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Top 10 Things in Thailand I'm Not Crazy About

The last post I made was a “Top 10” list of the things I like most about Thailand. Of course, with the good comes the bad. In my opinion, the positive aspects of living here far outweigh the negative. It was actually much more difficult to think of 10 things I dislike about living in Thailand, but this is what I came up with:

10. Smoky season. Every year, between the end of January until the end of April, the air quality in northern Thailand is absolutely horrible. This is the time of year farmers burn the old brush off their land to prepare for new crops. The government, seemingly unable to come up with a solution for the smoke, recommends the public wear paper face masks with a rating of N95. Apparently, this is the correct rating to filter out very small particles. In addition, it’s during a time when there are a relatively large amount of tourists visiting, which in turn creates even more pollution from all the buses, taxis, and other forms of transportation. I keep a couple of these masks in my scooter, and if I’m driving beyond the 7-11 a half-mile from my house, I’ll put one on. You can see the smoke in the air, and during the worst of it, the pollution will obscure the view of the surrounding mountains. I tend to stay inside as much as possible during this time, clean my air conditioner filters often, and when I can, fly south to the beach for a while. If you plan to visit Thailand, this isn’t the best time unless you're planning to stay on the islands or at the beach.

9. Fish sauce. Thailand’s most common and revered condiment by far is fish sauce. I wish I loved it, because it is an integral part of every Thai dish. Unfortunately, the pungent odor of the stuff puts me off in a big way. I like Worcestershire sauce and find Caesar salad dressing delicious. Both are made with the same anchovies as fish sauce, so you’d think I could handle it. However, pure fish sauce is much, much more potent. Fish sauce is made by coating anchovies (or other types of fish) in salt and letting them ferment for months. The fish decompose and the “juice” is strained out. Basically what you’re eating is rotten fish squeezin’s as far as I can tell, and it smells exactly as you would expect. It is used as a substitute for salt. One of the first phrases I learned in Thailand was, “Mai sai naam plaa!” which means “Without fish sauce!” The condiment is popular in nearly all of Asia, and is gaining popularity in the west as well. As for me, I see a cook preparing a beautiful dish with the freshest produce, free-range organic meat, and homegrown herbs and spices, then for some reason they think, “What else can I add to this? I know … how about some rotten fish juice!” I just don’t understand it, but I am absolutely in the minority on this. Those who love it say it adds a savory depth to a dish.

8. Dual pricing. There are a few things people and businesses do here they couldn’t get away with in the U.S. One of these is dual pricing … one price for Thais and a much higher price for everyone else. Even at restaurants, there is a really good chance you will pay more for the same meal than a Thai person. They assume all foreigners have money, and don’t see anything wrong with the practice. Many temples and national parks charge foreigners considerably more for entry, and that is sanctioned by the government! If you have a Thai driver’s license, you may be able to get in for the Thai price, but it’s not a guarantee. Whenever I need something done, I ask a Thai friend to help. I had some maintenance performed on my scooter. It only cost around 500 baht (or $15) because I had my Thai friend take the bike to the shop. If I had done it myself, it would have been double for sure. I took a Thai lady to a museum once, and her entry ticket was 50 baht ($1.50), mine was 150 baht ($4.50). I don’t agree with the practice, and sometimes I feel irritated when I know I’m paying more than the person in line next to me, but it’s just the way it is here. I’m just a guest.

7. Soi dogs. Nope. Not talking about meat-free hotdogs, although there are plenty of those available here in this vegan Mecca. Soi means “street” in Thai, and there are plenty of dogs living on them. In front of my housing complex there’s a 10-dog posse, and last month I noticed four brand new, cute little additions. Because this is a Buddhist country, they don’t have the same methods of controlling animals as we do in the U.S. Systematically euthanizing stray dogs doesn’t fit into the belief system here. While I like dogs, I can see the problems this causes. There is a rabies issue in Thailand. The government is doing its best, but last year rabies was detected in 40 provinces in the country, and there were at least three human deaths caused by the disease. There isn’t enough of the vaccine nor enough manpower to inoculate every stray dog and cat in the country. Since my only mode of transportation is a scooter, I’ve been chased five or six times by stray dogs. I normally just speed up, and the dog gives up the chase. However, one time, I hit some sand trying to go around a curve too fast and dumped the bike and had to confront the dog. Another time, I had to stop due to traffic, the dog caught up with me and I had to confront that one as well. Eventually, they went away. Luckily, I’ve never been bitten, and the dogs were simply chasing me for sport. Nearly every 7-11 has a few hanging around out front, and the Thais exacerbate the problem by feeding them (merit). I’ve even had to step over lazy dogs just to go inside the store. So, if you’re a dog lover and aren’t intimidated by being pursued by strays, this may be canine heaven for you. For me, not so much. I prefer my dogs to be in a yard or house, or restrained by a leash when out and about with their owners.

6. Traffic. Traffic is bad everywhere. My 40-minute commute in San Diego was a stressor in my life. Compared to Thailand, that commute was a Sunday drive down a country road. Thailand is always listed as having one of the highest rates of road fatalities in the world. It is about the size of California with double the population. In California, there were an estimated 3,680 motor vehicle deaths in 2017, according to the National Safety Council. In Thailand for the same year, an estimated 22,000 people died in traffic accidents, according to the World Health Organization. More than seventy percent of those killed were driving motorbikes. During Songkran, a major holiday in Thailand, which is also the world’s biggest water fight, it’s even more dangerous. The time around Songkran is known as the seven-day dangerous period due to traffic accidents. This year (2018), there were 3,724 traffic accidents, killing 418 people and injuring 3,897. People drive without helmets, and most don’t even have driver’s licenses or any type of formal instruction. Driving in Thailand can be like living in a “Mad Max” movie. It’s not for the timid.

5. Public transportation drivers. First off, there are many Thai drivers who are honest and professional. Unfortunately, there are enough who are not to make this a valid complaint. If you spend any amount of time in Thailand at all, you are almost guaranteed to be taken advantage of by a taxi, tuk-tuk (three-wheeled motorbikes with a back seat for two), or songthaew (small trucks with two bench seats in the back) driver. They “forget” to turn on the meter and overcharge every foreigner who steps into their vehicle. Tuk-tuk drivers constantly harass every foreigner who walks close to their vehicle; “Where are you going? You need a ride?” They will charge quadruple the price of an honest taxi driver to take you anywhere. Even then, they will try to take you to a jewelry store or silk factory where they’ll make a commission if you step inside. Recently Uber was introduced to Chiang Mai, and was quickly bought out by a company called Grab. Whenever I need a car, I call a Grab car. It’s the only way to get a fair deal. The other drivers are threatened by this and often cause problems for Grab drivers and passengers. A couple of weeks ago, a Grab driver with two foreign passengers in the back seat was accosted by tuk-tuk drivers. Here’s the video: https://youtu.be/Tr83sRCM63o. If you take a Grab, I would advise you to have them drop you off down the road from any concentration of taxis and tuk-tuks. Also, if you take a taxi, ask that the meter be turned on. If the driver refuses, decline the ride and find another taxi. Riding in a tuk-tuk is fun and should be experienced when you come to visit, just be aware you’re paying for the experience. Always be polite, and even if you feel you’re being overcharged, it’s probably not worth it to argue. Things can get heated fast with these guys.

4. Lack of good beef. This is only a minor annoyance. Beef is available here, but it’s imported, frozen and expensive. There is some Thai beef, but the quality isn’t close to what you can pick up at the grocery store in the U.S. Occasionally, I’ve eaten at places trying to pass off water buffalo as beef. It’s gross! Believe me, there is a huge difference. Water buffalo has a strong, musky odor and unpleasant taste. I took for granted the availability of good beef while I lived in the States. There it’s normal to walk into a local grocery store and find thick steaks, large packets of fresh ground beef, and roasts as big as your own thigh just sitting on the shelf at a reasonable price. There are skirt steaks, briskets, tomahawk steaks, and packages of stew meat there. Here … nope! Only specialty stores catering to foreigners even carry beef, and a steak that would cost $6 in the U.S. is going to be about $20 here and frozen with a sticker saying, “imported from New Zealand” (or Australia, or the U.S.). Ground beef is available, but the packages are about a quarter of a pound and cost twice as much. If you want make a pound of taco meat, you have to buy four packages and you’ll pay more than $10. Normally, I substitute ground pork where I would usually use ground beef. Pork is king here. It’s not a major problem, but sometimes I really miss being able to spontaneously grab a couple of thick ribeyes to throw on the grill.

3. Department store salespeople. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I know some people love it. When you go to a hardware store or department store in Thailand, there are sometimes more employees than customers. They closely follow you around in case you need something. I didn’t like this when it happened in the U.S. and I don’t like it here. I prefer to shop by myself unless I need something, then I’ll find an employee to help me. Sometimes, there are even more than one. I know they’re just doing what they were trained to do, and they’re always polite and friendly. I’m not rude to them, I just keep wishing they would go away and leave me in peace. Most of the time, even if I do have a question, they don’t have an answer. It’s not a big deal … like I said, just my own pet peeve.

2. Lack of clothes my size. Most Thai people are small compared to most of us from the U.S., and larger clothing sizes are not available in regular department stores. I wear an XXL shirt and my waistline is 38”. I’m a little overweight, but I have no problem finding clothes in any store in the U.S. I walked into a Levi’s store here and the largest pant size they carry is 36”. Even XL shirts are rare. I’ve been losing weight since I’ve been here, so maybe next year I won’t have a problem finding my size. These days, I’m limited to shopping in export stores. I found a place that carries shorts up to a 40” waist, and they have XXL shirts. The quantity is limited, but at least there are a few places I can find clothes. I’m not crazy about clothes shopping, so it would be nice if I could just walk into a place, knowing what I want, and have it available. If you wear medium or small clothes in the U.S., then no worries … this place caters to you. If you need larger sizes, it’ll take some effort.

1. Entitled expats and tourists. The one thing that drives me most crazy about Thailand, are tourists, backpackers, and expatriates who come here to live or visit, but don't respect the people or culture. Tourists come here and paint graffiti on temples and holy relics, take pictures of themselves climbing on Buddha statues, and generally act like fools. Divers ruin coral beds and damage ecosystems. Last year, a gay couple posted photos of themselves mooning the camera in front of Buddhist temples. Large tour groups come and wreak havoc at local establishments. Check out these Chinese tourists at a shrimp buffet here in Chiang Mai: https://youtu.be/nhTAtJSZkrc. People from western countries sometimes condescend to the Thais, thinking they are better because they have more money. It can be really disgusting. Many men come here, or live here, and treat ALL Thai women as if they are prostitutes. For some delusional reason, they seem to think any Thai woman would consider herself lucky to be with them, despite the fact they are old, fat, bald, and have poor hygiene. Except for the poor hygiene part, I fit this demographic pretty well, but I’m pretty self-aware and try to be respectful to all women, even those who work in the bars. It’s true there are Thai women working in red-light districts who are there to find someone to take care of them and their families. However, the majority of Thai women aren’t interested in foreign men and prefer to fall in love with someone who understands them and their culture. They go to universities, have jobs, work on farms, and are perfectly happy to live their lives without a 65-year-old knight in shining armor from the West, who wants to marry a 20-something-year-old Asian girl, and have her be at his beck and call. I see some expats who arrive at their favorite bar stool in the early afternoon and sit there until the bar closes … day-after-day. They talk to their fellow compatriots about how Thailand is corrupt, and how the people are trying to take advantage of them, and how much better it is where they’re from. I’m guessing they ended up in Thailand because they said the same things on their favorite bar stool in their own country, about their own people and government. People don’t change who they are, just because they change where they are. This is something that will never change. I’m certainly not perfect, but while I’m here, I’m trying to be respectful of the Thai people, their culture, and their country. I understand it’s a privilege to be here as a guest. There are many expats living here who feel the way I do. I wish others would do the same.

If you have any thoughts regarding this “Top 10 List,” or any other subjects I’ve covered, please let me know! I’m retired now, and have plenty of time to ponder, discuss, or at least entertain the opinions of others. Also, if there are any aspects of moving to, or visiting Thailand you’d like me to address, send your suggestions. Until next time, sawadee krap! (Can mean hello or goodbye)