Thailand: What to know before you go.

I have been extremely fortunate to have many visitors during my time here in Thailand. So many that you would think I was teaching in Texas as opposed to on the other side of the world. I can’t get this many people to hang out with me when I am in America, but I move to 8,000 miles away and I am as popular as can be. I have realized it may have something to do with this amazing country I am living in. Thailand has become a global hot spot. So hot in fact, it was featured on The Bachelor season finale. Watch out Southeast Asia. You have arrived.

As The Bachelor season finale aired my friends were messaging me, “They’re in Thailand! They’re in Thailand!”. “Where?” I would ask. The response was overwhelmingly, “I told you, Thailand?” As people come to visit me and Thailand becomes increasingly more popular back West, I have realized something. Like myself, before coming here, most people know nothing about this amazing place. Being that my time here is quickly coming to a close, I would like to recap some hard and fast facts about this incredible, booming country. Allow me to introduce, Amazing Thailand.

Size does matter.

For starters, Thailand is roughly the size of Texas. Which means it’s a lot bigger and harder to get around than I had originally anticipated. Before I came here I had visions of me frolicking all over the place, beach one day, mountains the other, hop over the border to Cambodia, maybe a weekend trip to Vietnam. That is not how things work here. Ignorance is bliss.

Map of Thailand. It's bigger than ya think.

Map of Thailand. It’s bigger than ya think.

Getting around this country is easy yet extremely difficult. Flying is cheap, trains are cheap, vans and buses are cheap. Almost everywhere is connected by many forms of transportation. However, getting almost everywhere takes forever and a day it feels like. As recounted in my previous blog posts. I still don’t understand exactly why. But no trip is ever the same and it is rarely seamless. And because the country is bigger than anticipated, if you visit for 2 weeks, you will only touch the surface. The most popular destinations are Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. As you can see above, one is north, one is in the middle and one is south. Chiang Mai is a 12 hour bus or train from BKK as is Phuket. Or an hour flight. Hell, I’ve been here 4 months and feel like I have barely touched the surface. I will leave this place not seeing every place I would have liked but I have come to terms with it. This country has so much to offer and so much beauty just seeing a fraction of it was worth it. And better than nothing!

Boom, boom, boom.

Goes the economy. Thailand is growing. Fast. After devastating flooding in 2011 that really put a damper on development (no pun intended) Thailand is back on it’s feet and running, no, sprinting ahead. This article on CNN Money really paints the picture in big, smart, financial terms better than I can (Marketing major, remember?).  Apparently the government reported GDP grew almost 19% year over year. If I remember anything from Econ, it’s that GDP is important. And it stands for Gross Domestic Product. Look at me Mom and Dad! That Bachelor’s sure was worth it!

You can see it everywhere, the growth. The move from street meat to restaurants, lots of plastic bags, processed foods, lots of construction. Lots of growth. Yet, still the slow adaption of toilet paper. And cheese. Two necessities in any developed country.

Another exciting and interesting aspect of their development is this new fancy acronym I learned about when I got here: ASEAN. ASEAN stands for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s a really smart move that I think Singapore came up with? Not sure. I just know Singapore is the future and anything they say goes. As per usual, I will copy and paste an excerpt from Wikipedia to give an overview of ASEAN.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations[5] (ASEAN pron.: /ˈɑːsi.ɑːn/ ah-see-ahn,[6] rarely /ˈɑːzi.ɑːn/ ah-zee-ahn)[7][8] is a geo-political and economic organization of ten countries located in Southeast Asia, which was formed on 8 August 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.[9] Since then, membership has expanded to include Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Its aims include accelerating economic growth, social progress, cultural development among its members, protection of regional peace and stability, and opportunities for member countries to discuss differences peacefully.[10]
ASEAN covers a land area of 4.46 million km², which is 3% of the total land area of Earth, and has a population of approximately 600 million people, which is 8.8% of the world’s population. The sea area of ASEAN is about three times larger than its land counterpart. In 2011, its combined nominal GDP had grown to US$ 2 trillion.[11] If ASEAN were a single entity, it would rank as the ninth largest economy in the world.

I always ask teachers and other Thai people what they think of ASEAN, what it means to them, to try and get a better perspective on it.

Some things I have learned:

  1. It’s kind of like the EU
  2. It will really kick off in 2015 from what I understand, like certain rules will be in place and official by then. You hear many things like “By 2015…” around here. Like everyone needs to be good at English by then or something. It’s the official language.
  3. The only “rules” I’ve heard of is that all students will be on the same school calendar starting in 2015 and they will folow Singapore’s calendar. School will start in June instead of May. Making it easier for students to go to schools in other countries in ASEAN.
  4. Like the EU, if you are a citizen of an ASEAN country, you will no longer need a visa to travel from country to country.
  5. It makes trade and development easier. Like a Thai teacher friend explained that her boyfriend is an Engineer and his company was able to go bid and win a huge project in Laos because of ASEAN. There is probably more to this but having economic discussions in broken English is difficult.
  6. No one I have asked has been able to confirm if there is going to be a currency like the Euro, but I imagine someday there will be?
  7. I obviously need to do more research.
ASEAN Member Countries. I think.

ASEAN Member Countries. I think.

ASEAN is all the rage here. School talks about it a lot. And the kids dress up like it A LOT. Mostly the kindergarten. I had to judge a Mr. & Mrs. ASEAN 2012 competition. It looked like a Thai version of Toddlers in Tiaras. But it’s impressive because most of these 5 year olds can tell you all the countries in ASEAN and I cannot.

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Back to the basics. Water. You cannot drink the tap water in Thailand. I have heard mixed reviews as to why this is. Somewhere along the way I heard it’s not the bacteria etc. that you encounter in places like Mexico and India, but more the fact that there are too many toxins or chemicals in it and that’s why even locals can’t drink it? Not really sure. Either way, no one drinks it. However it’s fine for bathing, washing dishes, food, and brushing your teeth. I have ingested some I am sure this way and I am fine.

So everyone drinks bottled water and makes ice out of filtered water. Any water and ice you are served in restaurants is made from filtered water and is safe. Which is why you always have to pay for ice, always, which is annoying. And no free refills. I miss that a lot. I like to drink a lot of water at meals.

But water is cheap and abundant. They have water filter machines everywhere that you can fill up a large water bottle with for 1 baht. Like they have one in my apartment building. I refill tons of water bottles and am good to go.

Sample water station

Sample water station

Thank heaven for 7-11.

7-11 rules Thailand with an iron fist. It has anything and everything you could ever want and is on every corner. It becomes any foreigners best friend while traveling. If you are too scared to try the food here (don’t be) or just want a Thai beer (do be), 7-11 is your godsend. I have encountered so many different packaged goods and snacks here. Some very interesting. From crab and mayo filled buns to a red bean roll, you’ll find something to satisfy your craving. There’s also obviously normal food. And cup of noodles. And microwavable dumplings. Never thought 7-11 would be my late night spot but when in a pinch, it does the trick. And you can get minutes for your cell phone here. And I think pay bills? It’s an oasis with AC in a lawless land.

This is not my local 7-11. I googled 7-11 Thailand and had about a million hits.

This is not my local 7-11. I googled 7-11 Thailand and had about a million hits.

And the knife ran away with the spoon.

But apparently the spoon came back and the knife stayed far, far away. People in Thailand do not use knives. That was an interesting adjustment. You only get a fork and a spoon when you eat out here. And the spoon is your fork. I think it’s considered rude to use the fork to put food in your mouth. You are to use the fork for cutting and moving around the food onto your spoon and you put your spoon in your mouth. Being that you eat a lot of rice here, it actually works out well, like a shovel. I read somewhere that if you use your fork for food here, it would be like trying to eat with your knife in America. I don’t think it’s that extreme. I use my fork a lot by habit and don’t really get weird looks. So many farang (foreigners) have infiltrated this country they are used to it and some places give you knives. Mostly western places.

Anyway it was interesting to get used to just having those utensils. But it works. All the kids at school had to bring their own spoon and fork to school for lunch. And they wash it everyday and keep it in their backpack. That was interesting. Going to school and not being able to eat because I didn’t have my own utensils. But they sell them in pairs at 7-11 for like 20 baht. 7-11, saves the day. Again.

It should be noted you get chopsticks when you eat noodles and soup.

Typical Thai place setting. Except that napkin would never be there. EVER.

Typical Thai place setting. Except that napkin would never be there. EVER.

Health and Wellness

Healthcare is actually pretty great here. It’s socialized and from what I hear you get sick, go to the doctor or hospital and it’s all free and you are taken really great care of. I hear if I go it’s same, same. And there are pharmacies everywhere and you can get like anything you want without a prescription.  The basics like cough medicine, allergy medicine, fever reducers, etc. But then there’s also the big stuff like birth control, pain killers, sleeping pills. I hear you can get it all, without a doctor’s note. And it’s all super cheap. Like a month’s worth of birth control pills is $3. Many girls who come here and stock up on it before going back to America.

The dentist is also really cheap. I had a friend here need to get a root canal. She went to a recommended dentist, that spoke English and I think he fixed her up for the equivalent of $100. My other friend decided to pop into this dentist we pass on the way to school and got a cleaning for 800 baht or less than $30. No appointment necessary. No insurance necessary. Pretty sweet. And no one ever seems to complain about it here. But I heard that our school’s Director needed to get surgery on his lung or something and went to the doctor and the hospital was full. That’s a disadvantage.  Anyway, not about to start that debate. Just giving the facts. If you get sick here, you can get medicine very easily and get well.  There is usually a green cross on the store, thats how you know its a pharmacy.

Pharmacy example courtesy of google

Pharmacy example courtesy of google

Know before you go.

As I have mentioned many a time, paper goods are hard to come by here. Toilet paper, paper towels. Just not a thing of importance. If you come visit Thailand you must pack little packets of tissues. And hand sanitizer. There is very rarely soap as well. Western toilets aren’t really non existant here, you can usually find one and many restaurants have them. However, you will have to use a squatter at one point or another. It’s just part of the program. It’s not that bad. Below is a squatter. That one is bad. They usually aren’t that bad.

Like I said, just pack tissues, hand sanitizer and you will be ready to go. Whenever you have to go. However, this experience has made me want to be a man more than ever.

Not one of the best.

Not one of the best.

Oh and a lot of bathrooms you have to pay for. Public ones. What’s that you say? “Not only do I have to be subjected to squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground without toilet paper, but I have to pay to use it? Blasphemy!” My thoughts exactly. But it’s only like 3-5 baht most places. So get over it.

The people…

Are amazing in Thailand. So, so amazing. Anything you’ve ever heard about them is probably true. This is the land of smiles. People are so helpful and kind and nice and usually smiling. They smile when they don’t understand you, when they are happy for you, when they are sad for you, when they are ripping you off, when they are helping you. It’s just their culture. They are kind and they know it.

I had the opportunity (and it was mandatory) to teach some of the Thai teachers at our school English this week. For a couple hours every morning. I was put with the group that were the Thai English teachers in our school’s regular program. So I didn’t have to teach them English. They knew it. So we chatted and chatted and chatted. About anything and everything. School, children, Thailand, healthcare, ASEAN, their families, favorite things, favorite places. On our third day I was asking them how to get to Si Racha, the city where the immigration office was, because I needed to check in since I have been in the country for more than 90 days. Immediately they were concerned I was going alone without a car. One of the teachers, the one with the best English who I had joked with all week, said she would take me and my friend. No questions asked. No problem. Insisted she would take us. It was so sweet. Made our lives so much easier.

I haven’t been here terribly long but those things tend to happen often. Many times Thai people go out of their way to help you, they are a kind, considerate people. I am not going to say they are all angels sent from heaven like this lady, I have gotten ripped off more times than I can count. But for the most part they are good.

This guy was our waiter on the beach one day. He was a hoot.

This guy was our waiter on the beach one day. He was a hoot.

The bad though however, is equally annoying. You will automatically get ripped off for being white here. Especially in tourist places. Our Thai friends will usually try and call and reserve a cab or car or take care of any transaction for us when they can, because they will most certainly get a better price. That gets tiring a lot. Most taxis will try and charge you a flat rate instead of turning on their meter. A taxi pulls up and you say “Meter?” and they laugh and drive away. Annoying. And they charge you 5 times what it should be. Always, always ask for a lower price. Cut the price in half and negotiate and chances are you are still getting ripped off in most transactions.

Also, although a kind and considerate people, they never, ever, ever, ever, ever, yield for you. If you are crossing the street or their driveway, they expect you to stop always, they will never stop or yield. That’s annoying. I am sick and tired of playing Frogger when crossing the street.

And lastly, sometimes they are line cutters. I have gotten cut in line at 7-11 more times than I can count. And I don’t understand that. Because they are usually so nice. And line cutting is not nice. No matter where in the world you are.

That’s all folks.

I think I covered all of the random bases. That’s all I got on Thailand. The good, the bad, the ugly. I hope this helps anyone coming to visit me or this wonderful place I have been able to call home.  I highly recommend making the journey if you are able to. It may take a while and the heat and travel may take a lot out of you but I promise, it is worth it.

Going here oh, so soon! Can't wait!

Going here oh, so soon! Can’t wait!

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