In the past year using Facebook, reconnecting with old friends, colleagues and classmates, several people have asked me upon learning that I live in Thailand, “What’s it like living there?” I’ve given short, snappy answers (“Well, the Thai food is amazing!”) in lieu of anything more thoughtful. This morning I took a stab at coming up with a better, more substantive answer to that question. What is it like living here?
Part of the reason for not coming up with a better answer in the first place, is that it is difficult to succinctly explain what life is like anywhere – especially when it is very different from life in the questioners’ hometowns. I get up, eat breakfast, work, watch movies, etc. It is the same and, yet, very much not the same.
The most overriding feature of living in Thailand is the different language. I’ve been here three-and-a-half years and have studied Thai all except two months of that time. It is hard to explain just how big an effect operating in a different language environment can have.
In my home (I work from home) I am immersed in a language in which I’m hyper-fluent. I look at a page of English text and meaning jumps out at me. Comprehension requires no effort.
Above: the Thai consonant chart. Each consonant is related to a specific word, similar to “A-Apple, B-Boy” except the word is used consistently with that consonant.
When I step out of my home, I am immersed in a world that is as inaccessible as my English world is accessible. I see the printed Thai script but unless I specifically make the effort to find the words and their meaning, it is just a collection of now-familiar characters: 44 consonants representing 21 sounds, 18 vowels, four tone marks.
The best analogy: playing one of those hidden-word games where words are buried in a grid of letters. That’s how it is when I see Thai: When I look, I see a bunch of Thai characters. I have to look much closer to find the words. Finding the meaning requires yet another step, as I’m at the stage in building my vocabulary where I recognize that I’ve seen a word before, but am uncertain of its meaning.
It is much the same with conversation. If someone is speaking to me and I know what subject we’re talking about, then I am generally okay. I won’t know all the vocabulary, but I can follow along and even contribute a bit. If it is a random conversation into which I stumble, I’ll likely be lost, recognizing some words as they pass by but as unable to grasp onto them as I am unable to board a rapidly-moving train.
That’s the first and most significant aspect of my life in Thailand. I realize, upon rereading what I’ve written so far, that it may sound like a complaint. It isn’t. In truth, Tawn or any other Thai is likely very impressed with my progress. I’m well ahead of 95% of the expats who live here. But I’m also well behind the top 1-2% who are truly fluent in Thai.
Mai Pben Rai
The second notable answer to the question has to do with understanding the Thai mentality – heavily rooted in Buddhism – and the Thai way of looking at the world. Some illustrations:
Mai pben rai – literally, “it’s nothing”. This phrase is constantly invoked by Thais to indicate a “no worries” approach to life. You’re running late for class? Mai pben rai. Stuck on a flooded street? Mai pben rai. You forgot to run an errand? Mai pben rai. Not interested in completing the job as promised? Yes, you guessed it: Mai pben rai.
Above: Flooded street leaves you stranded for hours? Mai pben rai!
At first, this can be infuriating. In many (especially Western) cultures, we make a big deal out of things such as being on time, doing what you promise, following up on details, etc.
But Thais subscribe to the belief that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. And, it seems, nearly everything is small stuff.
The upside to this is that you learn to be much more sanguine about the world, much more accepting about the truth that our sense of control over most aspects of life is largely an illusion. Stuck in a traffic jam? Mai pben rai – don’t worry, you can’t control the traffic. Unable to watch a film you badly wanted to see? Mai pben rai – maybe it will be available on DVD soon. Caught in a rainstorm without an umbrella? Mai pben rai – just duck into a restaurant for a snack.
Thai culture’s Buddhist roots, with its emphasis on the impermanence of all things, is seen everywhere. From the lack of city planning to the way that most plants are potted rather than being planted into the ground to the quality of sidewalk construction, Thais are wired for short-term thinking.
The Land of Smiles
The Tourism Authority bills Thailand as “The Land of Smiles”. Try telling that to a load of commuters on the un-air conditioned number 38 bus line in Bangkok.
Seriously, though, two features of life here are illustrated by the concepts of suphap (“polite”) and sanuk (“fun”). Thais believe that, regardless of how they think or feel on the inside, the exterior should be polite and pleasant. Why should everyone else suffer just because you are feeling down? Keep a smile on your face and be pleasant to others.
Above: Friendly and polite locals wave as we pass by in a boat.
At first a foreigner might mistake those smiles for happiness, agreement, being pleased, etc. Eventually, most learn that Thai smiles have a hundred meanings, only some of which are positive. .
Upon learning this, some foreigners disdain this outward veneer of pleasantness as being artificial. It is hard to explain adequately but perhaps it helps to see the Thai perspective on things:
A Thai walks into a store in Los Angeles and the cashier smiles broadly, asks how her day is going, asks where she’s from and how she likes the weather. The Thai is used to walking into a store in the other City of Angels and being greeted with a pleasantly soft “Sawatdii kha” and the prayer-like wai in which the palms of the hands are placed together in the center of the chest. To an Angelino, the Los Angeles cashier seems very friendly. To the Thai, that same cashier is being over-familiar.
But here’s the contradiction: in the west, if you walk up to someone on the street to ask for directions, their initial reaction will likely be apprehensive and guarded. Especially in an urban environment, they may well wonder if they’re being taken advantage of.
Here in Thailand, when we stop a person on the street and ask a question – “Hey, uncle, do you know where I can find that famous noodle shop with the tom yum broth?” – we get a friendly smile and helpful directions.
I’ve observed this among Thais, so it isn’t just a Thai-foreigner thing.
Even though my original snappy answer to the question was that Thai food is really good here, it actually is one of the true answers: Thai food really is better here.
When I lived in the US, I thought Thai food was good no matter which restaurant you went to. “Bad Thai food?” I thought, “Surely there is no such thing.” Of course, once I moved here, I realized that there are few Thai restaurants in the US worth eating at unless it is a case of severe gaeng kiaw waan withdrawal.
But beyond that, Thailand has much more healthy, fresh, inexpensive food readily at hand than in the US (and maybe many other places in the west). You’re in the US, it is 3:00 pm and you want a snack. What are your options? Donuts, burgers, fries, tacos, ice cream? None of which are good for you nor really that satisfying.
In Thailand, a bowl of noodle soup, a plate of spicy green papaya salad, a stick of grilled fish balls in sweet chili sauce, or a bag of fresh fruit are readily available on most any street corner, are relatively healthy and are very inexpensive.
Sure, Starbucks’ venti mocha frappaccino with extra whipped cream and McDonald’s hamburgers are available here (and the growing incidence of childhood obesity testifies to that fact) but there are so many readily available, healthier options, options that I miss when I’m back in the west.
Beauty and the Good Life
The French have their joie de vivre, the Italians their la dolce vita. Thais, too, are all about ease, comfort and enjoyment of life. Even with some of the world’s worst traffic, Bangkok residents make enjoying life a priority. There is always something fun happening, things are festively decorated, and thinking too much about your cares and worries is discouraged.
People interact more with each other and their surroundings here than in the west. People are more playful, too, but not in the sarcastic or mean-spirited way you see in the west.
There is great beauty. Thai temples and Brahmanist spirit houses are elaborately and colorfully decorated. Fairy lights – what North Americans call Christmas lights – are used to dress up the landscape for no reason other than the sheer fun of having little twinkling lights strung up in the trees.
Flowers are very inexpensive, very beautiful and very bountiful here. Every market and many street vendors sell beautiful blossoms and fragrant jasmine garlands. Again, in line with the Buddhist belief in impermanence, potted plants decorate sidewalks and balconies, rearranged endlessly and replaced when they die.
Thais take great care to keep things (including themselves) looking neat and clean even in the midst of the city’s chaos and pollution. Even from the working class houses lining the murky Saen Saeb canal, carefully-groomed residents emerge on their way to work, shirts neatly pressed and great thought given to what handbag (probably a knock-off sold at a discount mall) to carry.
The Social Ladder
Thailand has a very hierarchical society: When two Thais meet, they try to determine who is higher than whom on the social order. This ranking has great effect on all aspects of their subsequent relationship: how to address each other, who serves whom at the table, who pays the bills, who walks out the door first, etc.
This chafes western egalitarianism and takes a long time for foreigners to get used to and understand. It is hard to overestimate how important it is for Thais to understand where they are on this hierarchy.
Above: Students behave appropriately, approaching the monk on their knees then crawling past him. Females are especially careful to avoid coming into direct contact with him.
The ways in which this impacts foreigners are numerous and subtle. One expat incorrectly explained to me that foreigners, being guests, always rank highly, just below politicians, royalty and monks. He couldn’t have been much more wrong.
Foreigners are in their own category, separate and measured by another standard, namely, the extent to which you understand and play by the Thai rules.
What’s the practical effect of this? On the Skytrain, for example, I move out of the way for those above me on the social ladder – elders, for example – but not for teenagers.
When I walk past puu yai – literally “big person” or “adults” – who are having a conversation, I duck my head ever so slightly, showing my respect by not towering over them.
Above: Even the leaders of the September 2006 coup were careful to visually emphasize that they knew their place – still below the monarchy.
Remember the scene in the musical “The King and I” (banned in the Kingdom of Thailand) in which Anna Leowens and the King of Siam debate over how high she should hold her head in comparison to the king? It is the same thing – your head you should be lower (or, at least, bowed a little in respect) as you pass by or sit with someone who is of a higher rank than you.
When speaking with monks, I should hold my hands in a wai at my chest. When hanging out with peers in my age group, I can relax and not be so concerned as we’re equals. When teaching at the school and helping a student with his work, he offers me his seat and then kneels next to me as I explain the assignment. Everyone has his or her place in the hierarchy and that place is relative to the people with whom you are interacting.
Small things? Maybe, but ones that show that you know your place in the order of things.
At the very top of the order are the religion and the monarchy. Pictures of His Majesty King Rama IX adorn nearly every house and place of business.
Above: Street decorations celebrating the 60th anniversary of the King’s reign.
At the start of movies and concerts, the audience stands for the royal anthem. If a royal motorcade passes, people stand quietly and respectfully at the side of the road and, if it is the king or queen passing, bow at the waist as their car goes by.
One important facet of this respect for the monarchy is that you don’t – don’t – discuss the affairs of royalty. You don’t ask Thais what they think of the Crown Prince or Crown Princess. You don’t speculate as to who will succeed the King. You don’t debate the merits of a constitutional monarchy or the appropriateness of still having (and enforcing) lese majesty laws.
Even with a Thai with whom you think you’re close, you are best advised to leave this topic alone.
My Final Answer
The final answer to the question of what it is like to live here lies in an additional Thai concept: samruam. Roughly translated, “restrained”. It is related to the previously-mentioned concept of suphap – “polite”.
The thing that keeps this culture going is the emphasis on external appearances, most significantly, keeping up a polite and appropriate appearance and being restrained in your behavior.
For example, Thais believe that the feet – the lowest part of your body – are the dirtiest and least polite part, too. Resting your feet (especially with shoes on) on furniture or the wall, pointing your feet towards someone or an image of the King or the Buddha, or touching someone, moving something or gesturing with your foot, are all hugely mai suphap – impolite.
In fact, the slang term for “foot” is muu farang – foreigner’s hand. That’s because westerners are more inclined to push, gesture and touch with their feet – actions the Thais associate with being coarse and unrefined. In other words, being a foreigner.
You see this in the way people sit in public: feet flat on the floor or, if a woman crosses her legs (not very suphap), it is done with legs tightly together and the foot pointed down. On the Skytrain last week, I observed a foreigner sitting with his legs stretched out across the aisle, pointed towards a lady on the other side of the car. Had he not been absorbed in the pictures on his phone, he might have noticed the dirty looks other passengers were giving him.
Samruam – restraint – is related to suphap. Thai culture is about moderation in behavior, voice, feelings, etc. Thais are fun-loving people but rarely boorish, loud or obnoxious. Thais get upset but rarely do you see public bursts of anger.
The recent prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, caused quite the stir because of his famous outbursts. When questioned by a female reporter once, he avoided answering by accusing her of not having enough sex. In general, prime ministers aside, losing your temper diminishes your public standing. To berate someone publicly is an invitation to revenge.
Thais dress modestly. When a foreigner is sitting at a restaurant on a sunny day and takes off his shirt to enjoy the sun, Thais are taken aback. (I’ve witnessed this. I wanted to say something but restrained myself – confrontation is seen as even worse than being not samruam.) Women in spaghetti strap tops are assumed to be bar girls or sex workers. If they are foreigners, the fact that their foreigners (again, course and unrefined) is their excuse.
Above: Even at the Erawan Waterfall, Thais are dressed with relative modesty. Only foreigners and young children show bare shoulders.
On the surface, this may sound prudish. But to really understand it, you have to remember that in Thai culture, it is important to keep up appearances. Loud, obnoxious, revealing and unrestrained clothing/behavior/manners don’t keep proper, considerate appearances up. They make life less pleasant for everyone else.
And that’s an important part of life here. That’s why, despite the heat and humidity, I rarely wear shorts (even cargo shorts) out of the house. And when I do, it is only for Saturday morning errands in the neighborhood, never out for dinner.
So what is life like here? Living in the environment of a different language makes it very challenging but opens worlds of understanding. The mai pben rai attitude is more relaxed, less worried, and occasionally frustrating when you want to get something done.
Politeness, appropriateness and fun are values that influence all aspects of life and behavior, generally making social interaction smoother and more pleasant. Knowing your place in the hierarchy of society makes you more considerate of others and, in return, you receive more respect from others, too.
Finally, from food to flowers to music, life here has a lot of good things to offer, even when they aren’t expensive or are surrounded by a chaotic environment.
I hope that I’ve given you a bit of an answer to what life is like here. As you can probably see, it is hard to describe it succinctly. The only short answer I can think of is:
“Requires different operating instructions.”