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14 Things Travelers Wrongly Assume About Thailand

Thailand Activism
by Casey O'Connell Aug 25, 2015

1. Assuming Thailand means “third world.”

While over 50% of Thailand’s population lives in rural areas and makes a meager living growing rice and other crops, there are totally modern cities like Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok with plenty of skyscrapers, rooftop bars, 5-star hotels, world-class hospitals, prestigious international schools and universities, gourmet restaurants with Michelin-starred chefs, multiple systems of public transportation, and a wealthy class of citizens. All this said, my friends are still convinced I sleep on a bamboo mat and eat fried crickets.

2. Assuming everyone uses chopsticks.

Thailand is an Asian country, so people must use chopsticks! I’ve had a handful of guests arrive in Thailand and excitedly proclaim, “I’ve practiced using chopsticks!” This would be a totally great skill to have if people in Thailand didn’t use the exotic utensils of… forks and spoons. If you’re dying to put your newly acquired chopstick skills to use, you can seek out a Chinese or Japanese restaurant; you’ll find Thai people using chopsticks there.

3. Assuming Buddhist monks live a strict life.

Before I moved to Thailand, I always thought of monks as the quiet men in orange robes who collect alms and live an ascetic life. I thought they renounced their worldly possessions. Though many monks are highly respected and dedicated to following the monk code strictly, not all monks live by the books.

It’s not uncommon to see monks buying electronics, taking photos with iPads and nice cameras, talking on their iPhones, and smoking cigarettes. Monkhood is also not necessarily a vow for life; many young men enter monkhood — if only for few weeks — to make merit.

4. Assuming Thailand is basically the same as Taiwan.

It feels silly to even say it. It might seem glaringly obvious, but countless people continue to ask me, “How’s Taiwan?” In my response, I subtly slip in that I live in Thailand, but that’s usually shrugged off as if these are not two completely separate countries with distinct cultures and different languages. They may follow up with, “Do you speak Taiwanese?” I usually reply with a sarcastic, “Yeah! It’s surprisingly easy to communicate in Taiwanese even though everyone speaks Thai!”

5. Assume elephants are highly regarded.

For being the national animal and an iconic symbol of Thailand, elephants are sure treated poorly. A lot of this treatment stems from demands of tourism; everyone believes their trip will not be complete without riding on top of an elephant through the jungle — it’s an experience that’s synonymous with Thailand.

Unfortunately, a seemingly harmless elephant ride is a small contribution to the illegal trade and mistreatment of these beautiful creatures. Before elephants spend exhausting days giving tourists rides on their backs — that actually shouldn’t hold that much weight — they are beaten into submission as babies, and bull hooks are used excessively to keep them in submission. Read here about reputable places in Thailand where you can interact with elephants in a way that’s healthy and safe for them.

6. Assuming Pad Thai is a quintessential Thai dish.

Pad Thai is often the first thing that comes to mind when Americans think of Thai food. It’s always featured on the menus at Thai restaurants in America, but it doesn’t always make the cut on menus in Thailand. It’s not necessarily a Thai favorite, and it’s usually more plentiful in touristy areas.

7. Assuming everyone speaks English.

Wealthier Thais tend to have more education in English, and Thai people who continually interact with tourists as part of their job may also speak a bit of English. Many tourists encounter the latter throughout their travels around Thailand, which leads them to believe that everyone speaks English. In reality, Thailand as a whole has low English proficiency.

Only a handful of students learn English in government schools, and even those who do may be learning with a Thai teacher who speaks very little English to begin with. Thailand has been criticized for its inadequate English language education and lack of resources for English teachers. However, many Thais do want to learn English, which leads us to the next misconception.

8. Assuming anyone can teach English in Thailand.

Being a native English speaker automatically makes you a desirable candidate for many jobs, and many native speakers choose to teach English because finding a teaching or tutoring job takes minimal effort. Websites like exist for the sole purpose of helping foreigners fill English teaching positions. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t need any qualifications to land a teaching job.

Reputable companies and schools often have a hiring process that’s no different from back home. They may require a formal teaching degree and licensure and years of teaching experience, and others may only require a degree from a 4-year university. Others yet may hire you before you’ve even sent in your resume, but that job is likely accompanied with low pay, no airfare, and no work permit — that leaves you making sketchy visa runs.

9. Assuming Thailand is for seasoned partiers.

Koh Phangan’s full moon party has long been a stop on the backpacker / partier circuit, and Bangkok’s nightlife is just as lively. However, you shouldn’t be deterred from visiting just because you like to keep it chill. Thailand has so much more to offer.

10. Assuming if it’s not spicy, it’s not authentic Thai food.

Tom yum soup and som tum salad bring the heat with chiles. However, omelets, garlic chicken, soups with noodles and meats, and fried rice are all common Thai dishes that aren’t spicy. That being said, many Thai people do dress up these dishes with a spoonful of spicy, chopped chilies. Still, that’s not a unanimous preference.

11. Assume everything is dirt cheap.

Yes, you can find cheap, street food meals under $2 and enjoy a cheap Chang beer with it. You can buy your prescription for a quarter of what it would be back home along a monthly phone plan that costs next to nothing. But creature comforts come at a cost.

Thailand has a substantial duty tax on imported items — that means buying a simple Friday night combo of wine and cheese will all but deplete your bank account.

Electronics and cars also have unusually high price tags. Frequenting fancy restaurants and bars and shopping at brand name stores in the malls may seem reasonable compared to developed countries, but it’s not necessarily cheap — especially if you’re earning a Thai paycheck. And you still need a place to live — if you opt for a newer development in downtown Bangkok, that’ll come with a huge price tag. If you have kids, you’ll have to think about sending them to a private international school as opposed to a government school, which will cost big baht. Tuition for the best international schools in Bangkok can cost upwards of 8,000 USD — per semester.

12. Assume you can pay any Thai woman to sleep with you.

A handful of tourists come for the sole purpose of cheap sex, and Thailand, unfortunately, has a rampant sex tourism industry. But it’s absurd to think the whole population of Thai females is there to cater to foreign men. Women hold positions in all sectors of Thai society. Not all Thai women are prostitutes, and no, they don’t all want to sleep with you.

13. Assume it’s always hot.

Thailand has a tropical climate, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be sweating. Thailand’s mountainous cities in the north and northeast, like Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, have temperate conditions and lower humidity in the cool season between December and February. The province of Loei is known as the “the coldest in Siam.” Phu Rua National Park in Loei can get down to 9°C (48°F) during the day and is even cooler at night.

14. Assume it’s the land of smiles.

I’ve been shown an overwhelming amount of compassion and kindness in Thailand, but embedded in this catchphrase is the belief that Thailand is paradise all the time. Thailand is known for being a safe place and having a peaceful population, but Thailand has its uncomfortable truths.

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