What to expect when you move to Thailand
Life in the sticks and other oddities
So you've decided to move to Thailand! Welcome to the exciting world of "So, what exactly am I eating again? Oh, chicken blood? Lovely".
I am originally from Canada where I was brought up in the suburbs. Upon graduation, I moved to the city, found a corporate job and settled into the wonderful world of mundane monotony. I was sick of living what I felt was a routine, soul-crushing, pencil-pushing, life-sucking existence. I realized that I needed a challenge that would let me feel - anything different!
When I was in university, I had this insatiable zest for life. I was eternally optimistic (yes - I was that person) and felt like nothing would ever be able to make me become an ordinary person just working the 9-5.
Then, reality hit and I became accustomed to routine. Sadly, I became that person who just settles for custom and bitches about lost opportunities. After two years of the grind, I decided that I needed a drastic change.
I packed my bags and moved to Thailand to eventually become an English teacher. I was offered jobs in different parts of Thailand, but I quickly decided to move to a village in the North East region of Thailand, as opposed to a city.
Moving from a city in Canada to a village in Thailand is a radical change (I know - Duh!). It's the type of challenge I was looking for and the fact that the lifestyle was so radically different from city life was a BIG point of excitement.
Naturally, culture shock is something that you come prepared for. You come prepared to eat different food, meet different people, learn a different language, experience a different life. As prepared as I thought I was, there were still some things that truly intrigued me.
These were things that I was not prepared for when I moved to the village:
Sounds like common sense, but I was NOT prepared to be one of the only two Western women living in the village. As a result, we are always stared at everywhere we go. Grocery shopping, to the doctors office, biking, sitting on our lawn.... We are ALWAYS the subject of town gossip.
To villagers living in the North East of Thailand, it must have been strange to see two independent women walking about without men around us. Many people would ask me where my boyfriend was. When I replied that I didn't have one, they would ask the question again, as if my answer would change the second time.
When I repeated the same answer, the silence that followed was almost preferred to the inevitable question of "Why?".
Now, I was a proud, single woman but it is really difficult to answer that question to someone from a culture that doesn't really understand equality and independence in women.
My explanation of "needing to see the world" and "wanting to travel anywhere" and "nowadays women don't need to have a boyfriend to do things" and blah blah blah would generally just get me blank stares and another attempt to understand me:
"Oh. So you like women?"
".... Yes. I like women"
Everyone knows your business
People seemed to always know where we were, what we were doing, how long we were there for, who we were talking to, what we were eating, what we were wearing. The entire town seemed to know everything about our lives!
This didn't bother me as such, but it presented such a different reality as opposed to living in a city where you are virtually anonymous!
I was at the market buying some fruit and people came up to me saying something along the lines of, "it's a good thing that you're eating fruit because you weigh too much to eat a lot of meat".
Now, luckily for me, every sundown my skin turns green and I warp into a scaly looking ogre thing (channeling Princess Fiona - I TOTALLY feel your pain), so my weight is the least of my concerns. But my initial reaction was still shocked - not that someone was implying I was fat, but telling me my exact weight!
This gem of a stranger decided to answer my unasked question with "Oh, the nurse at the hospital told me".
As a part of my teaching contract I have to get a medical checkup done once a semester. The nurse who took my application must have thought the information vital to share. Once again, this didn't bother me but it was a far cry from the realm of privacy that is associated with medical institutions in the West.
Sometimes when I'm walking around town, people will still shout from their scooters as they drive by, "Maya! How is your infection doing?" I wish there was enough time for me to clarify with them that it was a LEG infection.
White is alright
I was truly shocked to learn the value that Thai people (especially from villages) place on beauty. I was even more taken aback when I saw how far people went to attain their vision of ideal beauty.
Over here, people love white skin. Like, LOVE it. In the North East of Thailand farming, construction, buffalo herding and fishing are the most common jobs that the average Thai person will have. These are all jobs that imply you have to work in the fields and in the sun all day and are, therefore, poor.
If you are whiter-skinned, it is generally accepted that you are rich and you can afford to either hire people to work for you or you have been fortunate enough to obtain a better paying job in an office somewhere.
Since such an importance is placed on light skin, mostly every product has a "whitening" label on it. Popular Western brands like Nivea, Oil of Olay, Jergens, Johnson and Johnson, and so many others all have released whitening-moisturizers, whitening-sunscreen, whitening-powder, whitening-body wash, whitening-deodorant.
These bleach-filled products fill the shelves of every grocery store, department store, 7/11 and local convenience stores.
It becomes a challenge for Westerners living in small towns (like me) to shop for basic essentials - I love to jog so I NEED my deodorant! The brands listed above are all from the West so they are naturally very expensive.
There are Thai brands that are more affordable for the average Thai person, however they don't put the same quality ingredients into their products so there people everywhere - students, adults, teachers - who are essentially bleaching their skin everyday! It is SO unhealthy and you can see the damage that is being done to the younger generation, not only to their skin, but to their image of beauty and confidence as well.
The pace of life
I was not prepared for how slow the lifestyle can be. This may sound like common sense, but consider yourself warned - if you are moving to a village, everything in life will move slower. This is not entirely a bad thing. Coming from a city, it was such an eye opener and a welcome change to not constantly feel rushed to be somewhere, to do something, to meet someone.
While slowing down and appreciating life is a wonderful opportunity, at times it can feel monotonous (which is ironic, because the fun adventure that I set out to have also has aspects of routine to it as well!).
Living in a village is not the ideal setting to foster hobbies. In Canada, I could go rock climbing or to the library. I could go to the movies, to the mall, to the outdoor paint-balling park, to a volleyball match, to the city square, to a guitar lesson..... I could go anywhere!
Now, I can't even go for a walk past 8 pm because it gets dark out and the crazy stray dogs try to kill you if you walk when it's dark.
In Bua Yai, you can either stay in your house and read or go to the local pubs and drink (which is where you will find the town drunk who also moonlights as a part time police officer and a part time mechanic).
The reality of living in a village - expect a slower lifestyle.
Unless you are able and willing to entertain yourself, it is easy to either become bored or fall into a false sense of reality and think it's normal to drink yourself into a stupor every day of the week.
Take your time - don't rush!
People over here have truly mastered the art of just being able to sit and enjoy a beautiful day. There is no guilt associated with not always having something urgent that needs to be done. This was one of the first differences I observed when I moved to Bua Yai.
It appeared to me that because people were so much more relaxed and content that everyone was SO friendly. Anywhere I went, there was always a host of people ready to offer me a smile, a ride, a drink, a meal. It was so refreshing to be in the company of people who were so open and willing to communicate with a stranger.
I remember when I first moved here, I was walking down the street and a random couple entertaining a crying infant called my name from across the street. I walked over not knowing what to expect - maybe some friendly conversation, perhaps a dinner invite or even an explanation as to how they knew my name, as I had never seen them before. Instead, they handed me their child to play with while the wife went in and mixed a whisky soda for me (this, by the way, was all done with no formal dialogue because they spoke barely a word of English and my Thai at the time was comparable to a chimp's understanding of theoretical physics).
To me, at least, this was something that does not happen very often.
It was one of my favorite experiences living here though because it was so far from my reality in Canada.
In the West, people don't smile as much and we certainly don't go out of our way for strangers as much. It is generally accepted that even though strangers have the best candy, you don't give your newborn infant to a random people walking the street. (disclaimer - kids, don't take candy from strangers. That was a joke).
The above writing was written with the intention to inform people about the realities of living in a village. It is impossible to write about all the subtle and in-your-face-differences you are bound to experience, but I have tried to capture ones that intrigued me the most.
At times when you feel your privacy violated, your views on social norms challenged (drinking in the open with a random baby - I seriously can't get over that!) and you start to feel yourself slip into possible alcoholism out of sheer boredom, remember that you're still living a dream that so many people would love to live.
Make the most of your experience, soak in all the culture you can and learn more about the world.
Living in such a small town with no distractions really helped me to find my roots and my balance again. I was able to think about my life and truly clarify what was important to me.
Was working at a 9-5 job with a good salary and a comfortable life important? It does, after all, provide more stability and security as well as guarantee a much stronger financial future.
Or was throwing caution to the wind and just trying to experience everything life has to offer more of a priority?
I come from a family that, for the most part, lives a habitual life - I truly see no shame in that. My childhood and adulthood have been shaped by the amazing foundation that my family made for me.
But I had worked the scheduled life and I wasn't happy - moving to Thailand put me in the right head-space to really figure out if that life was for me.
I'm still figuring out everything as I go along. I'm the first one to admit that I don't have all the answers. The one thing I know for sure, without a doubt in my mind, is that moving to Thailand was the best adventure of my life.
Anybody who wants to see the world, to challenge what they believe, to test themselves, to push themselves, to cross new boundaries, to open new doors, to break free of monotony, even if you just need some time to zen out and figure out what you want to do, moving to another country that vastly contrasts what you've grown up with it is a good opportunity to just clear your head.
You may be interested in....
Teacher mistakes - What are some of the most common mistakes that new arrivals make when they come to teach in Thailand?
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Nicely written article! I think it gives a good sense of teaching and living in rural Thailand. I think most of the lifestyle differences discussed in this article are more of a big city vs. rural lifestyle thing than a Canada vs. Thailand thing. If you moved to a very small town in Canada, you'd also likely encounter friendlier people, lots of gossip and loss of privacy, and a slower pace of life, while living in Bangkok you have the busy hustle and bustle of urban life, less friendliness between strangers, and the anonymity of the city. Moving from a big city in Canada to a rural area of Thailand is like a double whammy of culture shock, and its great you have found it a positive experience overall
By Danny, Bangkok (6th March 2019)
This is really a great post!I'm beginning to doubt I'm making the wrong decision after living a 2 years comfortable life in Japan. But I was enlightened and feeling relieved now. I'm going to Thailand now and live there for three months. Now I think this will be a challenging and exciting experience for me, but I will definitely just enjoy everything.
By Ann, Philippines (25th September 2016)
Wow great article, I've taken the leap of faith too and I've booked my flight one way to live in Thailand arriving in early September. I've been many times and it is a beautiful country. I am over the standard 9 to 5 mundane work here in Australia and thought if I don't do it now I never will! I will heading to Koh Samui for the first 3 Months... If anyone is moving to Thailand too and would like to have a friend let me know on here.. This Aussie is excited about a new start in life and adventures! God bless all
By Tamara, Melbourne, Australia (7th June 2016)
I really enjoyed reading this. I will be moving to Thailand in a few months from the USA. I am originally from Canada and would be really excited to meet anyone from the west who will be moving to Thailand as well. Get in touch. :)
By Jennifer L, St. louis (7th May 2016)
Hey Maya...great read. Like everybody else here has said, it was super funny! Thanks...BTW I'm moving to bangkok in less than a month..from Canada as well. Can't wait for this new adventure!
By Ken, Canada (20th April 2016)
I absolutely loved reading this. I plan on moving to Thailand myself. I am too looking to move to a village. I currently work as a registered nurse, but after I move I wouldn't mind working as a teacher. I've been to Thailand once while I was in the Marine Corps, to Patong Beach and Phuket. I loved the land and the people. I play guitar so during that time I played a lot of music for the people there and on my return I would like to do that again. Thanks for writing this article, it has motivated me for my soon to be move. :)
By Rippy Williams, Gallup, NM (29th September 2015)
Wow just wow, thanks a lot Maya and everyone else who has something to share "about get up and go" I'm 37 and decided to to change my life in every possible way mostly spiritual, and first place in mind was Thailand. .. fortunately every piece of information stated here is exactly what I need to read and mostly expected. I AM MOVING SOON it's a matter of decision on where to start cz its my first time, then purchase my ticket. I'm just tired of seeing people living for things working hard can't catch a break till retire then nursing home, and I believe there's no way I was born to go to school work and pay bills.
By izabelle, NY (13th May 2015)
I too am moving to Thailand at years end to retire / I have built a new house with my Thai friend in the city of Buriram / I am 63 yo male / no luggage just me / I know moving permanently will be a lot different to a holiday each year / how do you think I will go / cheers Gary
By Gary Dawes, Sydney Australia (2nd May 2014)
Hey thanks for the article, I need to vacation there in order to cure myself of an illness I have. I may just move there permanently as I'm sick of life here as well... How much is considered wealthy over there??
By Insoo Kim, milwaukee, wi (25th March 2014)
Nice article Maya,
My Thai wife and i have been married for 13 years, she is from the same general area you talked about. Just to further emphasize Maya's points for those of you out there that may be curious or thinking about moving (not just a visit) to Thailand ...... WHERE u live in Thailand will largely determine your perception ..... in Maya's example, a rural Thai village for instance, will be an Alien Planet to you, everything u know about life, food, culture and language will be basically unimaginable to you ...... it is not for someone that does not have an extremely open mind and an abundance of patience. As u can see, It appears that Maya was very moved and in some cases shocked by what she experienced, and she absolutley was looking for an adventure. All that said, if u choose to live in a bigger city (Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, there's a couple more), u will, for the most part, have all the western things u are used to, but there will still be a lot of differences to absorb ........ my biggest piece of advice to all and anyone planning to move to Thailand .... relax...... u r not in the west, nobody is concerned with deadlines, timeliness, and all the social pressures u have grown to see as 'productive' ..... chok dii
By Phil, (3rd November 2013)
Before you make a move to another country one should decide what are you looking for? I am living on a budget and the side of town I live in here in Birmingham, Alabama is filled with gangs and addicts that think the world owes them something, and of course you and I know this is not true. Now no matter what neighborhood you live in you have undesirable people. This goes for Beverly Hill CA , whom we all have heard about people being murder there in their own home, and other part of the world.
Going to Thailand for me was a mean of living with a limited income, and being able save as I move on in years. I have no children and due to my childhood.I decided not too. I was the oldest in my family and at13 I went in my mother's bedroom,got her eyebrow pencil and painted a mustach on my face and went out into the rough city of Chicago and got a job. I have been working ever since that day. Now I am 62 and recovering from an operation to remove a tumor near my brain and I must make the best of living within the means of a small pension. Places like Thailand one can live a little better with a small income,and this is why many expats are looking at far away places for survival. I am a private person, I stay to myself, and I use to be head cook in some fine restaurant, and help my grand parents on their farm. I am no stranger to Nature. But life goes on and we must adjust our live to meet the
the changes in our world.
By Oscar, Birmingham (6th August 2013)
OMG! Maya thank you so much for you insight on Thailand. My hubby and I were considering moving to Thailand in another year or so, since we are done with the 9-5 routine, always running to get something done, etc.....but we are terrified!! we are not wealthy people we are just PUERTORICANS/ITALIANS regular joe's.....and reading some articles scared the living bejesus out of me...my hubby doesn't care he says lets just do it! i would love to just pick up and go...God Bless you!!
By Millie, New Jersey, USA (6th August 2013)
Super essay, Maya. This sentence in particular reminds me of my trips to Bangkok: "Now, I can't even go for a walk past 8 pm because it gets dark out and the crazy stray dogs try to kill you if you walk when it's dark.”
By Robert Morrissey, Placentia, California (10th June 2013)
I enjoyed the comments made on Life in Thailand for expat. I plan to move there in the next couple years. I have also visited France, England,China and Germany. I have had more problem in Alabama where I was born than anywhere else. I wonder is this because I am Black.
By Oscar williams, Alabama (7th May 2013)
I loved this article. My family and I moved to Northeastern China close to 2 years ago. It truly made me laugh out loud at some of your statements because we have similar experiences. Like going to the dr and being examined in a room with other people present. Getting stared at like a circus freak, but one thing we had that you don't is children. Here children are national treasures and so people dote on them. As western children they were not used to total strangers touching them and patting them and telling them how beautiful they are. Thanks for sharing your adventures. It was insightful and made me giggle all in one.
By Karen, China (27th April 2013)
I loved reading this!! I'm moving to Thailand at the end of summer for the exact same reasons you mentioned. Life in Canada can be so BORING! I used to live in rural Tajikistan (yeah... I know) and I find myself in a constant state of trying to get back to that way of life. I miss it so much. Hopefully, moving to Thailand will satisfy this
By Kaitlyn, Kitchener Ontario (22nd April 2013)
Well written and some interesting observations Maya. I moved to a village not far from you from Melbourne in Australia and am similarly employed as an English teacher. Yes the people here are hard working and simple living and also possess a simple attitude to life. Something is either black or white or "up to you". In other words they are very tolerant of outsiders as long as you try to fit in (never really but we can try) and always remember to smile even when you really want to pull your hair out and scream "that's not how we do things back home".
Because you're not in Kansas anymore Dorothy and the locals won't understand why you're having a "farang moment".
Cheers and good luck
By Stuart, Chatturat North Thailand (31st March 2013)
Nicely written article! What is wild is that your words essentially echo my mindset and I have been looking to join a teaching program in Thailand or Vietnam. Do you have any recommendations on a program for a first timer?
By Rohit, Los Angeles (10th December 2012)
The underlying message of her article seems to be that foreign teachers should just be quiet and do as they are told. And the Thai teachers? WEll, they are near perfect. If there are any problems, it is always the foreigners fault.
Foreigners should expect to see a culture that is different from theirs, we are told. That may be so, but this is what they really should expect:
They should be expected to be paid late. And not only that, they should expect that they will be given less than the full amount at times. And forget about vacation pay. During the long break, foreign teachers should not expect any pay. And the agents will ensure this, by giving you less than a full year contract!
While this is not nearly the half of it, what was outlined above is basically what a foreign teacher should more or less expect here.
By mike smith, Rayong (25th July 2012)
This is a lovely piece of writing, Maya. Some of the things you describe as essentially Thai are characteristics that many of my middle aged friends in US are discovering as desired virtues in light of the disappointing downturn in life there. I enjoyed comparing what you wrote with my coming to Thailand in 1964, you can see a little of village life in Isaan in a little video I did http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8AwNWAee_ds
By Dick Meehan, Bnagkok (28th June 2012)
Thank you so much, you put a lot of effort in :)
By Amy, UK (England, Lancashire) (24th June 2012)
A superb article! I feel you on much of the things that you are writing about, especially those odd moments where you just wonder "what the h...." is happening right now?"
Since Im currently studying the Thai language since feb, Ive been experiencing much of the things that you also have which makes me feel somehow familiar with it all, so to say. Being a farang in Thailand isnt a sweet walk all of the time but hey, it surely beats living in farang land, working 9 to 5 5 days a week.
If you have the time, please take a look at my blog: http://www.swedinasia.blogg.se
By Oskar, Koh lanta, Thailand (21st June 2012)
Don't you ever lose that insatiable zest for life. One of your best qualities!
By Tera, Toronto (21st June 2012)
Great article Maya. Your mom shared...she is so proud of you!
By Alessia, (18th June 2012)
Well done Maya, it is so nice to see another adventurer turn their back on the ease of living in a place that has been well established by expats. For the first 2 years I was the only westerner within 20 km. in any direction and loved it!
Fight to keep your dream alive and keep writing as you're helping more people than you know have a chance to live a little dream by reading about yours. After being here 5 years I hate to imagine ever going back home to stay. I find the Issan life experience a never ending adventure.
By Dave, Not quite deepest Issan (17th June 2012)
Wow - wish I was there to share your amazing experience! Very well written.
By Latikateli, Toronto (16th June 2012)
Maya I can truly hear your voice in these words...your wit, humour and charm shine through and make for an informative and fun read.
I hope you find what you are looking for, nobody deserves happiness and success more :)
By Anu, Toronto (14th June 2012)
Very nice Mayaya. We are all proud of you :)
By Neil, Canada (14th June 2012)
Well written, Maya! You should feel very proud and also priviledged to be able to live your dream. Most people dream and it remains a dream. It takes a lot of courage to leave your comfortable life behind and go to unknown territory. Keep it up, you set a good example
By Naina Sodha, Birmingham (14th June 2012)
"remember that you're still living a dream that so many people would love to live."
Well said, and a great article with well placed humor, feeling, and things to reflect on. I've been living in Thailand for 9 months now, not a teacher and in the city instead of the country, but I can still relate to a lot of what you wrote. It's amazing how people think things are "normal" b/c that's what they've experienced at home. Come live in a totally different country, throw "normal" out the window, and expand your horizons in the process.
By the way, you're a talented writer. If you ever get bored with country living and/or teaching, you might consider breaking into the travel industry, for someone like travelfish.org, for example.
By Dave, Bangkok (14th June 2012)
Really enjoyed this article - humorous and very well written. I left a life of mundane monotony last year too - don't regret it at all. Its nice to be free and to feel alive.
By Stuart Meikle, 50/50 time between UK and Thailand (14th June 2012)
Maya I am so proud of you. You have managed to write your blog in a very simple yet humorous way. Keep it up. Can't wait to read about your other experiences.
By Nayna Dattani, Canada (13th June 2012)
Lovely post,Maya! Loved reading your perspective on life, lifestyle and change. Looking forward to seeing you soon in Canada! Hoping you find all the right answers in life....
By Falguni, Canada (13th June 2012)
Maya, were you a writer in a past life? If not, you may have missed your calling! That's a compliment.
Just remember that one can never be really prepared for culture shock and it affects everyone differently. Thanks for reminding me why I never had any desire to live upcountry in Thailand. You said, 'remember that you're still living a dream that so many people would love to live.' And it's important to realize that a lot of people would dread having your experience. Ask any lifelong 'Bangkokian' if they would drop everything to live in your environment (for double their current salary). It would be sorta like asking if someone from London or New York would be interested in living deep within Appalachia, the Ozarks or the Tasmanian bush just for the adventure of it.
By Lisa, (13th June 2012)
A well-written blog. . . full of humour and emotion. I hope Maya writes more of these in the future, describing her unique experiences that most of us only dream of having!
By Dinesh, Somewhere in Canada (13th June 2012)
Hi Maya, Just wanted to thank you for writing this! I am in a similar situation as you were, but I am held back from taking the plunge by family ties and fears of what will await me. I hope I one day have the courage to do what you did! Your blog inspires me.
By Nancy, Australia (13th June 2012)
"A wise man once said, with great power comes great responsibility. I believe that man was Spider Man's uncle" cited: Maya Dattani, March 2011 - addressing graduating students at Ryerson Unviersity.
Always a source for inspiration. But seriously the most caring and genuine person I've ever met.
By G, Toronto (13th June 2012)
Nice Blog Maya. A great way to share your experiences with others. You truly are a brave and adventurous person. We hope to visit you there before you're gone...will call you to coordinate
By Roni Dattani, Melbourne, Australia (13th June 2012)
Enjoyed reading this - thanks
By Paul, canada (13th June 2012)
There is true beauty in your writing. I am happy to read your interpretations of balance between different lifestyles and cultures. Our world is rich in those things and I hope that others will spend there time as you have; by escaping your comfort zone of preinterpreted knowledge and replacing it with the fruits of wisdom that are revealed within this life.
By Giac, Our world (13th June 2012)
Amazing experiences wonderfully nerrated ! You left me chuckling as I read along the fluid flow of all your thoughts and observations. Simultaneously I nodded along as I could recognise that the words accurately capture many aspects of life in the east as well as the west. This is a gem of a blog ! Thank you Maya !
By Surendra D. Dattani, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada (12th June 2012)
What an amazing post, thanks so much! This is motivating me to follow in your footsteps :)
By Benjamin, Canada (12th June 2012)
nice story... well written and fun to read. i've been in rural thailand going on 17 years now and still find it as amazing of an adventure as you do. kudos for breaking out of your rut... best wishes for finding your niche in life (which just may be the life you're living right now - 17 years from now you could still be writing the same story!) ;)
By tee-cheu, rural thailand (12th June 2012)