A Little Insight… Crazy Quirks & Fun Facts About Thailand

In the early days of A Little Adrift I used to have a page on the site completely dedicated to the fun facts and tidbits I discovered in each new country. I called the page “Strangeness” and it hosted the raw, unfiltered and seemingly meaningless quirky facts that rarely make it into my travel stories. I was new to travel and everything around surprised and delighted me. I filled the Australia page with things like: Note to self, brekkie=breakfast and thongs=sandals, not ladies underwear. Incredibly useful stuff there, I know.  ;-)

And since I’ve landed in Thailand and will be living in Chiang Mai for quite some time, it’s time to look at fun facts you should know about Thailand—in general, and as a traveler heading that way!

Fun & Interesting Facts About Thailand

Map of Southeast Asia
Southeast Asian countries. Thailand is in yellow, surrounded by many nearby cultures, languages, and influences. I live in Chiang Mai, that dot in the north!

Before I travel through any new place I read up on the history. And while far from scholarly, Wikipedia is my go-to source. Thailand’s Wikipedia entry gives a great overview of each facet of Thai history, geography, economy, etc. Also, I actively veer away from stereotypes and gross generalizations about a country, but that being said, take this as a fun and not-authoritative-at-all list.  :)

Wait, Before we Get Started, Where is Thailand?

For a quick geography lesson, Thailand is smack dab in the middle of Southeast Asia and bordered by four countries: Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. And because of its location, Thailand’s culture and history are heavily influenced from India and China.

1. You’ll need both a spoon and a fork for that dish!
Thai people eat most dishes with a spoon in their dominant hand and forks easily leverage food onto the spoon. This comes in handy because Thai food is so tasty, and when I’m using a spoon it’s a lot easier to shovel food into my mouth! Of note is the fact that chopsticks are really only used for eating soups, otherwise you can mostly expect your dish served with a spoon and/or fork.

2. For the perfect dessert, just look for ice cream and white bread!
Desserts are of a different ilk here, and one of the more popular desserts is ice cream sandwiched between a piece (or two) of white bread. They don’t traditionally eat bread with meals (that’s what the rice is for), and bread is most often served sweet. Yum! Seriously, don’t knock bread and ice cream ‘til you’ve tried it. It was an odd combination, and I have never craved it again, but I’m glad I sampled it once in my life!

3. When in doubt, they’ll probably just add condensed milk.
Condensed milk is a staple here so it seems, it’s sold on the shelf of every 7-11 and Tesco Lotus and the syrupy sweet flavor compliments both drinks and desserts. Thai food often has a sweet component to it (they sugar their food with table sugar!) and the near obsession here with condensed milk is another facet of that sweet tooth!

Thailand fun facts
A sweet smile from Jenny as she holds the village’s youngest resident; Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai.

4. Known as “The Land of Smiles,” Thailand delivers on the promise.
Thailand’s tourism pushes the image that the country is the “land of smiles” and this is mostly true. Thais generally prefer harmony over open social conflict so it’s rare to get into altercations on the streets and I find the vendors and locals regularly offer up warm smiles and greetings. It’s also worth noting though, that smiling is the default reaction for Thais in a range of situations very different from the West. For example, a smile from a Thai person can show their personal embarrassment, or they smile to relieve your personal embarrassment, smiles come out of fear, remorse, and even tension. It varies – so yes, everyone is smiling, but it not always because they’re happy! :)

Buddha Chiang Mai, Thailand
A large golden Buddha statue at Wat Prah Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand

5. The wai is necessary and brush up on Thai social protocols.
Many Asian cultures have a different social hierarchy in place and Thailand is no exception. The hierarchy is present within families, friendships, and nearly all social situations. The most pronounced manifestation of this is the wai, a gesture of raised, clasped hands in front of your body. A person’s relationship to you, age, and their “status,” for lack of a better word, defines how low you should bow your head when giving a wai in greeting and thanks.

6. Toy pet accessories are definitely a thing.
Many Thai people cart around the tiny, fluffy, yappy dogs and perch them in purses, and on their motorbikes. Excluding the motorbike phenomenon, it equally baffles to me to see this same trend in the U.S.

7. Bangkok has the longest city name in the world.
The full name written out is: Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. Try saying that ten times fast!

8. Though Thai is the official language in Thailand but one of many spoken.
Besides hearing Thai in the predominantly Thai areas, you will also find Lao, Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Akha, and Karen. And that’s just to start, there are many other smaller ethnic groups with distinct languages and cultures depending on where in Thailand you travel!

9. The name “Thailand” is a relatively new addition to the country’s long history.
Until this century, Thailand was actually called Siam throughout history; the name changed to Thailand in 1939.

10. Thai people are fiercely proud.
Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by a European power. That was quite a feat since Europeans colonized seemingly everywhere for a good while and there was a lot of French influence in other countries in the region. But Thai people are rightly proud their culture and food remains free of the colonial cultural influences rampant in Laos and Vietnam.

11. The Kingdom of Thailand is a constitutional monarchy.
Thailand is among the most populated constitutional monarchies in the world and it has a King. The long reigning, late Bhumibol Adulyadej was well-loved and respected throughout Thailand. His son took over in 2016. Note that sarcasm and levity concerning the King is not appreciated or allowed—it’s against the law to say anything bad about the royal family.

12. U.S. politics don’t hold a candle to the complexities of Thai politics.
The Thai political situation is very, very complex and nuanced and there are many people better suited to explaining Thai politics than myself.

13. Pick most any given day and it’s probably a holiday in Thailand.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it does feel like it! I always take note of upcoming holidays and ask around before planning anything big just to ensure I don’t get to a temple/park/shop/event and find everything closed! There are major national holidays, and then regional ones, too. There’s seemingly always something festive and fun happening.

14. The country is deeply spiritual and Buddhism is the main religion.
More than 90 percent of the population Buddhist. And let me tell you, you can tell when traveling through because there are wats (temples), Buddha statues, and mini offerings everywhere.

Alms Monks in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Monks line up during an alms-giving in Chiang Mai during Songkran, Thai New Year.

When I looked around me over the past week (eek! It’s been a full week here!!) these are some of the fun facts about Thailand and random things I have found along the way and that have jogged my memories from past travels. It’s far from comprehensive, and my niece has been the one to point out several of the oddities to me now that she’s here (she likes the tiny dogs in particular), but it’s always something new and intriguing here on a daily, if not hourly basis. :)

Traveled in Thailand or dreaming of traveling there? What fascinates you most about the country?

Thailand Travel Guide

My free country guide includes everything you should know when planning a trip to Thailand. From the best things to do, how to get around, and even responsible actions you can take once there.

guitar monkey mask

A Little Story… A Guitar as a Gateway to Culture

The pulse of pedestrian and motorbike traffic hummed behind us on the busy streets of Bangkok, Thailand, splitting and reconverging on the other side of our trio, as we negotiated the terms for Laura’s highly coveted shiny green guitar.

“Okay, maybe you’ll take 800 baht and a really fun monkey mask?” my friend Laura replied to the Thai street vendor, with a hint of fun and laughter glinting in her eyes.

The chuckling vendor looked at me and our faces were twin mirrors of amused confusion.

monks alms giving in chiang mai

A Little City Guide… The 5 Best of Everything in Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you’re heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand and want a handful of the best things to do in town – well, you’ve come to the right place! I offer up a selection of my favorite vegetarian eats around town. The sights you shouldn’t miss, places to stay and even some of the more popular (and ethical) of the day-trips around Chiang Mai.

I’m going to miss my home-away-from-home and this wonderful city is well-worth of a visit when you’re traveling through Thailand.

Songkran water fight in Thailand?

A Little Celebration… Welcome to Songkran, The World’s Largest Water Fight

Like a warrior prepping for battle, I cranked the faucet on the sink of my apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand and listened impatiently to the glugging sounds as tap water slowly filled my water gun’s reservoir. Day one of Songkran festivities were ramping up, (and a day ahead of schedule I might add!) and celebratory shouts for the Thai New Year bounced into my apartment from nearby streets.

I’ll admit, I was psyched!

Every year, Thailand and the rest of the region, including Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and nearby parts of China, welcome in their New Year with water, prayer and rituals.

A Little Story Time…The Universe Kicked Me Hard

Last week I was complacent. I like my brief expat life here in Chiang Mai. It’s been comfortable, a good social life with the other expats, and it’s been easy more than anything else.

I know where I’m going to sleep every night. I know enough Thai that the my vegetarian foodie worries in new countries subsided, and I have a flat-mate, a friend here who has my back.

Well, the Universe gave me a slap-in-the-face lesson on complacency last week. Let’s set the scene here and be a fly-on-the-wall; I’d like to play back a moment last week that snapped my lackadaisical attitude back into focus.

Chiang Mai Gate Market (South Gate) seen from behind
Setting the scene: the Chiang Mai Gate Market (South Gate) as seen from behind

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FADE IN:

EXT. CHIANG MAI GATE MARKET — NIGHT

Large fluorescent lights illuminate the white tiled floor outside the Tesco Supermarket as SHANNON and JODI approach. They walk up the steps laughing and gently step around the rounded old woman selling puffed rice from oversized burlap sacks. They step up to one of the three brightly painted ATMs lining the supermarket’s outside walls.

Nearby, Thai and foreigners shoppers CHATTER and walk by as Shannon and Jodi dig through their purses.

SHANNON
But veggie lady’s pad see ew was so tasty tonight; what are
we going to do once we’re back in the US?

Jodi shrugs, still digging through her purse. Shannon pulls out her small red wallet and steps up to the ATM. Shannon finds her debit card, inserts it, and nonchalantly covers the keypad with her wallet as she punches in her PIN and follows the on-screen instructions.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
Seriously, though, a life without daily rice?

JODI
(sighing)
I miss it so much every time I go home; my mom even thinks
I’m weird when I eat rice everyday for breakfast!

SHANNON
(shrugs)
Not gonna, lie, I like Western breakfasts, but half
the world eats rice for breakfast…what’s so strange about that?

Jodi looks up, her brows are furrowed and the entire contents of her purse are grasped in her hands and wedged under her arms.

JODI
I don’t know where my ATM card is.

SHANNON
What do mean it’s—

JODI
It should be here, in my wallet. That’s the only place I keep
it! If it’s not here, I just, I really don’t know where it would be…

Shannon pauses to look at the empty wallet Jodi is holding up for her inspection. Shannon turns back to the ATM and jabs at the touch-screen several times, body still turned toward Jodi.

SHANNON

When was the last time you used it?

JODI

I have no idea. Before Songkran?

SHANNON’S POV

The ATM as money spits out of the machine and an insistent BEEPING noise is heard. Shannon’s hand pulls out the bills.

BACK TO SCENE

Jodi is shoving items back into her purse.

SHANNON
Maybe you put it in a different spot?

Shannon fans out the money, quickly counting the Thai baht as she turns her back to the ATM, fully facing toward Jodi.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
You know, so it wouldn’t get wet during the water fights?

Jodi shoulders her purse and shrugs.

SHANNON (CONT’D)
I mean, that would make sense…we didn’t take more than the
bare essentials outside the house, right?

Shannon inserts the crisp and colorful Thai baht into her wallet, the CLICK is audible as she fastens the wallet’s clasp and drops it back into her purse. She siddles up next to Jodi, and gives Jodi’s arm a little pat before they walk side-by-side toward the TESCO entrance.

INSERT: THE ATM

CLOSE ON the machine BEEPS incessantly, flashes some lights, and then spits out Shannon’s ATM card.

BACK TO SCENE

The machine is flashing lights and BEEPING as the glass Tesco doors automatically slide open; a burst of air conditioning blasts Shannon and Jodi, fanning out their hair, as they enter the Tesco chatting to each other about groceries.

FADE OUT

THE END

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And this my friends, is what had Jodi and me sitting at our dinning room table incredulously staring at our empty wallets two hours later.

At the precise moment Jodi discovered her lost card (which was eaten by an ATM two weeks ago under much the same circumstances) I was in the process of losing my card.

Before we discovered my card had just been eaten by the bank machine we weren’t too concerned – I had borrowed money last month (when I did the EXACT same thing at an ATM down on the Thai islands) and we knew it wouldn’t take long for her card to get here.

Then we discovered my card was missing too. And that let off little creeping flames of anxiety into my system. Here we were wrapping up our time in Chiang Mai, just six days left, and we’re out of money. Like, seriously, out of money.

No safety stash of cash was going to cover the remaining expenses and since we we’re leaving we were flummoxed. Where should we send the card? How are we going to solve this?

Why the hell did we both lose our cards at the exact same time?

What is the lesson here?

We batted questions and speculations at each other across the table. And as it sunk in, we concluded the Universe was handing us a lesson on complacency.

I’m a solo traveler by nature, as is Jodi. We’ve both traveled for years now with mostly just our own wherewithal to keep everything together.

Then we moved to Chiang Mai, got comfortable, had another person nearby to trust, and, well, we got complacent.

A Team Chiang Mai gang gathering!

We stopped paying attention.

I consider getting an ATM card eaten by the machine a pretty rookie mistake – something I was very cautious about when traveling alone because I knew I’d be in dire straits without a friend to lean on…I am so conscious and careful when I’m traveling solo that I never lost my card on my RTW trip.

And yet with six years of solo travel between us, both of us did lost our cards this month (and I did it twice!).

This experience humbled me; I came to Chiang Mai so that I could be relaxed and at ease. But at the same time, I’m not in my home country, I am at the mercy of a flimsy square of plastic and there’s an extent to which I need to remember it’s always wise to be aware.

Complacency and awareness are not mutually exclusive, but for me, they have been over the past few months. This week I head to Jordan as a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board and they have so kindly agreed to accept the FedEx package with my debit card.

As I leave Thailand and head out on this next leg of travel I can’t help but believe the Universe was telling me to pay more attention. And though I wish I didn’t need the reminder lesson, I’d rather it come in this form rather than some of the more challenging issues that can crop up on the road!

What’s your take-away…any other lesson we should be learning from this glitch?!

how much does it cost to live in Thailand?

A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2020)

Everything I’ve been telling you is true, it’s cheap! I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand costs have averaged at least one third of my previous living expenses.

Part of why I moved to Chiang Mai was because I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life, without all the worrying about expenses if I lowered my cost of living. I’m still building up an online income for myself and paying off one last small piece of debt. The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.

A Little Revelation…Traveling versus, well, Traveling

I wrote this post two weeks ago as I was sitting on the airplane on my way to China and feel like it’s a great way to kick off the coming posts about my whirlwind travels through Beijing, Yangshou, and Shanghai.

Groggy from the rude awakening blaring out of my alarm clock at 4:30am it was far too early to even bat around the term “awake.” No, it was pure instinct that kept me from endlessly hitting the snooze button this morning.

Instead, I grabbed my comfortable-but-not-a-hobo travel outfit I had carefully laid out last night and politely lit my way to the communal bathroom with my iPhone while I dodged the other Couchsurfers sprawled on mats in the large, open communal room. Within 15 minutes my bag was re-packed, teeth brushed, and I found myself standing at the door of my host’s house, the red brake-lights of my waiting taxi gleaming in stark contrast to the pitch black sky.

Darkness in the early morning, pre-dawn hours.

Uncaffeinated and bleary eyed, I had managed to avoid all complex thought throughout the rote morning tasks of a travel day.

Then it hit me all at once.

I’m going to China! Right now.

Cue an impromptu happy dance on the sidewalk because suddenly the adrenaline of actually being back in the travel saddle hit me.

It’s been ages since I felt this way. Coming back to Southeast Asia was a different kind of excitment; there’s a familiarity in Thailand and different (arguably fewer) challenges in my temporary expat lifestyle. I still consider myself traveling because I’m not living in the US, but it’s “slow travel,” versus, well, travel.

But China. China is a whole new ballgame. A whole new culture.

And staring at those taxi lights snapped it all back into crystal clarity for me; now once again I feel the adventure and newness that caused spontaneous smiles and a bear hug good-bye to my traveling friend as I did the Charleston toward my waiting cab.

I have a new language to cobble together over the next two weeks, markets to explore, and there is Chinese food to be eaten!

Check back throughout the month as I sprinkle into the mix some stories from my travels through China.

A Little Wonderment…A Child’s Journey Through Chinese New Year

Last month’s Chinese New Year celebrations embraced Chiang Mai’s small Chinatown section with wholehearted enthusiasm. The signature red Chinese lanterns adorned every doorway.

Red Chinese lantern at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Every shop entrance strung crimson bulbs from end to end. And the effect, as evening settled over Little China, was faintly magical. The tinted light tinkling out of the lanterns warred with the harsh street lights for ambient command of the Chinese New Year festivities.

Food stall preparations at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Crowds thronged the main-stage hours before the performances and the long row of stop-light red food stalls offered up mounds of fresh, steaming food for the hungry masses gathering nearby. The mysterious preparations on stage included huge dragon heads, odd without their accompanying long dragon bodies, being unceremoniously hefted into place.

Constructing the stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Crowds make use of foodstalls before the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

And that’s in that moment I wished I could spend the next hour through the eyes of a child…

The little boy is rapt with attention on the empty stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Little girl on her dad's shoulders at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

…the little boy dutifully minds his helicopter parents as food is pushed between his parted lips. Mechanical chewing as the child eats his food but refuses to move his glance from the on-stage preparations; he’s fearful of missing a single moment of the performance, which in his mind will jump-start into life the very moment he loses focus.

A jumble of balloons briefly obscures the stage and the child is distracted; the shininess arrests his attention from the stage just as the next mouthful of food is shoved into his gaping mouth. He manages to utter a muffled grunt and point, an obvious and instantaneous request for the newest object of his fascination.

Huge bouquet of balloons at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Cotton candy! Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The parents confer while the child already begins to plot out which balloon is the best decoration for his petite wrist; he knows that today is a celebration. And that means balloons.

And cotton candy.

The vendors pick their targets well and even a few adults (including a tall, farang red-head) are captivated by the thought of sticky-sweet, colorful cotton candy.

The vendors pass, the chink and jingle of a few extra Thai baht audibly weighs down their pockets as they scan the crowds for more easy targets.

Then the murmur and sudden silence of the crowd confirms the child’s suspicions. The moment he was thoroughly engrossed in his cotton candy and balloons he missed the opening beats of the performance.

Dragon performers leap between posts at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Standing tall and proud, the dragon show at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dragon show and fireworks at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A dragon leaps onto the stage. The legs underneath the dragon look awfully human-like but the child’s eyes are invariably drawn, instead, to the enormous dragon head bobbing across the stage. The dragon’s blue eyes light up with a flash and the child knows: this performance is for him alone.

In fact, he’s so engrossed in the jumping, jiggling, gyrating dragon he scarcely notices as his mom gently pries the cotton candy out of his fingertips and his dad lifts him overhead and settles him firmly into place. Dad’s shoulders feel so natural so he rests his hands on his dad’s forehead and settles in for the rest of the show.

Amazed by the dragon performance at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Ladyboys dancing on stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The dragons give way to the giggle-inducing ladyboys who dance and prance around the stage with umbrellas and balls. Their antics are meant in jest and the crowd can’t help but chuckle right alongside the child.

Dancers, no older than the child, delicately walk onto the stage. The heavy makeup, applied with absolute precision, cannot hide the fact that they’re just children. The boy, still hunkered down on his dad’s shoulders, imagines that one day his little sister might dance on a stage like this too.

Child dancer rapt with attention at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dancers watch and wait their turn on stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dancer's ornate hair designs at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The music changes and just as his attention starts to drift, the dragon is back. Except, this dragon is different. The dragon’s rainbow of colors trigger a different part of the child’s imagination and instead of asking to get off of dad’s shoulders, he imagines himself a dragon slayer. He is up on stage and everyone is cheering him on, chanting his name, and relying on him to save the day.

Lite up dragons at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The dragon show is abruptly over; the boy lost track of time and didn’t even notice the minutes tick by as the dragon show progressed. His baby sister is getting tired and mom and dad insist it’s time to leave. More dancers are up on stage but his dad has already started to weave through the crowd. The child throws one last thirsty glance back at the stage.

The Chinese New Year festivities will continue throughout the night, but every cotton candy sugar coma has to wear off at some point. The child lets out a plaintive whine, he doesn’t want to miss a second of the shows, but already his parents have turned the corner.

The festival is over for him. But tonight?

Tonight he’ll dream of dragons.

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A big thanks to my friend Claire Balgemann, she was with me for the festivities and several of these are her photos  :-)