Things You Don’t Know About Thailand

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Things You don't Know about Thailnd

One of the benefits of traveling slow is that you get to dig a little deeper into a culture than you would just passing through. By spending time with locals and ex-pats here in Chiang Mai, I’ve learned a few things that came to me as a surprise.

Things You Don't Know About ThailandIt’s always Buddha Day. No visit to the Grand Palace in Bangkok is complete without a tout approaching you and explaining that the site is closed due to the fact that it’s Buddha Day. He will gladly direct you to a tuk tuk driver who will give you a tour of sites (and high-commission shops) that are open today. The Palace is, of course, open for business, with hundreds of tourists streaming in and out. If you’ve looked for hotels in Bangkok and found a place for a few days, you can return every day and learn that it’s Buddha Day again. They may as well call it Buddha Week.

There are quite a few real Buddha Days, but with the language barrier I can never seem to learn the significance of each one. The first hint you’ll receive is when you visit a 7-11 and notice that all of the beer and wine has been hidden behind flattened cardboard and the cooler door chained shut. The Buddha was a bit of a teetotaler. You can still have a drink in a restaurant or bar most times but on Visakha Bucha Day in May –which celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of Lord Buddha– even the bars close down. And a good Buddha Day is often accompanied by massive fireworks displays, so be sure to get out at night and enjoy the show.

Things You Don't Know About ThailandEveryone loves a parade. I’ve been in Chiang Mai for four months now and I’ve seen at least 8 parades, not counting the big ones tied to important holidays or the annual Flower Festival, for example. On any given day you can stumble into a procession of hundreds of people dressed in traditional dress, men carrying Buddha statues or ornate floral displays on pallets of bamboo, high school marching bands, people carrying pennants and banners, and men beating large drums mounted to rolling carts. It’s wonderful.

I recently passed a group of several hundred middle-school kids marching class-by-class and playing plastic recorders. Cops on motorcycles cleared the way, while the second lane was left open for traffic. Monks riding in the backs of Toyota trucks and silently watching over a large gilded Buddha statue are very popular too. Ask someone what the occasion is and they will invariably answer “Buddha Day!”

He’s not happy to see you, that really is a gun in his pocket. Many Thai men regularly pack heat when they go out — it’s not at all uncommon to catch a glimpse of a pistol tucked into a waistband or a bulge in a pocket. Now, I’m not saying that Thailand is the Wild Wild West, with raging gun battles in the streets, because it’s not — I’ve felt more safe here than anywhere I’ve visited. But if you’re out late in a Thai bar there’s a very good chance that you’re seriously outgunned, so I’d recommend minding your manners.

A good friend of mine recently attended a large wedding in Bangkok –500 people or more– and couldn’t help but notice that a loud dispute had broken out. The groom’s father had taken offense at something, was shouting and generally making a scene. The bride’s father decided that the quickest way to diffuse the situation was to pull his gun out and fire it in the air several times, which made quite an impression with the rest of the guests. The after-party was described as “a bit awkward”.

Those aren’t braces. I had noticed that I was seeing more and more young women wearing braces and took this as a sign of general prosperity amongst the growing middle class. My friend Louise, who has lived in Chiang Mai for 12 years and speaks fluent Thai, set me straight. “Most of them aren’t real braces, they’re vanity braces. They don’t correct anything, they’re just meant to look like you are wearing real braces.”

“Well, then why do they wear them?” I asked. “They think it makes them look younger and it suggests that they’re more well-off than they really are,” she replied. Coming from a land of Botox, tanning salons and liposuction, I certainly can’t judge.

Things You Don't Know About ThailandDon’t mess with the monks. Monks are revered here and pretty much have the run of the place. Most parents hope to have at least one son become one, as it’s a great honor for the family. (Talk about pressure — I thought my Mom was being unreasonable asking for a grandkid.) But not all monks are there by choice.

It’s fairly common for young men who get into trouble with the law to be offered the choice between a year in jail or a year in the monkhood, rather like being forced into the Army in the West. I hadn’t realized this before but it certainly explains the few times I’ve seen young monks elbowing each other in the ribs as a scantily-clad woman walked by. So don’t mess with a monk — you never know what he’s in for.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve found in Thailand?

{ 99 comments… read them below or add one }

Sab May 20, 2013 at 5:52 pm

One very strange thing I noticed in Thailand is that the people are very racist among their own people. They completely separate between tourists and Thais. Just look at all the hotels around Khao San Road, they all have signs that Thai people are not allowed to enter. I went to parties in Koh Phangan where they had signs at the entrance, saying: For your security, no Thai people allowed, this party is only for Western people.

And now think, whenever you travel in Thailand, did you ever met a Thai who is actually traveling? They’re having a hard time, as most hotels don’t wanna accommodate Thais. I think it’s awkward, and also a reason why Thailand is not one of my favorite countries. It’s hard to connect with locals or even make friends with Thai people.

Being 5 times in Thailand, I barely met locals or even become friends with them… It’s actually kinda sad :( I don’t wanna generalize, just talking about my own experience.
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Justin May 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

I’ve never been to Thailand or know much about the culture, but do you maybe think the Thais are trying to preserve their culture from western corruption? Maybe they aren’t discriminating against their own people, maybe they are discriminating against you.

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dennis August 4, 2014 at 9:37 am

Don’t hang out out on Khao San Road you will only meet foreigners of questionable character. Get to know someone at a Thai restaurant in your own country and they will be happy to put you in touch with a friend or family member in Thailand. It is better than meeting the complete unknown. Worked for me.

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dennis August 4, 2014 at 9:48 am

PS You will most likely be expected to foot the bill for any dinning and entertainment because all foreigners are considered to be millionaires. Still a bargain, be happy you can afford it. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of though, there is a fine line here. Enjoy yourself in Thailand and expect to see the long face of disappointment once in a while. It is a great country!

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Aliona October 18, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Hi Johny,

My husband and I are planning a 2 week trip to Thailand and it looks like you’ve spent quite some time there and could help us prepare for the trip :-)

What we would like to do is to avoid the regular tourist traps and really experience the local culture, meet the people, eat where they eat, etc. Any ideas on where we could go?

Plus, I would really like to spend some time on the beach but would like to avoid places crowded with tourists and find a little calm paradise. Would you know where we can find one? :-)

Your help will be highly appreciated.

Regards,
Aliona

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wes November 23, 2013 at 7:25 pm

OMG, I’m a month late with this… Sorry — missed it. I like Chiang Mai most, as you’ve probably guessed and am looking at spending Xmas on Koh Yao Noi where there are rumored secluded beaches (fly into Krabi and take a boat).

Near Chiang Mai — Pai, Chiang Rai and the Mae Hong Son Loop…

Bangkok is fun for 2-3 days, Ayutthaya is nice if you’re into history and ruins (very scenic and cheap too — check out Tony’s Place for housing/food)

Koh Chang was nice 3 years ago but I hear that the one really secluded, natural beach is now being developed as a resort :/

Hope that was in time and that you have a great trip :)

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Wally November 23, 2013 at 3:25 am

I’ve lived in Thailand for 23 years. I speak the language and I must say. you know nothing about Thailand. These little things you point out are so everyday it would be like saying it rains in Seattle. Maybe if you live here for a few years and learn the culture you will be qualified to form a knowledgable opinion.
Little boy please stop.

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wes November 23, 2013 at 2:17 pm

I understand, Wally. Sandy panties are never comfortable.

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Jason November 23, 2013 at 3:56 am

Wally. Please give us insight as to what you would tell new travelers to Thailand? You must have a lot of info to share as opposed to just being derogatory to someone who is willing to share.

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Ivana December 20, 2013 at 8:42 pm

What we did not know was that here are almost no traffic lights, that Thai people do not drink tea and they are quite shy to hug :)
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xylem March 26, 2014 at 4:22 pm

Great! Well that was quite interesting insight about Thailand. =D

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Ronnie November 1, 2014 at 5:25 am

I love Thailand and the Thai people, but thre is one very, very infuriating thing about nearly every Thai person. If you go into say, a shop or market stall and you are looking for something specific, and that particular shop keeper does not have it to sell to you, he response will be a wave of the hand ” no have”. If you explain that you understand this, but Wouk le some information on whete you can buy what you are looking for, the answer is e same, a shake of the head and ” no have” I have discovered that even if the person being questioned actually knows the answer to your question, he is very unlikely to give out this information, just ” no have “. If you are looking for something specific, don’t ask a Thai person, you can ask one hundred and will be totally wasting your time. I cannot believe their attitude when it comes to this particular thing. It drives you fucking crazy until you understand simply NEVER ask any Thai person where you can buy a specific thing, you will only get frustrated by their attitude and responses.

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Ronnie November 1, 2014 at 5:36 am

A couple of other very annoying things about Thailand. Firstly the frustrating waste of time that estate agencies put you through when you are house hunting, and an inability to admit they are in the wrong. Nearly all estate agencies have photos in their windows of properties they know they have sold. When you ask to view a property, they tell you to come back in a couple of days. You then get taken to see a collection of properties that you did not pick to see, and would never have chosen to view. When you ask if ou are going to view the house that you requested, you are told t by could not contact the owner. I spent four years looking for a property and time after time simply had my time wasted with this stupidity. Be warned!!! It will sicken you!!! The other annoying thing is that Thais never admit that they are wrong. Nearly all food in Thailand is fantastic, except for fried steak, which generally is not fit to be given to a street dog, unless you order it from a Farang run establishment. So, you take one bite of it an leave the rest. They will never ask if anything is wrong. If you complain, ou may well just receive nasty abuse for pointing out the truth of what the cooked dog meat was like.

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Ronnie November 1, 2014 at 5:53 am

Another thing that can tend to be a little tedious is the complete rubbish that European men who have lived in Thailand say about Thailand. How often do you hear this nonsense, Oh, the Thai people stop going to school at the age of about twelve, or, there is no form of national health service, or, there is no such thing as an old age pension. Another thing about many places is how the Europeans are so utterly antisocial, and are only prepared to talk within their own well defined little cleak of friends, or even worse, those European men who live in a party town and want to read their newspaper in a bar in peace and quiet, without being disturbed by an adjacent conversation which they believe is too audible. If they are looking for this, why did they not stay in an English village?!

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Ronnie November 1, 2014 at 6:08 am

Things that are great about Thailand and the people. You get into most taxi,s and the driver wants to talk to you like a long lost mate. People are friendly. Thai girls generally get turned off by vain prats who look at themselves in the mirror, and those with dubious morals, rather than having a prefference for them, like western girls. They also don’t write men off from consideration on grounds that are ” shallow” or stupidly small minded, like, oh he,s twenty years older, or oh, he has lost his hair. The food is fantastic, except for fried steak, crazy cheese prices, and that wonderful tasting street food roast pork with rice, tht you often get with chicken stock soup, which so often results in a stomach upset the day after. One slight annoyance is the almost universal attitude that you must be looking for a Transexual man, if you happen to like what the rest of the world considers to be a normal heterosexual act that can be enacted with a woman.

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