The very first time I went to Thailand, or more specifically Bangkok, was back in summer 2010. I had been living in China for nearly a year, and I had a decent amount of travel experience under my belt. That said, I’ll never forget how blown away I was seeing Bangkok for the first time, and I immediately put it on my “places to possibly live in the future” list following that trip. And what do you know, in April 2012, almost exactly two years later, I was doing just that. And three years after that, in April 2015, I knew my time in Thailand had reached an end, and it was time to move on, experience a new country, and continue learning more about the rest of the world. But I certainly haven’t forgotten Thailand, and I never will. How could I?
Just like China before it, Thailand has been tattooed on my heart forever, and I’ll be returning to the country until the day I die. But what was it about Thailand that made living in the country a mostly fun and enjoyable experience? Everybody raves about Thai food, Thai temples, and Thai women, but there’s actually much more to the country that makes it a decent place to live for a few years. In this article I will point out ten things about Thailand that draw me to the country like a moth to a midnight porch light. We’ve all surely heard praise after praise for the heavily touristed country, but now it’s my turn to stand on the soapbox and give credit where credit is due. Below are the ten things I love(d) the most about Thailand, in no particular order:
1. Life Isn’t Taken So Seriously
We’ve all probably heard about the Thais’ casual “go with the flow” or “mai pben rai” attitude towards life. And while this can sometimes be irritating, it tends to rub off on you. Thais don’t sweat the small stuff, and instead of being like the typical workaholic zombie Americans or Japanese, they also prefer to let things move and get accomplished at a much slower pace. This can lead to much lower productivity on a large scale, but it also leads to much greater happiness on an individual scale. Now I’m not naïve enough to believe that the Thais think everything in their country is just hunky-dory, but I can see from my own personal observations that they’re generally much more content with their lives than the average Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Westerner. So when considering that Thailand is riddled with all the typical problems common in the developing world, I respect how self-content so many Thais can still be.
The Thais also deserve an award for their patience. When dealing with the average person on the street, they keep their calm, never raise their voice, subdue their negative emotions and impulses, and let things happen without raising too much of a fuss. You brought an outside drink into a restaurant? No biggie. You showed up 15 minutes late for work? Oh well, just try to be on time next time. It should be understood that the Thais still of course have their ticks that can piss them off quite quickly, and they also have many uptight cultural expectations, but when it comes to average day-to-day life, they’re a pretty chilled out bunch. One of the first things I notice when leaving Thailand for almost any other non-Southeast Asian country, particularly America and China, is how fast-paced, aggressive, and stressed-out the people look. But when I’m back in Thailand, everyone’s chilled out again, including myself.
2. You’ll Learn How to Look Better
When I initially moved to Thailand, I was a skinny fat semi-nerd with no sense of fashion or style. When I left Thailand, I was a well-dressed health nut with an athletic build. I say this not to toot my own horn or to act like I’m better than anybody, but rather to emphasize what Thai society can do to you. After all, you slowly start to notice when you’re always the worst dressed person in the room, and if you dress like the typical American, that will often be the case. Wearing jeans to work, a polo shirt to a play, or yoga pants to the supermarket just isn’t going to cut it in Thailand – well, if you actually want to be respected, that is. You’ve got to do better than that.
Thai hyper-superficiality may seem (or very well be) shallow, but you gotta admit that the average Thai takes good care of his or her appearance. Some of the most beautiful teeth I have ever seen were in Thailand, which is in stark contrast to the mostly bad teeth I see in both China and Japan. The Thais are also very good at making their outfits match, as well as color-coordination – none of this deliberate mismatching nonsense that I see so often in China and Japan. And let’s not forget the Thais’ excellent sense of personal hygiene. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a nationality of people as well-bathed and as well-groomed as the Thais. Other than the homeless, rarely will you meet a crusty or smelly person in Thailand. This often even extends to slack jawed yokels from rural areas.
Always having to look your best can certainly be tiring, but I walked away from Thailand as a person who learned to take pride in my appearance, and I think I’m much less lazy in my grooming and clothing habits now as a result. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to the way I used to be, and I believe that’s a good thing. I thank Thailand for being the catalyst I needed to start looking better, making myself presentable, and getting rid of old, sloppy grooming habits.
3. Its Proximity to Other Countries
I did more traveling during my three years in Thailand than I did during all of my life’s previous years combined. Thailand is right smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia, and getting from country to country in the region is mostly simple and low-cost. There are affordable and decent overnight trains from Bangkok to both Laos and Malaysia. Cambodia and Myanmar are a simple bus ride away. Southern China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines are all only a few hours or less away by budget plane.
When living in Thailand, you have no one to blame but yourself for not getting more overseas travel experience under your belt. It always amazed me when I met fellow foreigners who had been living in Thailand for years, yet they had done practically no traveling during that time. Thailand is the perfect gateway to the region, and the Thais have countless holidays and breaks from school and work, so use those to your advantage and get out there and learn more about the world.
Also due to its central location and history, Thailand is somewhat of a mishmash of its neighbors all mixed into one. It has a little bit of everything – the religion of old China and India, as well as their cooking influences (curry and stir-frying), the beautiful traditional architecture of Cambodia and Laos, the lavish Buddhist temples of Myanmar, the picturesque beaches of Malaysia and the Philippines, the grand shopping malls of Singapore, the tropical weather and laid-back attitudes common in the region, and so on. While you can find almost anything good in Thailand elsewhere, Thailand is really the only country I’ve seen that combines all these great things together. This is surely one of the reasons so many Westerners and Asians alike enjoy traveling to and making Thailand their new adopted homeland.
4. Endless Photo Opportunities
Thailand is an extremely vibrant country – both culturally and visually – and culture and vibrancy are two of the main ingredients in good travel photography. Walking around almost anywhere in the country, especially in Bangkok, I see endless photo opportunities all around me. In overly developed countries like the United States, Japan, and Singapore, I often feel like I have to search hard to find good photo ops, but in Thailand it’s the other way around – good photo ops find me.
One thing I’ll forever miss about living in Bangkok is just riding around on my bicycle with my camera in tow and taking pictures of anything and everything I saw. I really didn’t need much money to be entertained in Bangkok, as being a photographer in the city was entertainment enough. The buildings, the food, the people, the temples, the colors, and the street life – they’re all photogenic in Thailand. And there’s no need to go to over-touristed sites like the Grand Palace or the Erawan Shrine to get good photos (not that those are bad), rather just stand on a pedestrian overpass or point your camera outside your apartment or hotel window facing the street, and chances are they’ll be plenty to photograph.
If you need proof, just check out Stickman Bangkok’s long archive of weekly columns and see all the gorgeous photos he’s taken of Thailand over the years. Prepare to be dazzled.
5. Year-round Hot Weather
No praise for Thailand list would be complete without first mentioning the country’s tropical weather. Some people despise heat and humidity, but I am not one of them. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved heat and the summer, and I’ve always despised cold and the winter. I think this has something to do with the fact that I was born in the summer. So naturally, moving to Thailand, a country where I never have to own winter clothes, was a huge plus for me. Multiply this by ten when you consider I moved to Thailand directly from frigid northeast China. With the exception of a few weeks out of the year, most of Thailand is always blazing hot year-round.
Granted, the lack of seasonal change can slowly grow dull, but all it takes is one day back in cold weather for me to be reminded again about how much I miss Thailand’s weather. Up here in Northeast Asia, winters are long, drawn-out, and depressing. The line between winter and spring and autumn and winter is a blurry one. Give me a Thai winter over this nonsense any day.
But that’s not to say that constant heat doesn’t have its drawbacks. Endlessly sweating, getting sunburned, constantly having to change and wash clothes, having to be dolled up in body-smothering clothes (Thai vanity, remember?), and constantly having to replace clothes worn out from sweat are just a few of the things I hate about never-ending heat. But on the other hand, always having sunshine, constantly being in a positive mood, having one third the usual wardrobe, never having to check the weather forecast, and getting to wear a T-shirt and shorts year-round are well worth the trade-off.
6. Strong Flavors
Thai cuisine seems to be unanimously liked among foreigners in the country. Sometimes I think Thai cuisine gets a little too much credit, as I like the food in neighboring Malaysia even more, but I’d be a dirty liar if I said Thai cuisine wasn’t any good. But to me it’s not necessarily the food itself I love so much, but rather the Thai preference for strong, bursting flavors. This is quite similar to Indian cuisine, which is all about spices and fragrance, but the polar opposite of Japanese cuisine, which is all about subtlety. I’m a man with two weaknesses in food, spicy and sweet, and lucky for me, Thai food is all about those two flavors.
The Thais are not shy about adding chili peppers to their food, and I think that’s just awesome. I respect other people who can handle some heat in their food. After all, having a little kick in your food makes the food just that much more interesting to eat. Papaya salad, Thai chicken basil, and Issan-style spicy beef salad – they‘re all so great because they all incorporate chili peppers. The list of great spicy Thai dishes could go on and on.
I also love the endless amount of sweets anywhere and everywhere in Thailand, and if there’s one thing that the Thais are truly gifted at, it’s making savory sweets. Their taste, their texture, their color, their appearance – everything about Thai sweets I find too hard to resist. They’re surely not conducive towards my healthy diet, but they’re so good and fun to eat that they make it worth cheating from time to time. And oh yeah, so many Thai sweets are made from coconut, my favorite fruit in the whole world. So with all these lovely features drawing me in, how could I possibly turn them away? My will power is simply no match for Thai sweets. Just writing these sentences has my mind wandering and my mouth watering. On a side note, Thai cuisine may be relatively easy to find overseas, but authentic Thai sweets are much harder to come across, so enjoy them while you can while you’re still in Thailand.
7. Bangkok, the City That’s Never Boring
If you’re in Bangkok, and you can’t find anything to do, then you must not be trying very hard. Bangkok is easily one of the most exciting cities in Asia – it has a bustling street life, a world-famous naughty nightlife, a never-ending supply of eager bachelorettes, thousands of fascinating Buddhist temples, thousands of sois (alleys) and khlongs (canals) to explore, hundreds of markets, hundreds of world-class shopping malls, photo opportunities up the wazoo, and food everywhere you turn. I could go on and on. Get off the beaten tourist track, and you’ll be even more pleasantly surprised, as there’s a lot of mystery waiting to be unlocked in the city.
One thing an American buddy and I used to do in Bangkok every month or so was simply take the skytrain, the underground subway, or the river boat, and then get off at a random station and just walk around and explore. We’d always see something new and different no matter where we went. Here we’d see some strange graffiti, right there we’d see a temple we never noticed before, and over there we’d see a street vendor selling some snacks for cheap. We rarely paid much to do what we did either – never more than a thousand baht or so (about $30 US) for the entire day and night, but usually only around 500 baht (about $15). Our bellies and our cameras’ SD cards were full, our wallets still had cash in them, we got to learn something new about our host city, and we always just had an all-around great time exploring. Bangkok provides so many opportunities to just get out of the home and do or see something. Bangkok is not the city for aspiring homebodies.
Bangkok is also a city that seemingly always has something major going on. The political protests of 2010, 2013, and 2014, the floods of 2011, the annual water fights in the streets during Songkran festival in April, the masses of people who pour into the streets of Rattanakosin during the King’s birthday in December, and so on. Sometimes these things are not always for the better, but you’ve got to admit that they make the city feel livelier as a result. Culture and action are in your face in Bangkok, and I think that’s mostly a good thing. “Boring” and “Bangkok” don’t even belong in the same sentence together.
8. It’s Easy to Navigate
For a country that’s still very much in developing mode, you’ve got to give Thailand credit for its decent infrastructure and ease to navigate. Now getting from point A to point B in Bangkok can be like an endurance run, but getting around the country as a whole is still relatively easy and user-friendly for tourists and foreigners. The overnight sleeper trains, the abundance of intercity and inter-provincial buses, the budget airlines, and the ubiquitous songthaew (passenger trucks) all make getting around the country relatively affordable, comfortable, and painless. If you don’t believe me, go to some of Thailand’s neighbors, particularly Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, and try getting around. Prepare to have your mind boggled, and don’t expect too much comfort. When you need to get from one place to the next in Thailand, you’ll likely have a bus, a train, and/or a plane that can take you there. Monopolies on routes are far less common in Thailand than in surrounding countries, and that helps keep things affordable.
Because Thailand is such a hot tourist destination, the locals are also very used to dealing with foreigners, which can be a double-edged sword. On the plus side, signs are usually in both Thai and English, and many locals know enough English that you can at least get what you need accomplished. And chances are, no matter where you’re going in the country, there’s usually at least one other foreigner or two who’ll be on the ride with you, so you rarely feel too much out of place no matter where you’re off to.
9. Being Lonely in Thailand is a Choice
Notice I didn’t title this header as “Thai women” – that was intentional. While I can acknowledge that there are plenty of great Thai women out there, to me, Thai women themselves are not what make the country attractive. Rather it’s the endless amount of romantic and sexual opportunities available to the average Joe foreigner. Whether you’re straight, gay, into trannies, or whatever label you wanna put on your own sexual orientation, there’s plenty of dates and action waiting for you in Thailand. Just be a decent human being who takes decent care of his appearance, and you’ll surely do just fine in Thailand. Okay, so maybe you won’t have access to the upper crust of the country’s most beautiful people, but chances are you’ll still have plenty of decent-looking people who’d like to get to know you more intimately. And if you just can’t manage to meet regular people due to whatever personality or physical defect you might have, there are still plenty of people who would be eager to please you in exchange for a bit of cash.
Colombia may be great all the way on the other side of the world, but Thailand is the ultimate bachelor’s playground on this side of the world. With perhaps the exception of the Philippines and Indonesia, most of Thailand’s neighbors have a much harder dating and romance scene to crack. Those counties tend to work out well for men with compatible personality types and looks, but Thailand’s dating scene is compatible with almost any kind of guy. Now if you’re wanting to settle down, get married, and/or start a family, Thailand has plenty of pitfalls and cultural differences to be aware of, but if it’s just short-term fun and/or companionship you’re after, Thailand is a no-brainer. But there’s one caveat to Thailand’s dating scene: dark-skinned guys are gonna have a much harder time than their lighter-skinned brothers. It’s gonna be an uphill battle for them. I guess no dating scene can be 100% perfect after all.
10. Traditional Thai Architecture
There’s something about traditional Southeast Asian architecture – or more specifically the architecture of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar – that resonates well with me. While I find Northeast Asian architecture to be a bit dull and not to my tastes, that of Southeast Asia is the complete opposite. The very first time I traveled to Thailand, I remember immediately noticing that the architecture was very beautiful, interesting, and full of history and culture. The curves, the colors, the elaborate designs and decorations – it’s all so fascinating and photogenic. I also love the mixture of traditional and modern architecture that one can find in Bangkok – the contrast really stands out and makes the city feel old and new at the same time.
Just like being surrounded by greenery and nature, being surrounded by beautiful and ancient architecture is good for one’s soul, and Thailand certainly has no shortage of amazing temples, palaces, and old buildings for one to see. Your eyes will be pleased and your camera will be very busy. There’s plenty of architectural eye candy all over the country.
Thailand is far from a perfect country – it’s politically unstable, the locals lack much work ethic, there’s a pervasive superiority complex invading the Thai mind, and the cities are filthy and poorly designed – but Thailand is far from boring, and it’s a great place to live for a handful of years. You can let your hair down and not take life so seriously, you can indulge in all kinds of hedonism, you can be surrounded by vibrant culture and architecture, you can get around the country and to its neighbors quite easily, and you can even learn how to look your best more often.
Nevertheless, every country has its limits, and nothing good can last forever. My advice for anyone wanting to live happily in Thailand: don’t get trapped in Thailand for years (or decades) like countless Westerners tend to do, don’t fall for a bargirl, fine-tune your cultural sensitivity, travel outside of Thailand often to keep your perspective sharp and fresh, stay away from politics, and learn to appreciate what’s around you. Follow these rules, and chances are you’ll have a blast for a year or five. I know certainly did, and I’ll forever look at those three years in Bangkok nostalgically. Thailand may be overhyped, but even I can’t deny that it’s a fun, interesting, and vibrant country to travel or live in. I’ll never forget you, Thailand. Thanks for showing me some of the best years of my life!
Look out for part two, “10 Things I Don’t Miss about Thailand,” in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for reading.