Understanding the Rest of the Thai Story

July 1, 2012

If you are going to be choosing to retire abroad then it is important that you know a bit about the people whom you will be living along side. As it is with your own home country, it is really impossible to lump all the people into a single category generalizing about their habits and beliefs. But it is the easy, lazy way, and that is just what people tend to do.

Thailand is no exception to this kind of stereotyping. There is a cute little saying here, “This is Thailand”, or “TIT” for short, that is meant to explain just about everything an Expat finds odd, strange, disagreeable, or uncomfortable here. Here is my take on that, if you hear or read someone saying “The Thais are …”, or ‘All Thai people …”, or “Thais think that …”, then this is someone you might as well ignore.

There are about 70 million people living in Thailand today. If our expert on the peoples of Thailand has met all 70 million then maybe he can make general statements like the ones above.  And he would still have to understand the culture of all the peoples living here. These include ethnic Thais of course, as well as Chinese, Malays, Khmers, Laotians, Burmese, Mons, Southern Thais, Northern Thais, Central Thais, Northeastern Thais, lots of tribal peoples, and lately, tens of thousands of Expats from all over the world. Kind of hard to lump all these people together.

So how does one learn about Thailand and its people? I was going to denigrate sites like Wikipedia as probably generalizing too much but after reading their article on Thailand I was quite impressed with its balance. So I would start there to develop a base from which to begin . Blogs of people living here and writing about their experiences are also a good source of information. But I find that some blogs and some memoir-type books tend to sensationalize the strange and exotic, or they talk about their sexual exploits in and around the fleshpots of Bangkok, Pattaya, or Phuket.  Fun stuff of course, but not exactly how most people live here.

One of the best ways to learn about Thai people and their culture is to talk to those who have lived here. Listen to their stories of relationships and to their impressions. A simple story about a person going through a routine day will give you lots of insight into what is going on in the culture.

So, as an example, I want to tell you of a routine day I had last weekend. I’ll put the bits and pieces that we can learn about Thailand in parenthesis to show you what I mean.

A Day Out to Buy Some Lumber

We are building a small bungalow on our property that we plan to rent out to some retired Expat in order to make a few extra baht.

(No one knows the exact number but there are probably around 40 thousand Expats living in the Chiang Mai area alone.)

We decided to build a traditional Thai house, made of wood and on high stilts.

(Although today most people build with cement blocks. If they had still been building on stilts then all their belongings would have been high above water level during last year’s floods and they would not have been so devastating. That is why Thais began building on stilts  in the first place.)

So we decided to go to a village in Lamphun, the next province to the south, which specializes in “used wood”.

(New lumber is very difficult to obtain as there has been a ban on logging in Thailand’s forest because of the terrible deforestation. Some wood is being shipped in from Burma now. Because of this wood has become the most expensive building material here. Enterprising people will look for old dilapidated wooden structures, buy them from the owners, who take the cash and put up cement structures with the money, and then the “used wood” dealers sell the old lumber to people like us who are crazy enough to still want to build with wood.)

We went to the village of Baan Ti, on the border between Lamphun and Chiang Mai.

(Originally these were two separate kingdoms and today they still retain their own languages, dialects of Thai, as well as their culture, music, arts, and history.)

This village is known for its “used wood” warehouses.

(Quite often in Thailand certain villages will be “known” for their products. Villages will be famous for such diverse products as musical instruments, dried shrimp, sweet sticky rice in bamboo, elephants, carved wooden handicrafts, woven bamboo mats, furniture, etc. The OTOP program was established to help the people of these towns and villages market their products. OTOP = “One Tambon, One Product”. A Tambon is a small district or town.)

At Baan Ti we found exactly what we were looking for, planking for our front deck. The wood was Mai Dang, or “Thai red wood”.

(Not the redwood we have in the U.S. which is a conifer and is considered a soft wood. Thai red wood is very dense and so hard that you cannot drive a nail through it without drilling a guide hole first.)

The wood had been taken from an old shop house that was falling down. We were told that it was about 50 years old and that the wood shipment had come in two days ago and that most had already been sold, so we better snatch these up while they are still here.

(Red wood and teak and other hard woods are so rare nowadays that they are sold almost as soon as they come on the market).

We needed to know how many boards we had to buy so we told the shop owner the dimensions of our deck. She pulled out her tablet, which I think had an app just for figuring out how many boards were needed for how many sq feet.

(Except that in Thailand  they use the “sawk”. A sawk is a Thai unit of measurement used solely for measuring lumber. It is now standardized to the equivalent of 50 centimeters but used to be the distance between the tip of your finger to your elbow.  The same biblical “cubit” that Noah used in building the Arc is still in use today.)

The shop owner, a young woman, checked her tablet and told us exactly how many boards we needed. She instructed her workers to lay them out for us and they would deliver it the next day.  As the workers were moving the lumber one of them shouted out excitedly. The other workers ran over and they all stared intently at his cell phone. I went over to see what all the excitement was about. He showed me. On his iPhone he had an app that was updating real-time scores from the Spanish Football League. The team he had placed a bet on had just scored a goal.

(Now remember, this is in upcountry Thailand. Tablets, iPhones, apps for work, apps for fun, all this is becoming quite normal in today’s Thailand.  Almost everyone seems to have a cell phone and the young people can text, in Thai, as fast as anyone in the world.)

On the way back we stopped at a roadside noodle shop for lunch to mark an ending of a nice day out.

(Roadside and push cart food shops are more ubiquitous here than fast food restaurants are in America, and IMHO more nutritious.)

When you listen to someone telling stories about their adventures here, and as you can see, simply buying lumber can be an adventure, see if they can add some background information and tell you the “rest of the story”. That is one way to get a feeling of what’s going on here and it will help you to understand a little better the place you have decided to live.


Found an interesting article in usnews.com on retiring to Chiang Mai: A Low-Cost Retirement Spot in Asia.

Just came across a series of videos taken by a young couple who have decided to live in Chiang Mai.  A little dramatic but quite a nice feel to them. Check them out.

5 Responses to “Understanding the Rest of the Thai Story”

  1. Good read, Hugh. Blows me away to think of 40k expats up there; understand Hua Hin also has a crowd, and I’m sure there are other places where the % of farang is significant… Times have certainly changed…

  2. Bruce said

    Another great post. keep up the good work!!!

  3. When you see the sheer numbers of expats living in Thailand, you start to understand why they have such strict immigration requirements.

    Anyway, Hugh, your post was engaging as always. I love how you can take a chore and turn it into an adventure – something I always appreciated when I lived there, too.

  4. RobSg said

    I am currently semi-retired in Singapore, but thinking of retiring in Thailand. My question is that I have US Medicare, and am wondering if there are a lot of American ex-pats in Thailand that have Medicare (like I do) with the supplementary and sometimes wonder why they are paying for it if they can’t use it there. Just curious.

    • Rob,

      I have Medicare (but not the supplementary). Note that medicare does not cover you outside the U.S. I just heard of a 72 year old man here who took a fall and broke his hip. He had surgery here but elected to return home for further treatment and rehab as Medicare would take care of the cost back home whereas he would have to pay the full bill here. I would return to the U.S. and let Medicare cover the cost if I needed expensive care here. Lots of Expats here spend part of the year back home. This could be why people pay for the extras. Everyone has a different story.

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