A Thailand Culture and Reality Check – A Tourist’s View

A culture shock is a condition of disorientation affecting someone who is suddenly exposed to an unfamiliar culture or way of life or different set of attitudes and rules. A reality check is an occasion when one is reminded of the nature of things in the real world. You could argue both are the same.

For a foreigner, Thailand can become an emotional and psychological mind game where the object is to overcome each and every obstacle put before you and hit the finishing tape a far better and enlightened person than the one who started out. Many fall and fail but for those who succeed overcoming a culture and reality check is possibly the biggest hurdle of all. If you stumble and fall there’s every chance you’ll exit Thailand forever.

All photos in this post come with kind permission of tourism thailand and are in my opinion unblemished mirrors of parts of Thai life and culture which I still hold in the highest esteem.

Paul Garrigan’s post Dealing with Thai Culture Shock is about Paul’s former booze addiction which turned his Thailand dream of alcohol utopia into a prison, as negativity started to make him question everything from the famous Thai smile to their simple mai phen rai (whatever will be) attitude. It took Paul the best part of a year to understand he was going through the Thai culture shock syndrome and eventually he pulled through. Please do click on the above link to Paul’s excellent post.

Mike Rose took over Paul’s baton and wrote an equally excellent post Thailand Reality Check. Mike notes how his attitude to Thailand changed after the Brit expat’s honeymoon period with the country was over. Mike like Paul, questioned Thailand’s ways and culture before he too overcame his own personal reality check hurdle. Paul and Mike soon realised the Land of Milk and Honey does sometimes deliver sour cream and bee stings.

What about Thailand’s tourists, do they experience a culture shock or reality check.

If you travel to Thailand once a year on an annual two week pilgrimage then you may never feel any different about the country from one holiday to the next. If the ‘shock’ does eventually hit you then by the time it does you’ll probably be long past caring anyhow. For those who frequent Thailand more often, then your views and realization about the country should change gradually over a period of time. I know mine did, and it’s evolution is still churning. Only my eventual settling in Thailand will see the true formation of a beauty or beast.

I’ve now been travelling to Thailand for over 11 years and have taken in about 40 trips to the country. I’ve seen my own own thoughts change from day one to the present times and luckily for myself any major changes to my mental attitude have been progressively slow.

My first three to four years in Thailand were mainly spent in Pattaya amongst fellow tourists who like me couldn’t believe the fantasy world they’d arrived in. There was a bevy of beautiful girls serving cheap drinks and offering sex on a plate for the price of a quiet night out back home.

Pattaya was full of smiling people and at the time seemed the most wonderful place in the world to be. Each holiday appeared too short and the next one couldn’t come fast enough. Eventually my thought pattern changed and it was Pattaya’s bar girls who gave me my first Thailand reality check.

To the innocent eye Pattaya’s bar girls are having the time of their life. The women are young, seemingly single, without a care in the world and enjoying the best years of their lives. Why else would they be smiling so much. Slowly but surely I became conscious of the truth behind the bar girls smiles. Nearly everyone one of them wanted to ditch Pattaya and go home to their villages in Southern Thailand, Isaan or wherever.

Nearly everyone of Pattaya’s bar girls had children and were working in Thailand’s sin city to help feed and educate their offspring, their kids were back home mainly being looked after by their parents or close family. Pattaya stunk and the realization should have come to me a lot earlier than it did.

When you skim below Pattaya’s surface a rather cold and bleak world lies there. The city is full of small, one room apartments, where three or sometimes four bar girls sleep, eat and get along together on very little money. On Pattaya’s streets at night Thais rob Thais and tourists are beaten and mugged for what they may have. The incidents are few but not too far between. My own Thailand reality check was that my very own Seventh Heaven was a city where the majority of its own nationals lived through seven days of shit. I moved on.

For the past seven years my Thai time has been mainly consumed by village life in Isaan.  Its culture and realism is so much different to life in a tourist resort even if it does have the occasional culture shock.

The intense heat of Thailand requires two or three daily ice cold water bucket showers when living in the simpler built village homes, and the welcome cooling rainfall often wipes out the power supply for the best part of the night.

Village life is slow moving with a heavy accent on family life and friends. Arriving in a Thai village you are immediately seen as a rich westerner and spoon fed a giant heap of respect. The culture shock is the family’s plans to spend your money with the strategy and draft openly discussed in front of you in a language you can’t understand. Perhaps they know in your culture it’s rude to talk with a mouthful of spoon fed respect.

Understanding Thai family values is a big hurdle to overcome and especially more so if you haven’t been brought up in a close knit family environment yourself. It takes a strong and willing mind to fathom out how a guest in your home can help himself to your beer, in your fridge, without asking first. Sure, he will offer you a glass, but he’ll probably take one of your cigarettes on his way back to his place on the floor. That’s the kind of situation where you squeeze and apply a wee touch of western values into your living room.

Thailand has many culture and reality checks which ingrain themselves in you without you even realizing it. Some are much more obvious.

Thailand’s road safety standards, its huge gap between the wealthy and poor, its peoples generosity and yet somewhat cruelty to animal life all open your eyes and mind. Thai newspapers blatantly showing gory photos on their front pages is another culture shock and so is the slow realization that the country really doesn’t want you there, at least not as an expat. Visa regulations are proof of that.

I honestly believe the biggest step anyone can make toward softening their own Thailand culture and reality check is to understand the Thai smile. Knowing what is behind it will fast forward anyone’s education. Below is my comment to Paul Garrigan’s brilliant post and you can also click on the link here for a previous article I wrote on understanding Thai Smiles.

“Paul I think one of the most important things people have to understand about Thailand is the Thai smile. So many if not all newcomers read the Thai smile as a sign of landing in utopia, a sign the people are so happy no matter what social status or problems they have. I’ve seen anger, hate and jealously delivered through a flashing white Thai smile and it’s reading what’s truly behind it which is a major breakthrough in getting successfully past the culture shock stage. Understanding that Thais have problems, worries and emotional issues like the rest of us but try not to burden others with them is to me one of the stages in realising you are in a special kind of country.”

I’d like to hear views from fellow tourists about their own Thailand culture and reality checks, as well as from expats about whether their own tourist days eased their eventual settlement into permanent Thai life.

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I'm a sixty-year-old Englishman living in the town of Swindon in rural Wiltshire and I have a real deep desire to retire in Thailand one day. If you don't have a dream then you won't have a dream come true.

26 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    That was a great post Martyn, and not just because you linked to my one :-). I’m glad you brought up Thai village life, because that was like double culture shock for me. I spent most of my life in cities and always dreamed of living in some rural paradise away from the rat race. I never considered the downside of village life; like the fact that there is hardly any privacy. We had shutters on our house instead of doors, and the neighbours would think you were up to no good if you didn’t have the shutters up at 6 am. After that our home was like a drop-in centre.

    I remember the first day I got satellite television; I couldn’t even try it out because one of the young local monks had decided to use my Playstation all day. I was itching to tell him to go, but my wife wouldn’t let me – she worried that his family might be annoyed and that the neighbours would complain.

    I think my biggest culture shock came one day when I was still drinking. I’d made friends with a couple of the local men in the village and they would drop around for a beer in the evenings. I was used to having male drinking buddies because this was very much part of my own culture. I would sometimes suggest that we hit one of the local karaoke bars, but these guys would always say no – even though I knew that they went to them frequently. One day I asked them why they always said no and they said that if any Thai man or woman is seen with a westerner people will assume they are a prostitute. I was shocked and that really changed my view of life in Thailand. Some of these guys were in their late forties and they worried that been seen with me would have people thinking the worst.

  2. Hoo Don says:

    Paul thanks for a glowing review and wow…what a comment. It beats my post hands down.

    I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Thai villages and getting used to the family’s ways is a major headache. I’ve been watching TV before when guests have turned up. I’ve popped outside for a quick smoke and on my return have found one of them has turned the TV over to something else. Bloody annoying. Nowadays I sometimes keep the TV remote in my pocket, not always but now and again as it’s rare I watch TV.

    Your big culture shock concerning your drinking buddies rings true in the opposite case with me. I don’t like walking about with any of Wilai’s male family members (as in two of us) because I think Thai people might think we’re gay. I try to always make sure Wilai tags along as well.

    Thanks for the insight into your previous village life, I’m sure readers will enjoy it.

  3. Hoo Don says:

    Thanks once again to all the above guys who regularly tweet the ass out of all my posts. Cheers.

  4. Mike says:

    Martyn a very interesting read that adds value to what Paul and I had been saying. You summarise a lot of things that often remain unspoken (except perhaps on a certain forum)but really need discussing especially if anyone is thinking of moving here.

    I also think Paul’s comment says a lot about life here and where WE fit in. The reaction of the men is typical in my opinion. Drink your beer etc but……..

    Given their attitude(men)I wonder what Thai women who have never been near the bar scene really feel when they are out and about with their foreign partners.

    Sadly I do believe that if you stripped away the money aspect in a lot of relationships there would be far fewer foreigners here.

  5. Hoo Don says:

    Mike thank you to Paul and yourself for putting this post into my head. After reading both your articles I was thinking mmmm for a long while.

    With regard to Paul’s comment and your question about Thai women then my guess would be they are probably aware there is a giant label wrongly attached to their backs saying ‘Whore.’

    I know most Thai people look down on Thai women with farang partners and immediately associate the women as being a bar worker or former one at best. I guess the association of farang with money brings out a lot of jealousy.

    I firmly believe if you took away the money from Thai/Farang relationships then nearly everyone of them would split, and pretty quickly as well. A few would survive but not too many.

  6. Hoo Don says:

    Mike – Adding on to my reply about Thai women and farang, the stripping away of the money.

    I think most partnerships would fail if you took the money security out of the equation but by that I mean more so with younger Thai women. Older female Thais in their 40’s and upwards would probably view the situation differently. I hate to use the term ‘sale by date’ but I think that would weigh heavily into the equation and allow many partnerships to still survive.

  7. Mike says:

    Martyn replying to your reply so to speak, I wonder have you read Andrew Drummonds blog lately? Its a bit gutter press at times but he does write some interesting stuff.

    Check out his recent article on Thai women and murder of old foreigners.

  8. Snap says:

    Reading your post and following comments is indeed informative. As a farang and a woman it gives me a great insight into unspoken matters and has answered some of my unasked questions.

  9. Hoo Don says:

    Snap I’m glad to have been of some help to you and pleased the comments have enlightened you too. I can’t really see you and Stray getting into too many “shocking” situations on your stay in Thailand. Thanks.

  10. Hoo Don says:

    Mike – I checked out Andrew’s post, personally I think the chap should have seen it coming and bailed out a long time back. However it is a tragedy and no way for his life to end. I’ve read some of Andrew’s posts before and he does pick up on some good stuff although I’d guess he has keys which open doors. That can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

  11. Steve says:

    Very nice post Martyn and thanks for the link to Paul’s post as well.

    Regarding the thoughts of our Thai partners who never worked in a bar, I can only speak for Golf and I know that she could care less what others think when they see us together. Maybe it’s because she’s spent the past 4 years here in the U.S., but when I’ve asked her in the past if she gets bothered by the stares we sometimes gets she has told me that “no she could care less what those people think, because they don’t know us”.

    Regarding Thai smiles I would like to direct everyone to my past musings about the Thai smile that you can find here; http://www.thailandmusings.com/the-land-of-smiles/. You’ll find a discussion of several of the common reasons that Thai’s are smiling and it’s not always because they are so sabai sabai.

  12. Hoo Don says:

    Steve thanks for your’s and Golf’s input, her answer about ‘stares’ is much appreciated. As someone who never worked in a bar and with four years marriage behind her plus a young baby, I have no doubts she doesn’t care what others think. Wilai doesn’t either and I’ve watched her reaction to blatant stares before and a lot of the time she doesn’t seem to even notice.

    I checked out your Thai Smiles link. Good stuff and a must read for any Thailand newbie.

  13. Talen says:

    Martyn. excellent post as well as the articles by Mike and Paul.

    We all have gone from naive beginners to having a glimpse behind the curtain at some point and sometimes it’s not pretty. but honestly it’s not a nice world and utopia doesn’t exist. Thailand has all the same problems as any other country and a few more. My first glimpse behind the curtain was on my second trip when I watched 2 road accidents at seperate times happen and people were killed….all the other drivers including mine went on their way not stopping to help…hit a sour note to me in a country that believes in Buddhist values.

    I read an interesting article recently about Thai falang relationships of the non bar girl kind. The women were of different backgrounds and were from all over Thailand from Issan to Bangkok and they all had the same answers.

    When a Thai woman is divorced or has a child she is damaged goods and no Thai man will marry her but Western men don’t care about those things. They also all stated they felt as if a miracle had happened in their lives as they came to realize they were part of a real relationship that mattered and not treated like staff.

    I noticed my last trip up country that a lot of women young and old read comic books and romance novels and all of them centered around a falang sweeping a Thai women off her feet…I’ll have to dig up the pictures I have and wrote something on it.

  14. Hoo Don says:

    Talen – Sorry about the delay in replying to your excellent comment…..work.

    I know Thai women have a rough deal in the country and your damaged goods quote is proof of that. I think a lot of years will pass before there is any change there. Perhaps that’s what makes the western man more appealing.

    I’ve seen the comic books but never really had a good look at them, I will on my next trip. They could be a good way of learning to read the language.

    I think there is a lot of jealousy attached to the stares, by the women that is. I’m not sure what’s going through the heads of the occasional male that looks.

    I’ll look forward to your post on the romantic novels and comic books.

  15. Snap says:

    Hi Martyn…no, I doubt Stray and I will have to deal with any of these circumstances. But, over the years we have heard of many different tales from older western guys…and rightly or wrongly, I have formed my own very opiniated opinions.

    It’s good to see/hear it all from different perspectives.

  16. Hoo Don says:

    Snap I’m glad the comments have been a big help. There’s always a lot to learn from reading blog comments and I do try to soak them up myself on my rounds of everyone’s posts. I’ve got a helluva lot to still about Thailand but since I’ve been active on the blog circuit my own education has come on leaps and bounds.

  17. Catherine says:

    Martyn, out of all you’ve written, this post has become my absolute favourite. It is truly excellent.

    ‘… as well as from expats about whether their own tourist days eased their eventual settlement into permanent Thai life.’

    I was a tourist to Thailand for over ten years, from one to three times a year. So yes, coming here before finally relocating did help. I knew people. I sort of knew the city even. And I already loved the food.

    But learning about Thai ways didn’t sink in until I moved here, and more is sure to be on the way.

    And ouch. I still cringe at the absolute gaffs I made while on holiday all those years ago.

    What type of person you are and the lifestyle you live matters a great deal on how you go about getting over culture shock.

    I move a fair bit, so I already knew to give myself plenty of time to recover from the death of my former life. And I don’t party hard, so my life wasn’t seen through a heavy haze. But a haze of sorts was still there, regardless.

    Going from one SE Asian country to another only meant that I was prepared for how difficult it was going to be to source what is needed to make my life easier – decent restaurants, grocery stores with my regular foods, where to find that fiddly bit to fix that over there, the best way to get around my area, etc.

    But I believe that the culture shock one feels from moving to a different country and getting used to a culture are two different things. One happens within the first year and can be quite extreme emotionally, the other is a gradual awakening and can give a lifetime of bumps and bruises and grins.

  18. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine, your favourite of all my posts. That has made me happy and so has the rest of your comment. You make a lot of common sense.

    “And ouch. I still cringe at the absolute gaffs I made while on holiday all those years ago.”

    I think we all have those come back to haunt us type of things which we did in our early Thailand days. Those were the days when we expected the Thais to conform and act like us whereas nowadays we realise we must adapt to their ways and customs. I’m pleased to read you admit to being still on a learning curve. I guess the curve is never ending.

    I agree with your last sentence entirely, Thailand is a journey which needs a regular appliance of deep heat muscle gel.

    Great comment and sorry about the delay in replying, I’ve no need to explain why.

  19. Catherine says:

    Martyn, I’m not gushing, just telling it how I see it (but as you may turn a wee bit pink I will apologise in advance).

    Your posts are rich in thought. And because they are, I enjoy stopping by. You have me digging down to see where I’ve been and where I might be going in the future. And in a rushed world, the reflection is needed.

    I don’t have a Thai gal, nor do I do Pattaya or the North. But your honest posts connect with me (the reason for my rather loooooooooong comments in response).

    PS: No need to apologise for being tardy (I do indeed understand why).

  20. Hoo Don says:

    Catherine I’m more red than pink but that’s probably from my afternoon’s drinking session, not that it was a heavy one. In fact I might pop back out again tonight as I’ve nearly completed my round of the Thai blogs (catch up time again). I’m a little out of sorts with my own blog at the moment, I wouldn’t say I can’t be asked but I have lost heart a little bit although all the comments do perk me up. Work is leaving me soooooo (I thought I’d try it too) tired and I have a post drafted already but I’m waiting on acquiring an image licence (my first ever, hopefully the last) before I can publish it. Even then I not sure if I have the enthusiasm to hit the publish button.

    Thanks for your kind words, it those kind of things which will I’m sure get me back to blogging and commenting on a more regular basis.

    However I do fancy a couple of pints, a JD and coke plus watch the football on TV.

  21. Siam.Rick says:

    Super post, Martyn. This one hit a big important bulls-eye, all right: can one live within this culture knowing what one knows now? Short answer: I do not know.

    My aim is to find out when I move there in late September.

    That’s the easy answer. To explore the possibilities in words, I was going to write a part 2 of my Why move to Thailand? Why move at all? In the post I mention how I was deficient in finances and culture. Part 2 was going to focus on my cultural deficiencies. I have still to write it but your post goes a long way toward listing the main problems.

    In short, those challenges you list have taken much of the shine off the country. Which is a good thing. Now, can I accept this new perspective and move on? Looks like I have, since I’m going to make the move. But those issues won’t go away so then it becomes, how do I handle them? Then you have to ask yourself, is all this stuff worth fretting over?

    Now, I hope I can write it.

    Anyway, great comments from everyone and this is one of the best posts on Thai life I’ve read. Period.

    Also, sorry to be so late on this one. I did read it not long after you posted it but I was so tired (like yourself, living the western work lifestyle) I couldn’t give a good comment.

  22. Hoo Don says:

    Rick we all view things and situations in different lights, this is my thoughts on culture and reality checks. Others will look on it differently, I’ll certainly look forward to reading your next post on the subject. I guess we both really won’t know the answer until we’ve lived there for a couple of years solid.

    As far as is all this stuff worth fretting over then we probably wouldn’t be human if it didn’t bounce around our skulls and form some kind of opinion. I think the answer is what you do about the opinion. Fight it or accept it. The latter has got to be the option.

    I know what you mean about work and feeling tired but now (Monday morning) I’m switching from days to nights, and that means I’m off until Thursday evening. Wonderful.

  23. Nice post man.

    I spent the first few months in TH in Phuket – Patong really. It’s similar to Pattaya, but has more nice things about it. I enjoyed my time there. I met expats that told me I could have any woman in Thailand for money. I wondered if it was true.

    I then went to Ubon, Warin Chamrap and spent time in that area for a couple months, then to Pattaya and back to Patong. The eyes were opened in Ubon and I realized… Patong and Pattaya are very small places in the big scheme of things. Thailand, as a whole, is nothing like these places.

    I’ve said for years on Thaipulse – Pattaya is the ass of Thailand. I didn’t enjoy any of my 3 trips there. LOL – I had to see – do I like it, or don’t I?

    There is a lot more to Thailand than the sex-tourist areas. A whole lot more. Thai smiles can be genuine and false. I notice that expats go through this phase of either loving or disliking Thailand. How can you like or dislike an entire country? There is so much variability in the country. People are individuals. there are as many easy to get along with, friendly, nice, kind, unselfish people here as there are the other kind of people.

    I don’t say my glass is full or my glass is empty. My glass is in limbo as I take a drink… Sometimes it’s full, sometimes it’s half full, sometimes half empty.

    I think best if visitors and long-term expats look at their stay as a period of minutes and hours and days… not generalize in one statement their entire feeling about the country.

    I can’t possibly tell you today whether I love it in Thailand or I hate it or think it’s OK. It’s all of those things and good and bad experiences happen everyday. I try to focus on the good – but I’m fully aware of the bad.

    Am I rambling? lol… great post Martyn – cheers.

  24. Hoo Don says:

    Vern welcome to the Juice, you just turned my comments box into a post box, that’s some comment. Thanks.

    My glass was always empty in Pattaya but I always had money to fill it back up. I eventually moved on from Pattaya to rural Thailand and nowadays I prefer the peace and quiet more, but hand on my heart I still believe, like you, Pattaya has a lot to offer, and more.

    I guess everybody’s glass is full, empty, halfway, no matter where they live. I just think that as a foreigner in Thailand it should generally only need topping up a little bit. Then again if you have lived there for a long while such as you have then there is a lot of black and white to life, as in same, same same.

    Thanks for a great comment.

  25. Siam.Rick says:

    Great comment, Vern. I’m prepared to give anywhere and anyone a chance so that is all one can do. I’m definitely going to TH with an open mind. Each trip there has been good overall so that’s a good sign!

    I’m currently living in Half Empty Land so anything’s got to be better. Although I can see the good side, it just doesn’t have enough of that and is missing much more.

    Now if I can find the time between packing, weeding out and selling off, I might (finally) write a new post on this topic.

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