5 Things about Thailand that are tough to get used to

In moving to a new place, there are always things that take getting used to. I imagine that for most ex-pats, moving to a new country makes that list even longer. While I don’t like being negative or overly-critical of my life in Thailand, I thought it would be interesting for my readers to get a glimpse of the not-so-rosy struggles that have been a part of this transition. So here’s a run-down, in no particular order, of the toughest parts of living in Thailand for me.

View from my apartment roof
View from my apartment roof

1. The smells

I will never get used to the smells of Bangkok. Imagine walking along the sidewalk, smelling the drippings of some cooking meat (not too bad) and then WHAM! the smell of feces hits your nostrils. I have a particularly sensitive nose so maybe it’s harder for me to get used to than others. The sewage systems of Thailand are notoriously awful because they get clogged up with rubbish so the sewage has no chance of flowing freely, thus the pungent odors.

Upside: at least the ever-present smells are sometimes delicious ones, like spicy lime leaves mixed with cilantro or smoking charcoal off the road-side barbecues.

2. The driving

Your basic intersection. Who obeys traffic lights, anyways?
Your basic intersection. Who obeys traffic lights, anyways?

The driving is in an entirely different realm than in the states. I have mixed feelings about this, in that in some ways, Thai driving is more efficient and logical. However, driving in Thailand is extremely dangerous in general. Set lanes do not exist, all maneuvers are allowed at any time (yeah, that means U-turns in the middle of a major road), and pulling out in front of people is a pretty normal thing to do. Couple that with the high incidence rate of drunk-driving and meth amphetamines used on the road or the general foregoing of helmets for most moto drivers and the road becomes a very dangerous place. Thailand has one of the highest death rates by automobile accidents in the world, many of which seem to be avoidable by obeying basic safety laws (not running lights, wearing helmets, etc.)

Upside: Taxis and moto-taxis are extremely cheap and there are great transportation systems in place like the BTS and MRT to get you around Bangkok.

3. Getting farang-ed.

For any ex-pats living in Thailand, this becomes a regular frustration. Foreigners (known as ‘farang’ to Thais) almost always pay inflated prices – the more you look like a tourist, the more inflated the price will be. This issue mostly stems from all prices being negotiable, determined in the moment. Speaking Thai usually gets around that obstacle, but sometimes, you just have to pay more because you’re white. That statement may seem shocking, but it’s true. Getting farang-ed is a constant struggle (you always have to negotiate back down to the ‘normal price’), and it never really gets easier.

Upside: Things in Thailand are generally cheaper than elsewhere in the world, so even when you do get farang-ed, you’re still getting a deal.

4. Saving Face

The concept of saving face in Thailand is really interesting to me, because it completely changes the dynamics of social interaction. You cannot be frank or even direct with people, but instead often have to skirt issues or wait for an opportune moment to address them. In general, it’s rude to tell someone they are wrong, to openly criticize, or to directly confront someone. A lot of passive aggressiveness comes out of this as well, which is something I am not personally used to and it takes a while to learn to be socially graceful again. Also, major changes are slow to take place because it would mean admitting something is wrong or that the system in place isn’t working (this is a major frustration of mine at school).

Upside: pretty much zero arguments, ever. This can be refreshing after living in America, where people throw tantrums if their coffee order is incorrect. I once went to the US embassy after having been in Thailand for a year and cringed with embarrassment when I heard an American yelling at the guard because he had to wait to go in. No one ever yells in Thailand.

5. The corruption

Corruption in Thailand is rampant. The frustration I feel about it is not just because individuals are exploited, though they are. It’s also hard to get used to the way corruption strangles any chance inner structure may have to thrive. Immigration laws, traffic violations, safety standards, human rights, destruction of the environment and local wildlife, corruption allows all of these areas of control to be slowly eroded over time. I read somewhere that over 50% of project budgets are for bribing the proper officials alone. There is no protection, no real control, when the system can be bought or corrupted at virtually any level. In many ways it’s beneficial for foreigners like us, but it feels strange, like we are cheating the system out of proper fees and funding. 

Upside: Corruption is what keeps foreigners in the country longer than they are legally allowed, to get work before legally eligible, and to rent or own property illegally. We can also drive without a license (police bribes), illegally buy motos (first-hand experience) and get the proper papers for it. Corruption has its perks.

I don’t have negative feelings toward my life in Bangkok or toward the functioning of Thailand in general. But I do think it’s important to discuss the aspects of life here that are difficult to wrap one’s head around and assimilate to. Some things here just don’t make a lot of sense, and that’s okay, because out of the chaos that is Thailand comes a lot of good and wonderful experiences. So, I embrace the struggles of living here with the improved quality of life, and say mai pen rai.

What do you think are the toughest parts about living in Thailand? What are the upsides? Do you disagree with these? Let me know in the comments below!

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