I’ve had a lot of interest on the blog from people who want to know more about the people and culture here in Thailand, and my personal take on the key differences and similarities I’ve noticed, coming from the UK. I thought I’d pull together a list of the observations I’ve made – if you live here or have travelled here, please do add your own in the comments!
1. There are monks everywhere. With a 95% Buddhist population, monks are a key and visible part of the landscape. You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk for life – you can be temporarily ordained for anything from 5 days to three months (in the past, all young men were Buddhist monks for a short time before they turned 20). Buddhist nuns in Thailand aren’t common.
2. Chiang Mai particularly has an abundance of temples (over 300). Thailand has over 40,000 Buddhist temples. Many temples have a school of some kind attached.
3. Monks are very honoured – for example, on airplanes, Monks are given priority along with disabled passengers and passengers with small children. And they can’t touch women, so it’s polite if you are a woman to move out of their way if you see them coming. And definitely don’t try and sit next to them on a bus!
4. To Western eyes, the population seems quite spiritual, that is, there is an active practice by many of Buddhist teachings. The temples always seem busy and active, and there are plenty of offerings in them.
5. Buddhism in Thailand is mixed in with other traditions, as for example, the large majority of buildings have ‘spirit houses’ outside them, which are from a more animistic tradition, where ancestoral spirits are honoured by placing offerings in the spirit house
6. Traffic is free-flowing, with limited regulation – you have to be very aware of people pulling out in front of you without warning, but equally, if you need to pull across them, that also seems fine. The horn is very rarely used.
7. Petrol can be bought by the side of the road in bottles in more rural areas of Thailand – in a decidedly self-service manner!
8. Scooters and motorbikes are the main form of transport, including for carrying things. I’ve seen up to 5 people on one scooter (3 adults and two small children), another carrying mattresses and beds, and one carrying a washing machine. It’s amazing. But very hard to photograph!
9. People don’t tend to walk here, perhaps because of the heat? There are very few pavements, and those that there are are often being used for scooter parking or other things. Crossing the road as a pedestrian can be very challenging – the best trick I’ve found is to cross at the same time as Monks, for whom traffic often stops. But not always.
10. Meatonnastick is very popular and sold on little carts all over.
11. Carnation (or sweet milk) is a popular ingredient in cooking and roadside cafes.
12. There are many ‘pop-up’ restaurants, where plastic tables and chairs are set up by the side of the road, and food is cooked on a moveable stall (often connected to a scooter!).
13. Chiang Mai has a great selection of food, probably due to its tourist industry. There are a large number of vegetarian restaurants.
14. There is a big café culture among tourists and travellers here, with cafes full of people on laptops and tablets.
15. Real Thai food is very spicy. Very spicy indeed!
16. Thais have a real sweet tooth, and sugar is added to lots of things. They mix combinations of things differently – you can buy ‘milk bread’ which is bread with a sort of custard inside (nice), or have sweetcorn fresh off the cob with sugar, butter and condensed milk (not so nice-IMHO!).
17. Buildings are designed to be open to the outside, as the weather is generally hot, so free-flowing air is critical. This means they’re not air-tight which can feel weird if you’re from a colder country.
18. There are huge storm drains and holes in the road for the water during rainy season to drain from – it can go from sunny to sheeting down with rain within minutes.
19. Legislation in Chiang Mai says you can’t build a high-rise within 93m of a temple, which means the skyline here in the old city is very different from the glass towers of Bangkok.
20. Health and safety is not an issue here – buildings go up very quickly as crews work through the night, and you will often see workmen in what seem like very unsafe situations.
21. 7-11s are everywhere, and used as navigation points by westerners (‘I live just past the 7-11 and on the left’).
People and culture
22. The King is venerated by his people. There are pictures of him everywhere, and the Thai national anthem is played twice a day in public places (like train stations, and the market), and before films in the cinema. You have to stand quietly while it’s being played.
23. A hot trend in clothing at the moment seems to be what I might term ‘pyjama-style’ dress.
24. Thai people are very polite, and their response to anything difficult or that they don’t understand will often be laughter. This can be quite frustrating from a Western perspective, but doesn’t indicate disrespect, rather it’s trying to prevent either side losing face.
25. It’s a cliché, but there are a great number of western men who have Thai lady friends. There is often a substantial age difference. I have seen very few Thai men with western women.
26. There’s no regulation about owning dogs here, so there are a lot of wild, un-neutered dogs running around. At night, the air is filled with the sound of barking. And cockerels. I don’t see these often in the city, but you hear them all the time.
27. It is very common to dry clothes outside. But many Thais in cities don’t have a garden area, so clothes are dried on the street. I’ve seen westerners try to buy clothes from racks which are just someone’s washing!
28. It’s the year 2556 here, as the Buddhist calendar is used rather than the Gregorian calendar.
29. The head is considered sacred, and feet unclean. That means no touching anyone on the head, and shoes are removed when entering a private residence, and many shops and cafes too.
30. Thailand is a riot of colour. People wear more colours than in the UK, temples are a riot of different colours, and you can see multiple colours in all aspects of life. They also love cute stuff!
These are my personal observations on my life in Chiang Mai in particular, and I’m sure that different aspects of the culture would be apparent to different visitors. And goodness knows what Thai people would make of the UK! It’s a wonderful place, and I am thoroughly enjoying my time here. It’s so important for us all to remember that there are many different ways to live in this world, and I’m privileged to have experienced more than one way.
If you have any other thoughts on cultural or other differences between the UK and Thailand to share, please do write them in the comments below.