So it’s not all tropical beaches and mountaintop temples. Just mostly.
Of course every place on Earth has its downsides. These are the ones I’ve really taken note of since being in Thailand.
My Top Three
This is the big one. No one drinks tap water here. Not foreigners and not locals. Bottled water is cheap, about $.40 per bottle, but it becomes immensely inconvenient after a while to have to go to 7-Eleven every time you want a simple drink.
The reason for this is not the polluted water, as you might first think by walking by any of Bangkok’s canals, but apparently the plumbing system. The water itself is treated well enough before being pumped out into the city water systems, but the pipes introduce harmful elements to the water as it passes through. This makes the water fine to wash with, shower with, or even brush teeth with, but not to ingest.
One saving grace is the filtered water dispensers. Usually using reverse osmosis filtration, these dispensers are very common around residential areas and will fill up a regular water bottle for 1 baht, a large for 2 baht. Often you will see people come to these with 10 or so large bottles at a time, fill them up, and then take them home.
These are a conundrum. Every Thai town/city I have been to has a very developed street and sidewalk system. Problem is, they are hardly navigable. You always have to watch your footing because they are cracked, unleveled, and constantly changing.
On top of that, they are crowded. The best maintained sidewalks are those dotted with trees and natural decor. Unfortunately, these also take up the majority of the walking and head space on the sidewalks. Also, motorbikes and scooters, by far the most prevalent form of transportation here, all park in the free space in the sidewalk giving the good, flat, and walkable areas yet another obstacle.
Then there are the vendors. In some places, street vendors will not only take up the entire sidewalk, but also a good portion of each side of the road. Granted, this is harder to do in busier street of Bangkok and other cities, but this only means they force their way into every square centimeter of free sidewalk space, often leaving little to no room to walk though them.
And if someone decides to stop and look at something, the entire flow of pedestrians both ways stop with that person.
Squat toilets to be specific. While not as common in more developed areas, they are still around. The plain truth is I still don’t know how to correctly operate them. There are ridged footholds on each side of what looks like a toilet seat. DON’T SIT ON THEM. After dropping your trousers, man or woman, you place you feet on these, squat down, and hope you aimed correctly.
To flush, a large bucket of water sits next to the squat toilet. Floating inside will be a plastic bowl about the size of a dog dish. This will always be soaked on all surfaces. You must scoop water into this dish and then dump it into the squat toilet as many times as is necessary to wash away all the waste matter.
Afterward, you have the option of toilet paper or the universally provided “bum gun” contraption which looks like a kitchen sink sprayer. This is where it gets uncomfortable for me, and the couple times I have tried, I ended up just using toilet paper if it was provided.
However, because of Thailand’s history with squat toilets, which don’t flush, you cannot use toilet paper in squat or most modern Western toilets. The reason for this is that the sewer and pipe system cannot handle this extra material. Thusly, all the loos in Thailand come equipped with a small wastebasket for disposal of fecal-encrusted sheets of paper.
How often these are emptied or cleaned varies greatly.
“Those” White Guys.
They are everywhere. Sex tourists or ‘Sexpats’. We all know why they’re here, and most of them don’t do a thing to hide that fact. Not exclusively, but usually they are older white men. Commonly they are with much younger (or what appear to be, I haven’t mastered placing age here yet) Thai girls. I have run into more old men in the country than any other non-Thais, whether younger travellers or women.
They vary in nationality: American, Canadian, European, Australian. You see them all the time on the street; even outside of Bangkok, and so much more in Chiang Mai, center of the farangs. Thankfully I haven’t made it to Pattaya yet, a city notorious for its nightlife and its sex tourist underworld.
They walk around like high school couples holding hands with one of two looks on their face: either they are completely content and don’t care or they are nervous and shifty looking, asking the eyes upon them for approval.
I am often asked if I have a Thai girlfriend or wife (by Thais and foreigners) and I still get a look of genuine surprise when I respond, “no.” Nothing against the idea of dating a Thai woman, but I don’t like the idea of hardly being able to communicate, as is the case with many of the ‘couples’ I have observed.
Thailand has an odor to it. The oddest part is that it will pop up at random, even if it looks like there is nothing nearby giving it off, but certainly isn’t everywhere. It’s pungent, but difficult to describe. However, you will know it when you smell it.
Different from, but likely related to, “The Smell.”
Thai people seem to use their entire country as a rubbish bin. And conversely, they have so few actual garbage containers anywhere.
A prime example of this can be seen when walking over any of the hundreds of canals in Bangkok. More than likely there will be a scum patch with dozens of pieces of trash floating in it. Penetrating and emanating from this will be an abysmal stench, which is still different from “The Smell.”
I first really took notice of this my first week in Bangkok when I had a Fanta can I had bought at one of the millions of 7-11s in the city, and could not find a place to throw it away for over 45 minutes, despite the fact I walked at least a couple kilometers of city streets in that time. During this time, I noticed all the trash everywhere in lieu of actual ways to dispose of it. In Silom, one canal that was drier had many trash piles higher than the water level.
Another showing of how quickly it could happen appeared on a brand new raised crosswalk near my apartment. Within a week of it opening, the stairs were littered with a solid layer of paper trash and plastic bags at least 4-5 inches from each side.
What does a plastic bag come with? What doesn’t it come with? Is it already a plastic bag? Well then let me bag it and put that into another plastic bag.
Thais will wrap anything in any amount of plastic bags. Drinks are oftentimes served by pouring ice into a bag and then pouring in the drink from a bottle or a can, and then sticking a straw into the bag.
I could go on and on about all the ways they overuse this, but the point is that it results in plastic bags making a good deal amount of the litter on the streets and elsewhere.
Add to that a culture who subsists on drinking water from plastic bottles, and that is a ridiculous amount of plastic waste.
Or rather “Sanitary Napkins” as it is called in Thailand. These handy little sheets are used for everything from wiping your bum to wiping your mouth, and all in between.
Thailand doesn’t seem to use paper towels and napkins in the same way western countries do. Instead, you will find toilet paper or sanitary napkins.
- You finish at the toilet – a roll of sanitary napkins is hanging next to you
- You wash your hands – a roll of sanitary napkins is on the wall to dry your hands
- You sit at a restaurant table – a roll of sanitary napkins is on the table to cleanse your lips and hands
- You sneeze at your desk – a roll of sanitary napkins is conveniently there as well
And you get the idea.
Granted, it’s a handy invention and I always travel with a roll in my backpack. However, when drying your hands or your face, toilet paper tears and sticks and you just end up having to go back to the sink to wash off those pieces again.
Okay, so not the elevators in particular, but Thai behavior in and around elevators.
Inside elevators, Thai riders will maniacally push the door open or door close button in some feeble attempt to get the door open earlier than when it arrives on its floor. If it didn’t open the first time you pushed it, it isn’t going to open any faster than next dozen times.
When the door opens, you will be rushed by a barrage of anyone waiting to get in the elevator. In some odd coincidence of temporal perception, this seems to happen faster than you, or anyone else already in the elevator, can even attempt to get out on that floor. More an a few times, this has caused me to miss my floor simply because I couldn’t get through the influx in time.
Thailand has got a horrendous problem with stray dogs. Oftentimes they are friendly enough, though mostly passive. However, many look diseased with odd skin afflictions sticking through large patches of missing fur. And still others, you wonder how or even if they are still alive.
The common sight of soi dog females in feeding mode shows just how often and uncontrolled their breeding really is. Despite this, they rarely stay in families and you hardly ever see more than 2 soi dogs together for much time.
All that said, there are times when they can get out of hand. Whether fighting each other or turning their attention toward you, they can be intimidating. I’ve heard this is especially bad from friends of mine who go jogging, as these sorts of dogs will take up the challenge of a good chase (or hunt).
The best way to deal with these intimidating dogs is to be just as intimidating yourself. When followed by a dog who is growling or barking, I find it’s best to turn around and take a couple steps toward it while shouting “Hey!” loudly. It hasn’t not worked yet.
Electric lines throughout the country are a rough and tangled mess. Oftentimes they look very loosely bound together by something similar to electrical tape and they will by hanging so low that they are closer to the sidewalk than your head.
In Lopburi, there were several lines regularly sparking out and hanging next to the second floor of a building in the middle of town.
But where they really get annoying, though, is that these ungracious eyesores will completely obscure an otherwise idyllic photograph of a wat or ruins or that mountain bursting out of the flattened horizon with their ratty black tangles.
Thai people don’t whistle. In fact, I was told directly that I wasn’t to whistle whilst I work. I’m not sure if it’s considered rude in the culture or what, but the short of it is: no whistling happens in Thailand.
But, give a Thai person a plastic whistle and they go mad. Nowhere is this more apparent than someone attempting to direct traffic. They will be blowing into that little flimsy contraption with every bit of breath in their lungs while swinging their arms in frantic motions that do not align with their noise in the slightest.
How they stand that high pitched squealing is beyond me.
Barkers and Prostitutes
A well-imitated “POP” meant to mimic a ping-pong ball coming out of . . . well . . . mimicking a ping-pong ball, comes from the lips of a man on some side of you. You look to see what this onomatopoeia was, only to give this man the in he needs to approach you with his laminated postcard advertising something.
I’ve complained about barkers plenty of times before. Those unrelenting irritations who follow you trying any trick or deal they can to get you into their bar or sex show. The methods diffuse out away from the bars in the form of suit tailors, tuk-tuk drivers, massage parlours and others.
These others also include prostitutes. In the later hours of Khao San Road and other areas of the country, they will arbitrarily approach men walking by, usually grabbing an arm with both hands and attempting to initiate a conversation with “You like?” or “I come with you?”
Sometimes it takes a good pull to get your arm back. And, even with a “Mai ao, khrap” (I don’t want) or “No thanks”, many will continue walking alongside you, deciding unilaterally, “Okay, I come with you.” That is, until you make the point even clearer or just walk away quicker.
This also occurs in a style of nightlife called hostess bars. Some, but far from all, of these venues will have a staff of female barkers trying to lure men in from the passing street. At others, a girl will simply sit down with you once you receive a drink and try to lead a conversation. Sometimes, they will even attempt to charge you simply because one of their staff sat down with you, whether you wanted her there or not. Again, when you try to leave and walk away, she will often try to invite herself along with, “Okay, I come with you?”
It may sound odd, but I think men deal with more sexual harassment in this country than women.