Finding our bliss in Bangkok

By: Kathy Drouin-Keith - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interview

An expat acquaintance of mine was walking down a street in a Bangkok tourist area recently. She hailed a cab to get her to her office, but the driver, seeing she was a Westerner, quoted her twice the regular cost. She refused and got out of the cab. But she didn’t have to hail another one. The same driver who tried to scam her flagged one down for her – an honest taxi this time. Mai pen rai: It’s all good.

That’s Bangkok for many expats: a laid-back land full of gentle people and everyday kindnesses mixed with the occasional good-natured attempt to part you from more of your money than is strictly fair. During my first trip to Thailand last year, I proved easy prey for a man who flashed me a badge at the Grand Palace and told me it was closed for Buddha Day. He directed me instead to his friend the tuk-tuk driver, who he promised would take me to other scenic attractions. Dazed by heat and jet lag, I agreed, even though I’d not only read about this exact ruse in guidebooks, but been personally warned by my husband. The Grand Palace doesn’t close, there’s no “Buddha Day” and the driver’s real plan was to goad me into buying jewelry and custom-made suits. And yet, I found myself in a tuk-tuk – a small, open wagon named after its sputter – tuk-tukking away from the very sight I’d traveled half the city to see. The only thing saving me from total humiliation that day is that I immediately realized I’d been conned and got out. My sputter was louder than the engine.

It’s easy to see why Bangkok is a land of opportunity for many, scam artists included. While prices are high for things that many Westerners would consider necessities, like quality education and food from their home countries, the overall cost of living means that I can be a full-time mom for the first time since my 7-year-old was an infant. He, my husband and I came here on New Year’s Day 2012 from a suburb in New York, where the three of us didn’t have a single day off together. My husband and I both worked at media jobs we adored, but our opposite schedules -- built around one of us always being present for our son – meant we rarely saw each other. New York’s chilly winters bothered me more and more, and I always seemed to have a cold. I had no time or energy for friends or pursuits of my own. The only thing I looked forward to was collapsing into bed at the end of the day, but insomnia often kept me awake. I was always sprinting for the finish line, but I never got to take a victory lap.

Then, a tiny escape hatch opened, offering a glimpse of a new life. We rented out our house, packed up our things and came to Thailand. We felt we’d been whisked away to a fairy kingdom where the sun shone all the time and Mama didn’t have to go to work. We reconnected as a family, going on outings to the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market or Bangkok’s gleaming multistory malls. My son enrolled at a school with children from around the world, where he got a level of attention not possible at a public school in the U.S.

We’ve learned some lessons along the way, like watching out for scam artists. We’ve also tested the limits of Thais’ willingness to bargain. Walking near our hotel among the bustling street stalls of Sala Daeng, , my son found many things he wanted to spend allowance money on – T-shirts, key chains, a gold-plated dragon. We used these purchases to try to teach him the art of negotiation.

He’d pick something out and I’d pull him aside. “I’m going to get that now, Joe, but I’m going to pretend that I don’t want to get it,” I’d say.

His lips would tremble and his eyes fill with tears. “But you said we could buy it,” he’d quaver.

“I am going to buy it. But I have to pretend like I’m not so they give me a better price. Remember? We talked about this?”

We’d walk over to the stand. “Five hundred baht,” I’d say.

“Seven hundred,” the stall owner would say. I’d make a show of shaking my head and pretending to go. But the whole charade would fall apart when Joe started to bawl. That’s how I learned that a little boy’s tears can have a remarkable effect on even the most hardened stall owner, though, and more than once, Joe and I would both end up walking away happy.

While we’re still honing our bargaining skills, we’ve picked up other habits and preferences with ease. Joe is now a fan of street food like fish balls and squid satay. He always takes off his shoes when he enters a home or classroom. He knows that grownups, and sometimes even teenagers, will give him their seat on a crowded train, and he’s learned to wai them like a pro, holding his clasped hands to his forehead and bowing in a gesture of respect and thanks. If you want to see a tickled Thai, have a little Western boy wai them.

We’ve also learned to deal with heat and rain. When we first arrived, we’d angle for our destinations even during the city’s torrential downpours, wrestling ourselves along sidewalks jammed with stalls and trying not to poke anyone with our umbrellas. A few times, Joe was so soaked by the time he got to school that I had to buy him a new uniform. Now, heavy rain means we stop. Take a break. Find a comfortable place and wait for it to ease up. Same with heat. No one hurries here, and especially not in the hot season.

But the best part of living here is my freedom. If my family needs me, I can be there for them.

Our new home is in a quiet compound, with good friends from the school living next door. A pool lies right outside, and French doors open to greenery that surrounds us. I told an expat friend that it feels like I’m on vacation. “That’s the thing about Thailand,” she said. “It always feels like that.” My husband bicycles forty minutes to work, a vast improvement over his New York commute. I can even fall asleep now, and although there are times when I wake up and have no idea where I am, I know that I’m going to be OK. Mai pen rai. It’s Bangkok and it’s all good.

About the author:

On New Year’s Day 2012, Kathy Drouin-Keith and her family left their suburban New York life for Bangkok after her husband was offered a job there. Leon works as a journalist and Joe, 7, is in an international school. Kathy runs the household and writes about life in Thailand. They’ve gotten used to the giant monitor lizards that live under their house and they’ve learned to say “Not too spicy!” in Thai.
Blog address: http://www.farangmom.com/ Twitter: @cinnabuster
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Contest Comments » There are 8 comments

Suzie wrote 5 years ago:

Hi, Just discovered your blog (thanks for the hint, Sine). Great post. My family is based in Bangkok too and I will link to you from my blog in order to read more from your expat experience here. Good luck for the competition. Greetings from Suzie at 1LifeinBangkok.blogspot.com

Joy Herfurth wrote 5 years ago:

Kathy, you and your family's courage in finding a home on the other side of the planet is inspiring. Loved your story....I'm sharing it with my friends and family! Love, Joy

Lisa Dalton wrote 5 years ago:

It is so wonderful to hear about your adventures in Thailand. I'm thrilled to hear it is going so well for all of you!

Rob Zinn wrote 5 years ago:

Your very good at describing Bangkok. I am glad to hear you are doing so well.

M Drouin wrote 5 years ago:

I enjoyed your article and am happy your family is enjoying life in Thailand! Your article was informative and interesting.

Lorraine Drouin wrote 5 years ago:

What makes this article so special are the wonderful descriptions, sights sounds and tastes....I could actually visualize Joey bowing in respect, got the feel of the rain...you made it all come so alive...thank you for sharing...feel like I made a trip to Thailand without the 9 million hour trip.

Rita Amoreno wrote 5 years ago:

What a great article Kathy! I'm ready to leave hearth and home and head east. Then I remember the scary monitor lizards and think I'll stay here on ravaged Long Island. You made a wise choice to be a full time Mom. I had to work and have always regretted it. Joe will probably never forget his Mom waiting for him to come home. At seventy I can still see my mom at the door.

Sine Thieme wrote 5 years ago:

Kathy - this is a very well written article, I enjoyed reading it. I hope you continue to enjoy Bangkok.

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