewhat surprised them...
Another example: A friend went to a street vendor and ordered a portion of pineapple and while slicing the pineapple, the vendor cut her hand and some blood went on to the fruit. My friend explained that he didn't want that piece and the vendor looked at him like he was from Mars - what could be wrong with that piece?!
Yet another story! A few years back, a friend booked a flight home and paid a deposit to which he received a print out of the flights and that each leg had been reserved in the computer, as well as the total price. The cost of the ticket was about 34,000 baht and he asked them when he had to pay the balance by, to which he was told within three weeks of travel. He had the money to pay for it there then but as they didn't require it there and then he decided to keep the money in the bank to make a little interest. When he went to collect the ticket and pay it, the cost had gone up to 55,000 baht - even though he had paid a deposit and reserved the ticket at a substantially lower price! The travel agent was polite but just shrugged her shoulders, gave back the deposit and send mai pen rai - literally meaning "no problem" or "never mind"! While it may not have been a problem for her, my friend was now unable to travel when he had planned for. Further, the fact that she said those three magic words really wound him up because it *was* a big deal to him! What this particular vendor did was try to just smile the problem away and quite often when there is a problem, that is the Thai way of dealing with it. With the Thais, more often than not, this may be accepted but with farangs, it's a hard one to swallow.
When issues like this occur - and believe me, they will - smile and try not get too uptight about it. All of these issues can usually be worked through but sometimes, just sometimes, you might get a nasty shock, like my friend did. Unfortunately, screaming and yelling usually won't get you anywhere and it may just be a case of accepting it and getting on with things. The Asian way of dealing with such problems is quite different from the way Westerners deal with them. Remember to keep your cool! Sometimes though, if things get bad or it is obvious that you are getting inferior or unsatisfactory service because you are a farang, or someone really is trying to cheat you, then you might just have to start making a few noises. So, while it is best to remain calm, there is the occasion when you might need to raise your voice - just choose your battles carefully!
As helpful as Thai people can be, there is a growing number of vendors who become totally unhelpful, and may even become downright ugly, when you make a complaint. Even if you are very polite when you point out the issue and make the complaint, some vendors seem to take it personally and the big smile that they previously had can disappear instantly and be replaced by what can only be described as a seriously ugly look - and perhaps ugly noises too. Again, let them know in uncertain terms what you expect and if they try and jerk you around, don't take no for an answer. This is all sadly symptomatic of the way that many Thai people deal very badly - or are simply unable to deal with - any criticism made of them, or that is perceived to be about them.
It does seem that once a business has your money, they lose all interest in you as a customer. Every effort goes in to servicing the customer before the sale has been made but once the sale has been effected, much less interest is taken in you as a customer. Sadly, not all businesses look at you as a long term customer, but as someone from whom they can make money today, and forget about tomorrow. This attitude seems to be more prevalent in smaller stores and in less upmarket stores. If you are talking about something such as a major electrical or electronic purchase, or something as large as a car, then generally speaking the manufacturer's warranty will apply and any problems will be remedied.
Speaking of tipping, this is not really a Thai custom - thought it does seem to be catching on and becoming more and more common.
The first thing to be aware of when tipping is to check whether a service charge has been included already. If it has, there is absolutely no need to leave a tip. A lot of restaurants, especially those in hotels and the better places, will generally add a surcharge of 10% to your bill which is the service charge. If this is included in the bill, there is absolutely no need to leave a tip at all. This service charge is divvied up amongst the staff, sometimes at the end of the day or end of the shift, but usually at the end of the month. In some of the bigger, better hotels, staff members can earn upwards of 15,000 baht per month, just from the service charge - that is on top of their salary.
An unfortunate trend in Thailand is for the waiter or waitress in a restaurant where you have already been charged a service charge which was included in your bill to bring your change (assuming you paid by cash) on a silver tray with the change in lots of small denominations, making it easy for you to tip. Now this is very thoughtful of the staff - but as you have already paid a tip, this is very cheeky. A lot of people tip again, on top of the "compulsory" tip, and give another 10% or so, which really is unnecessary. In fact I personally think establishments which practice this way are bordering on scamming customers and playing on their ignorance of the local customs.
When Thais tip it is quite different to Westerners. Thais will generally leave the loose change - and that is it. irrespective of how much the bill is for, it is the loose change that is left. I was once told by an older Thai to "leave the small change or a 20 baht note but no more". That is from the words of a Thai, so that is what I do.
Remember that although it is nice to reward great service, if you tip unnecessarily you will just make it more difficult for the next foreigner who goes there. My advice, and indeed my personal philosophy is this - if the service is excellent, I tip - assuming there is no service charge included. If the service is only average (and unfortunately service levels have been dropping in Thailand over the past few years, even in some of the better places) then I do not tip. Where I come from a tip is for excellent service and tipping is not the norm at all. Yes, I know this is different to America, but hey, I am not American. In my experience, a lot of foreigners tip unnecessarily, largely out of ignorance. It is your choice, of course...
HEALTH ISSUES AND THE EMERGENCY SERVICES
Far fewer people smoke in Thailand than in the West and smoking among females is not at all popular. The bulk of females who smoke are those from the very upper class and those from the very lower class, basically those folks whose status in society will not be affected by whether they smoke or not. Compared to the West, few middle class Thais smoke, especially females. The cost of tobacco / cigarettes in Thailand is much cheaper than the West, but the range of cigarettes and the quality isn't that good, at least so I am told, for I am not a smoker myself.
Anti-smoking laws were introduced in early 2008 and the prohibit smoking in any bars or restaurants INCLUDING any outdoor areas that are part of the establishment. These laws are backed with heavy penalties, a 20,000 baht fine for any establishment where someone is caught smoking and a 2,000 baht fine for the individual. In a country where the locals often scoff at the laws and where laws are not enforced anywhere near as efficiently or strictly as they are in the West, some establishments still allow smoking. It seems to vary from establishment to establishment. For sure it is much, much harder for smokers these days but there are places which still openly flaunt the law. As crazy as it sounds, despite it being the law that smoking is not allowed, you will likely not get much joy if you are anti-smoking and you complain to a member of staff or even the manager. Thais don't like to rock the boat and while smoking is not admired, the ill effects of passive smoking are not really understood in Thailand as they are in the West.
If you are a smoker, be careful discarding your cigarette butts because if you drop it in the street, especially in Bangkok, you may be subject to a fine of up to 2,000 baht.
Yep, there is a law against littering and you can be fined 2,000 baht for dropping rubbish in a public place! I can't help but feel that it is all a bit of a have as the rubbish officers, the wannabe police, target farangs or other foreigners and I have NEVER seen a Thai get stopped for this, despite the fact that the average Thai is a dreadful litterbug. In fact, this scam of targeting only foreigners got so bad that in some areas, particularly the busiest part of Sukhumvit Road, they used to have signs erected in English stating that it was a $US 50 fine if you were caught littering. Yep, they even went to the trouble of posting the cost of the fine in a Western currency! Basically you should be careful as the eagle eyed "Rubbish Police" who wear a uniform very similar to the regular police are incredibly efficient. People who get caught usually find that the fine is negotiable and end up paying around 500 baht. Of course, a receipt is not part of this deal.
For whatever reason, the hot weather in Bangkok seems to make your hair grow quicker than it does in the West and you find yourself getting your hair cut more often than you would at home. Embarrassingly, some people have a problem with nasal hair - something they may have never experienced in their own country. No big problem really because getting a haircut is inexpensive.
The essential services are a bit of a mixed bag in Thailand. The postal system is fairly well run and while it can be a pain to go and buy stamps over the counter as many post office branches have a haphazard queue system, the staff are usually friendly and efficient and more often than not speak functional English. Standard mail within Thailand is slow and I would suggest that you use EMS which is next day to just about anywhere in the country and the item must be signed for. The standard domestic mail service is VERY cheap and the EMS service is still fairly cheap. I have never had any problems sending international mail out of Thailand - items have always reached their destination but many friends have reported all sorts of problems. One friend sent 11 items out one year and only one reached its destination. It seems that the post office in certain areas is less efficient - or there is a thief on the premises and frankly the latter is more likely. Mail coming in to the country has always been a big problems. For me personally, while most things coming in from overseas have arrived ok, including quite a few packages, a few letters never made it. One is never able to work out where the item may have gone astray and it has to be said that it is just as likely that the apartment building staff pilfered it as the post office staff.
If you have anything important being sent to you, it is probably wise to consider using a service like DHL or Fed Ex so the item can be tracked, if necessary. There have been a lot of letters published in local newspapers and on Thailand online discussion forums over the years about mail going missing in various parts of the country. Frankly, if you are sending anything urgent, you really should use one of the courier services.
The police seem to be fairly efficient in Thailand though I must say that I do not know any farangs who have actually had to go and make a complaint to the regular police - plenty of people have used the tourist police with a lot of success. One must realise that the local police are generally not quite as responsive as police in the West. Calling 111, 999, 911 or whatever the emergency number is in your country may not result in the expeditious dispatch of officers as you expect in the West - unless there really is something nasty going on.
The fire service in Thailand seem fairly efficient though again, I have had little to do with them, nor has anyone else that I know.
MEDICAL, DENTAL AND HOSPITALS
Ambulances are operated out of individual hospitals and if you think it likely that you may ever need to be carted off to the local hospital, it pays to have the phone number handy for the ambulance dispatch at your favourite hospital. If you are involved in an accident, it is possible that you will be carted off to the nearest hospital in the back of a pick up truck or in a worst case scenario, in the back of a tuktuk!
In addition to ambulances, there are several different rescue services. They are a real mixed bag but the critical thing is that they seem to have rudimentary medical skills. They will race to the scene of an accident and literally extract the bodies as fast as they can and take them to a hospital where I believe they are paid a commission. Yeah, this all sounds a bit dodgy and I guess it is, but remember we are talking about Thailand here. The funny thing is that these rescue services are vehicles with official looking markings and to the unassuming farang, you could easily believe that they are an official service, and not actually a private company who have expenses to meet, and shareholders expecting a profit. Believe me, you would not want to be hauled out of a wrecked taxi by one of this lot.
Whereas in the West we may have our own "regular" doctor whom we go and see, in Bangkok Westerners just tend to go straight to hospital. This means that while you may see a fully trained physician, it will likely not be the same fellow that you saw the last time.
The majority of Thais actually go to one of the many clinics, but I personally am not a fan of these places. Articles in the Thai press over the years suggest that doctors in some of the clinics are corrupt and while I know next to nothing about healthcare, the articles gave readers every reason to question both the doctors' training and their qualifications.
It has to be said that Thai doctors have an awful habit of dishing out a concoction of drugs for seemingly every patient who comes through the door and it seems that the local feels as though they have not been to see a doctor unless they get that bag with the magic pills! On several occasions, I have been made aware of drugs being wrongly prescribed - drugs that have a completely different purpose to that for which they were prescribed! Unfortunately, this sort of thing does happen in some of the hospitals as well as in the clinics. The bottom line here is that you need to ask the doctor exactly what he is prescribing and why. Don't be afraid to search the internet for info on the drugs that you have been prescribed to see what their purpose is. In my experience, and that of my friends, doctors in Thailand may not always tell you about the side effects of drugs or check for things such as whether or not you have certain pre-existing conditions or even whether you are allergic to penicillin! But don't worry too much because generally the standard of medical care in Bangkok is pretty good, second only in the region to Singapore.
People with a minor complaint or ailment may not even go to one of the hospitals but instead choose to consult the guy in the white coat behind the counter in the many pharmacies all around the city. As is the case in many less developed countries, laws regarding the distribution of drugs either don't exist or are not that really enforced, meaning that you can buy most drugs over the counter including various antibiotics, Valium, Prozac, contraceptive pills, Viagra (original Pfizer 100 mg pill costs 500 baht, generic brand a fraction of that) as well as a huge range of diet pills etc. I am told that many drugs that have been banned, or were never approved by the FDA, are available and commonly prescribed in Bangkok.
If you have any pre-existing medical conditions and require a prescription for drugs at home, you will probably find hat you can get those drugs over the counter here. And some are very, very cheap! It therefore pays to be aware of the drugs that you may need. You can ask the advice of the fellow in the white coat in the pharmacy but looking at the cocktails that they like to dish out makes me feel a bit dizzy.
I personally think you are best off going to one of the better hospitals in Bangkok if you have any complaint whatsoever. I would not trust a backstreet clinic or a pharmacist with anything more than a headache.
There are many private hospitals in Bangkok and they are very efficient and cheap compared to the west. Bumrungrad Hospital in Sukhumvit soi 3 is generally acknowledged as the best hospital in the Kingdom but it is also said to be quite a lot dearer than most of the other private hospitals. On the two occasions that I have been to Bumrungrad, I found the staff to be professional and courteous until I got to see the doctor, where my experience was a cold, stony faced physician who while professional, gave me the impression that they wanted to get me out of their office as fast as possible. There's something about the place that makes me feel that it is like a factory and while most people swear by Bumrungrad, I for one feel that there are other hospitals which have a nicer feeling about them - and that is important when you're dealing with medical professionals. An anti Bumrungrad website set up by the aggrieved father of a young American who died while in Bumrungrad. I won't list the site here but it isn't hard to find if you do a search. The site outlined a number of issues which frankly make me nervous about ever walking in the door of what is supposedly the country's best hospital. Even if a fraction of what he says is true then there are some real issues there. Hardly inspiring to hear such claims again a hospital!
There is a huge choice of hospitals in Bangkok - remember, this is a city of 10 million people. I personally prefer the curiously named Bangkok Nursing Home in Soi Convent to Bumrungrad, which is often said to be "the quality of Bumrungrad, but not the price". In my visits there, I have had nothing but positive experiences and it is most definitely "farang friendly". I know a few people who prefer BNH to Bumrungrad and as I say, I count myself in this group.
The simply named Bangkok Hospital also gets very good reviews. In fact the Bangkok Hospital Group is expanding and they have hospitals in a number of centres around the country including Pattaya, Phuket, Rayong and Korat. I have never been so cannot comment from personal experience.
Friends who have been to Phyathai 2 Hospital (there are 3 hospitals in the Phyathai Group) and Bangkok Christian Hospitals have found them both to be fine, probably as good as most hospitals in the West, bar perhaps the very best hospitals Stateside. Bangkok Christian Hospital and St Louis Hospital should both get a special mention for they are centrally located, farang friendly and are much more affordable than some of the other big name hospitals. If you are on a budget but require high quality care, both come highly recommended. I've been to Bangkok Christian a couple of times and know people who have spent a number of days there for minor operations - and no-one has had any complaints.
There is a number of farangs in Bangkok who swear by some of the smaller hospitals, and not the big, well-known places. As you get to know more and more Westerners in Bangkok, ask them where they have been to and where they recommend. For sure, some of the smaller hospitals in suburban Bangkok still have excellent facilities and some may even have doctors who also perform in the bigger hospitals - but have a day or two in the suburbs as well. It seems to be the way that many Thai doctors float around the different hospitals and on certain days they are in one hospital and on other days in another!
While the wealthy Thais frequent the better private hospitals, poorer Thais are forced to go to the government run hospitals and the care is cheap - but not free. I believe they do accept farang patient but from what I hear about some of these places, I don't know if I would want to go to some of them, at least those in the provinces. It is not that the quality of care is bad, but more that there may be long queues for non-urgent stuff. Also, there will inevitably be less English spoken. Remember though, a lot of it comes down to the individual doctor. Average hospitals might have some excellent doctors while likewise, excellent hospitals might have some average doctors. The main point here though is that you need not worry about the quality of medical care in Bangkok for it really is very good.
Where Thai hospitals really do come into their own is for elective surgery. If you've got the money, they can usually schedule you in for work almost straightaway - none of these long waiting lists so common in the West now.
Private Bangkok hospitals are experiencing a surge in demand as patients from Western countries choose to come to Bangkok for their elective surgery. Also, if you want general health tests done, Bangkok hospitals are great for this. What usually happens is that you get a little book and you're sent around the hospital for all sorts of tests from blood work to heart tests to x-rays etc. As you go from department to department, data from each of the tests is recorded in this book and at the end you sit down with a doctor who goes over it all with you and addresses any problem areas or things that you should be aware of. Well worthwhile, especially as one gets older.
I have read numerous times that Thai surgeons specialising in penis re-attachment and sex changes are up there with the best in the world in their chosen field. It is worth noting that in the case of penis re-attachment, bigger most definitely is better. It is said that the bigger it is, the better the chance of it working again once it is re-attached. I bet you've never thought of that before, have you?!
Medical tourism has really taken off in Thailand over the last few years and a lot of Westerners have chosen, and continue to choose to come to Thailand for elective or non-urgent surgery. Plastic surgery is also popular. While most patients are very happy with the service, you do read stories of the odd dis-satisfied customer - and when you're talking about one's health, that's a big deal! I remember seeing a story on TV where a German woman came to Thailand for plastic surgery and the surgeon butchered her face completely - there's no other way to describe it. There have been a number of other such cases that have received plenty of press. It needs to be noted that claims for malpractice against medical practitioners or hospitals are seldom successful in Thailand so do your research carefully when choosing the hospital and the surgeon for this type of procedure.
It has to be said that in recent years the cost of medical care in the best hospitals in Thailand has increased markedly. The better hospitals all seem to charge a lot more than they did say, in 2005. Some of the price increases have been dramatic. It would be fair to see that outpatient care is still reasonably priced, but the cost of operations or actually staying in a hospital have leapt.
There has also been what I would perhaps best term a growing discontentment with the advice offered at some of the so called better hospitals in Thailand. While they are not always the most reliable of sources, reports on various Thailand discussion forums talk of some fairly questionable practices at some of the supposedly best hospitals in Thailand. And there is much talk of recommendation for surgical procedures which it later turns out were unnecessary, or the complaint could have been dealt with in a different way, perhaps simply with medication or other non-surgical therapy. We have to remember that hospitals in Thailand are businesses, and like many things in Thailand over the past few years, that is becoming more and more obvious!
There are pharmacies (drug stores for you North Americans) all over Bangkok but the one that I go to if I need something is called Jaroen Drug Store on Sukhumvit Road, just around the corner from soi 4, past the gas station. The staff are friendly and helpful but can be a little overzealous with what they recommend for you. I only buy what I know I need and I never ask for their recommendations! Remember that while they may recommend some drugs and you may take them seemingly without side effects, drugs *do* effect your system. Self-medicating really is not a good idea.
BANKING AND MONEY
One of the first things you'll need to do if you plan on staying for any length of time is to open a bank account. There must be 20 or so different banks in Thailand. The biggest are Siam Commercial Bank and Bangkok Bank - or at least they seem to have the most branches!
Knowing where to open a bank account is a bit of a lottery as the branch may insist that you have a work permit (or in the case of a retiree, a long stay visa) before they will open a new account for you. This is apparently part of a directive from the central Bank of Thailand as part of an effort to curb money laundering through Thai bank accounts held by foreigners. This law is one of those rules and regulations in Thailand that is enforced by some bank branches and not by others. If you have a work permit, it's easy and you should have no problems at all. If you don't have a work permit, just walk around and try a few different banks. While you may be knocked back by a few, you will soon find one that will happily open an account for you. It seems to be that the rules and regulations are enforced differently by different banks, and even by different branches. Get used to it because a lot of things are like this in Thailand!
You could open an account with one of the big international banks operating in Thailand like Citibank, Standard Chartered or HSBC. Be warned however that they have very few branches. These international banks may require a large opening balance to open a local account. I believe, though am not 100% certain, that the HSBC Bank will allow you to open an account, work permit or not, although you need a minimum of 500,000 baht. Needless to say, when you are looking to open a new bank account you should dress well - collared shirt, trousers, be clean shaven etc.
If you are employed in Thailand, you will most likely need to have a bank account at a certain branch of a certain bank so that your salary can be deposited into that account. This bank and branch will be the same as where your employer does their banking so as an example, your account might be with the Sukhumvit branch of Bangkok Bank, or the Silom branch of Siam Commercial Bank - and you will need an account with that bank.
The Thai banks are much of a muchness in my opinion. In the past, many Westerners claimed that the best bank in the Kingdom was the Bank Of Asia, now known as UOB. This bank was a member of the ABN Amro Group and all of the branches seemed to be better presented, have English speaking staff and appeared that little bit more professional than the other banks. This may have been the case in the past but now it seems that most banks are pretty good.
Thais consistently tell me that the best bank is the Thai Kassikornbank (what used to be known as the Thai Farmers Bank) and I believe this recommendation is based on this bank trying to market itself as a bank with superior technology to the other banks.
The interest rates offered on savings accounts in Thai banks are very low, usually around .75% and term deposit rates are currently less than 4%, so it is perhaps imprudent to keep large sums of cash in a Thai bank account. From time to time, some banks may state that it is their policy to refrain from paying interest to accounts in the name of foreigners. Again, this may or may not be enforced at different banks. Banks generally require an account to have a minimum balance of 100 baht.
When you set up the account you will most likely want an ATM card which will cost you anywhere from 150 - 300 baht and then there may be an annual fee of a similar amount. There are different sorts of ATM cards ranging from those that can only be used in Thailand to those with the Cirrus / Plus logo that can be used overseas, to special gold ATM cards that allow up to 100,000 baht to be withdrawn from an ATM machine in one day. Curiously, ATM cards issued by Thai banks do not seem to have an expiry date. The ATMs in Bangkok dish out a maximum 20,000 baht per transaction but sometimes you can just put the card straight back in to the ATM after completing one transaction and do another transaction and withdraw the same amount again! If you have a card issued by a foreign bank, I believe the ATM machine will still be limited to 20,000 per transaction but you may be able to perform more than one such withdrawal per day.
You can elect to open a foreign currency bank account in Thailand but there are certain restrictions on these types of accounts and the conditions vary from bank to bank. Some banks insist that the money be transferred in from overseas whereas others will happily accept the cash in Thailand. Some want a minimum of $US1,000 to start up while others insist on $US5,000. Personally, I don't think there would be a great advantage having a foreign currency account at a Thai bank and think that one would be better off with such an account offshore.
An important factor to bear in mind with Thai banks is that any issue with your account can usually only be dealt with at the branch where your account is held - the branch where you originally opened the account. Even something as seemingly innocuous as getting a replacement bankbook requires a trip to your home branch! Therefore, if you move around a lot, it may pay to open an account at a bank branch either in a central area that is easy to get to or close to where you live or work. At times, one can be forgiven for thinking that the banks go out of their way to make things difficult.
1,000 baht remains a lot of money to many people in Thailand, a few day's earnings for a good percentage of the population. With this in mind, if you pay for something priced at under 100 baht with a 1,000 baht note, at a small store or vendor, that vendor might genuinely not have change. One way to get around this is to make sure you always have small notes on you. An easy way to do that is to withdraw an amount like 9,900 baht or 19,900 baht from an ATM machine, instead of 10,000 baht or 20,000, which will ensure that you have some smaller notes. The "I don't have any change" routine is something that is pulled by a fair few vendors with foreigners, especially by taxi drivers - and often results in the farang just saying forget it, and letting the vendor keep the balance! It is very useful to carry small denomination bank notes in Thailand.
If you have a significant amount of cash, I believe it is prudent to keep its offshore and just use a Thai bank account for money earned in Thailand and for the general convenience of having some cash readily accessible. With most ATMs in Thailand utilizing the international Plus and Cirrus systems, you are able to use almost any ATM machine in Thailand to make a withdrawal from your foreign account - and ATMs can be found on just about every corner in Thailand. Even smaller towns seem to have a bunch of ATM machines these days.
In March 2009 all banks in Thailand introduced a flat rate fee of 150 baht which is levied on all transactions at ATM machines in Thailand using a foreign bank ATM card. So, if for example you make a withdrawal at an ATM in Thailand using your ATM card of your American / British / NZ / whatever overseas bank account, a 150 baht fee is levied by the Thai bank IN ADDITION TO whatever fee might be levied by your bank at home. With this in mind, you're best making larger withdrawals instead of lots of small withdrawals as this is a PER TRANSACTION CHARGE!
I trust the banks in the West a lot more than I do banks in Thailand. There is always a very small chance that something might happen to your account - and you do not want all of your eggs in the one bucket, do you? Over the years there have been a number of stories in the press about how the funds in an account were accessed through unauthorised means and when the person complained to the bank - and was able to prove that it was not them - the funds were NOT refunded to them. Most of these cases concerned Thai nationals but more than a few involved foreign residents. This is the number one reason why I would limit the amount of money I kept in a Thai account. The prevalence of scams where a skimming device is attached to the front of an ATM machine is, I believe, greater in these parts than in the West. Furthermore, it can be a bit of a hassle transferring large amounts of money OUT of Thailand. Imagine if you had a large amount in an account in Thailand and wanted to repatriate it to your own country and faced hassles - or couldn't! There really are many reasons why it is best to keep the bulk of your funds in an account in your homeland.
If changing money in Bangkok, travellers cheques get a better rate than cash by about .75 - 1.25%, depending on the currency. If changing $US, $100 notes get a rate about 2.5% better than a $1 note. All of the big banks seem to give consistently good rates and there is little between them. Some banks and foreign exchange offices can be very picky about banknotes that are in poor condition or have writing on them. Crisp, clean notes are always easily exchanged whereas old, dirty or torn banknotes may be refused.
There are a number of unofficial money changers around town, some of which offer better than those offered by banks. There's a small currency dealer called Siam Exchange on Phyathai Road opposite the Siam Discovery Center which gives good rates. They also change less popular currencies, such as Scottish pounds, South African rand etc that the banks may not accept. Two of the other most popular unofficial money changers (but quite legal, long-running businesses) are Super Rich, which has a number of branches around town, the main one being near Big C, opposite the Central World Plaza. The other is Vasu, which is on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 7/1, next to the Nana skytrain station. All of these money changers give rates that are around .5% - 1% better than the rates offered at banks. If you're changing a large amount of cash, it may be worth venturing to one of these places.
You should note that you will always receive better rates when changing foreign currency into baht if you do the exchange in Thailand than you would in your own country. For example, changing $US100 into Thai baht in the States might get you 3,300 baht whereas in Thailand it might get 3,500 baht, a percentage difference of about 5%! This is the same pretty much the world over and is easily explained. The Thai baht fluctuates a lot and there is a certain risk in holding it, along with varying demand. This means that banks outside of Thailand will never offer the competitive rates offered by banks in Thailand. Even the bank branches at the international airport in Bangkok give good rates, only slightly inferior to what you get downtown. It is the same if you wish to change Thai currency to foreign currency - you are much better off doing it in Thailand than outside the country.
Sending money out of Thailand can be a bit of a pain as the bank may require you to produce a copy of some form of communication from the intended recipient as to why you wish to send money out. Sometimes this is asked for and sometimes it isn't. Like many things in Thailand, it comes down to the way you present yourself, the rapport you have developed with the person you deal with in the bank as well as any relationship you may have with that bank. I understand that there are Central Bank regulations against money laundering which can make the process a bit more difficult than it would be if you were sending money to another country from the West. The last I heard was that any transactions over US$20,000 equivalent coming into or going out of the country were reported. Reported to who I have no idea! Personally, I have not had any problems sending money out and neither have friends so it really is not that difficult. When making such transactions the banks ask to see your work permit. If you're unable to present a valid work permit I am not sure what they would say! Whatever the case, if you do have to transfer money out of Thailand, you may get asked to complete some paperwork - and may even be refused. Obviously, money transferred into Thailand represents no problem!
One guy I know did not want to send money out of the country through a bank, so when he returned to his country he simply used an ATM tied to his Thai account and made maximum withdrawals each day until the account was empty.
Overall, the banking system in Thailand is not too bad. Generally the hours are 9:30 - 3:30 although it varies from branch to branch. In the Siam Square area and in some shopping malls, branches may be open 7 days a week and open until 5:00 PM or even later. Staff generally speak some English but if you have anything complicated you would like to do or have any concerns, it might pay to take a Thai-speaking friend along.
Please remember that Thailand is still a developing country and you don't have to get that far from central Bangkok and the areas popular with Westerners to find that toilets are not always of the flush variety, but rather of the squat variety. Now what is one aspect of Thailand that few Westerners ever get used to! In some of Bangkok's suburban shopping centres the public toilets will be a mix of Western style flush toilets and squat toilets. My advice is to simply wait for a flush toilet. I have never had good experiences in the squatting variety!
If you have a Woolworth's bladder and need to go to the toilet every time you have a drink, you may be in for a shock in Bangkok. There are nowhere near as many public toilets in Thailand as there are in the West and most restaurants, apart from the more expensive establishments, don't have a toilet on the premises. Unlike most Western countries, it is not mandatory for restaurants to have public convenience facilities. Even McDonalds branches don't have toilets!
Shopping malls have toilets but when you finally find them, don't expect to find any toilet paper there - often there may be a toilet paper dispenser selling a few sheets for one baht. In some locations you have to pay to use the toilet at a cost of anywhere from 2 to 5 baht. Occasionally, and it always happens to me when I am absolutely dying to go to the loo, when you finally find the toilet, it is a Thai style squat toilet...!
Finally, Thais generally do not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but discard it into a waste paper basket placed beside the toilet seat. It is quite disconcerting to see this overflowing throughout the day with soiled toilet paper. There is often a sign on the toilet door (usually in Thai) reminding people not to flush the paper down the toilet. Apparently the drainage system is not necessarily designed for paper to be flushed down and the toilets can get blocked up easily. Now that's a shitty problem.
You can still see evidence in Thailand of the Asian financial crisis that actually started in Thailand way back in June 1997 with many vacant, uncompleted buildings, many now sadly condemned. Some of the recommended reforms never happened but the baht is much stronger now (2009) than it has been in a long time. Many huge property developments sit vacant and many of the high flying expat jobs that existed pre-crisis simply disappeared - and that's to say nothing of all of the unfortunate locals who lost their jobs.
So what of the future? One can never tell what is going to happen, nor should one ever be surprised at what happens. The previous government lead by the country's richest man, Taksin Shinawatra, and his Thai Ruk Thai party (the name means Thais love Thailand) implemented all sorts of policies to get the economy moving forward. Former Prime Minister Taksin, a super successful businessman (one of the richest men in the world at one point in time), was described as tying to run the country as if it was a company - and things do seem to be looking up. Who knows where Thailand will be in the future. However, this government does seem to have many nationalistic policies and from my personal point of view it is sad to think that a country with so much potential could potentially be stunted by a nationalistic government that is unable to look beyond the immediate future and at the greater benefit of the country. There remain a lot of barriers for foreigners to invest or purchase property here, exactly the sort of things that will help to develop the economy.
Sadly, asking Thais about the 1997 financial crisis, they often come up with all sorts of Western scapegoats as to why it all happened including blaming Bill Clinton, George Soros - actually just about any American for that matter, the IMF or even the average farang on the street, American or not! It is so frustrating that many Thais think it is inconceivable that the crisis may have been heavily contributed to by certain practices and policies domestically! Up until 2003 there was still evidence of this with some street vendors displaying signs stating that their forced price increases were entirely due to the evil IMF!
Before the financial meltdown in 1997, one US dollar bought 25 baht. Since then the baht crashed, hitting an all time low against the $US of 57 baht to the dollar in January 1998. The Thai baht stabilized and hovered around 40 baht to the $US for quite some time before making its way closer to 33 / 34 as at mid 2008. The majority of local expats I know seem to think that in time, the currency will strengthen, though perhaps not quite to the levels that it was pre-crash. 30 - 35 baht seems to be the consensus of what one US dollar will buy.
Property prices have shot up in Bangkok over the last few years. From 2002 up until the time of writing this paragraph, early 2007, condominiums anywhere near central Bangkok have soared in price. Buildings where units used to go for 45,000 baht per square metre may go for more like 90,000 baht now! The market has leveled off a little though. I always said on this page that 2002 through to 2004 would have been a good time to buy and without wanting to pat myself on the back too much - for I never bought myself - I was right. I do also believe that prices will continue to creep up, though not at the rate that they have over the past few years, quite simply because there will be continued demand for property of all types in Bangkok.
The property market in Thailand doesn't necessarily follow the same principles as property markets in the West. Whereas in the West you can almost bank on the fact that historically, property prices will increase at a rate of approximately 10% per year, in Bangkok that is not necessarily the case. Also, in the West, except in times of major economic problems, you can fully expect to be able to put your property on the market, drop the price of it by about 10% of what it is actually worth - and expect it to sell quickly. Not in Bangkok! The market here is different to the West insomuch that second hand property is not considered to be that desirable. Few people actually want to buy a second hand property and there is not a lot of volume in the market, in terms of the number of sales. You might be sitting on a property valued at X million baht, and might think that if you drop the price by 10 - 15% that it will sell. Unless you are in a highly desirable location or condo building, it is unlikely that the unit will sell particularly quickly.
I have therefore always maintained that a Westerner buying a property in Bangkok should do so on the understanding that they wish to live there - and live there for a long time. And if they wish to sell it, they have to realise that it may take a long time to sell - and / or the price might have to be very heavily discounted. If you haven't got the idea already, I think that renting makes a lot more sense for foreigners in Thailand than buying, unless you are a retiree who is certain of what he wants and has no real plans to sell in the foreseeable future.
The Cost Of Living & Shopping
Thailand is a very easy place to live if you are earning a decent salary - and it needn't be that much. The figures I quote here are more relevant to English teachers than anyone else because that is the line of work that I am in. Some people can live comfortably on less than 20,000 baht a month while I know of some other people who struggle to survive on $US 6,000 (about 200,000 baht) or more a month! The latter may have been used to a rather decadent lifestyle in their own country before coming here or perhaps want to live their life in Thailand like they are on one long holiday. Assuming you are single and do not spend too much on accommodation, monthly discretionary spending money of more than 50,000 baht will allow you some comforts. Over 60,000 allows some fun and much more than that, well, you should be laughing! Let me re-iterate that it does all come back to your particular lifestyle. If you are eating in high end restaurants or staying at 5 star hotels often, wining and dining some of the lovely local ladies then things could become quite pricey. But if you eat at more standard restaurants, sometimes cook in your apartment and do not go out that often, you really could get by on not a lot of money. But just how much you need really is like asking how long a piece of string is.
If you are recruited in your home country and then move to Thailand and receive your same Western salary plus a per diem or hardship allowance, you may well be earning a phenomenal amount of money for Thailand and would have an extremely high standard of living. I know of such guys who can earn well over half a million baht a month. This sort of income would allow you almost complete freedom to live how you wanted. You could have a fabulous apartment, a driver, could eat out anywhere you wanted, party anywhere you wanted, buy all of the flashest clothes, the latest books, basically do whatever you wanted and still have money left over at the end of the month.
Just to give you some sort of idea about costs from a personal perspective, I spend around 60,000 baht per month, that is, as at 2008. This allows a pleasant and comfortable lifestyle. We live in a one bedroom apartment (20,000 baht a month) in a very nice building a couple of kilometres from the main business district. This 60K figure covers all expenses including all entertainment, transportation, all food, both eating in and out, new clothes, miscellaneous expenses - basically everything. I reckon I have a nice lifestyle indeed, and one which would cost a whole lot more in my corner of Farangland. I do NOT go out nearly as much as I used to and do not spend any time with ladies of the night, which can eat up money if you are not careful. However, this figure does not allow for major purchases, trips overseas, new computer or camera equipment or that all important pension planning, so if one wants to consider all of these things, you might want to plan to earn a fair bit more! Really, once you have been living in Thailand for a few years and assuming you are not a foreign hire - who can earn serious money - you want to aim for 100,000 + baht a month. That should give you enough to live well, buy the big ticket items like overseas holidays and new techno gadgets as well as save for the future.
But my lifestyle has not always been like this. If we go back a few years, my monthly spending was around 40,000 baht a month. I had a studio apartment in the heart of downtown, just a few minutes walk from MBK. That cost me 10,000 baht a month. I used to eat most meals at street vendors, more for convenience than any other reason, and that ran around 30 baht a meal so my eating costs, apart from the odd splurge at the weekend was low. I did used to go out at night a little too often and spent too much on alcohol. Going out to the bars can add up if you're not careful especially with the price increases since mid 2001. I enjoyed my lifestyle back then, but I would not want to go back to it now. The point here being that if you have 40K baht a month to spend, you should be able to have a pleasant, though certainly not luxurious, lifestyle. If you're on one of the expat packages, you will be laughing. Life could be very sweet indeed!
Following is a list of prices of various things in Bangkok. Note, there may well be differences here between what you read here and what you pay because prices do vary throughout Bangkok. Due to fluctuating exchange rates and quite simply the fact that this is Thailand and you pay in baht, all prices are quoted in Thai baht.
As at November 2013, $US 1 = about 32 baht
McDonalds Big Mac combo (incl. Coke + fries) 115 baht KFC fillet burger combo (incl. Coke + fries) 109 baht Burger King Whopper combo (incl. Coke + fries) 149 baht Can of Coke / Pepsi in a supermarket 13 baht 5 km / 20 km metered taxi ride 65 / 150 baht Plate of fried rice on street or in a food hall / in a restaurant 35 - 50 baht / 100 baht 950 ml bottle generic brand drinking water 5 baht 800 ml bottle of milk 40+ baht 1.5 litre bottle of brand name drinking water 13 - 18 baht 6 litre bottle of brand name drinking water 38 - 50 baht Local call from phone box (every 2 minutes) 1 baht Singha beer 330ml / 640ml in supermarket 30 / 50 baht Heineken beer 330ml / 640ml in supermarket 35 / 65 baht Jack Daniel's 700 ml bottle 1,000+ baht Portion of fruit from street vendor 10 - 15 baht Bangkok Post / The Nation newspaper 30 baht Packet of cheap / expensive noodles 5 / 14 baht Barber / Salon men's haircut 60 / 200 - 500 baht Levis 501 jeans - genuine 3,200 baht Paracetamol 500 mg 10 tablets generic brand 12 baht New release English lang. paperback novels 300 - 450 baht New release English lang. hardback novels 495 - 995 baht New release movie ticket at cinema 100 - 240 baht Local phone call (direct phone line / apartment line) 3 / 5 baht Mobile phone per minute charge, pre-paid plan less than 1 baht Durex condoms, pack of three 75 baht 6 x 4 inch photograph print 2 - 4 baht 1 litre of 91 / 95 octane petrol 39 baht/ 45 baht 1 litre of diesel 35 bahtBasically, most things that one needs to survive in Thailand are reasonably priced. Food, transport, accommodation and all of the other necessities like toiletries etc are cheaper than in the West. If you want to live frugally, it is very possible - but it is my experience that most Westerners cannot sustain that sort of lifestyle long-term and eventually find that they want creature comforts, be it Western food, English language books or whatever.
The things that can be expensive tend to be luxury goods, cars and anything which is not made in Thailand and therefore must be imported - like decent beef or dairy products. Prices can vary dramatically. In the local supermarket, a roll of Kodak film may cost in excess of 150 baht whereas in a souvenir shop in a touristy area, exactly the same product is selling for 110 baht - which the is opposite to what one would expect in the West. In a camera shop a roll can be bought for as little as 85 baht. Figure it out for yourself! Unlike neighbouring countries like Laos and Cambodia, all of the necessities of life can be easily found in stores and are very reasonably priced, more often than not, cheaper than the West, or at least the part of the West where I'm from. There are convenience stores all over the city and you'll be doing well if you can find a part of Bangkok that doesn't have a 24 hour minimart / convenience store in the neighbourhood. 7 Elevens have been popping up at a phenomenal rate over the past few years. In fact the range of products available is far better in Thailand than in many Western countries.
While many things are generally a lot cheaper in Thailand than in the west, I still find myself spending more in Thailand than I did back home (I am older now and our lifestyle does change over time, so let's factor that in.) There are just so many things to do, so many places to go and visit and the shopping is an absolute dream - huge variety and other than high end imported goods, the prices are low. It is so easy to buy all of the goodies that are available and before you know it, your spending has skyrocketed. You do need to be careful or your spending can get out of hand. There is something about this city that really seems to suck the money out of you. If you are coming here on a holiday and are using one of the guide books, such as Lonely Planet, you can get the impression that you can survive here on very little - you can read about hotels for 100 baht a night, plates of food for as little as 10 baht. While these prices are genuine and it is true that you could survive here on next to nothing, very few foreigners do. Most people end up spending far more than they anticipated - but they still get excellent value for money.
Over the last few years Bangkok has got a lot more expensive, particularly for Westerners. I say this because the sorts of things that the average Thai person buys or consumes have stayed largely the same price. Fried rice, noodle soup and the like still can be found for around 25 baht a plate / bowl, and you can still get a pair of rubber flip flops for under 50 baht. But for a lot of the goods and services that Westerns are interested in, prices have moved. The cost of renting an apartment has gone up, largely due to higher occupancy rates. I am talking about apartments in the 10,000 - 100,000 baht bracket here. Cheap places remain much the same prices as they were many years ago. Restaurants where Westerners like to go have seen numerous prices rises over the last few years. I could rattle off the names of at least half a dozen of the most popular restaurants with Westerners in Bangkok where prices have basically doubled since 2000. And don't think this is all due to the soaring fuel prices the whole world is experiencing. A lot of other things have gone up too. Alcohol prices have gone up a lot, and while I am loathe to include it, the fees charged by ladies of the night have gone up too. Prices were moving a lot well before fuel prices started going up. Bangkok remains affordable but it isn't nearly as cheap as it used to be.
Quite a few Westerners I know or have known here in Bangkok tend to "require" their Western comforts and therefore their outgoings are a lot greater than that of others. So, if you need that taste of home, keep in mind that most of the products and even particular brands that you get back home are available here, but that they generally cost a lot more in this part of the world.
As Saturday comes around, all over Asia the locals head for the huge shopping malls. The suspiciously camp guy on the Qantas Bangkok arrival video who says that while in Bangkok one can shop until you drop is most certainly not exaggerating. Shopping malls are often packed at the weekend, especially the popular places like Mahboonkrong (MBK, Emporium and Siam Square). The other time when the malls are very busy is the first few days of the month. Thais get paid monthly, generally on the last day of the month, and over the following week or so, they proceed to purchase all and sundry in a mad rush to get rid of most of their monthly earnings as fast as possible. And often it seems that by the tenth of the month, they are broke, with just enough money to put rice on the table until the end of the month comes around again! Restaurants are a lot busier in the first week of the month, taxis are often full, and retailers do their best business over this period.
There are many shopping centres all over Bangkok and I will just mention a few of them for to mention them all would take up another 100 or so pages and you'll be asleep by then. The many HUGE air-conditioned shopping all over Bangkok are usually open from 10:00 AM until 9:00 PM EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR! Shopping malls have a large number of places to eat, usually one or more food halls and all of the usual American fast food outlets. Not all shops will be open the full 11 hours though. A lot of the smaller shops may not open until closer to 11, and close nearer to 8 than 9.
Mahboonkrong, the original Bangkok shopping centre is a mid range shopping mall that with 1000+ shops, has a full range of goods available. Want a copied Rolex? At Mahboonkrong, often abbreviated as MBK, you can get that. But if an original is out of reach, you can buy a copied one there too! Want an original Huge Boss suit or a copy - you can get either of them too! Generally speaking, the range of goods here is mid range with a lot of the Thai chain stores represented. You get the obligatory McDonalds, two in fact, in the ideal location on the ground floor and the usual Thai food hall on the 6th floor. There's a new cinema multiplex on the top floor but the cinemas here are often packed with gossiping Thais and in my opinion, are not the best place to see a movie notwithstanding the fact that the cinemas are spanking new. Level 4 has lots of small electronic goods (walkmans, Minidisc players etc) at great prices and also has a mini Panthip Plaza with stacks of software. Many Thais maintain that level six of MBK is the best place to buy Playstation or X Box games. Walking around MBK can be a bit of a mission as the corridors are not too wide so you should try and go early. If there was a fire in there, you'd be well done at the end.
Across the road from MBK is Siam Square, the unofficial posers' quarters of Bangkok. This is the place to spy all of the Thai teenagers strolling around and hanging out at the various trendy hangouts, seemingly doing their best to imitate their Japanese cousins. Resplendent in shocking garishly coloured hairdos, designer label clothes (more often than not copied!) and mega huge platform shoes, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had been teleported to Tokyo. In this area of around 6 or 7 blocks are various boutiques, eateries, the popular photo sticker stores, Internet cafes etc. It's all a bit of a Thai scene and is very much dominated by the kids from wealthy Thai families. Like so many places around the world, teenagers like it here as there are lots of alleys and nooks and crannies where they can hang out and not be seen by adults... This is a bit of a youngsters hang out area so if you're teens are behind you, give it a miss.
Central World Plaza, the second largest shopping centre in Bangkok is home to a couple of decent department stores, Zen and Isetan - the Japanese giant. But what I just love about this place is that the corridors are wide open, so even when the Central World Plaza is relatively busy, you still have unhindered access amongst the dawdling locals. Shops in here are mid to upper range and there seem to be a lot of jewellery shops aiming at foreign tourists. All of the usual Thai chain stores are well represented here.
But the Central World Plaza is far from the most upmarket shopping centre, this accolade used to going to the trendy Emporium, located at Sukhumvit Soi 24 (Prom Pong station on the BTS). With all of the expensive European fashion labels represented, this shopping centre boasts lots of flash looking stores. I do wonder how the notoriously fashion conscious Thais can justify the 30,000 baht price tag on a pair of Yves Saint Laurent shoes, amongst other incredibly expensive things available there. If you want the very latest (and original, no less!) from Gucci, Prada and co, then this is the place for you. Unfortunately for the extremely wealthy Thais who do shop at these mega expensive fashion giants, they still have to put up with the likes of you and me walking around as Emporium, like most shopping centres, still has stores with more down to earth prices too. A shopping centre of this size cannot fill itself up with only high fashion labels in a city with the poverty that Bangkok has.
Bangkok's newest and most swanky shopping mall is Siam Paragon, located right next to the Siam skytrain station, in the heart of the shopping district of Bangkok. Several storeys feature not just shops, food outlets and cinemas, but there's also an aquarium, and a Lamborghini dealership. This shopping centre has to be seen to be believed. The food court on the ground floor is sprawling, and you can find most things there.
While Gaysorn Plaza and Peninsula Plaza strive to compete with Emporium and Siam Paragon for the prestige of being the most prestigious malls in Thailand, they ultimately fail. Gaysorn is located opposite the CWP and does boast a bunch of well known, but as per usual, overpriced Italian fashion houses such as Ermenegildo Zegna, Prada et al. Gaysorn Plaza is worth a look if you have too much money but otherwise, skip it. Actually, this shopping centre was renovated in 2002 and it re-opened as this great big white, sterile shopping centre that seems to appeal to no-one. Peninsula Plaza, a little further down the road next to the Regent Hotel offers all the same sort of stuff but with the pianist on the grand piano doing his best to give the mall a touch of culture, this is only for the well heeled. Still, as Westerners, Thais are unable to work us out so even the Khao Sarn Road crew could still walk through here without being challenged. To the annoyance of the wealthier Thais, a wealthy Thai and a smelly backpacker both get the same pleasant treatment from the security guards (whereas the poor Thais do not!)
There are quite a few big department stores in Thailand with Sogo, Tokyo and Isetan representing the Japanese challenge and Central and Robinsons being their Thai counterparts. Central's flagship store at Chidlom is a popular department store and doesn't compare that badly with some of the better department stores worldwide. They have a good selection of most things and the store is very well laid out and easy to get around. It is no Harrods, but it is still pretty good. They have a very good range of products and the store is very well laid out, but as is often the case in Thailand, the staff, while helpful, really do not know much about the product and even if you are fluent in the local language, they are so often unable to actually answer even the most basic questions about the product that you are interested in.
Panthip Plaza (pictured right,) on Petchaburi Road is the place to go for any computer equipment and of course, all the pirate software you could ever dream of! Perhaps the biggest place for pirate software on the planet, it is a wonder that Mr. Gates has not hired (or bought?!) the US air force to drop a bomb here because I'd wager that he's losing a few million a day from Panthip alone. While people do go there for computer hardware as well, this mall is a Mecca for pirate software and copied DVDs. Pirate software and copied DVDs run at around 100 - 150 baht per disc. The food hall is very average and is nothing special by local standards. For price comparison, computer hardware at Panthip is similarly priced to the States - give or take about 10%. Laptops seem to be dearer in Thailand than elsewhere. If you are thinking of buying a system in Thailand, it's not worth bothering with one of the name brands like Compaq, HP etc. The main reason for buying such a machine is that the company provides high quality after sales service and should any problems be experienced, they will get you back up to speed in no time. In Thailand, this is does not seem to be the case so just stick with a machine put together with all of the separate components that you have selected yourself.
Thaniya Plaza is to golf what Panthip Plaza is to computers. Thaniya Plaza, in Soi Thaniya, a lane that runs between Silom and Suriwong Roads right next to the Sala Daeng skytrain station, is home to a large number of golf shops and you can find all things golf there. I don't know how many golf shops there are but I am sure if you are after anything golf related, that is the place to find it. Golf balls, golf clubs, golf shoes, golf apparel, golf everything - it can all be found at Thaniya Plaza.
Asia Books is the biggest bookstore chain with a number of branches in the central city area, though funnily enough, hardly any in the suburbs, only the Seacon Square branch springing to mind as one not centrally located. I like Asia Books because they source books from the UK and therefore you get books by all of the American authors plus also those written by the British authors - which some of the other stores don't always carry. Some of the other bookstore chains such as Bookazine and DK Books source from American suppliers and frustratingly, they do not stock a lot of material sourced from other countries. In addition to having a lot of books from all around the world, Asia Books has far and away the best collection of books on Thailand and South-East Asia which one seems to progressively becomes more and more interested in the longer their tour if duty in The Land Of Smiles lasts. However, when buying books about Thailand, take your time to examine them well before purchasing. There really is a lot of crap in the Asia Books stores, the sort of stuff that wouldn't be published elsewhere, but which passes the lower standards of the Thailand publishers.
There are big branches of Japanese book store Kinokuniya in Emporium and in Paragon that have much the same - all American sourced stuff - fine if you are happy with that alone. There was another Japanese book store on the 6th floor of the Central World Plaza, above Isetan department store which is reasonable and carries some books that other stores don't, although since the refurbishment I am not sure if it is still there or not. The biggest bookstores with English language books are the Asia Books branch in Paragon, the Kinokuniya branch in Paragon, and the D2S Books branch in Central World Plaza.
New release paperbacks and hardbacks in Thailand are much the same price as you get them from home. They are released fairly soon and you do not usually have to wait for long for titles to be released - unlike movies which are a little late in coming out in Thailand compared to other parts of the world. For second hand books, the most popular store used to be Elite Books in Sukhumvit Road just along from Villa Supermarket near sois 33/1 and 35. But most people now agree that the best second hand bookstore in Bangkok, by a country mile quite frankly, is Dasa Books, which is on Sukhumvit Road, near Soi 26, just a couple of hundred metres from the Emporium Shopping Centre. Unlike most Bangkok second hand book stores which are pokey, dirty and dull, this store is very well laid out, bright and inviting. They also have very good coffee and cakes. There are a lot of second hand bookshops in the backpacker district around Khao Sarn Road but the prices are crazy - some second hand books here are dearer than a new copy of the same book in Asia Books!
For the best selection of international newspapers, there is a small international newspaper shop on the soi next to the Villa Supermarket on Sukhumvit Road, opposite the Emporium Shopping Centre. It sells The New Zealand Herald from time to time so I figure that if it sells that, it must sell just about everything. Mind you, these days just about every decent newspaper worldwide has an internet presence so there is less demand for international newspapers than there used to be. For magazines, you can get a decent selection of magazines from the US and England at many of the major bookshops including Asia Books. Be careful when you go to buy a magazines as many of the major international magazines have a Thai edition and most things on the cover may be in English but pick it up and everything inside will all be in Thai! On a slightly different note, the two major English dailies, The Bangkok Post and The Nation both have good computer sections, Byte Line in The Nation on a Tuesday and the excellent Database in the Post on Wednesday.
While the prices in Thailand for most goods may be extremely attractive, the big trade off is that the folks in the shops often do not have a clue about the product that they are selling. Ask a question (in Thai!) comparing two particular products and the likelihood is that the sales assistant will not be able to answer it or will make up some bogus answer - so as not to lose face! This can be a real pain where it hurts most when you want to know something about a particular technical or computer related product. Often the answer is that product A is better than product B but with no reason given - hopeless really. The way around this is to investigate such product on the net before making your purchase decision. It really shouldn't be that a consumer has vastly more knowledge and product awareness than those charged with selling the items - but this is often the case in Thailand. It doesn't matter if you're talking about a simple item of clothing or a high end precision-engineered product or niche-market item, odds are you know more about it than the vendor. Do your homework online or from other sources because you won't get the same level of product knowledge in Thailand as you are used to at home!
Another pain in the butt is that many stores have a no refund or exchange policy. Even if the product is faulty, they suddenly become incredibly disinterested once they have your hard earned cash in the cash register. Buying at big department stores or name brand stores helps overcome this - and ALWAYS keep those receipts. Another pet hate when going into the electronics / appliance section of a store is that the sales assistants are usually all crowded around a huge TV watching the latest Hollywood productions on DVD. (Central Chidlom is the classic for this!) One must be persistent to pull them away from such important duties... In a lot of stores, the sales assistants are predominantly young pretty Thai girls in their 20s - I wonder what the criteria for employment is?
You will see a lot of SALE signs in stores in Thailand and I guess that there is no legislation saying that such signs can only be displayed if there genuinely is a sale or price reduction - either that or perhaps such a law is seldom ever enforced. But sale does not necessarily relate to price discount. Sometimes though, you can get some really great discounts on items available in sales. In late 1999 when Timberland had a sale, everything was 70% off - and it really was everything! Needless to say Stickman and his buddies queued and spent a small fortune... Further, some of the department stores have some really good end of season sales. I especially like Central Childom's sales where they discount some end of season items at up to 75% off.
Credit cards are widely accepted in Thailand BUT many vendors will slap on a handling charge, usually 3%, on top of the bill! While I am not endorsing this practice, their argument is that the goods are offered at the lowest possible price and unless you are paying cash, they must charge this levy. To get around this, get them to clearly mark the receipt that there is a 3% levy charged for using the credit card and you should be able to get this refunded by your bank / credit card issuer as this practice is in contradiction with their merchant contract. Obviously, offering to pay cash will always get the lowest price. Chain stores, big shops, and a good number of vendors shirk this practice. Travel agents in Bangkok ALWAYS charge this extra 3%.
The biggest market in Bangkok, Chatuchak Market, aka the weekend market, is open for business on Saturday and Sunday. This is a huge market where you can literally buy anything from food to farm tools, clothes to condoms, snakes to sneakers. The market is massive and you could easily spend an entire day here - many people do. If you are looking for anything specific, it is worth buying the Chatuchak Market map. If / when you get an apartment, this is a good place to come to stock up on all of the things that you need - you won't find many things much cheaper elsewhere. Try and get there early if possible as it gets very busy and as it is a market, it isn't air-conditioned - and at certain times of the year it gets bloody hot! You can actually go on Thursday and Friday when some vendors open and there are few people shopping. I gather one of these days is wholesaler day or something like that but everybody is welcome nonetheless - don't worry, a Thai will never be shy in taking your money from you if you want to buy something! As with most markets, it tends to be a lot of generic brand goods, no brand goods, handicrafts etc that are available here. Thai markets are good places to buy many things but NOT everything. I see Chatuchak as more of a fun few hours out than the place to go and do my shopping - maybe I'm just a snob? Further, getting there is a pain in the ass. Even the skytrain to and from there at the weekend is packed and if you buy a lot, it can be a pain carrying stuff on the skytrain. If you want good quality goods, stick to shopping malls and brand names. Opposite Chatuchak is the what is possibly the best fruit market in Thailand, the place where all of the export quality fruit is available. Prices are not cheap and you often see folks pulling up in their Benz's and other European exotics to get all of the very best produce. It's got a funny Thai name which is often abbreviated to three letters, that I can never remember.
Pratunam Market, on the corner of Petchaburi and Rajadamri Roads is a decent centrally located market. Pratunam can never be compared with Chatuchak for it's sheer intensity, but more often than not, you can find what you are looking for there. Specialising in fabrics and a point where merchants from all over the world descend upon for the latest in cheap Thai unfashionable junk, this is perhaps the best place to buy your cheap, but ugly, threads. Whatever you do, do not go shopping here for your job interview threads because even in Bangkok's appalling English teaching industry, threads sourced from here may help you remain unemployed for a decent length of time! It's also a decent place to get knock off and souvenir T-shirts along with a decent range of fruits without having to traipse all the way to Chatuchak. Bobay Market, just a little north of Hualumpong train station, located alongside a canal, is another market that is a good place to buy the cheapest clothes around - but you wouldn't see me dead in some of the stuff that they sell there. The really cheap clothes on sale at some of the cheaper markets such as the 100 baht ties and the 10 pairs of socks for 100 baht are absolute crap - they look bad, are often totally unfashionable and they do not tend to wear very well either. Wash them a couple of times and you might not even recognise what they once were.
Tailor's stores, more often than not Indian owned and run, offer tailored clothes at literally hundreds of outlets all over Bangkok. Predominantly located in heavily touristed areas, these shops are very much hit and miss. The proprietors and their assistants often speak several languages and are very knowledgeable about fabrics, fashion design and all related to the rag trade. The problem with these stores is that while the people that you are dealing with are very smooth, friendly and downright charming, they actually have little control over the quality of the finished goods. Your confidence is gained as you are well looked after in the store and your measurements along with a copy of the design are sent out to one of the many different garment factories around the city. However, some of these garment factories are right sweatshops where hundreds of seamstresses fire out clothes of all designs in record time. Yep, many of these expensive looking tailors shops just farm the work out to a dodgy looking, back alley sweatshop. If you order several suits, some may be good but others may be questionable as they were in fact made by different tailors! It's all a bit hit and miss. Some of the tailors shops do have better quality than others and some really do have their own tailors that work exclusively for them. For one recommended tailor's store, try Boss Apparels on Rama 1 Road, opposite the Mahboonkrong Shopping Centre. The owner of this store, a very personable, friendly but most importantly, honest and genuine Indian fellow is more interested in producing quality tailored goods than knocking off a $50 suit. If you want nice clothes at fair prices, go there. If you want the cheapest stuff, go elsewhere. To get to Boss Apparels, take the skytrain to National Stadium and get off on the opposite side of the road to the stadium itself and to MBK. Walk down the road a little further past 7 Eleven, about another 50 metres or so, and you will see the shop. It is located between Soi Kasemsan 1 and Soi Kasemsan 2 (the soi where Jim Thompson's House is). Mack, the proprietor and David, his assistant, are pictured here. In Bangkok you can get nice clothes off the rack in department stores at prices that are way cheaper than the West, but if like me, you are not quite the perfect athletic physique, it is nice to know that you can get clothes that do actually fit you, at very reasonable prices. At the tailor's stores, avoid buying any of the rock bottom specials like two suits, 5 shirts and ties for $US99 and also totally ignore the bogus claims that some shops make about being elected "tailor of the year". Such awards are often made up! Remember, the reasons to buy tailored clothes apart from them being cheap - due to cheap labour - is to buy clothes that will fit you well. Unless you are porky pig, or have a strange body shape or size, odds are you can find clothes off the rack that will fit you just fine. With tailored clothes, one also have the opportunity to have something quite different or something which cannot be found elsewhere made - but few people order the clothes for this reason. More often than not, it seems that people go for copied designs of big name brands like Armani, Boss etc.
You can buy all manner of copied goods all over Bangkok. Everything from copied software to fake watches / Levis / bags / wallets etc. You name it and it's probably available somewhere. All of this type of merchandise is best bought in the suburbs where it tends to be cheaper. Be aware that there are different producers of copies so a 2000 baht copied Rolex may actually be a lot better than a 500 baht Rolex. (For the best fake football shirts, try Pratunam Market). Copied goods can be a bit hit and miss. I usually prefer the original goods because while the copies may look OK, they don't tend to last too well in my experience.
Festivals, Rituals and Occasions
In a country where face is so important, ngarn really is everything. The old biddies won't just pull out their very best threads, they'll likely go and get a whole new outfit tailor made, taking the trouble to personally choose the best, most suitably coloured Thai silk they can find (yes, they colour code for various festivals!) Jewellery will be cleaned and every last piece of gold will be pulled out of its hiding place and adorned. Ngarn, a time to be seen and to gain face amongst one's friends, peers and colleagues. But just what is ngarn?! Ngarn is all of the festivals, presentations, announcements and ceremonies that are so common in Thailand. And when these take place, there are several things that you can count on: Not just the participants, but all of the guests too will dress to the 9s. Irrespective of whether it is the AGM for country's biggest company or a small, rural wedding, there will be photographers present who will record everything and these photographs will be prominently displayed for quite some time afterwards. More effort is often put into ngarn than into most other things. I have worked at schools where far more effort is put into ceremonies that is put into the education itself, surely the core service provided by the school? Yep, face really is everything here in Thailand...
Thai style weddings are quite different to what we are used to in the West. Here I refer to Buddhist weddings as I have no experience of Muslim weddings in Thailand. There are generally two quite different ceremonies. The first is the traditional wedding ceremony where there will be 9 monks present which is often held at the family home. This is followed by various acts from water pouring to peetee song dua where the couple are taken into a bedroom and spend some time on the bed with an older couple. Nothing naughty happens so don't get any funny ideas! Traditional Thai weddings are a lot of fun, much better than in the West, at least in my opinion. Everyone seems to be in a jolly mood and despite it being a formal occasion, no-one ever seems to be too serious.
Thais tend to give money as a gift rather than a present at weddings. When you receive a Thai wedding invitation it will be in an envelope with your name on the outside. KEEP THIS ENVELOPE! When you attend the wedding ceremony, you give this envelope with cash inside it. Do not write on the outside how much you gave. As a rule of thumb, you should give either as much as the couple gave you when you got married (you're supposed to record this and keep details for such occasions) or give enough to cover the cost of the ceremony and a little bit more. I once heard that you are supposed to give so much money that it "hurts a little" to give but I don't really buy into that. If the idea of giving money doesn't sit well with you, then you can give a gift, as you would in the West. At some modern Thai weddings, gift giving seems to be getting more and more popular.
For the average Westerner, one of the most interesting parts of a Thai style wedding is the dowry, or perhaps better described, the bride price. The dowry encompasses a diamond ring, a sum of money usually presented as cash, and an amount of gold. This is all negotiated in advance - as what happens with it should be negotiated too. While a little out of place in the description of such festivals, I have always been, and remain, against the paying of such a dowry. There are many reasons for it but if you do get yourself hitched with a local and get married locally, a dowry will be called for. Think carefully as to whether you are prepared to pay it and if you are, make sure you negotiate VERY clearly in advance just what will happen to it. Typical dowries vary between around 30,000 baht up to close to one million.
After the traditional wedding ceremony, perhaps shortly afterwards, later in the day, or even a few days later, there is often, but not always, a marriage party. Usually held at a venue such as a hotel, this bears closer resemblance to a Western style wedding reception. It usually lasts just a couple of hours and the format tends to be the same. All guests who enter will have their photo taken with the newly weds and will then enter a large room (assuming it is in a hotel). Food and drink will be available and these ceremonies tend to be either a cocktail style party, buffet or as tends to be most common, Chinese style banquet. Once all of the guests have arrived, the happy couple will get up on stage, make speeches - to which many guests just continue chatting and seemingly ignore them. Yep, this is one thing I have never quite worked out and in terms of our western ideas, seems to be dreadfully rude! After the speeches, the happy couple will cut the wedding cake and deliver the first few pieces to the VIP guests such as their parents, their senior colleagues and any other VIP guests, particularly those of age. The couple then go around and thank everyone for coming and the guests begin to slip away. The odd thing about this occasion, to me at least, is that the happy couple seem to have less fun than all of the guests, or at least that is my take on it.
As far as attire for these formal occasions goes, one should only wear black for funerals and it is considered an insult and downright bad luck to wear black to a wedding, especially a traditional ceremony. As far as wedding parties go, especially those which resemble a Western style wedding reception, black suits seem to be accepted more, but some traditional Thais still don't like them. It may pay to stick with dark blue, if you want to wear something dark.
Check out the bride at these wedding parties and ceremonies. Often she is done up or the extent that you can't even recognise her! Thai women ALWAYS look great at these occasions.
Of course, before the couple even get married, there is an engagement ceremony. It varies from couple to couple, but at this point, an engagement ring is usually given along with an amount of gold. Engagement ceremonies tend to be much smaller affairs than the wedding ceremony itself and the people present tend to be close to the couple. The engagement ceremony, like the traditional wedding ceremony itself, may well be at the family home of the female.
Presentation of the dowry and gold at a wedding.
As far as funerals go, they are likely totally different to anything you have experienced in the West. Funerals do not just last for an hour or two but for a few days and sometimes for up to a week. There are various things that goon with monks coming along to perform certain rituals and different people are expected to go along at different times. Like at weddings, people will generally give an envelope containing cash at the funeral, usually given to the closest relative of the recently passed. The amount that one gives depends on many things ranging from your status and position in society to your relationship with the person has passed away. As a very rough guide, a salaried expat might give an envelope with 1,000 baht up for a member of staff who passed away whereas an English teacher might just contribute 100 - 200 baht at the funeral of a distinctly relative of his girlfriend. Don't worry to much about the protocol at such events as the Thais will fully realise that as a farang, you are a little in the dark. They will generally tell you what to do and when to do it but generally, just showing up and observing, and perhaps paying your respect to any monks or Buddha images will be very much appreciated. Mmmm, forever giving money...I find this a little perturbing, but then I am the first to admit that I will never ever really get the sort of grasp of it where I can truly say that I understand Thai culture.
The Thai calendar has a number of holidays in it, more than any other country that I have visited and this means that seldom does a month go by without you having another day off work - no wonder nothing ever gets done! The major Thai holiday period is the Thai New Year, more commonly known in Thailand as Songkran. This is the time of year when many people return to the provinces to spend time with their family and it is the only time of the year when Bangkok actually feels a little quiet. But what most foreigners associate with Songkran is the madness of the water festival that has got totally out of hand in recent times. All over the country, Thais celebrate the Thai New Year, at what is the very hottest time of the year by having huge water fights. Entire families armed with powerful water cannons and a drum of water jump into the back of the family pick up truck and drive around spraying all and sundry in a celebration that no longer resembles the traditional celebration where a small amount of water was sprinkled on to the shoulders of passers by. As a farang you will be even more of a target and if you go anywhere near anyone celebrating Songkran, you will literally be chased! Even if you are in clothes that indicate that you are on your way somewhere, you will not be spared. If you want to join in, it can be a huge amount of fun but if you genuinely have things to do, Songkran can tire quickly. While the Thais seem to keep it all in perspective as a bit of fun, some farangs seem to go totally over board and do their best to ruin it for everyone. Songkran is very much a case of love it or hate it. Sadly, I am not a fan - nor are many of my friends. The Songkran holiday is 13, 14 and 15 April, the very hottest time of the year - although many businesses will close for a lot longer than this.
HM The King's Birthday, December 5th, is perhaps the most important holiday of all in the Thai calendar. Every year, hundreds of thousands of patriotic Thais head to Sanam Luang, the big park next to the Grand Palace to pay tribute to HM The King where a big festival is held and the Prime Minister of the day and other dignitaries come and pay their respects. With the Thais' love and adulation of HM The King, this is a gathering charged with pride and patriotism. It is one of the few days of the year when a lot of businesses are prohibited from opening, particularly nightlife venues and those places whose principle business concerns the sale of alcohol. There are quite a few other holidays, particularly some of the Buddhist holidays when nightlife venues, discos and the like also close.
Over the past few years, bars and night spots have been forced to close on pubic holidays, particularly the religious occasions and even stores like 7 Eleven are prohibited from selling alcohol.
Must See Attractions
Wherever I read information requests about Bangkok online, many people ask what the 'must see' attractions are in Bangkok. Bangkok doesn't really have that many must see attractions. This is a city that you visit to experience the energy, heartbeat and vibrancy, rather than the individual attractions. It really is a bit of a 'good time city' as Richard says at the start of the movie, "The Beach", a place where people come to have and partake in the fun, as opposed to see the sights. Nonetheless, most people want to see a Thai temple or two, so...
Wat Phra Kaew / Wat Po - these are two of the most impressive wats (temples) in Bangkok and no trip to Bangkok would be complete without visiting one, if not both. These two Bangkok landmarks are conveniently located right next to each other. For those on a really tight budget, the Wat Po entry fee is 20 baht, Wat Phra Kaew is 200 baht (but both are free for Thais irrespective of whether they are Buddhist or not!). Both of these temples are located in the old part of the city and are next to the Chao Phya River.
Going for a river cruise is also a nice way to see some of the older parts of Bangkok, and experience a way of life that is slowly dying out. Get on board the Chao Phya Express boats that go up and down the river. While they can be a little crowded, it moves at a leisurely pace and you get to see so much of the city. The fare is awfully cheap with the maximum fare to go to the end of the line something like a paltry 15 baht. If you see somewhere that you like the look of, just jump off! There is a pier very close to Wat Po. Also, note that some of the biggest pests in the country, scam artists, hang around these two marvellous temples and may tell foreign tourists that the temples are closed due to one or other silly reasons and that they can instead offer to take you somewhere else - which will be followed by a high pressure sell. Do not listen to these people and most definitely do not go anywhere with them!
Jim Thompson's House - Located in Soi Kasemsan 2, not far from the National Stadium BTS Station, this is a traditional old Thai house in the heart of Bangkok that is shrouded in the mystery of the disappearance of one of the city's first and most famous Western residents. Just 100 baht to get in which includes a tour of the house, it is well worth checking out.
Baiyoke 2 Tower - I'm a sucker for tall buildings and this one is the tallest in the Kingdom. At 150 baht to go up to the observation deck, it is not overpriced like most of the other tall buildings around the world. The view from the top gives you a good idea of the shape and sprawl of the city. It is nice to go up just before sunset because you get to see the city during the day, at sunset and also in the evening. Unlike the West, there isn't a real twilight in Bangkok and the sun drops very fast in the sky, meaning that you do not have to stay up there a long time to see it under different light.
Bangkok is located pretty much in the centre of the country and there are many places nearby where you can escape for a weekend away or even a day trip. Some of the more popular places to go to for a short break include Ayuthaya, the old capital which has some impressive temple ruins, Kanchanaburi with it's national parks and waterfalls (see left), and Pattaya with it's beach, great seafood and its famed naughty nightlife. All of these places can be reached in about 2 hours. Hua Hin, less than 4 hours by bus from Bangkok is far better than Pattaya if you want to go to a pleasant, relaxing beach resort. Ko Samet, on the eastern seaboard, just a bit further along from Rayong, is another nice place for a weekend away and has some of the best beaches in Thailand. For more information on some of these places, check out the section on Travel in Thailand.
Surviving in Bangkok
Some people have a long, happy time in Bangkok while others don't last very long. It takes a certain type of person to survive here and it is difficult to isolate just what characteristics and traits one needs to make it work and successfully stick it out.
On average, Western males outlast Western females in Bangkok by a large margin, though having said that, a lot more males come here in the first place. Of all of the females I have known here, few have lasted more than a couple of years. Having said that, the small sample that I refer to comprises almost entirely English teachers, so in other professions, who knows? Of course, there are a lot of Western women who have stuck it out for many, many years.
For Western women, one of the big problems living here tends to be relationship-related. Western women married to a Western man who come here as an expat couple with him on a big fat salary and her left to her own devices can often have problems in time. I cannot tell you how many such couples I know and no matter how good their marriage is, and how in love they are, the husband invariably ends fooling around with the local girls, if not leaving his wife for one! Sorry Western women, but this is quite common! Thai women have broken up many a healthy marriage - and can be the last straw in a troubled relationship.
For Western women not in a relationship, many get frustrated at the difficulties they face in trying to find a good man in Thailand. Western men in Thailand are invariably taken by the local ladies and few give Western women the time of day. This can leave Western women to the Thai men. Unfortunately Thai men do not always have the best reputation in relationships and are not known for being entirely faithful. So for Western women seeking a serious, long term relationship, Thailand is not always the best bet.
Also for Western women, you need to consider that in Asia, it is men who are the leaders in the workplace. So for Western women seeking high ranking managerial positions - the sort of position with a package that would make staying on in Thailand a real option - you really are up against it. That is simply the way things are out here.
How old are you and at what point are you at, career wise? More and more Western employers don't take kindly to those who have itchy feet and enjoy a bit of adventure and travel all which goes to show a degree of independence. Therefore, a prolonged stay in Bangkok doing something different from what you wish to do career wise, may hamper your job chances when / if you return to your homeland. Personally (and speaking from experience as a business owner, and previously an employer), I think this is bloody ridiculous but that's another story altogether. There are of course exceptions to this rule and there are of course some employers who look for those with a little worldliness. So, if you do hang out in Bangkok for a long time doing some bum job that is not contributing to your long term employability, you do need to think about it all very carefully.
I have to say that I have met some of the nicest, friendliest folks in my time in Bangkok - lots of like-minded people; people who, just like me, wanted to get away from the plain old predictability of the West. Sometimes I feel that moving to Bangkok was like "coming home" in that I suddenly found all of these folks who had the same sort of outlook on life as I do - and that's really nice. Having said that, I have met some real drop kicks as well - but you get that anywhere. Unless you are a real loner, you need to have bunch of friends that you can go out with, muck around with and generally be yourself with. Reading books, using the Internet, laying on the beach, sinking copious quantities of piss, and perhaps most common of all amongst male expats in this city, chasing Thai village girls in the bars etc. all lose their appeal after so long...
You should make sure that whatever you are doing in Bangkok, you are constantly moving forward in life. Whether it be that your bank balance is increasing, your skills are improving, you are learning a new language, whatever, make sure you are always going forward. This will make your return to your homeland (or new frontier?) that much smoother. You really do need to try and keep busy while in Bangkok. With the Thai's relaxed attitudes towards most things, the cheap costs and especially the heat, it's just so easy to fall into a very relaxed lifestyle where you are actually doing very little. It is very easy to fall into the trap of spending your days in a relaxing, stress free manner but really, you are both doing and achieving nothing. I know some people who have gone to Thailand with plenty of money, have fallen into a sedentary lifestyle, have hit the bottle, put on weight and blown a lot of money. Most of them have gone on to regret the experience. All over Asia, but especially in Thailand, Westerners end up here because, if you have a bit of money, life is easy here. Be careful!
Basically, you don't need a lot of money to survive in Bangkok. If you are thinking about retirement, for around $US1,200 a month you can get by and have a pleasant lifestyle and if you have a nest egg of around $US200,000, you can realistically expect to be earning enough from this capital to sustain your lifestyle notwithstanding any economic collapse, swing in exchange rate or other such factors. Just don't retire too early like a lot of people seem to be doing at the moment. I cannot count the number of guys I know in their 30s who retired to Thailand early with less than $US 100K! I predict that many are going to get a rude shock when the money eventually runs out - and it will! The stock market not performing as they had hoped or even jut currency fluctuations could drastically upset the equation.
I believe it is best not to convert prices back to the currency of your home country. Of course it's impossible not to do this when you first arrive but after a while, I think it helps to think in terms of Bangkok prices, not prices from your homeland. If you do convert prices back into your own country's prices, things will seem cheap and you will invariably throw away a lot of money unnecessarily. If like me you do not have a huge amount of money, try and live like a Thai lives and you will save a lot of money. 1 baht = 100 satang and not X amount of $$ or pounds etc.
I know it might sound hard to believe, because Bangkok really is a very cheap city, but living a lifestyle exactly the same as you live in the West, in Bangkok, might actually cost more in Bangkok than in the West! Cars (with the exception of pick up trucks) are much more expensive in Thailand than the West and the cost of renting or buying a house is much more expensive. The better apartment and condominiums are very expensive too, sometimes more expensive than the West. Then factor in Western brand name clothes and Western food and if you led such a lifestyle I truly believe it would cost about the same or more than the West. Embracing Thailand and the Thai way of doing things will save you a lot of money as well as exposing you to new, possibly exciting things.
If you get into the groove and live somewhat like a Thai does, Bangkok can be a very easy place to live. Many people live here for years and adore it - the weather is warm all year round, food / rent / shopping / public transport / entertainment are all cheap if you live like a Thai and most Western goods are readily available.
I do however think that one always has to look at the bigger picture. Thailand can be a very easy place to live cheaply, and you can get into the thinking that "I only need X baht to live comfortably" so I do not really need to try and move ahead in life, working harder, looking for a better job or being more ambitious. I have always felt this is about the biggest mistake you can make in Thailand (with the obvious exception of marrying a bargirl). People change, and while you might like Thailand today, who's to know what tomorrow will bring? You also need to factor into the equation the changing environment in Thailand and the fact that Westerners are not the novelty they once were, and that if anything ,there has been a bit of a backlash against us. The Immigration Department has made it more difficult for Westerners to stay in Thailand and various law changes, such as upping the amount of money needed to stay here on a retirement visa all mean that one day, you might not meet the criteria need to stray on.
There is a danger of falling into the trap of working at a dead end job that you care little for, simply to finance an easy lifestyle. You could do this for years - and many do - but what happens if one day you wake up and decide that you want to go home? Back to Farangland! Where will you be? Would it even be possible?! You might have wasted the years of your life, the time when you have best earning potential and have little to show for it - financially or with regard to personal and professional development. Make the most of your time here and ensure that no matter what happens, you are always going forward - either by building up a nest egg or developing new skills and gaining valuable experience. Don't get yourself in a situation where if you returned home, you would be virtually unemployable with no financial resources at your disposal. No amount of fun would be worth that. One needs to have things beyond the professional or carnal aspects of their life.
Bangkok is a very big, polluted, drab and downright dirty city. I have never known a city to look so drab and a city to be quite so dirty and while people new to the city are able to transcend the issues of pollution and the fact that the city really is not aesthetically pleasing, eventually you admit that it really is grubby. To relieve the concrete jungle syndrome, you can easily take regular trips away from Bangkok. There are many interesting places nearby to escape such as Pattaya, Ayuthaya, Kanchanaburi and they are all less than two hours by public transport from Bangkok, a lot closer if you have a car. Within Bangkok, Lumpini Park and Suan Luang are reasonable parks that can help you to forget that you are in this great big Asian metropolis. Lumpini Place is a popular place to go for a run and one lap is 2.5 km. There are three different outdoor gyms within the park too, though how anyone could work out in the heat outdoor heat of Bangkok, I never know.
Living in the country of your birth, or at least the country where you spent your formative years brings with it certain stereotypes and norms, that is the perceived "normal" ways of doing things. You are expected to do certain things in a certain way and you will always be stereotyped in one way or another. (He's a computer programmer - therefore he must have been a geek with glasses at school or he was a quarterback in the school football team so he must had scored with all of the women etc - God how I hate these sorts of generalisations.) Living in another country relieves you of all of these stereotypes and allows you to just get on with your life as you wish. This provides a great chance for personal development as there is seemingly little here to stifle you or influence the way that you do things and the way that you go about your daily life. In Thailand (which means Land of the Free!), with the freedoms that this country allows, you have every opportunity to live your life as YOU please and not as the Government and society perceives you should. Also, other than the fact that you will likely be labelled as being rich, very few other prejudices will be held against you. All in all, this makes way for a potentially very satisfying experience. My personal philosophy about life is having the opportunity of getting what you want from it so long as that doesn't infringe detrimentally upon the lives of others. Thailand is one of few places that truly offers this. Further, in Thailand, where you never know totally what is going on or what may be around the next corner you really feel alive - and that is just great!
Life in the West seems to be getting more difficult. People need more skills to do their job, and need to work harder just to keep their job. More stressful work, longer hours and commuting in ever worsening traffic jams with less friendly and more uptight people is not many people's idea of fun. The demands of employers in the West seem to be getting greater and greater and at times, I feel that working for a company in the West is like selling your soul to the devil. Quite frankly, so many employers and bosses place what I consider totally unreasonable demands on folks and it seems to me that at the end of the work week, so many people have little energy and spend their time recovering only to have to go through the whole cycle again the following week. While some jobs in Thailand may place similar demands on people, most do not and the nature of work and the work environment, or at least the type of work that foreigners do is far less stressful. Prices, particularly property prices have been going crazy worldwide. Unless you have a really good job, the dream of home ownership is rapidly getting out of reach of many. And finally, there is a definite breakdown in the nature of Western society as it rapidly becomes a system of every man for himself. For many Westerners enjoying the Thai lifestyle, living in a Western society is over-rated. I would however warn against getting this idea in your mind. Thailand can be great, but believe me, it is far from perfect. Thailand also has many problems, it is just that they are different from what you may face in the West. You do need to try and make a balanced decision on where is best for you. A few years in Thailand will always be a good thing and I am a big proponent of people spending time in other countries. But if you are going to stay beyond a few years, I think you have to look at things very carefully before making a decision. There is a very real opportunity cost and if you are still young and not yet that successful in your professional life, then that opportunity cost is even greater!
I believe that success in Thailand very much comes down to being able to fit in with the Thais. It's their country and while there may be many things that you don't like or disagree with, at the end of the day there is very little that you can do about it - nor should you! If you find yourself complaining a lot, try to look at the big picture and look at all of the good things and the very real advantages of living in Thailand. If you still think it is not great, then it really might be time to leave.
The Thais are an easy bunch to like when you first come to the Kingdom, but over time, even the most positive Westerners can slowly become jaded by some of what goes on here. It doesn't take too many less than positive experiences to begin to feel that all of the locals are out to rip you off, and that they are only interested in your money. Unfortunately, for quite a lot of Thais, particularly those who you provide goods or services specifically to foreigners, this is true. Just when you thought you were beginning to fit in, and were beginning to believe that you were important to some of the locals, they do something, or something happens, that makes you realise that the complete opposite is true. A few experiences like this and while you might not quite be ready to leave, you begin to see the cracks. There are all sorts of other things that can play on your mind too. Get a car and you'll have the cops on your back all the time for alleged infringements and a payout, though truth be told, this seems to be less of a problem now than it was in the past. Constantly being overcharged and receiving shoddy service can all make you think just what you are doing here. Thailand is not paradise and it is a long way from perfect, but when this sort of thing happens - and believe me, at some time it will - just remember why you left your little corner of Farangland in the first place. Thailand may not be perfect, and the same old frustrations will occur over and over again, but generally, most people still find that life in Thailand is better overall than life in the West.
Last but not least, Asia changes you. Asia really is so much different from the West and you don't have to be here that long for it to take a hold on you. Your whole perspective on life changes and you find yourself questioning some of your previous beliefs. The unrelenting heat, the spicy food, the huge contrasts from the incredibly poor and the horribly deformed to the obscenely rich picture perfect model like creatures, the diseases and illnesses, the corruption and cronyism and the whole maddening noise and pace of life all get under your skin and can have a profound effect. It changes some people for the better, others for the worse. If you stay here a while, it WILL change you - absolutely no doubt about it! When and / or if you return to your homeland, you will no doubt suffer "reverse culture shock" and I'm afraid that I don't have any advice on how to solve that one.
There seems to be this barrier at about the three year mark for a lot of people who move to Bangkok. It seems to me that if one is able to successfully get beyond the three year mark (barrier?), then one could well be here for a long, long time - maybe forever. Bangkok gets better with time as you slowly come to grips with the way that things work, the way to get the best out of the Thais, the best most efficient ways to get around the city and know where all of the best places to eat are, including where all of the best little 25 baht a plate vendors are hidden. You know where to go to find the cheaper / better apartment buildings and generally the struggles that you initially had slowly become distant memories as life in Bangkok becomes easier for you than life back in your homeland would now be - and you start to consider Bangkok home.
The reasons why I continue to stay in Bangkok are not entirely clear to those around me and I prefer not to openly say what they are. I would be lying if I said that Bangkok continues to fulfill my requirements. It doesn't. I find that more and more often I don't like the fact that as foreigners living in Thailand we really are second class citizens. I don't like the way that after so many years living here we still have to report to Immigration every 90 days. I don't like the way that we never get anything more than a 1 year visa - of course there are options around this but they are very time consuming and expensive. I know deep down that I cannot stay in Thailand for the rest of my life. It's not that I'm scared that I might fall down that slippery slope that so many other foreigners have fallen down and end up a drunk who spends all his time in the naughty bars. No, that is just not me. I simply think I have lived in Thailand for long enough that I have simply got it out of my system. I have visited most places and really done pretty much everything I want to do. I like the country and like the people but having lived more than half of my adult life here, I craze something new. As I approach middle age, I am looking for something different in my life. I do think that Thailand would be a great place to retire to. Oh yes, first class in that respect! You've got to be introspective and keep asking yourself if living in Thailand is what you really want?
And I think you always need an exit strategy. Can you simply leave your job or do you have to give a few months' notice? What about your condo? Can you get out of the rental contract early, or would you be able to sell it? What about those major assets you have built up? Cars aren't as easily sold in Thailand as they are in the West. It is good to have an exit strategy and plan in mind.
Living in Thailand - and I guess anywhere in this region - is exciting and invigorating and I have to admit that I fear that one's return to the West would not be an easy transition to make. It's a bit like eating the spicy food in Bangkok with it's exotic and diverse ingredients and flavours. At first it doesn't seem to be palatable but after a while you get used to it and before too long you develop a preference for it. Going back to regular Western food becomes a very bland and somewhat boring experience. So too with living in Asia. The experience can be unusual, perhaps not entirely comfortable at first but you soon become to appreciate that it is always exciting, dynamic and quite simply, you never know what will happen next. You learn to expect the unexpected. After returning to your homeland it may well be the same old routine, day after day, oh so predictable, which after Asia must be oh so boring. Once Asia is in your blood, I think it's hard to get out!
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has marketed the country under the "Amazing Thailand" promotion and it's easy to understand why they came up with this name. So many people in Thailand will say to me, "I've got a story for you and you probably won't believe me but it really is true". I've been here long enough to know that they really do not need to preface a story with such words as I have lived here long enough to know that many of the things that happen in Thailand truly are amazing and it is seldom ever boring...and that's just great as far as I'm concerned. It's probably what keeps me in Bangkok. It is one big roller coaster ride, endlessly fascinating but at times, endlessly frustrating. IT'S NEVER BORING!
There is one thing I have to say here, though, almost at the end. A number of guys move to Thailand because the love the bar scene, read the naughty bar scene. The bar scene gets boring, it really does! If that is your reason for visiting Thailand, visit the country regularly and you are less likely to tire of it, but if you come to Thailand specifically for that reason and go down to the bars most nights, you will get bored!
Finally, you can read this site, other similar sites and as many books as you like, but trust me, there is nothing like time on the ground in Thailand. Spend a few months in the country and see how it is, without committing yourself totally. That'll give you a good idea of what it is like to live here, which really is completely different to what it is like holidaying here. Thailand is so different to the West and as I have mentioned, you do need to reconsider your Western ways - and you may be asked you compromise your principles - if you want to survive, and prosper, in Thailand. Keep an open mind, don't rock the boat and try and go with the flow. And trust me on one thing. If anything here really sounds crazy, talking about Thailand to somebody who hasn't lived the Thai life is like trying to explain colours to a blind man. Life in Thailand has to be experienced to be believed.
2004 Living in Bangkok update
Life is changing in Bangkok, especially for Westerners living here. In the time that I have been here, the city has become more modern and cleaner. The skytrain, new shopping centres and the general modernization of a lot of older, dingy buildings and the addition of a lot more trees in the central city area has made the city seem like it is a more pleasant place to live, at least on the surface.
Shopping has got a lot better in Thailand and the range of goods available is even greater than ever before. Where you once had to wait for trips back home to get certain specialty items that may not have been available in Bangkok, you can now get virtually everything here. Even favourite brands of food can often be found in one or other of the supermarkets that have a host of imported items. Books are released just a little later than they are in the West and movies at virtually the same time. It often feels that you can get almost anything here in Bangkok and if you can't you can just get online, find it and order it that way!
But it is not all positive I am afraid and there are quite a few negatives, some of them quite serious. As one would expect, prices have gone up across the board. Even the buses have gone up in price! Apartment prices have gone up, no doubt fuelled by occupancy rates that are much higher than they were 5 years ago. And the apartments that have not moved in price are a lot harder to get into than in the past, some buildings even have long waiting lists. Property prices have started to move again, and they are moving north at quite a rate. If you have confidence that things will not go bang again, like they did in mid 1997, then no is probably a god time to buy.
In 1997, it cost 60 baht to go and see a movie and now it is 100 - 140 baht, depending on where you go. Food costs across the board have moved, moved up that is. While the cost of petrol has gone up, one has to have a bit of sympathy for the cabbies who still charge the same tariffs as they did when the baht crashed, way back in the middle of '97. Despite continued calls for taxi fares to go up, they remain ridiculously low.
The government has started to get much tougher on visas for foreigners and anyone applying for a three month visa, or multiple entry visas at Thai embassies and consulates abroad, will no doubt have noticed that they are a lot harder to come by than they used to be. For people who are just living in Thailand on tourist visa after tourist visa, they are now getting hassles at immigration points and there is all sorts of conjecture that the government will finally put in place a policy to prevent people living in Thailand this way,
The current government has brought about various policy changes that seem to discourage farangs from living here. Some of them seem to make complete sense and you have to admire the government for implementing such policies, but others are a little hard to understand. However, at the end of the day this is Thailand, and the Thais are free to do what they want. If they do not want us to stay, we have to leave, and that is the bottom line. We do not have the right to stay here at all unless we have become naturalized Thai citizens - which is incredibly unlikely. But with this in the back of our mind, it really does make the average farang wonder how long they want to stay here and perhaps more importantly, what level of investment they are prepared to make. If there is a concern in the back of our mind that we might get kicked out, we are hardly going to go and buy a condo or a house, are we?
I have heard it said that the Thai smile is much harder to find in Bangkok than it used to be - and I believe it. There is, in some circles, anti-foreigner sentiment in the big city, but don't be too concerned, it's nothing like you hear about in the likes of Jakarta and some of the other major cities in Asia. But yeah, where farangs were once a novelty that Thai people warmed to, there are now more than a few locals who are not at all fond of our kind, some falsely believing that we were responsible for the last crash in the economy, others jealous at the fact that the average foreigner in Bangkok, be it tourist or resident, has one hell of lot more money in their pocket than the average Thai. More and more, it seems that Thais see us as a meal ticket and many are not doing a very god job at hiding their thoughts.
Overall, Bangkok is probably a more livable city now than in the past. A lot of the nonsense of the past has been put paid to by changes in law and / or better police enforcement. A lot of people talk about the good old days but when doing so, they conveniently forget such nightmares as the pre-skytrain era in terms of getting around, the fact that many food products were never available and the fact that while the nightlife might have been more wild in the past, so there was a huge cost to the many Thais who got caught up in it and suffered in one way or another.
I believe that for the wholesome farang who is legally in Thailand and leading a decent lifestyle, Bangkok is better than ever. For folk who were into illegal activities, working without work permits or for sexual predators who were here for pleasures of the flesh and little else, then Bangkok is probably not quite the place that it once was. I think Bangkok's truly wild days are largely a thing of the past ad the city really is growing up. And surely that has got to be a good thing!
2005 Living in Bangkok update
The past 12 months have been a funny period for me, a period which should have been the best in my time of living in Thailand, but actually, they have probably been quite the opposite.
Unfortunately the longer I stay in Thailand, the more I realise that we Westerners and the locals are so different in so many ways, and sometimes the two just don't get along together in perfect harmony.
So, what are my current thoughts on life in Bangkok? I have, unfortunately, become more cynical than ever. A big part of me thinks that Bangkok loses a huge amount of its attraction when you take women out of the equation. Yep, I'm serious. For the single guy, Bangkok really could be heaven on earth. If you're a naughty boy, there are a lot of bars where you can go and meet a lady who will expect to be paid for the entertainment she provides, while alternatively, there are huge numbers of Thai women who would be delighted at the chance to meet a genuine Western guy for a genuine, long term relationship. In this respect, Bangkok is first class.
But once you've got beyond this, perhaps once you have become bored of the bars or are already in a serious relationship, then perhaps, just perhaps, Bangkok starts to lose some of its appeal. So many of the things that Westerners like to do in their spare time are not possible here, or the local version just isn't as good as what you may be used to in the West. Sporting opportunities, be it partaking or as a spectator, really are not that good. The problem here is the weather. It is just so hot and not really conducive to playing sport. As far as spectator sport goes, there isn't that much that appeals to Westerners, be it football, cricket, tennis, or whatever.
But one could argue that there is much more to life than women and for sure, you'd be right. The problem is, that how do you then spend your time? Sport? No, already addressed that. Art and culture? Bangkok doesn't really have that well a developed an art scene when compared with the West. Yes, there are art galleries and some of what is around is very impressive indeed, but really, Bangkok does not compare well with the West in this respect. Spend time with friends? There are a heap of Westerners living in Bangkok and estimates run around 100,000, but this group is largely transient so friends you made last year may have moved on to another part of Thailand, another country, or returned to the West. Further, there are a lot of really questionable Westerners living in Bangkok these days. I ate to say it, but its true. There are a lot of people living here who you would not want to spend time with in your home country, so why would you want to spend time with them here?
Getting around the city is a major pain in the ass. I remember a student of mine once telling me how he was applying for jobs and how in Bangkok you could never attend more than one job interview a day, largely because the traffic is oh so bad and it is impossible to plan for. Even with the introduction of the underground, it can still be a mission to get anywhere. You have to plan every journey and you can't just jump into your car, go for a drive and think "I'll stop for a nice lunch when I see somewhere that looks interesting". Journeys MUST be planned unless you are happy to be stuck in the worst traffic jams imaginable. This is a biggy.
For the average Westerner it can be hard to get things done. Bureaucracy can be phenomenally bad. One of the problems I had about life in New Zealand was that it seemed I was always doing "maintenance type things". Car insurance, car registration, tax, getting things serviced or repaired, paying bills etc. If it wasn't one thing, it was another. I often felt that I seldom had the time to do the enjoyable things in life. As my life in Bangkok has become more and more settled, I have found the same problem here, expect that it is much, much worse. Dealing with authorities here can, in some cases, result in the most ridiculous levels of bureaucracy. Simple things can be made very difficult and the amount of red tape, while apparently less than it was a decade or so ago, is still much, much worse than the West.
And don't think it's just me who is jaded here. I hear the same comments from many medium or long term expats.
But don't get me wrong. Bangkok has a lot going for it, it really does. I think the biggest thing however is that Bangkok remains affordable. Most things are inexpensive, especially if you wish to live a lifestyle much like the local Thais do. If you're happy in a smallish apartment, eating from street vendors or street-side stalls and using public transport, then there is no reason why you could not get by on around 20,000 baht per month. Many Westerners, particularly English teachers, are able to do this for a while but eventually most revert back to a Western style lifestyle, one where they predominantly eat Western food, live in a larger place of abode, be it a house or a larger apartment, and desire a vehicle of their own. A Western style lifestyle in Bangkok can cost as much, sometimes even more, than a similar lifestyle would in the West - London, New York or other expensive cities excluded.
I just now wonder, after 7 years in Thailand, if my time in the City Of Angels is soon to come to a close? I think one can get stuck here and as much fun as life in the city can be, perhaps it is best to get out, experience the West for a while, take stock, and review the situation with a view to either staying on in the West or perhaps returning to Thailand again at some time in the future.
So, what am I saying? Well, Bangkok is a great place for the single guy. It is a great place to spend a year or two, or maybe even three. For anyone who is REALLY into Thai / Asian culture, or perhaps Buddhism, then Thailand is first class. If you don't have a huge amount of money and want to live in a country where most things are affordable or where you can get by on a modest amount of money, then Thailand is a very good option. But long term, I don't know, I really don't...
2006 Living in Bangkok update
Another year has passed by, another year for me to reflect on my life in Thailand.
My thoughts in this point in time are that life in Bangkok, while interesting at times, really is best for single men. Has it taken me almost 8 years to figure that out? No, not really. I sort of realised this some time ago.
We forget that there are many hidden costs to life in Thailand - wasted opportunity, falling behind with what is going on in the west and extreme cynicism. And in a number of guys I believe depression, to some extent at least.
I often wonder how I have lasted so long here. Sure, many guys have been here much longer, but living in Thailand slowly wears you down...
2007 Living in Bangkok update
Another year has passed, another year to look back over, and to consider life in these parts.
Not a lot has changed in the past 12 months, in my own life that is, but a lot seems to have changed in Thailand, and I for one am not that optimistic about the immediate future. We had the coup back in September which saw the Prime Minister ousted, and essentially booted out of the country - well he was actually outside the country but he has been told not to return. And then this very month, December, we have seen the government introduce new regulations concerning funds sent into Thailand from abroad, which resulted in the stock exchange losing a record 15% of its value the very next day. We now also have the possibility of retrospective legislation that may go through which would effectively make many foreign owned and run companies here illegal. It's same old same old I am afraid, and foreigners continue to be made to feel that they are nothing more than uninvited guests - funny that, because that is exactly what we are.
More than ever before - and I have been harping on about this for some time now - I believe that Thailand is a great place to be enjoyed. Come here, have some fun, spend some money, and then go home. I just don't think it is the best place to work or to do business any more. Sure, many will disagree - and many people do very well here, it has to be said, but I can't help but feel that a lot of people really lose their shirt.
For me personally, I will continue to battle on. I have started to spend more and more time out of Bangkok, and that has been a big factor in restoring the smile to my face. I find that Bangkok has worn me down and at the weekend a jaunt into the countryside leaves me refreshed and ready to face another week.
2008 Living in Bangkok update
I'm approaching a decade in Thailand and it is very much a time for reflection, to look back over my time in Thailand, to look at what I have experienced, what I have achieved, and with all of that in mind, look to the future.
Overall, I have to be happy with what I have experienced in Thailand. There is no way I ever dreamed that my life would evolve in the way it has. I've had some incredible experiences but with that in mind, my life here has been very much a roller coaster ride. Many great things have happened, but in all truth and honesty, some pretty horrible things have happened too. You eventually get to a point in your life when you want a bit more stability, and when you want the troughs and peaks to even out. I am fast approaching that point.
Truth be told, I no more than ever that my future is not in Thailand. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, I actually long to leave Thailand. There is a very real chance that before the end of this year I will have left. Just were I go and what I do remains a mystery but for sure, my life in Thailand leaves a lot to be desired.
It is not that my life is bad, it is that I am simply not prepared to live with the lack of security that is the reality of life in Thailand. More than ever it is important that I save for my future, but that is not so easy earning Thai baht. The bah will only go so far and it will only buy so many dollars. You need a lot of dollars to survive in the West. Just survive!
I am simply not prepared to buy property in Thailand, yet I have a yearning to have my own place, a place to call home. That is just not going to happen here. You see, whatever money you put into Thailand is money you have to be prepared to walk away from. There is very little available in the way of redress to outsiders here. Even after a decade in country, I, like all other foreigners, remain an outsider. I don't like that feeling and while I know that it is the way it is in Thailand, I am just not prepared to live the rest of my life like this. Your life can be turned upside down at a moment's notice and there is little you can do about it.
There is also the work situation. Thailand is a nice place to visit and a fun place to live, but working here can be a big of a nightmare. I won't dwell on it too much, but working here can be rather frustrating...and that is putting it mildly.
For me, I need a new experience, a new challenge. Thailand has been great for me, but there are greener pastures elsewhere. Thailand is great for a single guy, for a retired guy and for someone wanting a bit of adventure when they're young. None of these is me. It will very soon be time for me to move on...
2009 Living in Bangkok update
I'm still here, still living the life although in some ways I feel a little stuck in Bangkok. With the world economy in total disarray it's not the time to be moving to a new country, or returning to one's homeland in the pursuit of a new job.
I can't help but think that Bangkok is a great place to come to enjoy for a year or two in your twenties, perhaps straight out of university, or to enjoy if you're on an expat package. Of course if you own and operate your own business in Thailand and manage to make it work, then good on you.
Bangkok is a great place for a short stay and is somewhere everyone should visit once. But to live here for many years, well, I am starting to have my regrets. It has been a great time, but I am rapidly reaching the point where if I don't get out now, or very, very soon, I will never be able to successfully adjust to life back in the West.
Let's be honest, Bangkok is a single man's city and in many ways, a single man's playground. If you are or wish to be an eternal single then the opportunities here to enjoy life are phenomenal, perhaps as good as or better than anywhere else on the planet.
If you are retired then Bangkok might appeal although I personally think there are many better places in Thailand to retire.
I am still working and that is where the problem is. Working in Thailand is not like working in the West. Jobs are far too easy and you often do not feel that you learn a lot of gain really valuable experience from it. And how this experience would be perceived in the West, I do not know. With the big 4 oh not that far away I find myself that I have reached the crossroads and I have to make a decision fast. If I don't leave now, I might never leave...
2011 Living in Bangkok update
I've pretty much made the decision that this will be my last year in Bangkok. It's been a great run, but the way both Thailand and I have changed means that the two of us are less compatible today.
I came to Thailand as a young man seeking adventure - and I found it! I had some really great times here, met a lot of characters, both farang and Thai, and came to love this city.
The Bangkok I arrived to was one which was still struggling to come to terms with the Asian economic meltdown. Businesses were going under, many people had lost their jobs, salaries had dropped and while the economic outlook was gloomy, the Thais remained friendly and welcoming to foreigners.
Many foreigners, especially those on expat packages, were leaving and the expat population was said to have dropped. It was a good time to arrive with apartments vacant all over the city and plenty of opportunities for English teachers.
2012 Living in Bangkok update
OK, so I am still here and I seem to have overcome the doubts in my mind and the malaise I went through for a few good years wondering if this was the right thing to do. I just hope I don't end up like one of the foreigners who ends up on the streets here. Like the guy in the photo below, more and more foreigners are coming unstuck in Thailand...
This "page" has grown over time into a very long document, approaching 100,000 words, which makes it about the same length as a novel. There are bound to be some typos here as well as some information that is factually incorrect, or has in time become out of date. Please do let me know if you spot any glaring errors as I am interested in keeping it as up to date as possible!
There are two major English language daily newspapers in Thailand, the Bangkok Post and The Nation. There are also a couple of popular regional rags, the Phuket Gazette and the Pattaya Mail as well as some smaller publications like Pattaya Today.
The Bangkok Post is far and away the most popular English language newspaper and is the one that most Westerners seem to prefer. It's very well laid out and has excellent coverage of international news. The sports section is good and the weekend entertainment sections are well worth checking out. With the emergence of the internet, coverage of international news is easy to get online. In my opinion, this paper lets itself down in the area of local news concerning Westerners living, working or doing whatever in Thailand. This is the paper's major audience yet too many issues and news worthy events concerning this not insignificant group aren't reported, and for me, that's a huge disappointment. One often hears about what is happening on the grapevine, rather than reading about it in the newspaper!
I often feel that The Nation and The Bangkok Post are English language alternatives to the Thai newspapers for the hi-so / Western educated Thais. Sure, there are columns or sections aimed primarily at Westerners which would be of little or no interest to the average Thai. There is a gap in the market for a newspaper that is written and put together by Westerners, for Westerners.
The Pattaya Mail is a nice regional newspaper that actually reports on what is happening to farangs in that part of the country. Available in Bangkok at a limited number of locations, it covers the nitty gritty.
The Pattaya Today newspaper is very similar to the Pattaya Mail, but for me it's better a better read. Pattaya Today comes out twice monthly and is published on the 1st and the 16th. If you look hard you can find it in Bangkok - Foodland branches on Sukhumvit usually have a few copies.
There used to be a number of English language monthlies published in Bangkok, aimed squarely at Westerners but over time they have disappeared, presumably unable to make it commercially. For the Western male, The Big Chilli which is perhaps the pick of the bunch. I feel they do tend to pander to their advertisers a bit much but they do publish some interesting stories on expat affairs and what is happening in the big city. The market for English language publications is limited in Thailand. What used to appear in print is moving to the web and these days Thailand's expat population has a number of online sources of news and views about life in the Land Of Smiles.
If your Thai gets to the level that you are able to read and write it well, you will find that there are a large number of newspapers in the local language. The most popular Thai newspaper is Thai Rath, a tabloid style newspaper. The Daily News is worth a look too and more often than not the front page will have at least one gruesome picture such as an accident scene replete with an accident scene and / or a dead body! Welcome to Thailand!
If you enjoyed reading this, you might like to check out my Bangkok column, Stickman weekly, which has been published every Sunday since April 2001 and highlights what is happening in Bangkok at the moment!
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