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Thailand Culture Shock! Surviving The Land Of Smiles

Thailand culture shock is what many people experience when they first visit the country. From the lack of political correctness to the awful street food (don’t believe that Thai street food is some kind of holy cuisine, it’s not) there are many things that shock, surprise or attract. After all, there are lots of things to love about Thailand’s culture.

According to Kasetsart University Professor Rachawit Photiyarach, there are five stages of Thailand culture shock for visitors to the country. It begins with the honeymoon Stage, followed by the distress Stage of not understanding the culture. This is the followed by anger before people adjust and adapt to the culture after visiting many times or living there.

Take a look at these ten examples of Thailand culture shock and see if you can relate to any. Maybe you disagree, or think they’re complete nonsense. They’re only my opinion…

Religion is everywhere

A monk walks down the street in Thailand

A monk walks down the street in Thailand

Pictures of monks adorn everything. Monks are on TV. They walk around the street. Thais pass a temple and ‘Wai’ (put hands together and bow head). They flock to temples and hand over their money.

Coming from a free, liberal and fairly secular country, it first surprised me just how ubiquitous religion is in Thailand.  And it always surprises me how many seemingly intelligent Thais follow Buddhism unquestioningly. Visiting temples is quite fun though. And I still find it quite a bizarre novelty seeing the monks kitted out in their orange robes walking down the street.

All night action

This is one of the great culture shocks about arriving in Thailand, or at least a big city like Bangkok. The action goes on all night. Or at least until the early hours. And then it spills out onto the street. There’s live music pumping out of the bars and beer being drunk on the street.  Sukhumvit Road is big party every night – a far cry from the staid and boring streets of Europe.

Traffic chaos

Car’s just don’t stop for pedestrians. Not even at the white zebra-crossing style lines that are painted on the road. This is actually pretty easy to adjust to. Just wait. And wait. And wait more until a suitable time to cross. Or use one of the footbridges. Or use traffic lights.

Traffic is one major Thailand culture shock

Traffic is one major Thailand culture shock

Look both ways. Stop, wait listen. It’s what children are taught in school. It’s pretty simple really. Yes, it’s a Thailand culture shock but it should be easy enough to adapt to.

Casual racism and the ‘farang’ word

It’s quite normal for Thai people to refer to any white person as farang. This was a big culture shock at first as it just wouldn’t happen in the West. Well, from official channels like the media, at least. Not so in Thailand. Even the news readers and government officials refer to any westerner as ‘farang’. I can’t quite accept this as part of their culture. hey know what it is – it’s a derogatory term for anybody with a white face, and a way for Thais to feel that little bit superior. But frankly, the constant use of the word ‘farang’ just makes Thais themselves look like simpletons, instead of being capable of referring to people as ‘An American’ or ‘A British person’ or a ‘Russian man’.

The street food is often awful

A lot of cliche travel sites bang on about great Thai street food like it’s a mystical culinary Mecca. Maybe it’s OK if you’re a backpacker on budget, or you’ve never tasted a great Thai dish. Or it might taste awesome at 3am with a bellyful of beer. Yes, it’s convenient and great that food is everywhere. Other than that, it’s the cheapest gunge you’ll find.

Street food in Bangkok is not the kind of mystical culinary Mecca people talk about

Street food in Bangkok is not the kind of mystical culinary Mecca people talk about

Native Thais view street food as a last resort or the food of the poor. Plus, many street restaurants serve up dross, too. A savvy Thai will warn you about food poisoning from street food. It can be undercooked, covered in flies, or left outside in hot weather. Street food simply doesn’t compare to the Thai dishes from a great restaurant which will cost a little bit more.

Some things are ridiculously expensive…

Ever tried buying cherries in Bangkok? Or antiques? These are just two of the grossly overpriced types of products to be found in Thailand. I’m guessing Thai antiques sellers and market stall dealers think they can flog a vintage telephone that would cost about £20 in the UK, to an unsuspecting Thai (see ripping off their own people below) or a tourist for eight times the value.

Cherries are expensive in Thailand... 1,100 baht for a small box

Cherries are expensive in Thailand… 1,100 baht for a small box

As for cherries… 1,100 baht for a tiny box. Maybe it’s something to do with supply and demand. There are more items too. Cars, for example. Super-high import tariffs mean that vehicles cost three or four times more than other countries. Or designer clothes or high-end sports gear. It’s common culture shock in Thailand that some things are more expensive.

…. but taxis are DIRT cheap (comparatively)

Get a taxi everywhere back in your home country and within a few months you’d be bankrupt. Not so in Thailand. They’re so cheap. I use them for most journeys, unless the traffic is bad. In which case it’s easier to use the Sky Train. In fact, I was so shocked by the cheap taxis on my first trip to Thailand, I paid one driver just to drive me round the city on a two hour mini tour. The bill only came to about 400 baht. Had it been London… £400 would have been the cost.

Thais AREN’T all looking to rip off tourists

It's a common misconception that Thais will scam tourists

It’s a common misconception that Thais will scam tourists

It’s a common misconception that Thais are looking to rip off tourists. Sure, some prices get ramped up for foreigners. And there are occasionally some scammers around. But in general, Thais are actually pretty honest with westerners. (At least with me, perhaps because I’ve got a strung BS radar). In fact, there’s actually no greater rip-off than when Thais are doing it to fellow Thais. Taxis sometimes put up the price for Thai passengers on their own. Or Thai people will sell to another Thai knowing that the item is junk.

Talking politics

Complaining about politicians is part of normal life in the West. Talking about politics with your friends in the pub, or a taxi driver, is all pretty normal. But don’t even attempt this in Thailand. You can try. Most times it’ll be met with silence, an attempt to change the subject. If you’re unlucky it’ll be much worse. Prison or a through beating, for example (even if you’re a woman). The King and Royal Family comes under the politics bracket, too. There’s one solution for dealing with this Thailand culture shock – don’t talk about it. Or at least not with strangers or casual acquaintances)

Visible police corruption

One night I was drinking late at a bar in Kanchanaburi. A cop rocked up, put his hand over the counter, and the owner slipped him a few notes. We’re not talking big money. But the corruption was open, visible and accepted. The small payment allowed the bar to stay open past midnight. This kind of corruption is endemic in all the cities and tourist sports. Bars all have to pay their ‘tea money’ to the local police if they want to operate. In a way, it’s just Thailand’s equivalent of the taxes and council business rates, licence charges, music licencees, taxes, and dozens of other red tape bills businesses in Europe get screwed with. And their far more expensive than tea money.

You have no rights

We have it amazingly good in the West. People are treated relatively fairly and equally, no matter what they’re background or where they come from. If a crime is committed, we have an open judicial process and justice is seen to be done. Not so in Thailand. Stay out of trouble because Thai person will always be favoured over the foreigner. And the rich will always get better treatment than the poor. It’s just the way it is in Thai society, and I don’t see it changing. (And I don’t really care if it does change or not).

No kissing in public

Public displays of affection (PDAs) are quite normal in the west. Not so in Thailand. Everything is kept quite formal and polite in public, and the naughtiness is reserved for the bedroom. It’s a bizarre paradox – walk down Soi Cowboy and there are Thai girls in suspenders dragging men into dens of vice. But try and give a girl a friendly peck on the cheek in public, and you’re branded a big-nosed barbarian farang.

Thai girls are damn feisty

The perception of Thai women from people in the West who’ve never visited the country is that the females are walkovers. Passive little Thai brides that do what their husband tells them. Diffident wall flowers who are eternally grateful yew-women at being ‘bought’ by some old gorilla. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve never met any Thai women like this. They’re all damn strong-headed, confident and in most cases, they wear the trousers, the boots and the hold the whip, too.

If this brief but opinionated guide to Thailand culture shock has been useful please share or comment below.

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