Expat in Bangkok
Thailand, famous for its street food, beaches, temples and elephants, but there's a lot more to this country than the standard sights along the backpacker trail. Living in Bangkok gave me the chance to know the people, the culture and the little idiosyncracies that make this city truly unique. This was the first time I had resided outside of Australia, and I jumped head first into my new life in this hectic, crazy city that was so different from the one I came from. At times I was living the dream; at other times it was a struggle. But overall I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to experience Bangkok in a way that not many others do: as an expat.
So what is it like living in Bangkok? Read on to discover some of the thoughts and experiences I had while I was located there.
Compared to several Asian countries I have visited, the people of Thailand come across as quite conservative. Thais are respectful, courteous and the last to make a fuss. I literally saw a man walking stark naked down the street in the middle of the day, and everyone politely looked away without so much as a giggle. They rarely approach you or initiate a conversation, so if you need assistance you often have to seek it out for yourself. Once you do start up a conversation however, they are usually more than happy to help you in any way.
Outside of Khao San Road and the main tourist areas it can be difficult to find locals who speak English. You’re more likely to find success with younger people who have gone through school with compulsory English classes, but even then many won’t know more than a few words. Some won’t try to speak English as they believe their abilities are sub-par, but with a little persuasion you will find it’s a million times better than what your Thai will ever be. A variety of gestures, charades and good-old Google translate will be your best bet when you’re in a shop or restaurant and need to ask the staff a question.
Thai names, both first names and surnames, are long. Like ridiculously long, 20+ letters long, unpronounceably long. It makes your eyes hurt just looking at them. But luckily for us foreigners, Thais have nicknames that are used by family, friends and strangers alike. I have no idea how nicknames come about but often they are English words or names. Some are quite amusing - for example, I met kids named "Ben-Ten" and "Tirex" (yes, pronounced like the dinosaur). You don't forget these names. Generally surnames are not used at all, except on official documents. It is common practice to put Miss/Mr (in English) or Khun (in Thai, for both sexes) in front of someone's nickname when speaking to them, unless you are family or a close friend.
Losing face in public is extremely shameful to Thai people (apparently more shameful than walking naked down the street). Even when they are arguing, they have big smiles on their faces and their voices are calm. If you start shouting at a Thai person chances are that they will turn their back on you and you will have no chance of getting what you want. You're better off just gritting your teeth, forcing a fake smile and trying your hardest to keep the condescension to a minimum.
Everyone knows about Thai food, and everyone has a favourite. Coconut curries, pad Thai, tom yum, mango sticky rice - the list is endless, and it's just as good as you're hoping it will be. But there are also tons more dishes to discover: laab, yum som-o, som tam, khao soi - again, I could name hundreds of foods. Look for street stalls or tiny restaurants at the bottom of someone's house, serving freshly cooked food for next to nothing for the most authentic flavours.
Street food is a true highlight of a visit to Bangkok, but unfortunately things are changing. Food carts are slowly being kicked off the street in an effort to clean up the city, which is a shame. There are still pockets where a few stalls gather in a market-like space, allowing you to browse through the options before making your choice(s). Most carts will specialise in only one or two dishes that they make night after night, every day of the year. There is a risk of food poisoning, but the only two occurrences where I became ill (severely ill – I won’t gross you out with the details) were after eating in higher end restaurants with good reputations. You can't pick it.
'Moo' in Thai means pork. I know, I know, it's hilarious.
Everything has sugar. EVERYTHING. Every sweet dish, every savoury dish, every snack, every drink. It's unavoidable. You can try to ask for no sugar, but they will look at you like you've gone crazy and will ask you three times if you really mean no sugar. I don't know how the whole country isn’t obese.
Vegan and vegetarian restaurants are popping up all the time, and Bangkok is considered one of the friendliest veg cities in Asia. While Happy Cow will definitely point you in the right direction for a wide range of eateries, supermarkets are another matter. Firstly, not a large proportion of the local population is vegetarian, so they don’t have many vegan foods around. While I was living there soy and rice milk were easy to find, but non-dairy cheese, ice cream or yoghurt? Difficult. (Actually there was one brand of soy yoghurt in 7-Eleven, which was full of sugar and not particularly palatable). Veg frozen meals don’t extend beyond spring rolls. Vegan bread takes a bit of searching. A couple of larger, more Westernised supermarkets carried a vegan cake mix or egg replacer, but don’t expect many of the luxuries you get back home. When I was looking for a specific product (e.g. nutritional yeast), I would have to hunt down a tiny specialized (i.e. expensive) store or buy on iherb.com. The other difficulty is the alphabet – I couldn’t read the ingredients in Thai, so I had no idea if packaged items were vegan or not. I ended up sticking to the staples: fruit, vegetables, rice, noodles, nuts, seeds and spices. At least I knew what I was eating.
Eating out isn’t always easy. No problems when going to a veg restaurant, but any other type of restaurant? 90% of the time they won’t have anything I can eat. So many times I would ask the staff at the front of the restaurant if there were veg options (“gin jay”), only for them to laugh and shake their head. This makes going out with omnivorous friends not so easy. Heading out of the city only exacerbated this problem. Frequently my meal is white rice with steamed greens, stressing the importance of not putting fish or oyster sauce on it (be careful with these sauces – they often end up in vegetarian versions of dishes, ironically making the meals non-vegetarian). Planning ahead is necessary at times.
A vegetarian’s favourite time of year will be October, when the annual nine-day Vegetarian Festival is held. Every mall and street market will be overflowing with pop-up stalls selling a huge variety of vegan curries and stir fries, snacks and dessert, all without the nasties that usually prevent me from enjoying the traditional Thai delights. Supermarkets and convenience stores will get in on the action, selling jay versions of some products (vegan bread! Vegan banana muffins!). Look out for the yellow flags with the red jay symbol on stalls and food packaging. Chinatown is the place to go to be in the centre of the action - it really is like heaven.
Beware of "++" on menus. This means they add tax (7%) and service charge (10%) to the stated amount. Coming from a country where prices must include tax already and service charge is at your discretion, this presented quite a shock on a number of occasions.
When eating with cutlery, make sure to use a spoon in your right hand and a fork in your left. The fork is only there to shovel the food onto your spoon, and the spoon then delivers food to your mouth. Never put the fork in your mouth, unless you want to be known as the ignorant farang. Knives are never used, and chopsticks are only used for some noodle dishes. If eating with your hands, make sure you only use the right hand. Your left is always considered dirty, no matter how recently you washed it.
Yum Som-O = Pomelo salad
Coconut sticky rice cooked inside bamboo
Thai coconut curry
Som tam (papaya salad)
If you work in a 9-5 job, Bangkok will feel like any other big city. Skyscrapers everywhere, peak hours are busy, happy hours are numerous and the parks will be flooded with exercisers before or after work hours. While it can feel like home, there are a few differences. Many jobs will require you to work six days a week, or possibly 5.5 days, which can take some getting used to. Rain is a hassle, both on the streets and on public transport, and bumps up the cost of everything (see below). The smell of the city is distinctive, both positive (the food) and negative (the khlongs and drains). I learned where to hold my breath. But overall, adjusting to work life in Bangkok wasn’t a challange.
You will have no trouble finding a mall. They are on every block, at every train station – you can’t go more than five minutes without seeing another one. But because they are so plentiful, they are also often empty. Some malls specialize in one type of product (e.g. electronics, or golf equipment) so you would only go there for a specific purpose, not to browse around. The thing that really bugs me about malls though are their escalators. They never, ever, ever match up, meaning if you want to go up two floors you will go up one escalator, then walk around half the mall before finding the next one heading up. Going up five floors is a nightmare.
One adjustment we had to make (and never got used to) was the restricted sale of alcohol. Alcohol beverages may only be bought from stores between 11 am-2 pm, and 5 pm-midnight. Except for the occasional mum-and-pop store that sells one type of beer which has probably been on the shelf for five years, you’ll be hard-pressed to source alcohol anywhere else during these times. Apparently is has something to do with not wanting to sell alcohol at school start/end times, but this doesn’t explain why the limitations still apply on weekends and holidays. Also, on Buddhist public holidays or during elections, you will not be able to alcohol at any time. It was amazing how many times I was at a shop, planning to pick up a bottle or two but no, not allowed. I could never seem to plan my shopping trips right.
Everyone is familiar with the wai ("why") - the prayer-like posture coupled with a slight bow. If someone greets you with a wai, it is expected that you will return it. If you are carrying something in your hands, either only bring one hand up to prayer position or just bow. You will get used to which situations require the wai and you can start initiating it yourself. Monks don't wai.
Thais are incredibly nationalistic and proud of their traditions. One of these traditions is the playing of the national anthem, twice every day at 8 am and 6 pm. If you're in a public space and there's a speaker nearby (including train stations, parks, schools and through the TV), you will hear it blasted out right on schedule. It also plays before every film starts at the cinema. And as it begins, the entire world appears to stop. It's like being in a movie where the action freezes but the main character can still move about the scene. The custom is to stand still (no sitting), silently, while the music plays, and it is expected that foreigners do the same (although you can always spot one who doesn't know the rules). It's a little frustrating to stop whatever it is you're doing (for me, usually running), but after a while you just take it in your stride.
Dogs, specifically feral dogs, rule the streets. Although they are not so common on the main roads, just one street away you will find them roaming in packs. For locals this didn’t seem to be a problem. For me, I was bait. I don’t know if it was because I smelled different as a farang, or maybe they sensed my fear, but every time I came near the dogs the barking would start. They charged right up to me and looked ready to attack. It sounds a little melodramatic, but I was bitten. Twice. Rabies shots followed, as many of these dogs did not look at all healthy. Even when I was on my bicycle dogs would chase me down the street, trying to take a chuck out of my ankles. I used every approach I could think of, from not using eye contact to making loud noises and arm movements, but they didn’t seem to care. Many times I was rescued by a local person in the area. Dogs are definitely not my favourite part of Bangkok.
I recommend not wearing shoes with laces or buckles. Often you'll be taking them off several times a day, as Thais have a thing about wearing shoes inside. This includes temples, schools, houses, plus some restaurants, stores and businesses. Look for the pile of shoes or a shoe rack by the door to know if you need to remove your own. Unless you wear socks, you'll probably have black feet by the end of the day.
There aren't a whole lot of English TV channels available in Thailand, so unless you have Netflix you'll be watching the same shows over and over again. And it won't take you long before you notice Thailand's strict censorship laws, which will have you laughing and shaking your head repeatedly. Any language that is remotely obscene or sexual in nature is muted, no matter what time of day you are watching. There is definitely no nudity allowed, but even the hint of cleavage or bum crack is immediately pixelated. Cigarettes are blurred out, but all that smoke wafting from them is clearly visible and leaves no doubt as to what the actor is holding. Violence is hidden as much as possible, but the use of pixellation will have you questioning the censorship logic. For example, you are watching an action movie and someone is holding a knife, which you can see as clear as day. As soon as it is held up to another person threateningly, or actually stabbing someone, then the knife becomes fuzzy. Once the action is over, the knife comes out from behind its cloud and we can all see that it is a knife again. Hilarious.
For advice on toilets, just follow this sign:
Bangkok has a wonderful network of trains, including above ground (Skytrain), underground and along the ground. The latter is mostly for trains heading out of the city, and is handy if you want a weekend away in a nearby city. The above and underground trains are what the majority of people use every day, myself included. Trains are frequent and reliable, running until about midnight.
The only frustration with trains comes during peak hour. Although trains will arrive every few minutes, you may still have to wait for several trains to come before you can get on one. The lines of people will extend beyond the platform, so make sure you factor this in to your travel time. When a train arrives expect to be pushed and pulled in a calm, gentle manner to ensure every spare pocket of space is used. Don't panic if you need to get off at the next station and you're nowhere near the door - somehow it all works out and everyone gets off where they should.
The above paragraph also applies when it is raining.
Bangkok, in all its wisdom, is not helping this crowded train problem. Instead of increasing the number of trains or creating additional public transport options (such as extra train lines), it has decided to extend the three train lines of its above ground network over the next few years. More people on the same amount of trains = nightmare. Expect conditions to get worse.
Don't ask me how buses work. The only buses I ever took were out of the city, which were big, comfortable and provided little snack boxes. (Minibuses also go all over the country, but have much less legroom and no edible treats. They may be cheaper and faster though.) But local buses in the city are run down, dirty, and generally not English-friendly. I have no clue how they worked. The same goes for songthaews (converted pick-up trucks) that shuttle commuters along the main roads.
Boats are another way to navigate through the city, ranging from water taxis on the main Chao Phraya River to old, roaring boats plying the khlongs. You definitely need to do your research to figure out where to get on and where to get off, as there are many lines you could possibly take. Sometimes the cost is based on distance, so you need to be able to tell the person selling the tickets where you want to get off. Other ferries have an all day pass, and will call out the name of the stop as they approach. It's far too complicated to explain it all here, but it can be a peaceful and picturesque way to travel through the city.
Unfortunately all public transport options are operated by different companies, meaning you need separate tickets for each of them. Even within the one service, different sections of train line are managed by different groups, with different pricing systems. I could never figure it out. I had one preloaded card for the above ground trains and used cash for single trips on the other types of transport. When in doubt, ask someone at a counter.
Taxis are ridiculously cheap, possibly the cheapest I have seen anywhere in the world. Make sure they use the meter when you jump inside. If it's raining or you’re riding during Songkran you might find it difficult to locate a taxi driver who will turn on the meter, and they will charge a set price that is highly inflated (especially for foreigners). You won't have much choice but to go with it.
Grab/Uber is available everywhere, but often don't cost any less than taxis. The beauty of these services though are that you don't have to try to communicate your destination or barter a fee, which is always a difficulty with predominantly non-English speaking taxi drivers. Again, rain can be frustrating, with drivers taking half an hour or more to reach you (if you can find one to pick you up at all).
A fantastic option for shorter trips is the motorcycle taxi. You will find them wearing orange vests on the corner of most sois (alleys) along the main roads. They tend to stick to a certain area, and will charge a lot more if you need to travel outside of this region. Most of the time you won't have a helmet, so I don’t recommend them for longer trips anyway. They are fast and efficient, and great if you're in a hurry to reach the station or are carrying heavy shopping bags home. Just make sure you negotiate a price before you hop on the back or you may be charged a hefty fee.
Tuk-tuks are for tourists.
Cycling on the streets is possible but not recommended. You will be stopped every few minutes by traffic lights (which last FOREVER in Bangkok), other vehicles don't really care about you, there are no cycling lanes and fatalities do happen. Stick to the parks and the Sky Lane (see below).
When walking around the streets you need to be constantly aware of one thing: the phenomenon known as being "brickflicked". The pavement consists of square tiles, which look flat and sturdy as you walk along it. But looks are deceiving. There is always, always at least one tile that isn't joined to its neighbours; instead it's just floating in a sea of disgusting filth. Step on the wrong part of that tile and before you know it, that filth is splattered all over your legs and feet. Most days I would arrive home with the telltale muddy splash pattern over my lower limbs. It's inevitable.
Bangkok loves its overpasses. Often it is the only (legal) way to cross a road or intersection. Be prepared to climb several sets of stairs every day. Even if you do find an intersection you can travel across at street-level, don't expect motorists to give way when the little man turns green. Timing is key.
Traditional Thai boats plying the waterways
Waiting for the skytrain
Bangkok is a fairly active city, and overall Thailand has a number of events you can join no matter what your sport is. There are a few places around the city where you can run, cycle, swim, join team sports and get in a decent workout, and you won't be alone doing it. The downside to Bangkok is that it is pancake-flat, affecting both runners and cyclists alike.
Lumphini Park is the central hub of fitness. Come both morning and night it is packed with people running, cycling, walking, practising tai chi, group aerobics - there's also a pool and gym here. In the middle of the day it tends to become quiet due to the heat, but before and after work you will be zigzagging your way through the crowds. It is the biggest park in the city, where you get a whole 2.5 km loop car-free. If you have tried to run on the streets, this is heaven. There are also shops for water and snacks. If you're a runner you will no doubt be heading here often.
Other places to run include a few other tiny parks scattered around Bangkok, the khlongs (canals) which can take you many kilometres in any direction (but beware of the smell), or what's affectionately known as the Green Lung (aka Bang Kra Jao or Bang Krachao). Reached by the cheap as chips longtail boat, it offers a mixture of concrete path and quiet road surrounded by greenery, and I swear it is a few degrees cooler here than the city centre. I always get lost at some point and aggressively barked at by local dogs, but it feels like I am miles away from the bustling capital. The floating market around the other side is always a highlight and a great place to pick up some refreshments.
Running events are something Thailand does well. Every weekend there are several to choose from, both road and trail races, all over the country. As a trail runner myself, I was in heaven. It did require some lengthy travel times and long hours on the internet looking for accommodation in far away places, but I saw much more of Thailand than I would have otherwise. The atmosphere is incredible, and you will start to spot the same runners popping up again and again. Road races in Bangkok tend to be cheap and well organised, plus simple to reach with a taxi. They often start very early in the morning to beat the traffic, and roads may not be closed off at some intersections. Finding out what events are on will take some work, as there isn't a central website that lists them all.
There are dozens of running clubs all over Bangkok, which train in different locations on different days. The main expat group is Bangkok Runners, who can be found on Meetup. They are a wonderful group of foreingers and locals who know everything about everything to do with running. It only took me one run to learn which runs to sign up for, where to train and who can offer transport. Without this amazing group of people I would have been lost.
For cycling there is one spot everyone seems to head: the airport. And no, it's not because they're flying off somewhere, it's so they can cycle around the Sky Lane, a purpose-built cycling path circumnavigating 23.5 km around the entire air space. You have to register with a passport to enter the area, but once you're in you can ride away for as long as you like, blissfully traffic-free. While there are no hills here either there is a fierce headwind that will add some resistance to your workout. As an added bonus there is also a small 1.5 km running track next to the car park, for triathletes who want to do a brick session.
Of course when people think of sport in Thailand, they think of Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing). Gyms are located all over the city and may specialise in fitness, technique or preparing you for a fight. Signing up for fights in relatively easy, and you will be paired with someone at a similar standard to you. Many gyms provide gloves and wraps, although I wasn't too keen on exchanging my sweat with dozens of others so I brought my own. Most trainers I met only spoke Thai, however they could count and state basic punches in English. If you're looking for something more in depth and personalised, you may have to shop around. It's a lot of fun, a great workout and beginners are completely welcome, so I recommend giving it a go while you're here.
Swimming pools are abundant, but several require that you have a medical certificate before being allowed in. Gyms are also numerous, from big Western-style (i.e. expensive) centres to a few pieces of homemade equipment available for free in the parks (think buckets filled with sand hanging off a bamboo pole for a barbell). For other sports Meetup or Google will be your best bets.
Running through the Green Lung
I think most people have heard of Songkran, or the water festival, even before they land in Thailand. Songkran in Thai New Year, celebrated in April every year over a five day period. Schools are shut, some shops and restaurants are shut, and the entire country turns into one big water park. As it's the middle of the hot season, no one is complaining. Khao San Road is where most of the fun is concentrated, but nowhere in the city in dry. If you step outside, you are 100% guaranteed to get wet. This may be with water pistols, water balloons, hoses and just an old-fashioned bucket. My suggestion would be to buy a couple of Super Soakers and join in the festivities.
Note that Thailand uses the Buddhist calendar, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar, with the year changing at Songkran. You will see this on signs, advertising, websites, forms, etc. and will cause no end of frustration when trying to convert between the two.
Loy Krathong doesn't have the popularity of Songkran, but chances are you will notice the decorated baskets (krathongs) floating in the waterways around the city. Held at the end of the rainy season (November), the krathongs are loaded up with plastic flowers, incense and candles and, once night falls, are placed in the water to pay respects to the Water Goddess. Most krathongs have a styrofoam base, which is obviously not an ideal material to be placed in a river or lake full of aquatic life. If possible, buy or make your krathong out of natural materials (bread is common). Asiatique and Lumphini Park are good spots to check out the action - just make sure to head there once it's dark to see the mass of candles floating across the surface of the water.
Besides Thai New Year, Western New Year and Chinese New Year are also celebrated. Basically anything that can be celebrated will be celebrated - they love a holiday in Thailand. With around 16 public holidays a year, it's never too long between four-day work weeks (or three-day, or two-day work weeks). There are government holidays, which differ slightly to bank holidays, and Buddhist holidays on which no alcohol may be sold anywhere (although it's possible to find a restaurant that will sit you up on the second floor and pour away). New holidays seem to be added all the time, but really, who's complaining?
Christmas is just another work day here, but this doesn't stop stores and restaurants jumping in with traditional decorations, 10 metre high trees, and English Christmas carols. A few restaurants will offer a Christmas menu, and you might spot a few Santa hats around the city, but otherwise the day is mostly insignificant to Thais.
Kids love the Songkran action
Nowhere is safe. You will get wet.
All the kids make krathongs at school
Lighting the krathongs and placing them in the water
The wonderful cool season lasts from December to February, although it feels like it's over in five minutes. During this time there might be a crazy spell of 20°C days for a short period, but generally the temps are up in the high 20's with low humidity and no rain. This contrasts sharply to the hot season, from March to May. Temperatures soar and humidity skyrockets. There's no rain to provide any relief, so just expect to be soaked through with sweat every time you step out of the door.
Rain will kick in for wet season, from June to November, bringing the humidity down but not the temperatures. It doesn't rain every day, but when it does it will usually be in the afternoon. The Bangkok drainage system is notoriously inefficient, resulting in the streets flooding within a matter of minutes. And when I say flooded, I mean the water can easily reach knee-high on some streets. And it's not clean rainwater, it's dirty sewerage water. Gross. Packing a spare pair of flip flops (called 'slippers' here) in your bag isn't the worst idea.
Doing anything in the city becomes a major hassle when it rains. Public transport is bombarded, meaning a lengthy wait may be in order. Taxis suddenly won't use their meter anymore and charge you a price that is 2-5 times higher than expected (if you can even find a taxi). Grab cars might be impossible to book. Sidewalks become incredibly slippery, and that air-conditioning that you normally love makes every shop or restaurant feel like you’ve stepped into a giant freezer. I was always on the countdown to cool season.
Summer days in Lumpini Park
I'm definitely no expert on the Thai language (I learned all of maybe 50 words) but reports from other expats are that it is fairly easy to learn. The Thai vocabulary is very limited compared to English, and words often don't change based on tense or sentence structure. It is a tonal language, but I found not having the correct tone didn't affect me getting my message across that often. For any long-term expats I would recommend getting some lessons, as English isn't as widely spoken here as it is in other Asian countries. If you head out of Bangkok, the number of English speaking locals can drop dramatically (unless you're in a touristy area).
The difficulty with Thai is their alphabet. It's based on characters not used anywhere else in the world and look nothing like Roman letters. Words are spelled phonetically, but learning each character will take some time. The main problems I ran into with this were at supermarkets (I couldn't read ingredients, instructions, even what food was inside some packets), menus at local restaurants, and signs on the street. It also makes it harder to learn to speak Thai, as seeing the word written down helps tremendously with retention.
When reading Thai words, remember these pronunciations: