Top 7 essentials for a peaceful and harmonious expat life in Thailand
By: Jamoroki“All the burning bridges that have fallen after me
All the lonely feelings and the burning memories
Everyone I left behind each time I closed the door
Burning bridges lost for evermore.”
(Written by Dave Mustaine. Copyright: Mustaine Music)
The words and the music of the theme song ‘Burning Bridges’, for the 1970 movie ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ starring Clint Eastwood inspired me to write this story. It evokes so many memories and feelings associated with my self-imposed and permanent expatriation from England to South Africa in 1995 at the age of 53. I assumed that my further migration north east from Cape Town to Thailand, in 2008, would be a much easier transition; but strangely, it wasn’t. In fact it proved to be far more difficult for a variety of reasons.
Thailand is unfathomable, baffling, inexplicable, magical, perplexing, puzzling, veiled, enigmatic and secretive; in a word ‘mysterious’. If you stay for long there will be many times when temptation hooks you up to the internet in search of the cheapest air ticket to anywhere. You will feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall and then fall into the trap of making incomparable comparisons with your country of origin as you become bewildered by aesthetic discord, pretence and hypocrisy. Then you hurt your arm and you learn that your village has a ‘Spirit Doctor’ called the ‘Mau Pii’ and he will fix it with black magic. Then you find some monks are involved in sex with minors and take drugs and the ‘Five Precepts’ of Buddhism are ignored by a large percentage of Buddhists . If you are confused then don’t worry you’ve just joined the tribe and that includes many Thais.
The information and knowledge I have gathered whilst observing the peoples of Thailand has opened my eyes and enabled me to learn how to live in peace and harmony in my adopted Country. In my quest to unravel the mysteries I traced Thailand’s history and culture from the beginning of the Tai people’s migration from China, in the 1st century, right through to the start of the 21st century. Knowing how the Country has evolved since the early settlers has helped to give me a better understanding of a society monopolised by ancient cultural values, old religious beliefs and superstitions which, somehow, don’t fit comfortably into modern life. And seeing the younger generation of Thais beginning to challenge some of these values spurred me on.
Between Jun and Sep 2008 I stayed for fifteen weeks on the tropical island of Phuket and it was while based there that I formed my first impressions of Thailand. During this period I began to learn a little of what it would be like to live in Thailand permanently, with the emphasis on little. I had no real intention of settling here at that time but I did glean some valuable information which I have developed significantly since.
Here are my ‘Top 7 essentials for a peaceful and harmonious expat life in Thailand’.
HAVE CLEAR OBJECTIVES – (Be sure why you’re going) - Re-location requires objectivity and clarity of thought. When I travelled south down the spine of Africa, across the Sahara desert, down the Nile and over the Central African rainforests to the bottom of the great continent, I was entering a new world, a new adventure but I was going to work. And I was also to be adopted by a country that had been built by British and Dutch settlers, English speaking people and a westernised culture. However, when I began re-locating for the second time in 2008, thirteen years later, the reasons were very different. I was in semi-retirement from business and I was moving West to East. I needed to be even more clear on my objectives.
BECOME CULTURALLY AWARE – (Prepare to change) - Even with some prior first-hand experience in the form of several short visits and a fair amount of research I was totally unprepared for the massive culture shock that awaited me. Never underestimate it. I was determined not to be influenced by the experiences of others where there is clearly a dichotomy. They should, at best, be taken at face value and used for information only. Most human bodies can adapt to climate change and despite the discomfort of excessive humidity at times, annoying mozzies and ants, you will acclimatise. But understanding a different culture and language, then accepting that you are living with people who will never think the same way as you do is another issue altogether. I could never hope to change a nation of 65 million people so I had to accept that and change myself!
LEAVE YOUR PRECONCEPTIONS BEHIND – (Go with the flow) - Dubbed ‘The Land of Smiles’ Thailand is very adept at creating illusions so how was I to know what is real and what is just a facade? How can I spot the difference? How do I know if someone is faking happiness when they are smiling? And don’t kid yourself that Thais smile any more than any other people. Behind the mask, Thais are just like everyone else; vibrant, moody, intelligent, argumentative, adorable and stubborn people. Thailand is an irresistible, captivating, beautiful and enthralling land. Enjoy the experience but take the blinkers off. Contradiction, controversy, confusion, frustration, weird language, cultural barriers and mystery will haunt you. We all want to believe that our chosen destination is the most idyllic place on the planet and Thailand has done a great job in promoting itself as a holiday and retirement destination or a great place to do business. There are more plusses than minuses; otherwise I wouldn’t still be here. However, when you have to transcend both language and cultural differences and you are a serious expat, you definitely need well moderated information and a very open mind to get the most out of the experience. Any preconceived ideas I may have had were very quickly abated. It is easy to fall for the illusion because it is so alluring and you dearly want to believe it. But if you do you will be bitterly disappointed. It is a part of Thailand’s psyche to create illusions and its charming people are very imaginative. They put enormous effort into creating costumes, floats and fireworks for lavish festivals and parties. Hours spent dancing through the streets pulverising the nation’s eardrums with excessively loud music. Parties take precedence over work. It is a way of life and it is far more therapeutic and beneficial for the mind, body and soul to create an illusion of happiness than to wallow in an abyss of misery and suffering. After 5 years I have learned that the general perception of Thailand from outside is very different from the reality. I still ask myself and others many thought-provoking questions, raise contentious issues, declare my own, often polemic, views and attempt to provide answers to improve my understanding. There is a myriad of contradictions, controversial and confusing issues, superstitions and ancient traditions many of which defy logic, in the 21st century; particularly to the Westerner. I sometimes ruffle a few feathers but I am a truth seeker by nature and am still learning. Fortunately I didn’t buy the illusion although I was very tempted.
INTEGRATE WITH THAIS – (This is home now) You can have a lot of fun in Phuket, Pattaya and Bangkok but they are so different from the rest of Thailand which primarily consists of rural agricultural towns and villages housing probably 50 million of the 65 million total inhabitants of Thailand. It isn’t difficult for me to avoid expat hangouts as they don’t hold any attraction. I have visited Bangkok on business many times, lived in Phuket for one year, North-East (Issan) and Chiang Mai farming villages for five years, so I live pretty much like a Thai. Learning the language is a real battle though and I have now accepted that my way of getting by will have to suffice. A smattering of Thai interlaced with sign language seems to work pretty well in the everyday environment. Everyone is happy that I am not really a ‘Farang’ (white westerner). Maybe a ‘Thairang’??!! You can communicate on a superficial level, if you wish, and enjoy a good life but you will never really understand the people until they accept you as one of their own. Your willingness and ability to integrate will largely determine how you are received, your views and perception of Thailand and the Thais.
BEWARE THE ‘ONE EYED’ FARANG – Some ‘Farangs’ seem to be mesmerised by the ancient culture and other, more dubious, aspects of their adopted home, even to the extent that they have become misguided in defending Thailand unquestioningly against any complainants. These opinionated, self-appointed protectors’ main adversaries are a part of the ‘Farang’ community in Thailand that has a penchant for criticising the way things are in the Country. I’m not talking about the ones who constantly complain about things like the heat, which has obviously affected their GPS’s! ‘You are in the tropics old darling; do you expect a crisp frost at daybreak with a light dusting of snow on the treetops?’ No, I’m talking about genuine critics who have every right to express their opinions in the ‘free world’. And, despite certain reservations; I would describe Thailand as a ‘free country’. It all depends on the motives of the critic. That, for me, is the key question. And do the self-appointed protectors have the right to tell the critics, ‘If you don’t like it bugger off back to where you came from’. Well, again, of course they do but doesn’t it smack, just a teensy weensy bit, of hypocrisy; the pot calling the kettle black? ‘I can criticise you all I want but how dare you complain.’ That sort of attitude indicates to me that, maybe, the so-called ‘protectors’ care less about Thailand than the critics. Perhaps they don’t wish to see improvement or, they fear the inevitable; change. Maybe the way things are suits them and they don’t want interfering ‘Farangs’ to rock their boat. I have been spoken to in a dismissive way by these types without being afforded the opportunity to put my point of view forward in constructive debate. So what about their motives? I have my suspicions in some cases. I, like many other ex-pats, am genuinely concerned that the process of change, that is inevitable in any society, may prove to be a rather painful one for a nation whose majority is aesthetically blind, stuck in the past and thus has difficulty seeing beyond its nose. The mesmerised ‘protectors’ of the ancient culture, they probably understand little of themselves, should open the other eye and consider what they can do in a constructive way rather than knocking those with genuine concerns.
LEARN FROM THE YOUNG - Talking with the young Thais who are keen to learn English better and who are already starting to drive change by challenging the old outdated and irrational aspects of their own culture is so exhilarating. There are many intelligent young people from the farm villages brave enough to challenge their parents; something the previous generation would never have dared to do. I have learned so much from the eager younger generation of Thais, who are not well served by the ‘one-eyed’ Farang. I see a bright future but not in my lifetime.
DISCOVER YOURSELF – It’s never too late to emigrate. Through discovery will you discover yourself. The spoken word is not the only means of communication. I have discovered new ways. Young Thais are inquisitive and informative; their parents are stuck. – ‘When are you going home?’ People say. ‘I am home’ I say. I love Thailand and I’m so glad I burned my bridges.
(2008 Diaries currently being serialised http://jamoroki.com/2013/09/17/15-weeks-thailand-diaries-prologue/)
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Contest Comments » There are 5 comments
What a lovely post. I am one of the other two Thailand expat bloggers. I love your take on the country - particularly integration which can be challenging and leaving pre-conceptions at home. Here's to rallying support so we can try and win Top Country together!
"Prepare to change." Yeah. I'm not sure if we know ahead of time if this is going change us from changing! I don't think so. It's inevitable, but I could not imagine in what ways or how. I liked how all 3 of the Thailand bloggers went this "how Thailand has effected me" route. We're so spiritual - 555+
Wow, thsi is very informative and seems to be written from a first hand perspective. Good advice for those considering a "migration" to the mystical Thailand. Well written, thank you.
Thailand is very much on my bucket list for places to visit before I shuffle off this mortal coil and you make it sound all the more inviting. After my own expat experience, though, I'm happy with England's green and pleasant land - for the moment, anyway.
Thank you very much for this useful post about a successful expat life in Thailand.