Things I miss about Thailand
Sense of community and the pace of life to name just two
"I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember." - Evelyn Waugh
Southeast Asia: the name of the region brings up associations with coconuts, bananas, beaches, the infamous Golden Triangle, beautiful women, and adventure. People often expect me to have stories like a character in a Graham Greene novel or a National Geographic anthropologist.
And Bangkok: city of angels, food, sounds, smells, traffic, cacophony, piety, sin, contradiction, luxury malls, expat lewdness, ostentatious wealth alongside abject destitution, and a truly idiosyncratic sex industry. How did I manage to live so far from home in such a strange place for several years? And how have I changed as a result of my experiences there?
I cannot answer these questions right now. My self-awareness hasn't caught up with my new surroundings. What I have noticed, however, is that there are many things about Asia that I miss. I believe it was Warren Miller who said, "Once you take that first lift ride, your life will be messed up forever." Warren was of course referring to skiing, but I guess it's the same when a man travels to Asia. That singular mixture of chaos and confusion becomes an addiction, and wanderlust has no cure but more travel and novelty.
I have been living in the US for the past several months, living a peripatetic and nomadic existence that is in many ways far more adventurous than the relatively quotidian and pedestrian life I lived as a teacher in Bangkok. To my surprise, there has been little reverse culture shock. In fact, I even like the comparative lack of bureaucracy and increase in order. How does Thailand manage to have more bureaucracy and yet more chaos as well? God knows, but that's part of its appeal, isn't it?
Then again, there are far more petty rules in the West: no smoking outside of bars in New York (I don't smoke, but really?), open container laws, jaywalking laws much stricter than those in Singapore, etc. I suppose I will have to get used to this before I try to bribe my way out of a traffic ticket.
With climate change increasing the heat, the temperature in Colorado, where I am currently working on an organic farm, has not even been all that different from Bangkok's, though the humidity is of course greatly lessened. Western toilets are a nice perk, which you don't always find in Thailand.
I find that there are many things about life in Southeast Asia that I miss. Here are a few notable ones:
There are certainly some foods I am enjoying eating more often in the US, including French and Mexican cuisines, which are hard to find in Bangkok, but finding authentic Thai food has been near impossible so far. That blend of chili, Thai basil, and garlic that stimulates the senses isn't there any more, and I find myself adding copious amounts of garlic to everything I cook. The variety in the States is nice, but it's hard to beat the flavor of a good, Thai meal.
Everything in the US is at least twice as expensive. Certainly, things such as shaving cream are much cheaper, but overall living costs go up significantly. This does come with better infrastructure, but not as much better as you would expect. It seems like the US is pretty far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to public transport, health care, and Internet access.
Overt Friendliness and Smiles
In most of the ASEAN region, but in Thailand and Laos especially, people were so friendly and helpful, accompanied by ubiquitous smiles. Even the language barriers did not mask the genuine curiosity and kindness of many people I encountered, particularly in Isaan and southern Laos. Almost everyone I have met in the US has been incredibly polite, helpful, and kind, but the playful mannerisms and smiles are gone. The kindness is there, but the hospitality and joviality are gone.
Pace of Life
I may not be living in a fast-paced area of Manhattan or Chicago, but there seems to always be more pressure to "do something" here in the West. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The "mai pen rae" attitude in Thailand usually frustrated me. However, now that it's gone, I sometimes miss the days I spent idly wandering the streets of Bangkok, looking for serendipitous adventure.
In Thailand, you can show up to a bus at 11:00 pm at night to go from Bangkok to Trat (about 6 hours away). Most bus routes longer than an hour in the US stop at about 7 pm. It certainly takes some getting used to. Taxis are far too expensive in the US. Ubers may be more reliable here than in Thailand, but you would be surprised how many towns still don't have Uber in the States.
Sense of Community
In many ways I would prefer a more integrated expat-Thai community in Bangkok, but many expats tend to congregate together. I disliked it at the time, but now that it's no longer there for me, I miss that sense of community. In a country with people from similar backgrounds such as the US, you have to work harder to find your own community of people with similar interests. Thank God for apps such as Meetup.
Now, I am off to new adventures. In September, I will be moving to Monrovia, Liberia for at least four months. T.I.T. (This Is Thailand) becomes T.I.A. (This is Africa). I am excited for my new travels, but I do hope to see Thailand again. Off to sign up for The North Face 100 km race in Khao Yai I suppose!
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I would go back to Thailand again. I might have only spent 6 months teaching English before moving on to test prep stuff (I spent one year teaching English), but you live and learn. I would have also tried to travel more (for 4 day holidays etc.). Overall though, I had a blast!
By Will, California (24th August 2016)
I'm actually only in the US for a few months so buying a vehicle isn't really a good investment. And I actually did use my degree while in Thailand. I did test prep and college counseling at an education start-up, a job I would not have gotten without having attended a well-regarded school and scoring in the top 1% on my standardized tests.
I actually found life in Bangkok to not be very stressful. Sure, I worked 6 day weeks some times, and the city could be chaotic. However, it was always easy to find a cab to go somewhere, there was always something to do, decent medical care was readily available, and rent was quite cheap. You can find a nice one bedroom apartment off of Sukhumvit for under 25,000 baht. In many cities in the US, you are lucky to find a small room to rent for that. And jobs in the US don't necessarily pay more. Many jobs in the US start out at only 30-40k ish right out of college.
I will be going to Liberia for a fellowship in microfinance. I am excited to see whether I enjoy international development work. I did farming for 6 weeks because I had always been interested in health, food, and botany. In addition, I could get free food and lodging through the WWOOFing program :)
By Will, California (24th August 2016)
Colorado Springs is quite nice. I have been there twice in 2002 and 2007.
You have a lot of concerns about the cost and availability of transport. Why not just buy an affordable vehicle?
What is your background, assuming that you attended and completed university? Why not put your degree to work and build on your skill set? I never understood individuals that would spend $100k+ in the USA for a degree that they will never use. What drove you to go to Thailand in the first place, and why did you leave??
I found teaching in Thailand to be enormously stressful, and I had an easy schedule and cooperative students. But the stress - pollution, traffic, lack of sleep, etc. was something I certainly don't miss, and I live in a big city. I loved my time in Bangkok - loved the city, the country, and the people. The food was really good too, but it is just food. Not something high on the priority and decision-making list. I completed 14 months of teaching in BKK, and that was more than enough. I wouldn't go back. Comparing to the pros and cons of Thailand and American, I find life here in America wins every time.
What type of work are you interested in? Do you work on farms because it is an available job, or because you enjoy the work? I am intrigued and curious about your upcoming move to Liberia. What is that all about? The pollution there is far worse than Thailand.
Whatever the reason(s), I hope that you happy and find what your are looking for.
By Erin, San Jose, CA (10th August 2016)
So would you do the Thailand thing again if you started over? I spent two weeks there last winter. I am thinking of going there longer term. Ben
By Ben, Minnesota (10th August 2016)
I'm actually living just outside of Colorado Springs, a relatively large city, right now, but I haven't really settled anywhere and have been working on farms and traveling for the past couple of months. I have been provided with housing wherever I've been working, but talking to my friends in NY shows me just how pricey rent can be.
I lived in a small town in Western Colorado for 3 weeks, and the bus system near Aspen was quite good, but if you were at all off the main route, there was no public transport available (no uber, lyft, buses, taxis, etc.). There are plenty of places in Thailand without decent public transport, but a tuk tuk or motorbike taxi is never far away.
I have been learning to cook myself. It's really fun to do. Still, I do miss being able to buy whatever snack I see on the road without thinking about a budget. And that mixture of smells (so much garlic) on the streets of Bangkok (excluding the sewage smell of course) was truly heavenly.
By Will, Colorado (6th August 2016)
Thanks for the follow-up comments.
How big is the city/town you are in? I get mixed messages. You implied that there is not major public transport or internet service would suggest it is small, but that would assume that you are not in one of the major US cities where you say rents are astronomical, which is a plus, right?
I suppose you are correct about the size of the city correlating to the efficiency and availability of public transport. Minneapolis has a light rail system, as well as a pretty efficient bus system. I lived in Chicago 6 years and transport is easy to get around, albeit the skytrain is very old and noisy. Perhaps you are missing the "big city" aspect more than anything.
I actually live just outside Minneapolis in a suburb 20 mins out. It is cheaper, less busy, and less stressful. Rents have certainly crept up over the years, but if you live with a friend, or find a roommate on Craigslist, etc. the overall cost is not bad. Do you own a car?
Eating out is certainly more expensive, especially when over-the-top tipping is factored in. However, I learned to cook in the last 6 months or so, watching Youtube videos and reading cookbooks and online guides. I can make about 8 different Thai dishes, as well as many other things. Eventually, the whole idea/convenience of eating out wears off.
I agree with you, and I am sorry I did not clarify: I also feel that there is a big difference between teacher expats and all other expats (working people, not retirees) My general view is that teacher expats are generally lacking something in their lives, and use their experience in Thailand to try and fill that gap. However, I have seen so many teachers I worked with literally go off the rails and it is quite sad. I don't think Thailand changed them for the better in these cases.
By Stephen, Minneapolis (4th August 2016)
Thanks for your comment. The post wasn't meant to be about getting over something. I am still glad I left Thailand, but I felt that I should write about some of the good things I miss. Just for fun I suppose.
Regarding your other comments, you may be right about public transport in major cities, but there are many small towns without even uber, let alone a decent bus system. I have also found the internet access to be relatively poor in many parts of the country. Not as bad as the internet in small towns in Thailand, but about on par with Bangkok's.
Yes, many people make more in the US, but in Thailand there were many months where I was able to save 2k US per month while still eating out and living without a roommate. I made more or less a western salary but still. I don't see that happening in the US even with a high salary as eating out and renting decent apartments is so expensive. I hear Minneapolis isn't too bad, but there are many major cities in the US where renting a room (not an apartment, but a room) for under 1000 dollars per month is out of the question.
For the expat community, I actually wasn't referring to teacher expats specifically. Most of the expats I interacted with were in completely different industries, which was great. In what other country could one find an editor of the Bangkok Post, private equity financiers, gems dealers, and yes teachers all in the same bars?
By Stephen, Colorado (4th August 2016)
***Everything in the US is at least twice as expensive.***
True, but wages are MORE than twice as much as Thailand here. I am making almost 3x as much as I did in Thailand and I am not working harder/longer either. In Thailand, money was always a thing...budgeting, planning, etc. In the US, it is not an issue. I earn significantly more than I spend, and it is not a constant overhang.
***It seems like the US is pretty far behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to public transport, health care, and Internet access.***
The US is behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to internet access? I highly doubt it. Also, as far as public transport goes, if you are speaking about local transport, and live in a major city, it is generally pretty good.
***In many ways I would prefer a more integrated expat-Thai community in Bangkok, but many expats tend to congregate together. I disliked it at the time, but now that it's no longer there for me, I miss that sense of community. ***
To each his own I guess, but I hated the expat community while I was working Thailand. It was interesting that people came from different countries and backgrounds, and provided different insights and viewpoints, but that's about it. I found the teacher expats to be self-centered and always clinging to a cheap bottle of Leo after work.
Liberia should be a good experience for you, but it won't be like Thailand (which is a good thing). As far as your experiences in Thailand go, you will get over it. You need to. Gain from your good memories, learn from your bad ones, and open a new chapter.
By Stephen, Minneapolis (2nd August 2016)
Well written William and echoing a lot of my own personal sentiments. I was in the LOS for several years teaching and the transition back to Toronto has been baffling at times. Great piece! Good luck on your upcoming adventures.
By Zach, Toronto, Canada (29th July 2016)
Best of luck in your future adventures!
By Jack, In front of my computer (29th July 2016)