My Five Biggest Mistakes as an Expat in Thailand

 

I’m so glad I made the decision to move to Thailand in 2002, but it hasn’t always been easy living here. The first few years were particularly bumpy due to my enthusiasm for drinking alcohol in super-human quantities. Here are the five biggest mistakes I’ve made as an expat in Thailand:

1. I Became Convinced The Thai Way of Life Was Superior

I arrived on Phangan Island for a two-weeks holiday in 2001 after being inspired by the book The Beach by Alex Garland. It turned out to be the best holiday of my life – I wasn’t too disappointed when nobody asked me to join them living on an uninhabited island like in the book. Thailand felt incredibly exotic but most important of all, it felt liked I’d found something I’d always been looking for.

I decided that Thailand had to be the most perfect place on earth – there weren’t enough adjectives in my Thai dictionary to describe how great everything was. I came back to Thailand a year later, and I’ve never left.

My expectations for Thailand were naive and incredibly unrealistic. I became obsessed with the culture, and I wanted to make the Thai way of life my own. It took a bit of time before the horrible realization hit me that Thailand wasn’t as perfect as I’d believed. I felt betrayed, and I began to experience culture shock.

2. I Became Convinced That Moving to Thailand Would Fix Me

I wasn’t such a happy-camper before I arrived in Thailand. I had a good career as a nurse, but I also had an alcohol problem that was getting harder for me to hide. I’d experienced a complete mental breakdown a few years earlier due to alcohol, and I could feel myself moving rapidly in that direction. I blamed my environment, and I became convinced that moving to Thailand would fix me.

I somehow managed to survive as a drunk for my first five years living here – my wonderful wife deserves much of the credit for this. It turned out that Thailand wasn’t such a swell place to escape alcoholism at all – sort of like a binge-eater moving into Willy Wonker’s Chocolate Factory. I found out the hard way that moving to Thailand not only meant bringing my problems with me but also having them magnified.

3. I Became Convinced The Thai Way of Life Was Inferior

Culture shock can be tough to deal with because it involves many of the same symptoms as depression. Cracks begin to appear in my unconditional love for the Thai way of life at about year two.

I remember one day becoming absolutely furious with the way the workmen were laying down tarmac on the road near our house – they didn’t seem to be doing it the way I’d seen it done in Europe. I had this almost irresistible urge to tell them how shit they were at their job – even though I knew nothing about laying tarmac (I didn’t know about Google back then).

After the incident with the tarmac it became impossible for me to ignore the reality that I’d developed culture shock. The problem wasn’t the Thai way of life at all – the problem was me.

The irony of culture shock is that it is usually the things we originally loved the most about the new country that become the the focus of most of our suffering. The thing I really admired about Thai people was their laid back ‘mai pen rai’ attitude to life. Within a few years this unhurried approach to everything began to bug the shit out of me.

4. I Expressed Open a Skepticism About The Beliefs of Thai People

I lived in a Thai village in rural Thailand for about 5 years, and I was surrounded by people who believed in ghosts, magic, and the ability to make merit. I saw these beliefs as cute, but I also felt they were due to lack of education.

I took to the role of super-skeptic and tried to save the locals from the horror of non-scientific ways of thinking by explaining how ghosts didn’t exist. I also upset my wife by mocking the beliefs of our neighbors. I was an insufferable arrogant prat, and I feel embarrassed by my attitude now – thankfully this phase didn’t last very long.

5. I Tried Using Assertiveness to Get My Way in Thailand

I come from a culture where the ‘squeaky wheel gets the oil’. I’d attended lots of assertiveness training courses, and I felt confident in my ability to assert my rights. The problem was that this type of assertiveness doesn’t work in Thailand – in fact, being assertive is probably the worst thing you can do if you want to benefit from good service.

 

How to Avoid My Expat Mistakes in Thailand

  • Have realistic expectations if you plan to move to Thailand – nowhere is perfect
  • Sort out your demons before you come to Thailand – don’t bring an alcohol problem to Thailand because there is a huge risk it will end badly for you.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of culture shock and don’t allow it to destroy your life in Thailand
  • Don’t come to Thailand to save the locals from themselves – you’ll just end up looking like a twat
  • It is far more effective to use a smile and humor to get your way rather than assertiveness

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14 thoughts on “My Five Biggest Mistakes as an Expat in Thailand

    1. There is definitely room for improvement Tom. I have put a good deal of effort into learning Thai over the years, but I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be. I have a large vocabuarly, and I can read Thai, but I’m not much of a speaker. I have other priorities at the moment, but I need about a year of focusing all of my attention on speaking Thai – I’m sure this would be enough to get me where I want to go. I’d like to do the P6 at some stage.

  1. I think a lot of expats around the world make a lot of these same mistakes. Everyone on some level believes their new home will fix some issue they are having in their life. Thailand has an allure to it that can really blind its newcomers. Great advice and great topic. We really appreciate raw and honest info like this when it comes to living in Thailand. Take care.
    Chris & Angela Tieland to Thailand recently posted..First Impression of Chiang Mai

  2. Hi Paul. To this day I’m still amazed whenever I run into expats in Thailand who absolutely hate the country, its people, and culture, but still live there (we’ve all known people like that).

    I remember when I was living in Thailand, there were definitely things I did not like, or things I preferred about my home (the US), but luckily I never fell victim to that sort of negative attitude. A lot of it amounted to pure racism plain and simple.

    1. Hi Tan, I do understand how people can slip into this negativity due to culture shock, but I don’t understand how they manage to remain this way. I think a lot of it does have to do with racism. Some of the most negative people I’ve met in Thailand are not what most of us would call ‘high achievers’ – these people can delude themselves into believing that they are something special just becasue they come from the West. I know a lot of these guys will also complain about being forced out of their own country due to immigrants who refurse to assimilate into the local culture – they completely miss the hypocrisy of this.

  3. All of your points are good. I lived in Bangkok for 2-1/2 years. Believe it or not, the thing the bothered me the most, believe it or not, was the weather – I simply never adjusted to it being blazing hot, everyday, all day.

    It was necessary from me to learn the “Thai way” when it came to customer service and the like. And changing Thais or the culture? Forget it. I eventually came to the understanding that regardless of how different and ‘inefficient’ things appear in Thailand, Thailand works in its own way even with its apparent oddities: that’s how Thais have shaped their culture and world and their experience of it. It is not up to a foreigner to change or improve it, but rather to adapt to it, if possible.

    I too saw that so many expats stay in Thailand but dislike it immensely. I refused to fall into that. And you are right, Paul, so many expats fall into thinking they know it all and suddenly become experts on governance and world affairs – phooey!

    Thailand for the 2-4 week tourist and Thailand for the expat of 2, 3, or more years, are two different experiences. One is fun, kicking back in your flip-flops, the other is dealing with a vastly different culture and world view.

    1. Thanks John, I think it is more than a bit condescending for westerners to come to Thailand with the attitude that they are going to reform the Thai people. Just because it doesn’t work the way we’ve been conditioned to believe it should work doesn’t make it wrong. I agree that coming to Thailand on holiday is vastly different than living here – it’s a bit of a shame becasue that intense excitment at arriving in Thailand used to be so wonderful.

  4. love your blog, this was totally me when i moved to thailand – i believed that thailand was perfect – that was why i moved there.. then each time i realised something there wasnt perfect id become so disappointed . I have started to realise no where is perfect… although i still believe that thailands weather is very close to perfect – minus the monsoonal rain that catches you by surprise mid motorbike ride !

    1. Hi Jasmine, I agree that we are always going to be setting ourselves up for a fall when we believe something is perfect. I do like the weather most of the time, but I probably complain about it more than I did back in Europe 🙂

  5. A really interesting read. I am a newcomer to Thailand – only my 2nd month. It’s comforting to hear this becasue I was starting to think it was just me who was battling with adjusting to the Thai world – particularly in my work environment. You have given really good advice – we need to adjust and accept and look and appreciate all the good things here. Thank you for sharing. Regards,

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