What I Do and What I Don’t in Thailand – Part 1

July 10, 2014

I thought of making the title of this latest series of posts “Dos and Don’ts in Thailand”. But then that would be telling you what you should and shouldn’t do while living here. And that is not what this blog is all about. I usually try to avoid giving that kind of prescriptive advice. We are all different and relate to the world differently. Things that work for one person may not work for another, and vice versa. So instead, I thought I would share what works for me in navigating the Thai culture and being able to live here with a modicum of stress and conflict. This might give you an idea of what might work for you. Here is Part 1 of things that I Do and things that I Don’t here in Thailand.

The Thai Language

I study Thai every day.

Besides the fact that Thai is a really difficult language for most westerners I have also heard people say, “Why learn Thai? I can get by easily just speaking English.” I was an English teacher in Thailand for many years and was even the director of an English language learning school. I have found that even though Thais study English for many years, a very small percentage of Thais are able to produce even one grammatically correct English sentence. They are ranked almost at the bottom of English proficiency in S.E. Asia. I am not sure how much one can learn about their surroundings here by speaking only English.

Interestingly enough the percentages are even smaller for foreigners who are able to produce even one complete Thai sentence correctly. And as difficult as it is for Thais to pronounce English properly they shine compared to foreigners trying to tackle the Thai tonal system. But learning Thai is not impossible; I have had to work my patootee off just to speak passably, though my wife says my Thai still sucks. I don’t care how hard it is. The rewards are great, and I feel that I have a full and complete life here when I can say what I mean, and mean what I say. My relationships are much better than if I were always speaking in Tarzan English: “Me Tarzan, you Dang.” “I hungry. You cooking.”

Lately I have seen and met a growing number of foreigners who are quite fluent in the language. Lots of them are on the Internet, Facebook, and YouTube.

 Smart phones, tablets, et.al.

My 4 year old granddaughter can navigate around a computer tablet better than most people my age can.

But is that a good thing? I was at a food court the other day when I saw three young women, obviously close friends, each wearing a different uniform which told me that they all worked at different companies and had taken this chance to spend their lunch hour together. Here is how they spent those precious few minutes with each other.

Each had a smart phone, and each was either texting someone else or looking at photos, or checking emails, or surfing the web, or playing a game. Being the voyeur that I am I sat there observing them throughout their whole lunch-time. After eating they finished their lunch hour and went back to their respective jobs – without once having had a conversation or saying more than one or two words to each other.

I was with a Thai family yesterday and their 13 year old was doing stuff on his tablet as we all talked. I half jokingly asked him to join us in conversation since he is a quite intelligent boy, and said let’s see if you can go 15 minutes without getting online. He laughed and said sure. Exactly 3 minutes later he had gotten back online without even realizing it.

Thais, like just about everyone everywhere, are now personally wired. I myself use Skype to communicate with my widely dispersed family and friends and spend a lot of time online – and I even write 2 Internet blogs. But when it comes to personal communication I prefer to do it “personally”. I own a cell phone that basically makes phone calls. I don’t even do texts, and since I check my incoming text messages only about once a month (to delete them) you probably won’t get an answer to any text you send me. I have to admit that I do check Facebook about once a week but I never “tweet”.

But if you want to talk – I’m listening. And even though my granddaughter is pretty good on the computer she is even better at verbal communications – better than most people my age.

Thai Roads

Driving in Thailand? Danger Will Robinson.

Whether on a motorcycle or in a car, this activity can be one of the most stressful and sometimes dangerous, aspects of living in Thailand. I know some people who avoid this activity completely and only take taxis and public transportation. If that works for you then okay. Since Thailand is ranked one of the worst countries in the world for road accidents, motorcycles being the chief culprit, wanting to avoid driving here is understandable. I myself find the lack of personal transportation quite limiting in where I choose to live and where I go. Not having a car or motorcycle would make my life here lots less interesting and lots less enjoyable.

Because I have decided to drive here I have adopted some pretty strict rules of the road for myself.

Here are just a few.

1. I look six ways. I always look six ways when I come to an intersection or even when simply driving down the highway (They’ll be coming at you from all six directions I can assure you.) – I look left, look right, look to the front, look behind, and for good measure I look up and down. If there is another way someone can pass you, make you slam on your breaks, or scare the bejeezus out of you here in Thailand please let me know and I will add it to the list. In short, I am really careful of the other guy. I act as if they will do something crazy because often they will.

2. I do everything slowly. So when I am at that intersection, making a left turn, and a motorcycle comes up and cuts me off on the left, I’ll be going slowly enough to avoid having to scrape him off the hood of my car and bring him to the nearest ER.

3. I am usually at fault, even when I do everything right so I am extra careful. It is a long established Thai custom (not legal mind you) that any time there is an accident it is usually either the bigger vehicle that will have to pay repairs and hospital bills, or the person with the most money.

This is why there are so many hit and run accidents here and why after an accident so many driver run for the woods.

Many foreigners misinterpret this custom thinking that it is always the “Farang” who is at fault. No. It is because it is usually the “Farang” who has more money than the other guy.

Thais with money also wind up paying hospital bills and repairs for accidents they didn’t cause.

Don’t believe me? Ask my neighbor who was peacefully going down the highway when a motorcycle flew past him at about 120 kph, lost control and went down the other side of the road where a pickup truck hit him head on and bounced him back onto the hood of my friend’s car. Besides having to repair the front end of his car and replace the shattered windshield my friend also wound up paying for the boy’s funeral expenses, not because the law said he had to, but because that is the way things are done here. Neglecting the boy and his family would entail an extreme loss of face.

4. I go slow when I motorcycle.

When I ride my motorcycle I never go faster than 55 kph, even on the highway. I might get over 60 if I have to pass a slower vehicle. The method in this madness is that I figure that at 60 kph, if I dump the bike I could probably survive the bouncing on down the road; at a higher speed, maybe not.

I would never rent one of those 600cc and up “super bikes” they have available here. I was at the emergency room with a friend when they wheeled in this Russian Israeli who had just crashed his rented Kawasaki super bike. He looked like he could use a friend so I went over to translate for him.

Here is what I had to tell him, “You have a compound fracture in your leg. We will have to operate tomorrow morning to put pins in your leg. You’ll probably be on crutches for the next six months.” He cried out something in unintelligible Russian, or Hebrew, I don’t know, and I slunk over to return to my friend.

The big bikes go much too fast for the Thai road system and its heavy traffic, and they put more power between my legs than is good for me.

5. I always wear a helmet. In 45 years of riding motorcycles here I have had only one accident (knock on my faux wooden desk). I was going too fast down a dirt road, hit a patch of sand, and watched in slow motion my bike go flying out in front of me doing summersaults in the air as I met the road with the back of my head. I was wearing a helmet so I ended up with just a slight concussion.

If I had not been wearing a helmet the last 45 years of this world would have gone by without me, and my kids and my grand kids would never have been – nor would this blog I am writing.

This morning I wore a helmet just to drive a few hundred meters down to the corner shop to buy some ice and eggs.


I drink water but I don’t drink alcohol. Each can be problematic in its own way.

Water: The tap water in Thailand is usually treated to kill bacteria. Since gastro-intestinal illnesses are the cause of the majority of sickness and death in the world’s children’s population that is probably a really good thing. But I still don’t drink the tap water here.

I looked closely at my shower stall the other day and there was this brown scum covering the floor. It didn’t come off of me, so I figure that it is in the water coming out of the tap. The water itself looks clear but who knows what this brown stuff is? So I buy my drinking and cooking water off of the truck that comes by once a week. The large bottles are 30 baht each. If I wanted I could go down to the water machine in our neighborhood and fill these large bottles for half the price. Just about every neighborhood in Thailand has coin operated fresh water machines.

When I am in a restaurant I use the ice they give me and I use the pitcher of water that is on each table to fill my glass. It’s free and they seem trustworthy. If you want, every table will usually have sealed bottled water that is quite inexpensive. But drinking water without ice on a 98 degree day, nah.

Alcohol: The day before my first child was born was the last time I had a drink of alcohol. If I were like some people I could tell you the exact number of days I have been sober. But who’s counting?

I mention this because a large percentage of foreigners living in Thailand could not earn one of those one-day-sober coins they give out. The alcohol consumption of the foreign population is equaled only to the number of Thais overindulging. And that is big time. Unlike some converts to sobriety I do not have a soap box about abstinence. But I am very careful about how what I put into my body affects my health. I want to live long and prosper here in the Land of Smiles.

Bar Girls

I don’t do bar girls.

For those who do, there really should be a warning label. “Do at your own risk.”

Part 2 is already written in my head (We’ll talk about food, entertainment, social status, taking care of our health, and more).  It will be coming soon.

12 Responses to “What I Do and What I Don’t in Thailand – Part 1”

  1. Sabrina said

    Thankyou, I always enjoy your blog.

  2. Bruce MacDonald said

    Hello Hugh, these days I look forward to your monthly posts. Thank you.
    Do you have any recommendations for Thai language self study? I’ve found a few sites and maybe the answer is I just need some discipline to keep going. But I wondered if you have any favourites.

  3. Bruce MacDonald said

    Thanks Hugh!

  4. Bruce MacDonald said

    Hello Again Hugh from hot sunny Vancouver. Our summer is really hot, almost as hot as wintertime in Thailand. As you can imagine, everyone is complaining now that the temperature got to 29 (84F). Pretty funny.

    I do actually have some pretty good websites for learning Thai. One is called thai-flashcards.com and it seems to be helping with my vocabulary.

    I wondered if you had any insights on good ways to remember the tones. For example, I’m trying putting a whole bunch of falling tone words together and hoping the tone sticks in my feeble memory that way. Did you have any special ways of remembering the tones?

    Also I’m wondering about dentists inThailand. How do they seem to you? Any thoughts there?

    Cheers and thanks again for your interesting site.


    • I do miss the summers in the Great Pacific Northwest. Enjoy while you can.

      As to tones, I find that singing is the best way to get the rhythm and tones right. If you think that you are singing a Thai sentence instead of just saying it then just like you would remember how a song goes you would get the feel of how the Thai sentence should go. And the more experience you have you will have built in a feeling of which tones feel right. If you say the wrong tone it would be like singing the wrong note.

      I think in terms of phrases and sentences and not single Thai words. I find the tones of single words very difficult to remember but singing a phrase or sentences is easier for me.

      As to dentists, ask around and find a good one. I find them superior to my dentists back home. I had to have a crown made last year when a tooth broke off. I am very happy with it. They seem really good at the dental construction business, crowns and bridges, etc. A checkup and cleaning is about $25. They will do x-rays only if they find a problem. There are expensive dentists here who cater to the Farang population. Their prices are comparable to back home. I go to a Thai dental clinic and their prices are less than half.

  5. Bruce MacDonald said

    Great suggestions. Thanks Hugh. I’ll sing my way through my Thai lesson practice from now on. 🙂

  6. Hugh said

    I am only just pointed to this excellent website. Also Hugh is a very nice name which I have enjoyed for the last 72 years.

    I too had a German friend who survived 5 years in a Siberian POW camp. Currently nearing 100 years he is an inspiration. Now blind he still says it is a beautiful world!

    Not too sure amongst the excellent observations and advice that I am comfortable with the word ” Farang”. We are told that is what we are and we should get used to it. I guess the niggers in USA were told the same message 100 years ago.Thank God that has changed. In the Middle East the word ” farangi” is a term of hatred against white skinned Christians who dealt to them in the Crusades. The root word in Latin was ” Franci” meaning a Germanic barbarian and it was not complimentary. The Germanic barbarians became the Franks. I am an expat not a farang. I would rather choose an English speaking dentist than a farang friendly one because of the implied racism. Further confusion arises when the word is used by English speakers it is synonymous with foreigner but when speaking the Thai language the same word means ” Caucasian ” and the term for foreigner becomes ” kon dahng chaht.

    Otherwise an excellent blog and an inspiration to those who are contemplating a visit or migrating .My warm congratulations

  7. Hi Hugh,

    The Thai word “Farang” is often misinterpreted (especially by foreigners unfamiliar with the Thai language) as having a negative connotation. I don’t believe that this is correct. Do a Google search on the origin of this word and you’ll find lots of good stuff out there. I think that the Persian origin might be the best. The word “farangi” usually referred to the “Franc” people, or more simply, Europeans.

    Here are some other Thai terms for people from “somewhere else”.

    “Kaek” (visitor) – people from the Indian sub-continent
    “Kaek Khao” (white visitor) – people from Arabia.
    “Dum” (black), or “muet” (dark), or “Negro” – people from sub-Saharan Africa, although lately I have just heard “Khon Africa” (person from Africa)

    Thais are an Asia-centric people so they differentiate Asians by the country they come from (“Jeen” (Chinese), “Yipoon” (Japanese), “Gowlee” (Korean). Europeans are all lumped together as one group, “Farang”. As the old saying goes, to the Thais, “All white people look alike.”

    BTW, the term “kon dahng chaht” means “person of a different nationality” and has no racial connotation but it doesn’t help Thais to know where this person came from – something very important for them.

    The word “Farang” has nothing like the negative connotation of the “N” word formerly used in America for people of African origin. Not even close.

    So, the next time you hear a Thai (or a foreigner) using the word “Farang”, just substitute the words “of European origin”, and you won’t feel so uncomfortable. Really, that is all it means.

    • Hugh said

      Hi Hugh,

      Just depends which camp you are in.

      Works published based on research done last century at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn Univeristies came up with 2 opposing points of finding.

      Whereas the eminent Thai professors largely agreed with each other that the historic Tai culture and languages were unique and words had spread out north south east and west from the original Tai language, the foreign born professors submitted that in the case of the word farang it had its origins in Greek ( Frangos) and Latin ( Franci) The derivatives of the word from the Latin branch such as farangi in the Middle East to Palagi in Polynesian Maori are terms ranging from hatred to derision.

      However if one takes the Thai version of origin then the term may be considered neutral although the term does completely overlook that nationality is important to many of us.

      A long time ago I adopted 2 babies from Philippines. as a young teenager the delightful Rodrigo insisted on referring to China in front of a charming young Japanese guest in our house. Back then he just could not get it that Japan and China are 2 different countries. We worked on his ignorance and were successful, he is now a well informed adult living happily with his Thai partner.

      My family is not farang but would certainly like to be friends with them.

      My best wishes.


  8. Stefan said

    You don’t do bar girls? Why not? The main reason for any guy moving to Thailand (or retiring in Thailand as in your case) is girls and plenty of them. Many guys think they date “normal” girls just because they go for them for free but then in the long run turns out she has got no money and no job so you have to support her financially. The line between “Bar Girl” and “Normal Girl” is very thin. Even if you pay for a hooker once in a while, what’s wrong with it? I don’t see a reason it’s just about you know what you are doing and don’t start getting feelings for her. Nice blog by the way.

    • “The main reason for any guy moving to Thailand (or retiring in Thailand as in your case) is girls and plenty of them.”

      Not all men. Some of us have lived eventful lives and have had “plenty of them” somewhere along the way. For me, at 68 years old, the word “satiated” comes to mind. I have no problem with someone paying for services rendered. But some men go overboard. Would you cash in your life savings to buy a “woman of the night” whom you just met at a karaoke bar, a house and a pickup truck and put her younger siblings through school and buy her brother a business if you were back in your home country? Many man do exactly that here.

      If that is their bliss then they should follow it. It certainly isn’t mine.

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