6 Things I Wish My Family & Friends Understood About Thailand

My wife and I have lived in Bangkok for over three years. Yet, despite countless video chats, Facebook posts, and even visitors, our family and friends still have so many misconceptions about what our lives are like here.

Perhaps it’s because when people hear ‘Thailand’ they conjure up images of pristine beaches, jungles, elephants and local villages. Or perhaps it’s because Americans typically have little international travel experience compared to other developed countries, a likely result of their little vacation time (typically just two weeks a year) and relative isolation compared to other countries.

Regardless, there are certain things that no matter how many times we tell them, our family and friends just never seem to fully understand about living in Thailand…

We Don’t Get Sick From Eating Street Food or Ice

things i wish people knew about thailand

By Göran Ingman (CC BY 2.0 licence)

I’ve been sick only one time since moving to Asia. And that was in India where I got the ever so common “Delhi Belly.” In fact, I was so sick that I literally threw up inside the Taj Mahal. Several times.

But in Thailand, I’ve never gotten sick. And I eat street food almost every day. Moreover, not only have I never gotten sick from drinking the ice here, but in talking to a fellow expat who’s lived here for thirty years, he told me that he’s never heard of a single foreigner getting sick in Thailand from the ice (presumably because everyone, including the street vendors, uses filtered ice).

In fact, the only time I’ve gotten sick from eating in the past few years is when I’ve over indulged in Western food, notably on my trip back to the States this past summer.

At Least in Bangkok, There’s Nothing I Miss That I Can’t Get

When my wife and I first moved to Thailand, our parents would often send us care packages with such basic necessities as toothpaste, deodorant, gum and candy. And while I was always grateful, it also always amused me that they apparently thought we couldn’t find these things in Bangkok.

To the contrary, not only can we find all of life’s staple goods, but at least in Bangkok, there’s really nothing (besides family and friends) that we miss from back home that we can’t find here.

Gourmet Market brewdog beer

From Scottish craft brewery, Brewdog

Whether it’s something as obvious as a good burger, Mexican, pizza (did I mention I like food?), a Hollywood movie, Starbucks, or something more specific like Krispy Kreme donuts, deep dish pizza, Garrett Popcorn (like deep dish pizza, also originally from Chicago, my home town), or Dairy Queen, with rare exceptions (a good, substantially sized sandwich is hard to come by in Bangkok), there’s nothing available back home that we can’t find here.

It might cost us a little more sometimes, but if you want something, you’re almost always guaranteed to find it in Bangkok. Either at a restaurant, department store, local market, or if all else fails, any number of Villa Markets — if you want it, chances are you can find it (or something remarkably similar) in Bangkok. Which brings me to my next point…

Thailand is Not a 3rd World Country and Bangkok is a 1st World City

Sure, parts of Thailand (like Isaan, the local villages around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai) might be considered third world, but Thailand, as a whole, cannot realistically be considered a third world country.

The infrastructure, Western amenities, and sheer number of world-class resorts, spas and golf courses belie any claim that Thailand is third world. Having visited a country like India, including its capital city, Delhi, and biggest tourist attraction city, the Taj Mahal in Agra, there is simply no comparison.

I would probably categorize Thailand as a second world country, but with the caveat that Bangkok is without a doubt a first world city.

Yes, Bangkok, like any city with 8 million people, has plenty of poor neighborhoods, but take one stroll through Siam and its world-class malls or down Sukhumvit to Central Embassy, Emporium or Emquartier, and you can’t credibly argue that Bangkok is anything short of first class.

bangkok best city

By Mike Behnken (CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

No matter how many times I’ve see it, I still can’t get over the concept of seeing Lamborghini dealerships, water parks, aquariums where you can scuba dive with sharks, grocery stores, food courts and luxury cinemas that rival anywhere else in the world, all under one roof.

What amazes me most, however, is not just that these places are found in the tourist hubs of Siam and Sukhumvit, but that every neighborhood in Bangkok seems to have its own beacon or oasis of opulence.

Whether it’s Lad Prao, Bangkapi (where I stay on the weekends), Bang Na (where I stay during the week) or Mo Chit, each one seems better than the last.

There’s even a free-standing “supercar” dealership (Niche Cars) right down the street from me in Hua Mak. Who in Hua Mak is walking into those dealerships and buying a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Aston Martin?! The same can be said for the countless Pradas, Guccis, Louis Vuittons, world-class restaurants and 5* hotels found throughout the city. Certainly not citizens of anything less than a first class/world city.

Just Because I teach English in Thailand Doesn’t Mean I Live in a Village and Teach Little Kids

No matter how many times I’ve told my friends — even after three years of living here — many of them still think I teach little kids and likely think I live in a village too.

what I wish people knew about living in thailand

To the contrary, I teach at a private, international university in Bangkok. In addition to English, I’ve also taught several law classes, including Contracts, Torts and Legal Writing. And contrary to popular conception, I don’t live in a village. Instead, courtesy of my university, my wife and I have two homes in Bangkok.

During the week we stay at our suburban campus in Bang Na where we teach, located about an hour outside of Bangkok. This campus, complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, basketball courts, a student union, a cafeteria, a plethora of Asian and international restaurants, could rival any American university in terms of grandeur and facilities.

In fact, rarely a day goes by when I don’t see a wealthy Bangkokian couple taking their wedding photos at our university, which has also been the setting for many Thai and even international films, and is also home to one of the tallest educational buildings in the world.

Before we moved to Thailand, I told my wife that my prerequisites for finding a teaching position were teaching university students (I don’t have the patience for little kids or even high schoolers) and state of the art facilities. Our university has been so much more to us.

But for some reason, no matter how many times I’ve told them nor how many pictures of my university and students I’ve posted on social media, my friends (and even my own sister!) still often think I teach little kids in a village.

My Wife and I Are Not the Only Westerners Doing What We’re Doing

Thailand is a huge expat country and Bangkok in particular has a huge expat community. Consequently, my wife and I are far from the only Westerners, or even Americans, doing what we’re doing.

Sure, when I first left my cushy law firm job back in New York several years ago I was very worried about ‘throwing my career away’. But once I let go of the initial fear, I’ve never looked back and have never been happier.

While many Westerners — and Americans in particular — get so caught up in the rat race that they can never seem to escape it, for those that do, they come to realize that there are countless ways to live your life. And in fact, there are thousands (or more) of people doing exactly what we’re doing here in Thailand, or similarly living life on their own terms rather than doing what they think society expects them to do.

In addition to teaching, my wife and I also run a travel blog, and in that capacity, over the last several years, we’ve come across many of these similarly-minded folk. And each time I come across another one, I get a little more satisfaction knowing that we’re not the only ones.

Particularly with the advent of technology and the growing mobility of the workforce, I think the typical 9-5 office job is a dying species. And come ten to twenty years from now, I think the decisions my wife and I have made will become the norm or certainly at least more commonplace. Until then, however, as one of my favorite expressions goes: you can’t make decisions for other people, so don’t let other people make decisions for you.

Thailand Feels Much Safer Than My Home Country, and Bangkok Feels Much Safer Than My Hometown

Of all the misconceptions about Thailand, perhaps none irks me more than people thinking it’s not safe. Sure, like any country, it has its problems and Bangkok as a city has its share of problems too. But when compared to where I’m from (the USA, and Chicago in particular), I feel leaps and bounds safer here than I do back home.

what I wish people knew about living in thailand

In that regard, it particularly annoys me when, in the few instances where something bad has happened here (for instance, the Erawan Shrine bomb last year and the recent multiple resort bombings — both unprecedented events for Thailand), my friends and family immediately reach out to make sure I’m okay.

As my wife likes to tell me, I know they’re only doing it out of love and concern, but still, how would they feel if every time there was a mass shooting in America (approximately 20 under Obama’s presidency alone), or even just a ‘routine’ homicide in Chicago (it’s had over 2,500 shootings and 425 homicides this year alone, and just a few weeks ago they had a record thirteen homicides in a single day), I emailed/called them to make sure they were okay.

I read the Chicago Tribune online every day, and without fail, the lead story is always how many people died from gun violence the night before. Though I know Thailand, much like the US, has a serious gun problem, it doesn’t seem to affect or consume everyday life here like it does in America, at least for foreigners.

On one of our first nights back in the US this summer while visiting family and friends, my wife and I went to a nightclub in Las Vegas. While we were there, at another nightclub in Florida, a mass murder was taking place which resulted in 49 deaths and 53 wounded. All I could think about for the rest of my time in America was how that could have been me and my wife.

To the extent there is violence (gun or otherwise) in Thailand, it mostly seems to be confined to Thai on Thai violence, the result of gang affiliation, saving face, domestic disputes or political strife. In fact, I can count on a single hand the number of foreigner homicides I’ve heard about since moving to Thailand three years ago. And when farangs do find themselves in trouble over here, it’s often a result of their own misbehavior.

Lastly, although Thailand is technically currently under military control, a fact my American friends love to point out in an effort to demonize it, it still feels far safer than the democracy in my home country. In fact, after each new mass murder or Chicago homicide, I’ve often said I wish my own country would follow Thailand’s lead and use military power to resolve its glaring gun problem.

While I know it’s a rather radical idea, it’s no more radical than checking the news every single day and reading about the latest record-setting number of homicides with no change or end in sight… and having to refrain myself from reaching out to my family and friends to ensure they weren’t one of the latest victims.


What do you wish the people back home knew about Thailand?