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Moving to Thailand: 5 Things You Need to Know Before Going to Thailand

There is a gazillion of things you might not know about Thailand – like the fact that Phuket is pronounced as ‘poo-ket’, not ‘foo-ket’, or that there are 245 McDonald’s branches in Thailand (data as of June 2019). But here are some essential things you need to know before moving to Thailand – things that, as a Thai person, I have been asked about most often.

1. Afraid of getting scammed in Thailand? Avoid products or services from touristy spots.

Thai people can be polite and honest. But one rotten fish stinks the whole bucket (a Thai idiom for ‘one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel’!). And that’s why you probably have heard about foreigners gets scammed in Thailand. I don’t deny that it is not true because it is. But there are scammers everywhere in the world.

My Experience in the US

Even I got scammed in Miami in February 2020! After landing at Miami International Airport, we called an Uber to the Holiday Inn Downtown. But because Uber exited Asia many years ago, we didn’t realize we still had our credit card linked to our Uber account. So when we arrived at the hotel, we asked our Uber how to pay.

The driver stammered and eventually told us to pay in cash. I should have gotten a clue, but well, it’s late at night, and I was too exhausted from over a 24-hours flight! That dude knew all too well that Uber already charged our credit card! After checking in the hotel and checking our email, we realized that we double paid the dude! Uber customer service seemed to think we are just plain stupid and not being scammed (and you may feel the same). But hey! If he’s not a scammer, shouldn’t he say that we had paid already?!

Anyway, I digress

My point is scammers are there everywhere. And in Thailand, many of them work around touristy spots. If you are moving to Thailand, the first thing that you should do is to act less like a tourist. Sure, you probably are blonde and 2 feet taller than us Thai. But you can act like a westerner who lives and knows his way around Thailand for a while. Drop your backpack and paper map at the hotel. 

More importantly, I suggest you avoid buying or using services around the touristy area if you can, especially if you think the price isn’t fair. Even as a Thai person, when I travel to a local tourist spot in the North, I avoid buying things from that area if I can. Because 95% of the time, I can find the same product at a lot cheaper price in a non-touristy area the next day. So I’ve learned my lesson, and I would suggest you do the same.

Avoid getting scammed in Thailand by not hailing a taxi or tuk tun around touristy spots

Another example would be hailing a tuk-tuk. If I go to a famous Grand Palace or the Temple of Emerald Buddha, I would walk another block or two to a less crowded place and get a taxi or a tuk-tuk there instead. So if you are moving to Thailand, you must prepare to remind yourself to avoid products and services around the touristy spots.

2. Importance of head, feet, and seniority: be careful when you use or interact with them!

The importance of feet and head in Thai etiquettes.

One of the basic etiquettes in Thailand is don’t touch people’s heads and don’t use your feet as your hand. And you always have to pay some respect and be humble to someone older. 

Head

The head is considered the most sacred and cleanest part of the body. Here are some examples of my mother telling me that it’s inappropriate or rude to do so

  • stepping my feet or even sitting close to someone’s head that happens to sleep on the ground
  • Ruffling my older sister’s hair because she’s older and me ruffling her hair means that I don’t pay respect to her
  • Holding a bus handrail, but my arms happen to be on the top of a strangers head

Feet

And on the contrary, the feet are deemed the lowest part of the body and the dirtiest. It is rude to use your feet instead of your hands. And I know that most Westerners do this a lot. So it is helpful to understand how Thai people feel about it before you move to Thailand. For example, using your feet to grab things or point your feet at something is considered rude from Thais’ perspective. Even a simple act like putting your feet on the table can look awful, especially if it’s a dining table or working table. 

Seniority

When it comes to seniority, you can expect to experience this traveling and in a working environment. In the Thai language, there is a title to address someone older in front of the names politely. The word itself ‘Phee’ e.g., Phee Michael, means older sibling. We use ‘Phee’ for anyone more aged, even if they are not your siblings, like a seller at the market or a stranger. 

Many foreigners will find it strange how we pay so much respect to someone older, for example, in an office environment. If you are moving to Thailand for work, this is one thing you should pay attention to. We always pay respect and be humble even with our subordinates who are older than us. That culture is instilled among Thai people so profoundly. So you will always see us being very polite and respectful of anyone more senior, whether in an office, in school, or even just on the street.

3. It might be helpful to try to speak slowly and reduce the strength of words’ accents.

Only 10% of Thais can communicate in English.

According to data from AEC in 2014, only 10% of Thais can speak English. English is now mandatory in both Thai and international schools in Thailand. That means it has become easier to communicate in English with the younger generation (50 years old or less).

English class in school contributes to just 2-4 hours of the school week. If you have learned any second language before, you probably know that speaking or listening to a particular language for only a few hours a week doesn’t help much. Most Thais do better with reading and writing English than speaking and listening.

Here’s what I suggest you do when you approach Thai people and talk to them in English. 

Give Them Time

Thai people are shy. And when shy people are not confident in the language, they try not to speak. If they smile shyly at you but do not entirely walk away or talk back in the Thai language, chances are they understand what you say. Just give them time and then….

Speak slower

Just like any secondary language, if you listen to it at 0.5x speed, your ability to capture more words goes up. Many times when my English-speaking friends visited our house, I repeated what they said to my dad, and suddenly my dad understood those questions in English (My dad is 84 years old, and his English is not good). I just spoke to him in English but at a slower pace and used Thaiglish! Which is…

Reduce the strength of syllable accent

As mentioned earlier, English class has been mandatory for a younger generation (<50 years old). So you can expect more than half of the Thai population to have some basic knowledge of English. But if they seem to struggle to talk back to you, that might be because you’re are not speaking Thaiglish! The first thing about Thaiglish is what I shared in the point mentioned above, speaking English at a slower speed. And then, you should try speaking English with a minimal specific accented syllable. That will help a lot because Thais are familiar with such kinds of English pronunciation. Here’s what I mean; listen to the clip of example below – these are a transliteration of two English words that Thais use.

Can you guess what English words are these? There are 2 words, each repeated twice.

Note: An insight into why Thailish is the thing is that Thai teachers teach most English classes in Thailand. Thai English teachers tend to have a Thaiglish accent. Because in the Thai language, we don’t have accented syllables. It is a little sad but true. However, we have noticed improvement for the recent generations.

Are you worried about not knowing the Thai language and whether you can survive Thailand? This post can help answer you with that.

4. Pack for the hot climate but bring extra layers.

Especially if you plan to go to the mall, travel to the North, or work in an office building.

There is a local Thai joke that goes;

A foreigner asked, “How many seasons are there in Thailand?”
A Thai person answered, “There are 3! Hot, Hotter, and Hottest seasons!”

It is boiling and humid in Thailand. You can pack all the tank tops, shorts, and slippers you need. But also prepare to bring a few jackets and jeans if these are what you plan after moving to Thailand;

Going to the mall or the movies

If you plan to go to the mall or the movies, you might need an extra layer like a cardigan – unless you’re from a freezing climate, of course. Inside the shopping mall, it can go somewhere between 18-25 °C (64-77 °F). 

Planning to travel to the North

Another scenario would be if you are planning to travel to the North, you might need full-on clothing for cold weather. I used to travel to the top of the mountain in the North. The temperature can drop to below 20°C (below 68 °F) at night during the non-winter months. And during the winter months, on the top of some mountains, the temperature can become a single digit. (more details about seasons and weather in Thailand on this post)

Working in an office building

And for those of you who are an ex-pat, some office buildings have brutally cold air-conditioning set up. And those buildings tend to have a centralized air-conditioning control system. You can request them to adjust the temperature, but there’s no guarantee that they will do it just for you. I always wore the same jacket that I used when I went to Norway in the office – back when I was working in an office located in central Bangkok.

5. Thailand is called the Land Of Smiles, but a smile can mean various things.

Thailand has a well-known nickname “Land Of Smiles”. And they are a good reason for that. People smile easily here. I love to fly with Thai Airways, and one of the reasons is their staffs make me feel more welcomed than other airlines. If you have received any services from Thai people, whether at the restaurant or the hotel, you would know that the staffs are more welcoming, friendlier, and smile a lot. 

We love to smile because, naturally, we are a polite, shy, and welcoming tribe. And smiles are contagious. If people surrounding you are smiling at you, you tend to smile back! And if you’re moving to Thailand, you can expect tons of smiles a day!

But here’s what you have to know, a smile can mean different things in Thailand. When moving to Thailand, many foreigners get confused over this. Say you are in an intense meeting. You are a big boss, and you tell your Thai subordinates that their report is not good enough. Your Thai subordinate smiles back without saying anything. You might see red think that he is insanely stupid and doesn’t get what you’re saying. But in fact, that smile might mean he is feeling sorry, but he feels embarrassed. So he smiles!

Here are different smiles that Thais may use as another form of interpersonal messaging.

  • A genuine smile: A happy, thank-you, or any generic version of the smile
  • A polite smile: it is polite to smile when you first meet someone or happen to make eye contact with someone
  • A dry smile: from feeling embarrassed, fearful, or even wicked 

I think the last one is the most confusing for foreigners, especially if they are moving to Thailand for work. So, remember if you experience inappropriate smile incidence with Thai people, you should have an open conversation about how they feel and think.

Those are all the five valuable things to know before moving to Thailand. Do any of these you find strange or surprising the most? Would you please share in the comments below? I would love to hear from you!

 

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