Bangkok, Thailand Report of what it's like to live there - 05/19/10
Personal Experiences from Bangkok, Thailand
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
First long-term expat experience. Other, shorter stays in France, Switzerland, and Afghanistan.
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?
Portland, Oregon. About 24 hours via SFO and Tokyo's Narita airport.
3. How long have you lived here?
4 years, April 2006 to May 2010
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
US Embassy spouse.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The embassy houses people in several parts of the city. If you live in town, you'll be in a pretty large apartment, most of which are near the BTS Skytrain. A number of families live in homes located outside the city, nearer some of the international schools. They often drive to work or take the embassy shuttle. This does cut down on their ability to participate in after work activities. We had two cats with us and had no problem with our apartment allowing them, although we heard that fewer buildings accept pets than in the States.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Groceries are reasonable, esp. if you have a local housekeeper who knows where to get the best deals. Cheese, wine, and olives are more expensive and heavily taxed. There are big grocery stores like Tesco Lotus, Foodland, and Tops. You can get most household supplies that you would find at home, though maybe not familiar brands. It's hard to find unscented products like laundry detergent--although if you have commissary access, you can get it at the embassy.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
Nothing really. You can get nearly everything there.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
American fast food like Subway, McDonald's, KFC, and Burger King are easily available and even deliver by motorbike. Lots of Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian, French, a few Mexican restaurants, and of course Thai. Many fancy restaurants in hotels which offer big buffets and extensive menus.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Some mosquito problems in the city. I have heard of some issues with Dengue fever due to daytime mosquitoes.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
We had APO access, so I didn't need to use the Thai system.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Easily available. The embassy newsletter advertises available housekeepers. Otherwise, I would ask friends for recommendations. We paid about $300/month for 4 days a week of cleaning, cooking, shopping, and errand running.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
Yes, most apartments have workout equipment and pools and there are a bunch of big gyms to join.
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?
We generally used cash and did have ATM card info stolen twice in four years. With the international charge from your credit card company and big ATM fees, it's easier and cheaper to carry cash. All the outdoor markets and street vendors are cash only.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Yes. Catholic, Anglican services, mosques, not sure of others.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Yes, several English channels are available via satellite. There are two English newspapers _Bangkok Post_ and _The Nation_--the quality isn't terrific, but it's okay. A satirical online paper called _Not the Nation_ is incredibly funny and often has very insightful humor.
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 on English, but people love it if you speak even "taxi Thai". Learning to give directions and ask for certain kinds of food, say thank you and hello, are very useful. Not everyone speaks English and many people who do, speak it with a heavy accent and tones having learned English from other Thai speakers.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
The sidewalks are crowded with vendors and people and are often broken and narrow. It would be extremely difficult to get around if you had mobility issues.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Taxis are cheap, air conditioned, metered (although you sometimes have to insist) and fairly safe (no seatbelts in back). They run on natural gas. We took the clean, modern Skytrain and subway and otherwise taxis for most of our needs. Very affordable.
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?
I wouldn't drive in Bangkok although friends with children liked having cars so they could use children's seats. You see a lot of sedans on the roads. Thais drive on the left side like in Britain.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes. I think we paid $40-$50 a month.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
We got a pay as you go plan, although I believe the embassy issues phones to all employees, too. We bought used phones at MBK mall and bought a SIM card veeery cheaply that allowed texting and phone calls for less than $10/month.
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. We had to provide a health certificate from the USDA and pay a small fee.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
Good vets who speak English and Japanese and provide regular and specialty care. My cat even had a CT scan while we were there for much less that it would have cost in the States. They even sold her special diet canned food.
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?
Not terrific. NGOs, embassies, international schools, and English teaching. Pay varies wildly.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Varies, but professional or casual professional. You see a lot of Thai women wearing high heels even on the terrible sidewalks. Not a lot of tank tops and shorts except among the tourists.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Normally, no. There is some purse snatching like any big city, but I've walked up Sukhumvit late at night and never felt threatened. Currently in May 2010 the country may be on the verge of civil war. So, all bets are off. We did not leave because of the violence, but we are relieved to not be there.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Great medical care is available--American- and UK-trained doctors and dentists in many cases. Most street food is pretty safe. They say the best advice is to eat it hot out of the pan, but we ate fruit from street vendors, too and never got sick.
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?
I had heard that the air quality in Bangkok was terrible, but with the BTS Skytrain and MRT subway, this must have improved. Air pollution isn't too bad. Although the city is fragrant with incense, sewage, cooking smells from street vendors, exhaust, and frangipani and jasmine at various times.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
As they say, the seasons are hot, hotter, and hottest. The cool season sometimes gets into the 70s at night, if you're lucky. It runs from around November to January. The hottest time of year is usually Feb-April and then the rainy season begins usually with heavy afternoon showers and impressive thunderstorms.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are several well-known international schools, but I don't have children, so can't speak to them personally. Friends with children in school seem quite happy with their quality, even for special needs students.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I know at least one parent who has had a good experience with this.
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?
There are English-language preschools, but I don't have personal experience with them.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
The international schools have big sports programs, but I don't know otherwise.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Very large from English teachers to diplomats to retirees.
2. Morale among expats:
Very good (except during the present violence).
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?
See comments above. Active and fun.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
This is a good city for couples and single men. Single women friends have had a more difficult time meeting people due to the ready availability of young, slim, Thai women. There's endless nightlife, great restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, lots of karaoke, food from cheap to expensive... You can find live music at smaller venues, but the city doesn't attract many big acts and doesn't have much live theater. You can have almost any kind of food delivered from fast food to nice places via Food by Phone and the less expensive Chef XP.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Thai people generally don't exhibit public displays of affection, but they seem fairly accepting of gay men. (The illicit gay scene is very active.) They do seem accepting of most expat behavior in general, although in Thai society itself they seem less accepting of lesbians.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
Thais speak openly about darker skin as less desirable. You'll see whitening cream heavily advertised. They joke about everything including their friends' skin tone or weight which can be uncomfortable or downright insulting to an American. But we try to remember things are different here.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Jaunts to the beaches on Air Asia, visiting Buddhist and occasional Hindu temples, and learning about Thai culture and history. Getting to know Thai people.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the Grand Palace and various temples, take an express boat or even a dinner cruise along the river, have high tea at the Oriental Hotel, visit Chinatown and the Golden Buddha in his new home, go shopping at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar or the more intimidating Chatuchak (or JJ) Market, or go to the Jim Thompson outlet for silk or the fancy malls like Paragon for brand name stuff but also nice Thai things at Exotique Thai. Eat, eat, eat. Have a nice drink at the Banyan Tree or State Tower or other sky bars. Go see Thai boxing or the Joe Louis Puppet Theater or Khon dancing for some Thai traditions.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Old teak furniture, hill tribe bags and silver jewelry, replica frog drum tables, and lots of scarves. Don't forget to buy one of those little wood frogs.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Fascinating culture, friendly people, good food, fun shopping, great beaches, foot massages. Inexpensive housekeeping. Cheap taxis and a very modern Skytrain and subway system.
11. Can you save money?
You can save money if you're careful, but with all the travel opportunities in and around Thailand, it's easy to spend it, too. And there's shopping and nice restaurants, too.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Definitely yes, although I'd wait until the current political tensions simmer down.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen, bug spray, and little umbrella to shade you from the sun in the city.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
Culture Shock! Thailand, Travelers' Tales Thailand, Rough Guide to Bangkok, Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, Very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith
5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
6. Do you have any other comments?
Living in Bangkok was very comfortable and pretty easy even in the midst of a very different culture. I'd jump at the chance to go back.