Living in Thailand for more than two years has given me some perspective. If you watch vlogs on Youtube, or read many travel blogs, you often see the “Top 10 Best” and the “Top 10 Worst” aspects of living in a particular location. I think I’ve been here long enough to share my “Top 10s.” This time I’ll cover my 10 favorite aspects of living in Thailand. Just for the heck of it, in the tradition of David Letterman, I’ll start with number 10.
10. Ease of travel. I’ve mentioned in other blog posts that it’s relatively inexpensive and easy to get around the country, or even to visit neighboring countries. I don’t own a car, but getting where I need to be on my Honda Click 125 scooter hasn’t been a problem. I’ve ridden it, with a passenger, as far away as Doi Inthanon (the highest point in Thailand), which is a little over three hours from Chiang Mai. I find I can carry just about anything I buy at the grocery store or shopping mall on the bike with a little creativity and bungee cords. Sometimes it can get comical, but the Thai people provide inspiration in this area. If I’m travelling with friends, I can rent a car for around $25 per day from the same companies available in the U.S. There is also travel by planes, trains, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorbikes with a back seat for two), and songthaews (small trucks with two bench seats in the back). All modes of transportation are very cheap compared to the U.S. I can make the one-hour flight to Bangkok for $30, or the 2-hour trip to Phuket for $50. If I’m feeling really adventurous, Bangkok to Hong Kong is $98.
9. Climate. Thailand’s climate isn’t for everyone. It’s probably more humid than you are accustomed to, unless you live someplace like Florida, then it’s comparable. I choose to live in Northern Thailand, near the mountains, because it’s a bit cooler and less humid. There are a few basic seasons: dry season, wet season, and hot season. During the wet season, rain can come at any time and normally when you're driving down the road on your motorbike. It floods in certain parts of Thailand, and I’ve occasionally had to ride my scooter in foot-deep water. Hot season is humid and hot. The temperatures are normally near 100 degrees, but it feels much hotter with the humidity. Most houses don’t have an air conditioner in every room, and it’s normal to sometimes sit with a fan blowing on you in an attempt to stay cool. The dry season is the best. Temperatures in Chiang Mai are in the low 80s and the humidity isn’t bad. It’s very comfortable and sometimes even cool at night. I’m used to the humidity and heat now, so I’m comfortable most of the time. Hot season can be a challenge, but I’m fine with the rain, and dry season is wonderful!
8. Riding a motorbike. What can I say? I love travelling around on my little scooter. It’s obviously more dangerous than driving a car, but it’s so much easier to navigate through traffic and find parking. My fuel bill is normally $4 per week. I always wear a helmet, and when I drink, I rent a cheap room in the city so I don’t have to drive. There are a lot of cars on the road, and traffic can be a challenge. In the past, there wasn’t as much of a middle-class in Thailand and as a result, not as many cars. Now, the middle-class is growing and more people are buying things on credit. The streets are very crowded, so a two-wheeled option is more convenient most of the time. I wouldn’t ride a scooter in Bangkok, but in Chiang Mai, it’s okay.
7. Markets. There are night markets, weekly markets, food markets, Chinese markets, and … well, you get the idea. You can haggle at most of the markets if that’s your thing. I will if I feel the price is high, but if it seems fair, I’ll just pay what they’re asking, especially for food. Markets are very social events for Thai people and many eat at the markets every night. There is a huge variety of prepared food you can buy from street stands to eat there or take home. Traditional Thai dishes are the most common, but you can also find plenty of foods from other countries, and all kinds of desserts. Clothes and souvenirs are inexpensive at street markets. The quality can be hit and miss, but it’s fun to walk up and down the aisles and shop. They are very similar to big flea markets in the U.S.
6. Food. I mentioned there is a variety of food here, but Thailand is famous for its local cuisine. Complex combinations of flavors make Thai food unique. Asian spices combined with the sweetness of coconut milk and the tanginess of citrus are common flavorings for soups and stir-fry dishes. Most of the produce and meat is raised by families, and if you’re near the coast, those giant prawn or that fresh snapper you’re eating probably came off the boat the same day. Almost every place you go, you’ll find someone with a stand of ice-cold, fresh coconuts, and for less than a dollar, they’ll crack one open for you and hand you a straw. Truck beds full of the sweetest pineapples you’ve ever eaten can be found on the sides of roads throughout the country. There are so many varieties of exotic fruit, there are bound to be several types you haven’t even heard. There are dragon fruit, jackfruit, lychee, mangos, papayas, rambutan, and the “King of Fruits,” durian, to name a few. Durian is loved by Thais, but often shunned by westerners. It has a strong smell, which to some can be off-putting. Personally, I don’t think it smells all that bad, and the flesh of the fruit has a texture like a thick custard. It’s very rich and sweet, and if you ever visit Thailand, I’d encourage you to at least give it a try.
5. Mai Bpen Rai. Mai bpen rai is a common phrase in Thailand, and also reflects the way Thais like to live. It literally means, “no is nothing,” but it translates culturally to mean, just relax and don’t let things get to you. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. In the west, everyone is so uptight people are constantly walking on eggshells around each other. It’s nearly impossible to have ANY opinion that doesn’t piss off someone. Everything is a conflict: left against right, women against men, generation against generation, race against race … it’s maddening! The western world could learn a lot from Thailand in the way the people treat each other, and how they deal with the challenges of life. Relax everyone and take a breath. MAI BPEN RAI!!!
4. Natural diversity. Thailand is about as big as California, and comes complete with mountains, jungle, rivers, rice paddies, beaches and islands. I mentioned the ease of transportation, so this means you can change your surroundings on a whim. I live in the mountains in the north, but recently I spontaneously attended a birthday party in Phuket, which is a world-class, beach destination. Unfortunately, tourism is hurting some of the ecology here. They recently closed Maya Bay, which is a popular destination because it was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, “The Beach.” It was supposed to be closed for four months to let the coral and other natural structures grow back to normal. The four months passed, and officials discovered it didn’t help much. Now, it’s closed indefinitely. Thailand is absolutely beautiful. I don’t go one day without being amazed by some type of exotic plant, or by the intricate work performed hundreds of years ago at one of the many temples. If you come and see for yourself, remind yourself to follow the old saying, “Leave only footprints.”
3. Bars. I’ve spoken plenty about bars, and let’s face it, I was a Sailor for 26 years and loved every port visit. I enjoyed going to bars long before I joined the Navy. I’m a bit of stoic person. Every girlfriend I’ve ever had complained I “don’t smile enough.” Bars are the one place I can nearly guaranteed I’ll smile. It’s not only the alcohol (although that’s a factor), it’s also the social aspect of going someplace and talking to people about whatever comes to mind. I have a tendency to find a bar (or two) I like and become a regular. This hasn’t changed since I moved to Thailand. I live in an area where tourists visit, so most business owners and employees speak English, although many have never been out of Thailand. I run into people visiting from all over the world on a regular basis. This can be interesting, but what I really enjoy is the hospitality I receive from the people who work there. I stick to a couple of places, but if you're a bar goer, I can almost promise you will feel welcome and appreciated no matter whose threshold you cross.
2. Cost of living. One of the main reasons I chose to live in Thailand is because the cost of living is so much less than in the U.S. My last blog post (“How Much is Enough?”) went into more detail about this, but just about everything, including rent, food, entertainment, health care, and especially labor-related services such as house cleaning and gardening, are much cheaper. There are many westerners who live here, with their only income being a retirement pension or benefits from their government. If you have a passive income close to $1,200 per month, in my opinion, you can have a decent lifestyle here. There are some items actually more expensive here, and those are mostly electronics and western products, also foods Thai people don’t normally consume.
1. Friendliness of the Thai people. My number one favorite thing about Thailand is Thai people. I’m old enough to remember when people were friendly to each other in the U.S. That’s how it is here now. A smile begets a smile. Once, I started feeling a little sick while driving my scooter. I decided to pull over and sit in the shade for a minute before continuing to my destination. A Thai couple (also on a scooter) saw me pull over and sensed something was wrong. They turned around and came back, just to ask if I was okay. I said I was feeling a little sick, but was fine. They smiled and left, and in a few minutes returned with a cold bottle of water from a nearby 7-11. I asked myself if this would happen in the U.S. Unfortunately, I answered myself with a “probably not.” This is just one example of people going out of their way to help someone, but I see similar things happen all the time. I was walking with a Thai friend and knew she didn’t have much money. We passed two homeless people asking for help. Both times, she gave them money. She knew I was thinking maybe she needed the money as much as they did. She just looked at me, smiled and said, “merit.” In a Buddhist culture, karma is real. Most Thais believe helping other living beings brings happiness into their lives. There are even birds, fish, turtles, and other animals in some temples people can have by making a donation. Then they release the critters back into the wild, thus earning merit. Of course, not every person in Thailand is a Buddhist, and not every person in Thailand is friendly. However, I’ve been to many other countries during my time in the Navy, and Thailand outdoes all of them in overall friendliness as a culture.
If you have any thoughts about my “Top 10 List.” I would love to hear them! I know some of you have been to Thailand and maybe you have different opinions. Feel free to put them in the comments section below.