Having a fresh perspective on Thailand again, reminds us that the things that were new and surprising our first visit here, are still funny to recap for our blog readers. In an attempt to show how different countries work, we hope you’ll enjoy this list of the things that really stand out in Thailand.
Everyone reveres the king, especially the poor. It is a finable offence to criticize the king or talk about any ill will that could befall the king. We asked a local about the king’s age (80 something) followed by the question, “Will the king’s son take the throne next when the king dies?” Huge mistake! We were shushed immediately. Offending the king or any member of the royal family carries a minimum 2000 BHT ($65 USD) fine up to 15 years imprisonment for talking about the king in a negative manner. Oops! When Bush was in office, Americans could have paid off the national debt if this rule was enforced. Before every movie in the cinema, the national anthem is played. Postage stamps with an image of the king must be moistened with a sponge, not licked. Finally, Thais refer to the king as “my king”, not “the king”.
Thais love any occasion to celebrate and decorate. Different festivals happen throughout the year. They even decorate for Christmas, even though they don’t celebrate it. We happened to time our visit to Chang Mai with the Flower Festival, the Thai version of the Pasadena Rose Bowl parade, by accident. The highlight of the parade is the floral floats, colorful costumes and “beauty queens”. Even the hilltribes put on their best and join in. Valentine’s Day is huge! It’s the event of the year. Check out this great video Ted made about this highly celebrated holiday.
Every day of the week has an associated “king color” tied to it. You know it’s Monday when yellow, short-sleeved shirts with the insignia of the king are worn. Pink, light blue, purple, etc. are the chosen colors for other days. Miniature yellow flower necklaces in honor of the king are sold on the sidewalks. Purchasing them brings good business to you all day. Street vendors hang them from their food stalls. Cab drivers hang them from their rear view mirrors in cabs.
Painted lines on the streets within cities are JUST paint, not indications of street lanes. Traffic in Bangkok is worse than rush hour in any large city 24 hours a day. There are 10 million Thai drivers on the road alone. Add in the expats and other foreigners and you have a big traffic problem. If you are on a motorcycle, driving on sidewalks, in gutters, and in between cars when there’s no median is perfectly acceptable. If you are in a car, at least two cars per lane is the standard. Needless to say, traffic jams don’t move at all, especially in China Town. Dare you choose a tuk-tuk, you’ll be sucking in the exhaust from all the cars and motorcycles. Until emission regulations are instituted, I wouldn’t recommend it.
The better quality guesthouses can be identified with a sign out front forbidding prostitutes. Prostitution is a widely tolerated profession in Thailand, so prostitutes are a dime a dozen in most Thai cities considering that minimum wage is only $3-4 USD dollars per day. Some mask themselves as “massage therapists” while others sit on chairs in front of their place of business waiting for “karaoke customers”. It’s hilarious that places actually have to put up signs stating that no prostitutes are allowed past the gate.
Rice is perceived as the main dish for every meal, not an accompaniment. If you order a fish dish or chicken dish for a meal, a plate of rice COMES WITH fish or chicken. The perception of rice is very different. Starting your meal with a spoonful of rice is good etiquette. You would think you would get sick of rice after eating it for a week, but you really don’t. Rice with every meal is like having a fork to eat your meal with every meal. You simply stop thinking about it.
Elephants are BIG here, literally and figuratively and they roam the streets like Gods. Even one of the national beers Chang means elephant.
Everyone is related. Guesthouse owners will gladly recommend restaurants, telling you the food is great. Just know that the restaurant is owned by the guesthouse owner’s brother. The tuk tuk driver who takes you to the restaurant is his cousin. The travel agency that handles your onward bus tickets is owned by his aunt. It all stays in the family.
Everything is negotiable. While many tourists come from abroad on short-term vacations and don’t mind paying outrageous fares by Thai standards for transportation or paying three times the price for souvenirs, those of us who are traveling longer must bargain harder to get a fair price. The only prices that aren’t negotiable are airline tickets and large ticket items in department stores. For all us, it’s up to the skill of the negotiator.
Cab drivers don’t like to use the meter. You may have to jump in and out of 4 taxi cabs before you’ll find one that will agree to use the meter. It’s a pain. Again, thanks to the uninformed tourist, taxi cab drives love to turn off the meter and request 5 times the actual fare amount for short journeys around town.
Disagreements are handled in a calm and “cool” manner. Showing your temper or “hot heart” makes you “lose face” or respect. If you are not happy with the internet speed at the hotel for which you paid $20 for the day for, you must politely and with a smile, ask for a refund. If you can present a good case up the chain of command, one step at a time, you might be lucky enough to get your money back. The minute you raise your voice or begin to sound impatient, the negotiation is over. Guess who handles these situations, Ted or I?
There are two different prices: local price and tourist price. Tourists rarely pay the same price for food, bus tickets, entry fees to museums or the like. That’s just the way it is. Considering a Thai may only make $3.00-$4.00 USD a day, I doubt they could afford the $10.00 USD admission fee to the Royal Palace.
Thais understand English better if you drop propositions. Instead of saying, “Where is the bathroom?” you will be understood better if you say, “Where bathroom?”
It’s impolite to wear your shoes into homes, temples and some businesses. Ever walk into a doctor’s office and be asked to take your shoes off?
Businesses are closed from 2-6pm during the heat of the afternoon. After a nice, late lunch, the world shuts down around you. Try finding food between these hours. Everyone is closed for an afternoon nap. Frankly, it’s just too hot to stay open. Remember that most shops open their “garage door” to the street and thus don’t have air-conditioning. Many shops and restaurants are run out of huts such as this one.
Most beauty products sold over the counter for women contain “whitening” ingredients. While we fry ourselves in tanning beds back home, spray on color and bask in the sun by the pool, Thais run for cover. The whiter your skin, the higher your class. People who work outdoors on the streets, on farms or are hired labor naturally develop darker skin. Products over the counter promote whiter skin.
Setting up shop anywhere is permitted. If you can sell it, you can sell it anywhere. Massage on the street anyone?As long as an entrance remains to the property a vendor camps out in front of to sell anything from food to flip-flops, it’s allowed.
Most trash is burned since there are no “garbage trucks” that pick up trash in villages. Early in the evenings, the smell of burning plastic wafts through the window. Smoke covers the streets. The more trash, the more you hack.
Many Thais live where they work, even if it’s not their business. Construction laborers often build shantytowns behind big construction projects, massage therapists sleep on the mats at the massage clinic and tuk-tuk drivers sleep in their “cars”. Often in hotels, the front desk staff will sleep on a mat behind the front desk.
Electricity for the taking, if you dare touch the wires. If you hear sparking noises from above when walking down the street, you might want to walk on the other side. If a new business is built, another wire is added to the already overloaded power poles.
Which one of these twenty surprises you the most or makes you the most uncomfortable? Post a comment.