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Have you ever felt your own accent slip and morph into the accent of a person you’re talking to? Or started to do subtle things that you never used to do? Don’t worry – it’s not all that uncommon. If you spend any significant amount of time in a particular place or with a certain group of people, there are bound to be some habits, quirks and idiosyncrasies that you pick up, often without realising. In a land as diverse and different as Thailand, there are plenty, and here’s what happens when you live there.
After a while in Thailand, one might develop what’s known as ‘Thinglish’; a blend of Thai and English that, in reality, makes little sense in either language. From deliberately pronouncing words wrong to try and sound more understandable to frequently using incorrect conjugations of verbs and tenses, it’s something that you’re reluctant to do at first but soon becomes second nature. Similarly, you might find ‘555’ – the Thai equivalent of ‘lol’ – and ‘na’ finding their way into messages to your friends back home, before hastily having to explain yourself.
Thais love their superstitions, and there are plenty of them. Fancy a haircut? Well, not on Wednesdays – it’s bad luck, and you’ll leave the salon with a hatchet job on your hair. Whistling on your way home? Mind the old lady doesn’t shout at you to stop – it’s said to call ghosts. Bought a new pair of shoes? You’d better bite the heel before they get a chance to bite you first. Yes, there are plenty of superstitions, and you’ll laugh at first – but before you know it, you’ll be blindly following them.
When getting your first meal in a restaurant, you might be a little surprised to see it arrive without a knife. In Thailand, knives are substituted for spoons, with a fork and spoon being the usual cutlery you’d expect to use. It makes sense; after all, Thailand is the land of rice, soups and noodles, with little need for a knife at all. You’ll learn just to get by without one, and will slowly forget about the knife when it comes to setting the table. Until you get home, that is, and find that try as you might, that steak just won’t budge with a spoon.
As a foreigner, entering Thailand with a foreign salary can be quite an exciting experience, especially when you’ve down the conversions from baht to the dollar and realise you’ve just got pad Thai and a beer for less than $3. Converting into your home currency is something you’ll do routinely throughout your time in Thailand – though it’s a habit you might want to get out of. Everything might seem like a bargain, at first, until you realise you don’t get paid in that currency anymore, and your baht isn’t lasting quite as long.
You might have noticed a pipe with a nozzle beside the toilets in Thailand. That’s a handheld bidet, or “bum gun” as it’s affectionately known. It can be scary at first, and you’ll persist with toilet paper – until a time comes when you’re out in the sticks, with no toilet paper for miles, and you’re forced to use the bum gun. And from that moment, you won’t ever look back. More hygienic and much cleaner than using toilet paper, it’s definitely one of the things Thailand’s gotten right, and a habit you’ll eventually pick up, no matter how alien it might seem right now.
One of the most common phrases in the Thai language is ‘mai pen rai’, which roughly translates to ‘no problem/no worries’. It’s an expression that typifies Thailand, especially for those who’ve lived or worked here. Roadwork adding a huge diversion and 15 minutes onto your commute? Mai pen rai! Has your boss asked you to effectively double your workload for the same pay? Mai pen rai! Something’s massively irked you, and you’re ready to pack your bags and fly home? Well, mai pen rai. You’ll learn that complaining is like talking to a brick wall at times, and some things are just beyond anyone’s control. So you’ll just shrug and say ‘mai pen rai’ – there are far worse places to be, after all.
In Britain, there’s a stereotype that when there’s no discernible topic of conversation to choose from, then the small talk will inevitably turn to the weather. In Thailand, it’s food. From close friends to relative strangers, you can count on them asking you if you’ve already eaten. It’s polite, it’s caring, and it’s better than silence, so expect it to be asked at least a few times per day. Before long, you’ll find yourself asking others whether they’ve eaten without being able to help it.
It’s said that this generation is obsessed with selfies and that they’re incredibly vain because of that – you know, because it’s far more vain to take a memory in a second than it was to have artists paint portraits of you for hours on end to hang in your study. Thai people love taking pictures and selfies, but it’s not vanity. Thai people are simply just laid-back and fun-loving; after all, ‘why not?’ is the lay of this land. You’ll soon learn to love the selfie, and you’ll have perfected your signature pout and pose – either because you’re truly living life in the moment and enjoying it, or because resistance is futile. Regardless, it’s still a great way to make your friends back home jealous, and isn’t that one of the real joys of travelling?
Thai festivals are a lot of fun, but sometimes observance is the minimum that’s required. You’ll quickly learn what’s expected at each festival and will plan accordingly. Mother’s Day is coming up? You’d better save your fancy blue shirt. Is it Songkran? You’ll make a note to avoid wearing white if you don’t want to flash someone and make sure your electronics are in waterproof cases. There are also a few festivals where the sale of alcohol is forbidden, but don’t worry – even if you forget, you’ll soon realise when you notice everyone scrambling to the fridges in 7/11 and buying as much as they can carry.
Living in Thailand, you spend a great amount of your time walking around in flip-flops or sandals, with your bare feet exposed to the world. On top of that, whilst the head is considered high and sacred in Thailand’s Buddhist culture, the feet are quite the opposite – low and dirty. That’s why Thai people make sure to wash their feet as soon as they get home. You won’t want to spread dirt around your home either, so you’ll find yourself following suit and heading straight for the bathroom to clean your feet as soon as you walk through the door, especially if sand from the beach is covering them.
Ordering a beer with ice at home might see you being chased out of the bar by the surly regulars who consider beer sacred and feel that you’re somehow defiling it. In Thailand, however, it’s a practical reality. Thailand gets hot, and so unless you can finish a beer in five minutes – which we don’t condone – it can quickly lose its ice-cold temperature and appeal. Ice cubes are a great way to remedy that, and beers are often served alongside a bucket with ice and tongs for you to use at your own discretion. Rather than suffer through a warm beer, you’ll find yourself embracing the ice and actually enjoying it. Go ahead – your friends from home aren’t looking.