Bangkok, Thailand Report of what it's like to live there - 02/22/11

Personal Experiences from Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand 02/22/11

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

First expat experience

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Boston, MA. It takes 26-30 hours when all is said and done, depending on carrier and connections.

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3. How long have you lived here?

14 months

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

US Department of State

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Classic decision: to live downtown or in the expat bubble a/k/a Nichada Thani (about 30 minutes on a lucky Sunday to 1.5 hours North of the city depending on traffic!) If you choose city, I've seen some subpar housing, some decent housing, and at least one fantastic apartment near the Embassy. It also depends on your personal priorities and style. Personally, I wish we lived downtown. Many find Nichada to be akin to winning the lottery - it is like a country clubw/ children running about, Starbucks, and mothers in tennis skirts and golf carts. Still, it's compound style living which is not for everyone, folks know your business, and you are a long commute away from the Embassy. Convenient for school if you have kids and wonderful if you have a dog to walk! I also kind of like that we mix it up here. It isn't just officers, for instance. We have every level of Embassy personnel in our little subdivision, Regent, and I quite like that for the most part.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can get most anything here, truly. If you eat Thai, you will save money. Western items are expensive. ACSA has stocking issues at times (waiting for powdered sugar for months), but we're generally happy and use it for occasional indulgences. Best of all, they offer a good wine selection and prices - wine is iffy due to heat, and is expensive here otherwise. You can definitely get your Cap'n Crunch fix if you need it for about $6-$7 a box.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

If you live at Nichada, you'll have a large house with plenty of space. Bring your barbecue! We didn't but got lucky with a fellow selling one. Bring extra bookshelves, bikes, and sports equipment. We brought very little with us and have purchased a few wonderful items from India up in Chiang Mai. You can have furniture and drapery, etc. made here pretty cheaply.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Tons. (McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Subway, 7-11 everywhere). They'll deliver it to your door, usually hot, though I'll choose Thai over that any day!

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5. What kinds of organic, vegetarian and allergy-friendly foods are available, such as organic produce, gluten-free products, meat substitutes for vegetarians, etc?

I think you can find all of that. Eating Thai food would be a win-win all around.

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6. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

It may be different downtown as I think they spray a great deal here in Nichada (possibly better not to ask what they're spraying?), but mosquitoes are definitely an issue. Our neighbor had Dengue, which isn't publicized much, and might not be too common, but it clearly exists. Our kids often have tons of bites up and down their bodies despite our diligence w/ Deet. Get the plug-in frogs at Home Pro - they help.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

USPS, baby. It's wonderful. Right at the embassy.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

We pay $425 per month for a live-out maid/cook who comes in 5x a week, cooks 3x weekly, walks our dog, etc. She came to our door the day after we arrived, so we took the decadence plunge and she's become a part of our family. (Our house has separate bed/bath quarters outside for live-ins if you prefer.) Most people do have some kind of domestic help arrangement.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

Yes, folks have many options downtown, and we have the Clark Hatch Club here at Nichada. Many expats run yoga, dance, and boot-camp classes, etc. as well. Also adult swim and running clubs. We ran a marathon at Angkor Wat - fantastic.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

This is a cash culture so get used to it. ATMs are all over. Sure, you can use your credit card almost anywhere, but it's risky and, unless you have the right card, you'll pay that painful 3%. Most school fees are cash-only. You carry around a lot of baht on those days, and the ATMs clean out!

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There is a Roman Catholic church directly across street from embassy and also one near the Oriental hotel. Not sure about others. There is a community church at NIchada, which is very active with lots of community service opportunities.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

Bangkok Post; IHT. Not sure of cost.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

You can get by with English, but knowing at least some Thai will certainly facilitate daily living and enhance the experience.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Very inhospitable. High sidewalks, uneven pavement, you name it. Bad news.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

BTS Skytrain is great - your best bet to get around the profoundly frustrating traffic, especially on Sukhumvit and surrounding central areas. I spent 4 hours once during rush "hour" without moving more than 8 blocks - no kidding. Taxis are generally fine, but I wouldn't necessarily trust one after dark as a single woman. And there are stories of drunk and drugged-up drivers - wouldn't surprise me. Proceed with caution.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The dumpier the better - as long as it functions well! Traffic is heavy with reasonably good flow but there are plenty of scrapes. I cannot imagine having a nice car here. No way! I hear that Japanese auto parts are easy to find; others not so much. We have a Honda shop nearby.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

We have True, and it's good on the whole but sometimes frustrating! I think we pay around $85 a month. Our maid usually takes the bill to the 7-11 and pays there - very convenient!

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

It's changing. More folks seem to have BlackBerries and iPhones. I'm a dinosaur and bought a cheap model here with new SIM card. It's what most folks have done. Ditch your U.S. cell phone unless you need it, or contact someone here for the most up-to-date info.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

No problem - we were warned that it would be a tough post to bring a dog to (and I'm sure that's more true downtown), but there are vets, pet stores, and kennel options all over. Our 100-lb dog is happy but hates the heat.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

I seem to see a lot of spouses finding work when they want it, mostly at the embassy, but not exclusively.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Whatever you wish. Flip flops and sun dress or shorts at Nichada, your best Prada for Siam Paragon downtown and everything in between.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Tough question and it's all relative, right? Americans are, generally speaking, liked here, though I wouldn't call it the open-arms embrace I was expecting and there are some Thai who openly dislike me on principle, it seems. The Land of Smiles isn't the beginning and end of Thai people - it's far more complicated. We have had (and know of others also) some frightening brushes w/ the odd local, including taxi drivers and security guards. Obviously, the civil unrest continues to brew beneath the surface and nobody really knows what is on the horizon. (Don't believe it if someone tells you they do know - that's rubbish.) During the actual violence that erupted last Spring, we mostly felt safe but also a bit on edge for a sustained period. Folks downtown had it so much worse (lullabies and gunshots for a stretch there) but even out at Nichada there was an unsettled sense of the unknown. It disrupted normal daily life for a long time. Ultimately, constant security-related texts, school closings, the odd bombing (even out here), and escalating tensions really made things unpleasant. Some may thumb their noses at it having lived in "worse" situations elsewhere but it was unsettling for most folks I know. A few took the evacuation offered. We stayed put.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

People rave about medical care here and, in particular, Bumrungrad. I'm sure it's better than most posts and folks won't normally won't say it but I will: I am not one of the fans. We had a horrible, serious experience at Bumrungrad and I know folks who have had heart-breaking deaths and other serious complications here that probably shouldn't have happened. It's lost its credibility with me and others. Be vigilant, insist on gloves and whatever else to prevent infection, and do not be seduced by the sparkling facilities, plasma tvs, pretty nurses, and room service. Just saying. If I had a major health issue arise in our family, we'd be on the first plane to Singapore. Dental care and orthodontics generally good and much cheaper than U.S.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality is rather unhealthy. We live out in the Nichada community and even here folks with allergies or asthma have difficulty at times. Downtown is, of course, worse. There are many, many days where it's just a thick, sweltering, soup-like sky.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

As others have said: hot, hotter, hottest. That said, we have enjoyed some really pleasant days from November-February. That is definitely the great time for visitors. I highly recommend making early resos for that Songkran-April break so you can flee to somewhere cooler! April/May 2010 were horrendous.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Not surprisingly, I hear both good and bad about the 3 major schools Embassy folks utilize: Patana (British), NIST (downtown on former ISB campus) and ISB (North of city in Nonthaburi province where Embassy housing is located and we live). ISB has a wonderful headmaster who will sadly be departing at the end of the 2011-12 school year. I have to believe that compared to other international schools this place has a lot to offer in terms of sports, extracurricular, and so forth. The high school is IB and the graduates appear to do well. Elementary school has an energetic team running the show. The middle school is probably the weak link - not terribly impressed with the principal; vice principal seems more invested. We've enjoyed both private and top-notch public U.S. schools so we aren't overly impressed with the quality of education here, to be honest, but we aren't miserable either and our kids are happy, so hey! Some of the teachers are amazing and, as with anywhere, some are more lemony who probably should think about retiring or reevaluating their chosen profession. We weren't prepared for the racism at the school - it's demoralizing to see but definitely exists in all directions. I know that could exist anywhere, though, so more a comment on our deflated "It's a Small World" expectations attendant to moving abroad. You could try and buck the trend and attend Patana but it is really tough given housing. If you have high school kids, your best bet w/ activities and such is ISB unless you want your kid on a bus for hours during each day. Busses were a real problem during the unrest. Families w/ younger kids seem to like both downtown and local options.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

The admissions officer we dealt with at ISB was somewhat of a nightmare. Of about 26 schools contacted around the globe, this was the sole gatekeeper that gave us trouble laced w/ inhospitable tone and forced us to spend thousands of dollars in testing to prove that the school could accommodate a kid who had an IEP showing mild needs and teachers arguing on his behalf that his needs were basic. It was one of the most rigorous, harrowing times of our parenting lives. Once in, the learning support people were lovely and couldn't believe we'd had that trouble since there were plenty of children with special needs being served at ISB. Now that I've been through the process another round with 30+ more schools, I know this official is patently unreasonable and should resign. Good luck to parents with special needs. Hopefully, ISB will be more accommodating. (Patana and NIST were lovely, incidentally.)

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Not sure.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, the schools have extensive programs. Athletics are not of the caliber of the U.S. but they have more offerings than many posts, we're told. We've been very happy with the ISB Panther swim program and their dedicated staff. Not so thrilled with Panther Tennis. They even have horsemanship near here, but I'm told it's prohibitively expensive. Actually, most programs are pricey here.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Enormous. Embassy Bangkok is somwhere around the 4th-largest worldwide, I believe, and there is a huge population of other Americans working here with oil companies and so forth. Tons of interesting folks from other countries mixing it up, though it can be somewhat clubby.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Whatever you wish.

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3. Morale among expats:

I think it's generally pretty high. Not everyone ends up thinking this is the dream post they expected, but many are sad to leave -- from what I've seen.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It is probably great for almost anyone but the disabled. Not a walkable city in any sense and not accommodating in that way.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Oh, I have to believe it is very welcoming and respectful. Oddly, I don't know any gay or lesbian expats here, so can't confirm. I'd be shocked to find otherwise.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Well, being a Western man seems to get you better service in general than, say, being a Western woman.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

As noted, travel opportunities have been spectacular. Our first leg in BKK was somewhat compromised by the civil unrest, whether it was just brewing or full blown. We joke that we know more of the region and the rest of Thailand than we do downtown Bangkok.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Too many to list. If you can tolerate the heat, you can bike, hike, run, travel all over, shop until you drop, eat like Anthony Bourdain, and party like a fool.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Textiles, furnishings, antiques, travel, clothing, eating out and entertainment. Some buy jewelry. You can buy anything at Chatuchak market, from a pet Cobra, to 1000-year old coins, to a plasma tv.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Thailand has much to offer, particularly on the food and travel fronts. You can explore the North near Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and beyond, there are national parks and, of course, all of the beach destinations. We have explored much of SouthEast Asia - Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and beyond. Proximity makes it feasible, though not everything is as inexpensive as you might think. Still, a great perk of being here.

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11. Can you save money?

We're in debt after all our travels! It isn't as cheap as some say. Yes, a massage is cheap. But I don't really need a massage. I need someone to highlight my hair 3x a year. And that cost me $400 (yes, that's right). The first time, I tried and the guy ruined my hair. Just an example. An Italian meal for four with no wine will cost you close to $100. Thai food and most services are inexpensive but, again, this is a more expensive post than we thought. Gas is outrageous.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes, but we're ready to move on to our next adventure. I would live downtown next time; my husband agrees; our kids would leave us - they love Nichada.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

bad attitude, impatience, and Western definition of personal space upon entering Asia!

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3. But don't forget your:

flexibility and willingness to try new things, to explore, and take some reasonable risks. There is so much to discover here. But we have a saying: TIT (This is Thailand.) Things will drive you insane at times because things simply won't make any modicum of sense to your farang self.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

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6. Do you have any other comments?

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