What Makes Thailand Unique

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Thailand(or at least what we have seen of it, being Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and surrounding areas) has a unique character and flavour. And of course, there are a number of idiosyncrasies – large and small – that lend a certain personality to Thailand that makes it what it is. Here’s what makes Thailand unique to our Canadian eyes:

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. I will note that many of these observations aren’t unique to just Thailand, but many other Southeast Asian countries.

Dogs and cats are everywhere.

We saw a lot of feral cats in Hawaii, many mangy, but not so many dogs that didn’t have owners. Here, dogs roam the streets, and cats line them.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the animals we have seen appear to be well cared for. I don’t know if they belong to owners and are just given free rein, or if there are just that many rats to hunt. But neither the cats nor the dogs appear to be particularly emaciated.
Those dogs that obviously belong to people are evidently loved and cared for; a nice treat after what we saw in Hawaii.
And thankfully, despite the number of dogs in the streets, I haven’t run into so many “doggie presents” (being poop) on the sidewalks – nowhere near what I would have suspected to have seen.

Speaking of sidewalks…

broken sidewalk in Thailand

Sidewalks are more of a nice idea than a practical application.

Sidewalks are a funny thing here, especially in Chiang Mai. If there isn’t a market or bevy of street food vendors parked on the decent sidewalks making them difficult to traverse, then there isn’t much of a sidewalk to begin with. What sidewalks there are will often peter out inexplicably only to reappear again in 20 or 30 meters.
Many sidewalks start out at a nice size, but when utility poles, trees, signs, low awnings, and motorcycles occupy space right up the middle, it’s actually easier to walk on the road.

Speaking of roads…

tuk tuk in Thailand

Tuk Tuks, small motorcycles/scooters, and pick-up truck/taxis are everywhere.

This is something common throughoutAsiaas I understand it. And to drive a motorcycle, tuk tuk, car, boat, anything – down the streets inThailandis quite an undertaking; one involving nerves of steel and the reflexes of a gazelle.

Speaking of driving…

They drive on the other side of the road.

None ofThailand’s neighbouring countries drive on the left side of the road from what we’ve been able to discern, butThailand does. Go figure.

Speaking of figures (of speech)…

They love their loudspeakers.

Regularly, a pickup truck with loud speakers in the back will drive by, spouting some sort of message to all those within earshot. Sometimes it’s music, sometimes words. If only we knew what they were saying.

Speaking of different languages…

Gotta love those translations.

There is a huge number of English language signs to aid the many travelers who can’t read Thai, and of course many of the signs were written by those for whom English is not exactly a strong suit.
Use of the word “probably” is particularly amusing, as in “Probably The Second Best Pizza in Town” – a sign outside a pizzeria down the street from where we stayed one night. I have a feeling that the Thai people believe that “probably” is a good way to make a sweeping statement without being definitive…which is probably a good idea.

Speaking of food and beverages…

Sign for Mango Lassi "probably the best in Chiang Mai"

When you order coffee, it usually comes in a mug about half full.

I don’t know if North American coffee is an anomaly (I suspect it is), but the coffee you get here is strong, and usually half as full as it should be. We have now taken to filling our coffee cups up the rest of the way with hot water – not because it’s too strong, but because we feel ripped off in the morning if our cup of coffee isn’t a full one.
The good news about the coffee here is that each cup is usually brewed to order, and what you get (albeit a small amount) is good. Not cheap mind you, but good.

Speaking of good…

Thai massage parlours are everywhere (and wonderful).

If you haven’t received a traditional Thai massage before, find a place and get one. It is a full-body experience, and depending on the masseuse, can be somewhat rough. You’ll get an elbow to the thigh, you’ll be sat on, twisted, stretched out, and kneaded into a pulp. An hour is apparently not enough (traditional Thai massage takes at least an hour and a half for a proper job to be done), but you’ll get the general idea in an hour.
And for an hour of bliss/torture (depending on how you look at it), you will pay the equivalent of $4 to $6. And you’ll feel absolutely wonderful after it is done.

Speaking of cheap…

It’s not always easy to adapt to the Thai baht currency.

With the current exchange rate, $3 will get you about 100Baht. You get used to dealing with the large numbers pretty easily, along with the lower cost of living here. So much so that more than once, I found myself squabbling or complaining over paying an extra 10Baht for something, which converts to effectively $0.30. I’m not cheap, really!

Speaking of 10Baht…

Thailand takes street food to epic proportions.

Mobile bubble tea stand

If you have a sense of adventure and something of an iron constitution, there is nothing better than the street food in Thailand. No hot dogs here: you can get anything from green mango salad to red curry to pad thai to soups to corn to pig testicles to…you name it. Really.
Markets are the best places to go, as these mobile vendors (visualize a hot dog cart with a bicycle or motorcycle attached to the side) set up along the sides of the road and offer their wares. A plate of pad thai in the right place will cost you a whopping 10Baht (30 cents).

Speaking of eating…

street food stand in Thailand

Chopsticks aren’t as common as you might think.

In fact, the utensils of choice appear to be the fork and spoon. You use the fork in your left hand to scoop the food into the spoon in your right hand, out of which you eat. Luckily you rarely need a knife, which is almost impossible to find anyway.
And I guess the switch to the fork and spoon combo is good to reduce wooden chopstick waste.

Speaking of garbage…

When you need to, you can’t find a garbage can to save your life.

Seeing that the streets are quite clean, and the outdoor food courts (basically street food vendors surrounding a bunch tables with little chairs) are impeccable, I can’t understand how there are so few garbage cans to be seen. I walk around and around the streets, carrying refuse from my recently purchased street food, desperately looking for a way to properly dispose of it. I see not one chopstick on the ground, not one napkin.

Speaking of napkins…

The washrooms rarely have toilet paper.

One thing you learn in travel, is that it is best to always have an emergency stash of toilet paper handy. Especially if you are not prepared to squat like the locals and rinse with the adjacent hose like the locals too. It works for some…and not so much for others!

Speaking of hygiene

Many creams and lotions have whitening agents.

Beware when you buy local sunscreen, face cream, moisturizers, and the like. Many (in fact, most) have whitening agents in them. It appears that we Caucasians sunbathe to get as dark as possible, and Asians cower from the sun and use whiteners to get as light as possible.
I can only wonder if the active ingredient in these creams is bleach.

Speaking of skin care…

Electric shower in Thailand

You don’t need a bathtub to shower.

In fact, the shower (if there is one at all and not just a large bucket of water to wash with) is a box on the wall which can heat water and send it through a portable shower head. The drain: a hole in the corner of the bathroom. You shower in whatever available space the washroom offers, and you simply expect everything in the bathroom to be soaked by the end. The toilet, the sink, even your toilet paper if you’re not careful.

Many of these idiosyncrasies are not specific to Thailand I’m sure. But combined, and with the bright smiles of the people, the hospitality, the smells (good lord – the smells, good and bad), the sounds, and the sights –Thailand is a place to behold.

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4 thoughts on “What Makes Thailand Unique”

  1. I there! Loved your blog. I will get to Thailand around November and its one of the countries im really looking for. Hopr everything turns out ok with you.

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