Last week marked the one year anniversary of my arrival in the Land of Smiles. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people; to travel extensively throughout the kingdom from Chiang Rai in the north to Trang in the South, from Ubon Ratchathani in the east to Kanchanaburi in the west; and to experience a culture so very different from my own. Here are some reflections back on my first year in this fabulous country.
No matter where you are in Thailand, you are never far from a temple (wat), an ATM, or a 7-Eleven. With a 95% Buddhist population, the large number of wats is not surprising. Indeed, the temples are often the center of a community’s social life, particularly in the up-country (non-Bangkok) areas.
While credit cards are accepted in hotels, restaurants and retail stores, Thailand is a predominately cash economy because so many transactions occur in neighborhood markets and with street vendors. You can use an ATM from any bank to withdraw funds and check your balances anywhere in the country. In Bangkok, I can take out up to 5,000 baht (about $150) from virtually any ATM without a fee from any bank. In the up-country, however, there is usually a 20 or 30 baht fee even for a very small withdrawal.
The 7-Eleven is more than just a 24 hour convenience store. It is also a payment center for utility bills, bank credit cards, etc., as well as a place where you can get a sim card for your cell phone and buy minutes to top up pre-paid calling plans.
You do not run into these in Bangkok or in most up-country hotels and restaurants; from what I understand, they are primarily confined to up-country homes. Thankfully, I have never needed to use one, and let’s be honest — they terrify me! If there is one benefit, I guess, it is that people will not spend all day in the bathroom; no reading — just take care of business and get out.
Cars in Thailand are right-hand drive, i.e., the steering wheel is on the right, and drivers operate the vehicles on the left side of the road. While this is not uncommon — Japan, Australia, the U.K., and India are other left-hand traffic nations, driver behavior and etiquette are pretty unique in Thailand. For example, putting on your turn signal seems to be sufficient to provide you with the right of way. Drivers will often travel on the wrong-side of the road in order to pass other cars that are waiting patiently in a queue. When the driver in the wrong lane encounters an oncoming vehicle, he simply turns on his left signal and merges back into the proper lane. Even in the most congested traffic, drivers will back off to let these people merge in. Remarkable.
In Thailand, left-on-red is the equivalent of right-on-red in the U.S. The difference, however, is that right-on-red requires that a driver first stop and then complete the turn only when there is no oncoming traffic. In Thailand, however, there is always oncoming traffic, so the rule for left-on-red is simply to slow down before turning. As long as your turn signal is on, you implicitly have the right-of-way to make this maneuver.
Traffic rules, of course, do not apply to motorcyclists. Since motorcyclists ride between the cars, I guess that they really take up no additional space on the road, so that makes them exempt from the traffic rules. Moreover, since they are small, they can go the wrong way down the road or even ride on the sidewalk, albeit slowly. The unwritten rule seems to be that there must be at least two persons on each motorcycle; three or four is actually preferred. If there is only one person, then the rule appears to be that he (or she) needs to be talking on a cell phone while driving.
Thailand is hot even in the cool season,nevertheless there are ways to make the heat a bit more bearable. The most obvious is to walk in the shade whenever you have a chance. By avoiding the direct sun, your body does not heat up as rapidly. Many Thai people, particularly women, also use umbrellas, or more accurately parasols, to shade themselves as they walk down the street. Unlike Americans who look for the “healthy” tan, Thai people prize lighter skin, and the shade and parasols give them some protection from the harsh rays.
Wages for most non-professional jobs are quite low in Thailand, so many businesses tend to have lots of staff. At large department stores, it is quite common for there to be four to six people at the cash register taking care of a customer. The sales person carries your goods to the register. Another person rings up the purchase while a third takes care of the credit card transaction. A fourth person puts the items in a bag. Not sure what role the other two people play — perhaps one is a manager and the other a trainee. In any event, they all seem quite pleased that they can help with the transaction.
Our local hospital also has an abundance of personnel. Each department has a nursing station where there are always three or four nurses and three or four staff assistants. Unlike in the U.S., the nurses are dressed in starched whites and look professional. The assistants have a sharp, blue uniform and they accompany the patient from the waiting lounge to the examination room, the pharmacy, the cashier, etc. If you have been waiting awhile, they will inevitably ask you if you would like something to eat or drink.
When checking into a hotel, the guest is inevitably provided with a cool, refreshing drink and often a cold towel. You are typically asked to sit down while the hotel reception verifies the reservation, the room, and the credit card. If you are in a hurry, just relax since nothing ever moves very fast.
Gas stations are all full-service. Once again, there is typically a team of people who will service you car ranging from the person who directs you to the pump, the fellow that fills the tank, the attendant that puts a small board with advertisements on the front hood before cleaning the window, and the cashier. Every gas station has at least a convenience store attached to it and many, particularly on the highways, have coffee shops and food stands as well.
Despite the relative low wages in Thailand, everyone seems to have a modern, up-to-date, phone, e.g., iPhone 4/4s, Android, Blackberry, etc. Cell phones are sold independent of carriers and without service contracts; service fees are quite inexpensive (even for data plans); and users can change carriers at almost anytime. Although I can’t say that I have ever seen one in use, for some reason phone booths and pay phones are still found throughout the city.
Kop Khun Krab.
© 2012 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.