Bangkok, Thailand Report of what it's like to live there - 07/02/09

Personal Experiences from Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand 07/02/09

Background:

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

No. We've also lived in the following cities/countries: Tbilisi, Georgia; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Ashgabat, Turkmenistan; Ankara, Turkey; Athens, Greece; Tongduchon, Korea; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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2. How long have you lived here?

We've been here 11 months now.

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3. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:

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

I'm with the UN, and my husband is with the U.S. Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

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

For expats there are basically two options: If you choose to live downtown, then for the most part it'll either be condo or apt living. There are some houses, but not that many. The second most popular option is an area out in Nichada Thani (the suburbs north of Bangkok): 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on traffic. Nichada Thani is a gated community of roughly 3,000 expats who are all there for one reason, and one reason only. And that is solely because that is where ISB (International School of Bangkok) is located.

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

There are several large grocery store chains available throughout Bangkok; Tesco Lotus (UK based), and Carefour (French based). Both of these stores are pretty much like Walmart, in that they sell food items as well as everything else under the sun. There's also, Makro, Thailand's version of Costco, which sells items in bulk. If you stick to these places, whose cost actually isn't that much less than grocery shopping in the US, you'll do ok. But where it starts to become very costly is when you start shopping at places like Villa, a chain grocery store that stocks a lot of American products that will start to set you back. For example: a box of Lucky Charms is right at $8/$9, and a box of pop-tarts runs right at $4. Ouch! For those assigned to the U.S. Embassy, there's also a nice commissary that sells American food & drink items, but again, at considerably more that what you would pay back in the States.

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

Other than shoes for my husband and me, there really isn't anything that we miss. Wait- does Taco Bell count? I say "shoes" only because if you wear anything larger than say a size 7/8 for ladies, forget it- they're simply not available here. The same holds true for men's shoes, in that larger sizes are not available.

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

When it comes to American "fast food", the Thais have learned to embrace both KFC and McDonald's, which are conveniently located on every second street corner, along with Starbucks. Pretty much all of the fast food outlets that are in the States, can be found here. BUT....there's always an exception right? No Taco Bell-drats! But, on the plus side, all of the fast food chains deliver, in 30 minutes or less. You can't beat that :)- As for restaurants (non-fast-food) - Bangkok has it all. Want Sushi at 2 a.m.? No problem. Have a hankering for a "bloom'n onion"? There's an Outback Steak House. And then of course there's all of that terrific Thai food at every turn. Whatever your palate is craving, be it borsch or enchiladas, it's all here at your finger tips.

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

No real insect problems. If you're out on nature walks, though, using an insect repellant such as DEET is recommended, and it is available locally.

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Daily Life:

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

We're blessed in that we have an APO address, and can order pretty much anything. The shipping time from the States to here is right at two weeks. As for many of the corporate folks that we know, other than letter mail (letters, cards or bills), they do not have mail privileges and often have to rely on the local postal system. Also, DHS and UPS are available here, but be prepared to pay a hefty amount. Additionally, if you're using the local postal system, you're also subject to local import taxes.

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

Actually, that depends. But here's the breakdown as we know it: Filipinos - largely because of their familiarity with the english language, command the highest salaries. Live-in and or live-out- right at $400 per month. Burmese - live in/live out: typically have the lower salaries. Many of these workers have little and or no english language ($250-$300). Thais - live-in and or live-out, the average monthly wage is $300-$350. Whether the housekeeper resides with you or not, the typical work week is 5 1/2 days, which includes a half day of work, typically, on Saturdays.

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

The majority of the major hotels have gyms, as do most of the condo/apt complexes downtown. There are also standalone gyms where membership fees apply.

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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?

They're readily available, and easy to use. Again, we've heard rumblings of folks having their credit cards and or debit cards cloned, but again, no one that we've met here has had any problems. The rule of thumb, or so we were told, is to stick to using ATMs that are attached to banks.

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

It's all here: B' hai, Scientology, LDS, mosques, synogogues (3), Christian churches- to include Pentecostol, and Seventh Day Adventists. And it goes without saying that there are plenty of Buddhist and Hindu temples here as well.

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

There are several english-language newspapers available here, and just like in the good ole U.S. of A., can have your paper delivered daily to your home.

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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?

Of course having Thai under your belt would be a big help. English is not that widely spoken here, except for places where the farang (foreigners) frequent, mostly western establishments such as hotels, restaurants, or department stores.

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

If you're on crutches or in a wheelchair, you'd have a hard time getting around, particularly downtown. The sidewalks are narrow, and what little available space there is, is taken up by either food and or clothing vendors hawking their wares on literally every street corner.

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Transportation:

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

Local transport is all good, I will say. Most expats don't really use buses in town. They usually cab it, or take a tuk-tuk. The cabs are metered, but if you're catching a ride on a tuk-tuk, you need to negotiate the fare before jumping in.

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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 "only" car I would discourage anyone from bringing would be a convertible, unless you have a hard top for it. Between the rain and sun, rest assured, you won't be spending too much time with the top down with that hot stagnant air. A good chunk of the Americans ship their cars from the States without any problems; be it mini vans, SUV's- they're all here. Before shipping your car to Thailand, though, I'd go online just to verify that parts for your car are indeed available here - or at least that the dealership can order them for you. As for driving conditions here, the Thais are very polite drivers, and road rage is pretty non-existent. The one drawback to driving in Bangkok is, well, the traffic. Some days it'll only take you 30 minutes to drive to work or get to the mall, and other days, that same route can take you two or more hours. A lesson that most of us learned the hard way is to have the following in the car with you at all times: a bottle of water, snacks, something to read, cell phone - you'll need this to call and tell whoever you're meeting that you'll be late. Car insurance is available locally, which many of the expats, ourselves included opted for. Our US insurance company (USAA) does not offer car insurance in Thailand. So we opted to go locally with AIG. The premiums are a fraction of what we paid stateside.

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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?

Available...yes, but not always at a high speed. We're paying right at $50 per month for our wireless internet.

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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?

Just as anywhere else in the world, they're perceived as a necessity. The Thais are cell phone fanatics. There's a cell phone shop on every other corner, and they are always full of customers. For the younger generation, their phone is a status symbol. So the fancier it is (with jewels & gadgets), the more noticeable you are. Well, that's what they tell me anyhow...

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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?

There is no animal quarantine. On a side note to this- if you're relocating to Thailand with one or more pets in tow, be aware that Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, while a terrific airline, requires a mountain of paperwork be filled out 4 weeks prior to your arrival. All of it needs to be faxed directly to the airline in Hong Kong. This procedure is also required for folks who are merely transiting Hong Kong. We booked our flight 3 weeks prior to our departure, only to discover that 3 weeks wasn't enough lead time for Cathay Pacific to process all of our cat's documents. We opted to rebook with a different carrier and flew through Narita, Japan instead, with no problems.

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

There are pet shops and or veterinarians on virtually every corner. The quality of pet products and vet services are both excellent.

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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?

This is often a real sticking point for many trailing spouses here, in that there is no bi-lateral and or de-facto work agreement between Thailand and the US, so work permits (I'm told) are pretty hard to come by. I do know of several spouses here who work as substitute teachers, even though they don't have a teaching background or a teaching certificate. I'm told that, at least at the elementary school level, all that's required is either a BA or a BS in anything.

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

Business casual. Men: for the most part, you're off the hook with regard to wearing a blazer/sports coat, given the heat. A shirt and tie almost always suffice. And for the ladies: thank heaven, NO pantyhose!

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Health & Safety:

1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?

There are good days, when the skies are clear, and then there are days when the pollution is bad and the air is dark grayish.

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2. What immunizations are required each year?

I believe the recommended immunizations are: Rabies, Hepatitis, TB, and Tetanus.

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

We live out in the burbs - in Nichada Thani, a gated community of roughly 3,000 people, and there aren't any security concerns here at all. That said, I have heard rumblings of folks being pick-pocketed downtown. We don't know of anyone who has been the victim of any sort of crime here.

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

The U.S. could really learn a lot by looking at the healthcare system here. The hospitals, as well as doctors, are all state-of-the-art, and at a fraction of the cost back in the States. How good is the health care? Well, for one thing, no one gets medevac'd. Whether you require surgery, need chemotherapy, or need to give birth, all of the expats opt to do everything here. You'll never live anywhere else, where the healthcare is this outstanding!

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

Thailand is in the tropics, with the average daily temperature hovering right at 90 degrees. The climate here falls basically into one of the two following categories: hot & humid without rain or hot & humid with rain.

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Schools & Children:

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

Unlike many other larger cities, where there are only a handful of international schools to choose from, Bangkok has literally dozens. Most of the Americans in Bangkok choose to send their child/children to ISB (International School of Bangkok), which is a US-curriculum-based school with almost 2,000 students. Second in the running for American students is NIST (New International School Thailand). NIST is also a US-curriculum-based school with a much smaller enrollment than ISB. As of last year, there were only 12 U.S. Embassy students enrolled at NIST, with the remaining almost 300 U.S. Embassy students enrolled at ISB. ISB is the largest international school in Thailand, and everything on the premises is state-of-the-art. After you tour the place, you have a better understanding as to why the elementary school tuition alone is right at $25,000 annually. We have children attending ISB, and we simply love it. NIST, while also a good school- lives in the shadows of ISB, in that it's downtown, and the facilities are cramped and not nearly as modern as those at ISB. The bulk of the students enrolled at NIST are truly international, in that their families are affiliated with the UN here. In short, NIST has much more of an international feel, whereas ISB has more of an American feel. The third most popular school among the expats would be the British-curriculum-based, Pattana school. We have quite a few British friends, many of whom send their children to Pattana. The school has an excellent reputation, regardless of who you talk to. Additionally, I'd like to comment on the recent posting of the American family residing out here in Nichada Thani that opted to pull their children out of ISB and enroll them at Pattana. ISB clearly isn't the perfect fit for every child, depending on the needs of the child of course. But a sa current PTA board member, I am of the opinion that parents in general are very satisfied with the school.

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

The larger international schools (NIST, ISB, Pattana, and Harrow) don't really have anything available other than a basic IS (Intensive Studies) program, which is available to students who are struggling with english (reading & writing, and comprehension). This program is designed to help bring a child up to grade level. Aside from this, many parents hire private tutors, usually a fellow teacher for after school tutoring. We have an 8 1/2 year old son (3rd grader) with ADD/ADHD, and because of this, he struggles in all subjects. We're very fortunate here, in that there are several different options available for those children, where a larger international school wouldn't be such a good match. Regarding schools that are better equipped to handle children with learning disabilities, whether they're academic, language, attentional, social, and or behavioural difficulties, I'd suggest looking into the following schools: Rose Marie Academy, St. Andrew's Academy (several locations/campuses), ELC (Early Learning Center). ATOC (Acorns to Oaks) can accommodate children with Down's Syndrome, as well as Autism. Our son is enrolled at Rose Marie Academy, which has been really good for him. The school is small, with a current enrollment of 70 or so students, and class room sizes are small (6 -8, which offers the students more one-on-one time with the teacher.

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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?

We reside out in Nichada Thani, and there are several preschools in the area: Sunshine School, Majic Years, and ELC. There are, of course, more to choose from, but these are the three schools that most of the residents here have their youngsters enrolled at. ISB, Rose Marie Academy, and St. Andrews Academy, all of which are located here, offer preschool programs as well.

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

Pretty much everything that you could imagine your children ever participating in -- and then some -- is available here. The same actually holds true for adults as well. Many of the sports activities cost considerably less than what you would pay back in the U.S.

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Expat Life:

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

Ginormous! The bulk of the expats are from either the corporate and or the oil & gas sector.

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2. Morale among expats:

Let's see here---my husband and I are both employed, my children love their school, and we spend most weekends out and about. In short, we're very happy here. From what I've seen, those who are less enthusiastic than we are seem to be so because the trailing spouse is unemployed, at home bored, or is a younger mother at home with younger children while hubby is putting in 12 hours at work everyday. It's actually unfortunate to be living in one of the most exciting places in the world and being unhappy. In my opinion, under these circumstances, these people would be unhappy, regardless of where they were living, be it in Bangkok, Rome, or Paris. Over all, the folks we know and work with are pretty happy, and they relish the fact that you can wear shorts and flip flops year 'round, and a the beach is only 2 1/2 hours away.

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

Again, there's absolutely no end when it comes to entertaining/entertainment here. There are live shows, concerts, the philharmonic, ballet, restaraunts, discos, bars. There is literally something going on every day of the week.

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

Bangkok is a great city for everyone, period! Wherever your interests lie, there's something here for you, rest assured. For the single folks, there are numerous "singles" clubs/organizations, be it for dating, and or simply finding a travel buddy. For families- there's so much to see and do that there's really no excuse to spend the weekend at home bored. As for the Dinks (double income, no kids) - oh how I often envy you :) Between being able to dine out several times a week for considerably less than in most places, and the weekend beach getaways....aaah. In short, this a fun place for those at any age.

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

Hello....this is Bangkok- need I say more:)- Truly, the gay scene, particularly for men, is pretty rife, and much more accepted here in Thailand, than any other place you'll ever live. Because of the tolerance slash acceptance, the gay scene is much more visible here. One thing you'll see virtually everywhere, whether it's at your childs school, in a restaraunt, or at a shopping mall, are "katoys", or "lady boys" as they are often referred to here by the locals. They are men who have either completed a sex change, are undergoing one, or simply opt to cross-dress. Sometimes they're easily spotted, but often times they're not.

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

Not that we've ever witnessed and/or heard of.

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

Again, there's no shortage of "fun stuff" in and around Bangkok. Some of the places our family enjoys: the zoo, the aquarium, the Grand Palace, a lot of great museums, planetarium, Science Center, etc.

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

Again, the list is never ending, but a small sampling consists of: Thai silk, Celadon pottery, batik, teak wood items & furniture, silver cutlery, Buddha images made from various materials, wood carvings.

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9. Can you save money?

You can't be serious, right? All kidding aside - as anyone who's ever lived in any city in Southeast Asia will tell you, there's simply so much to see, to do, to buy, and to travel to. If you don't partake in any of these, then, well yes, I suppose you could save a chunk of change. If however, you enjoy any of the above-mentioned activities, then no, you're not really going to leave here after a two- or three-year assignment with a hefy savings account.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

Yes!

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

snow gear, or anything else for cold weather.

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3. But don't forget your:

shoes - if you require larger sizes. Also, any creature comforts that you would be miserable doing without.

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

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6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

The King and I - still banned in Thailand after all of these years and not available locally.

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7. Do you have any other comments?

We've been vacationing in Thailand for the better part of fifteen years now, and we truly love this country and all of the exciting things it has to offer.

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