People watching can be quite an interesting way to spend your time in Thailand. It’s not quite as much fun when it happens in the same environment, let’s say an American watching other Americans in a mall in Chicago.
However when you watch foreign visitors to Thailand in an environment which is not so familiar to them, you get to see some really interesting and sometimes hilarious types of behavior.
After having lived in Thailand for two decades, I have come up with a list of those behavior types.
They include foreign visitors and foreigners who live in Thailand (called expatriates or expats for short). Of course I am somewhat generalizing. Not everyone will fit neatly into those categories, but a lot of people really do.
I should add my official disclaimer here: What I am doing is to highlight some peculiar, unusual or interesting types of behavior in a humorous way. My intention is to provide entertainment.
This is not a sociological scientific behavioral analysis. Neither is it meant to be a judgment, but rather a parody (with a good amount of truth in it).
==> FYI – If you don’t have a sense of humor and are easily offended – don’t bother reading any further! But if you like to have some fun, you will get a blast out of reading this.
Not everyone will fit into one of those groups, and there are plenty of quite normal foreign visitors in Thailand who don’t exhibit any extreme or strange behavior.
But… there are also plenty of those who do. If you want to find out who they are, read on.
1. The package tourist
They are being shuttled around in tour buses with most of their days pre-planned and orchestrated by their tour guides.
They don’t speak one word of Thai, are madly busy clicking away with their cameras, sticking them into every Thai person’s face who happens to cross their path.
They laugh with wide eyes about things that seem strange to them, and they look at Thailand as an exotic zoo with the third world natives bumbling about without having the benefit of being from a “real first world” environment.
They almost exclusively hang out with their fellow tour group members and their perception of Thailand is through the eyes and interpretations of their tour guide.
Their tour company has crammed as much sightseeing into their itinerary as possible, and they are rushing from place to place to keep up.
The Thais look at them with amusement or slight annoyance.
They are glad that they are spending their money, but they are also glad when the tour bus swallows up the foreign crowd again and moves on to the next exotic must-see destination.
2. The beach bum tourist
They go to one of the many islands in Thailand and spend a goodly part of the day roasting themselves in the sun so that their friends back home will be impressed by their deep tan.
You can watch some of them who underestimated the sun turn red like a tomato. But it’s all worth it as long as they get rid of their sickly pale western skin tone. They wish nothing more than for their skin tone to look like the naturally darker Thais.
Meanwhile the Thais avoid the sun like the plague. You will never see any of them roasting in the sun. Especially the women cover up as much as possible.
Not only do they avoid the sun, but their bathroom cabinets are full of whitening creams which they apply liberally every day. They wish nothing more than for their skin to look like those pale foreigners when they first arrived in Thailand.
The Thai men think that pale white skin looks classy and they regard dark colored Thai women as low class while the foreigners proudly show off their deep tan back home and are admired for it. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, it seems.
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3. The backpacker
They are not afraid of striking out on their own. It’s an adventure for them.
They spend most of their time traveling around to see at least three or four southeast Asian countries in a few short weeks.
Their conversations are mostly about their travel experiences, and they outdo each other and compete about who has the most amazing travel stories.
Often they look down on the package tourists and generally avoid them like the plague. They are convinced that they are “getting” the Thai experience since they try to be part of the local scene.
They are sweating and laboring under their huge backpacks since luggage with wheels is just not cool. Their dress is often somewhere between very casual and downright unkempt.
The Thais don’t have much respect for them, but they won’t complain since they are the ones who keep thousands of budget guesthouses and local travel agencies in business.
Thai women are very conscious of their appearance. They generally try to look their best, dress up nicely, wear make-up, and look attractive to the opposite sex. The backpackers often behave and look quite the opposite which is seen as low class by the Thais.
Don’t yell at me now, I have been a backpacker for many years myself when I was younger.
4. The over-the-top imitators
Those are the foreigners who want to be more Thai than the Thais. They dress in colorful tribal clothes or in traditional Thai clothes although the average Thai wears normal western clothes.
Some of them even walk around barefoot, somehow thinking that this is super cool. What they are missing is that urban Thais never go barefoot.
The more extreme version wears their hair in dreadlocks or they sport white clothes to somehow resemble an Indian sadhu (saintly person) or meditator. They feel that they are totally unique and that they really understand the Thai experience.
The Thais look at them with mild amusement or think they are weird or plain crazy.
Then there is a curious phenomenon which I will call the ‘saint illusion’. I know someone who has never been to Thailand and considers herself a Buddhist.
She is totally convinced that all Thais are saintly people who spend a good part of the day sitting around with a serene and peaceful expression, meditating on the highest truths of the universe. Quite funny, actually, and very wrong.
5. The sex tourist
These are all men, and they have a one track mind. They are always on the lookout for another woman.
Sex tourism is huge in Thailand. There are plenty of women who are happy to relieve men of their money in exchange for a variety of services.
Those don’t have to be just one night encounters. In Thailand you can literally rent girlfriends for any amount of time.
The sex tourists often have their share of horror stories to tell. In the “love for sale” world there are plenty of strange things going on.
They range from lying to insane jealousy to drugging men and stealing all their money to elaborately conceived exploitation schemes.
Naturally there can be ugly stories on both sides. Every once in a while those stories have a happy end, but in the majority of cases they don’t. But in either case the sex tourists seem to think that it’s all worth it.
6. The critical expat
These are people who are actually living in Thailand. They first settled here because they fell in love with the country.
But, alas, as is the case in relationships, the beginning is always the most exciting time when everything is seen through rose-colored glasses.
But after a while the initial excitement wears off and those expats start to see that not everything is gold that glitters.
They start to notice that there are problems in Thailand, just like in any country in the world.
Reality sets in and they notice that some cultural differences and a difficult language, which only few foreigners learn well, can be real barriers.
Then they start to see those cultural differences as shortcomings or even faults of the Thais and they become very critical.
Such expats are often quite eager to tell everyone they meet about the gripes which they have about Thailand. But they stay here anyway since somehow they can’t find the Shangri-la where everything is perfect.
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7. The Thai culture worshipper
They think that Thais can do no wrong. Everything Thais do is justified by their almost divine culture which they keep babbling about.
They demand that all foreigners submit to the Thai culture, which is infallible and perfect, and that they accept and follow it as the highest standard.
Even if a Thai person acts like a complete idiot, they will defend him, because Thai culture justifies everything.
They will blame foreigners, western influence, and foreign media as culprits for any shortcomings of the Thais, and they see them as saints in disguise who can do no wrong.
They will argue with anyone and defend anything “Thai” even if they have next to zero understanding of Thailand and Thai people.
It’s something like the initial “rose-colored glasses” syndrome from the previous category, but it just never wears off and becomes totally irrational. Those types can be quite silly and annoying.
8. The working expat
These are often English teachers. Actually there are many thousands of foreign English teachers in Thailand.
That’s one of the easiest jobs to come by for foreigners in Thailand. They are in high demand because the English education in Thai schools often just doesn’t cut it.
This group is not strange or extreme, but they are a very typical group in Thailand which is why they are included here. Some of them are quite interesting fellows.
They have globetrotted around the world, teaching English in all kinds of countries. Often they have a good insight how life in Thailand really works.
They are on the inside track because of their work, and they can be interesting people to talk to.
Their salaries are quite low compared to what English teachers earn in South Korea, Taiwan, or Japan.
Many of them have decided to live in Thailand because of the quality of life, the laid back life style, the low cost of living, and the friendly and safe nature of the country.
9. The “Leave your brain at home” type
Many pleasure-seeking male foreign visitors seem to have left their brains in their home country.
They come to Thailand and look for romance in a bar, of all places.
Somehow they don’t realize that those bar girls are highly skilled experts at separating them from their money.
And – watch out – these girls have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.
The unsuspecting visitor (who left his brain at home) falls for a multitude of expertly crafted stories whose only purpose is to relieve them of as much money as possible.
They often end up handing over large amounts of money for a variety of concocted disasters which their new-found love or her family is supposedly going through.
They might even buy the woman a house or marry her quickly, all the while forgetting that she is in business to get money from men.
These often naive men believe that they have found the love of their life. Some eventually find out that they were just one in a stable of “exclusive” lovers.
What is really happening is that they all pay the girl a monthly salary while the girl is juggling the situation by making sure that never more than one of her paying suitors shows up at her doorstep at the same time.
Why anyone would think that a prostitute in a bar environment is a good candidate for finding the love of your life is beyond me. But this is going on every day here in Thailand.
Before anyone gets mad at me, there are thousands of good relationships between foreign men and Thai women. However most of those good ones generally bypass the bar scene.
If you are a male visitor in Thailand, just make sure you take your brain with you, and some common sense as well. You might even find the love of your life here.
10. The “know-it-all” type
These people have spent some time in Thailand, and they are convinced that their experience is the only correct one.
It doesn’t matter what you tell them – their experience has been different, and therefore inevitably they are right and you are wrong.
They totally expect you to agree with them. If you don’t, they become quite indignant, and you will get an earful about your lamentable ignorance.
Regardless of their often quite limited experience of Thailand, in their mind they have it all figured out. Their personal experience is the only way to see Thailand in the right way.
They take pleasure in contradicting everyone who has had a different experience and they are quite willing to argue their point of view vigorously. They can be quite annoying.
11. The angry feminist
She is absolutely ‘sure’ that all those poor innocent Thai women are being cruelly exploited by foreign men.
When she sees an older man with a younger Thai woman, she will label him a dirty old man, a shameless exploiter of women, a sex craving abusive predator, and all kinds of other non flattering descriptions.
In her mind the Thai women are innocent victims and they should be saved from those disgusting foreign men. She has no clue that the exploitation more often than not works the other way round.
Many Thai women are masters of extracting every dollar they can from gullible foreign men.
They will have a long list of sob stories designed to pull on the male heart strings and convince him to shell out more money for one more real, or more likely concocted disaster story that has befallen her or her family.
The angry feminist is blissfully ignorant of the fact that relieving foreign men of their money in a variety of skillful ways is a highly developed art among many Thai women.
And those are not just the bar girls whose business is quite obvious. There are plenty of families who are pushing their daughters to extract more and more money from their foreign boyfriends or husbands.
But the angry feminist will disregard all that. She won’t even listen to the facts, and if you try to tell her, she will viciously attack you for your complicity with the dirty old men.
She will insinuate that you are one of them, and she will blame the foreign men for all evils that she perceives, and nobody will change her mind – period!
12. The “go-native” village dweller
Their motto is: Stay as far away from foreigners as possible. These types are trying to blend in, be like the Thais, and they avoid tourists and even other expats like poison.
Those types are mostly western men who are married to a Thai woman and they live with her in a village off the beaten track.
They take pride in living like the Thais as if this were some kind of special virtue, and they look down on all other westerners who don’t understand the “real Thai-ness” experience.
Their point of pride is that they have changed their cultural identity. They see this as a badge of honor which makes them special and better than other lowly tourists or non-integrated expats.
13. The grumpy complaining bar hopper
You can easily spot them in the bars in the tourist centers in Thailand.
They are often older men, pot-bellied, looking grumpy, grouchy, bored.
They sit there for hours nursing their beers, sometimes with their equally bored looking rent-a-girlfriends in tow.
It they get around other foreigners of this type, they will start a discussion about how terrible everything is in Thailand.
They will complain about all their bad experiences. They are really energy suckers. When you see one of them – run!
14. The obnoxious American
The Americans are often seen as the prototypes of the culturally insensitive, blundering types.
They are often loud, and sometimes act in ways that are totally against the cultural values in Thailand.
They frequently come across as intimidating since they will voice their opinions very directly (not acceptable in Thailand).
They will in a friendly way (or so they think) slap the Thais on their backs (totally unacceptable here). They will start a big argument over some issue (considered rude here), and they will loudly insist on being right (doesn’t work here).
They will tell people that they are wrong (bad manners in Thailand), and they will put people on the spot for any issue (makes people lose face here).
They will talk loudly and speak quickly, and they will use fancy words and complicated grammar which no Thai person will understand.
They will interpret the polite nods or smiles of the Thais as a sign that they were understood even if the Thai person has no idea what they were talking about (the more likely scenario).
They judge Thais and Thailand by their own standards and don’t realize that the Thai way of thinking is often diametrically opposed to their way.
And now, if you think that I am picking on Americans, you are right. Anyway – I am an American myself, and I am only picking on some of them – the ones that fit the description above. Just make sure that you are not one of them when visiting Thailand.
15. The massage guru seeker
Every year thousands of westerners come to Thailand to learn Thai Massage.
Nowadays this is a hot trend worldwide, and most spas are scrambling to add Thai Massage to their menu.
The biggest hot spot for such an education is Chiang Mai which has the largest concentration of Thai Massage schools on the planet.
This can be quite a cult scene with students trying to find the best school, comparing teachers, or even accepting a particular teacher as their infallible guru.
Some of them just learn some Thai Massage for the fun of it without intending to embark on a professional massage career.
A few weeks or months after they completed their course they have already forgotten half of what they had learned.
The funny thing about many of those who are actual therapists is that in their western home countries they are proponents of regulated education, accredited schools, scientific facts, mandatory continuing education, ethics standards etc.
But when they come to Thailand, some of them want to ‘go native’. They shun the established schools and instead they take pride in studying with a therapist who lives in a village way off the beaten track.
They find it ‘genuine’ and ‘real’ that their teacher has never seen a massage school from the inside, does not possess a single certificate, and does not have any official massage license. He or she might have learned Thai Massage from their mother or grand mother.
Now, I am not saying that such a therapist could not do excellent work. However, it is quite curious that such massage guru seekers apply a totally different standard to their new-found guru as soon as they arrive in Thailand.
Back in their home country they wouldn’t even listen for a second to anyone who has zero official credentials – and what to speak of studying with them. But in Thailand it’s their point of pride that their guru has no formal education.
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16. The Globe trotting expat
Those expats can be interesting fellows. They will entertain you with stories of their globetrotting adventures.
They might be living on their farm in Panama part of the year, going on African safaris, trekking in the Himalayas, or living in a small Indonesian village.
They might have a winter home in Uruguay (which is summer time in the southern hemisphere), and spend 3 months a year in Thailand.
You ask them where they are from, and they have a hard time answering the question since they are more universal citizens than residents of one country.
They often have innovative and interesting ways to generate an income, and you can often get very useful tips from them. These globe trotting expats can be good company.
17. The retiree on a budget
It’s a fact that in many western countries it is difficult or impossible to live on a meager social security or pension income.
The same meager income can finance a good life in Thailand.
There are tens of thousands of retirees who have realized that they can have a good life in Thailand instead of struggling financially in their home country.
These people are on a budget who couldn’t afford a decent life back home, but in Thailand they are still seen as rich foreigners.
And there is no way to convince most Thais that not all foreigners are filthy rich.
18. The devout Buddhist
These are the types who have read about Buddhism and are convinced that Thailand is a deeply spiritual country.
They consider the Thai way of greeting, the “wai” (putting both palms together in front of your chest or face), to be a highly spiritual affair, and they apply this liberally to whoever they meet.
Little do they know that there are nuances in how the “wai” is applied in Thailand, and those have nothing to do with spiritual meaning, but more so with class or status distinctions.
Not knowing these can easily result in looking like a fool to the Thais, which is a fact they of course fail to notice.
But the devout Buddhists are undeterred and keep “wai-ing” everyone in sight since they are convinced of the deeply spiritual significance of this act, regardless of the fact that the actual reality is totally different.
19. The zealous missionaries
These are the total opposite of the previous category (the devout Buddhists).
They descend on Thailand in droves, and they are determined to make the heathens understand that they will go to hell forever along with all their Buddhist countrymen unless they convert to Christianity.
It doesn’t matter how spiritual the Buddhists are – without Christianity they are all condemned to hellfire and brimstone.
There are various groups of missionaries, but they all share the belief that the best thing for the Buddhists is to not be Buddhists any longer.
The missionaries focus a lot of their efforts on the “hill tribe” communities, the tribal people of northern Thailand. They buy them refrigerators, TVs, build schools and clinics.
The commonly held view among the Thais is that they bribe the tribal people into converting to Christianity.
It has to be admitted that on one side they are doing some good among the hill tribes, but it comes with the conversion agenda.
Luckily for the missionaries the Thais are very tolerant people and they let them get away with their conversion efforts. There is no such thing as Buddhist missionaries, and the Thai Buddhists would never try to convince anyone to switch their religion.
I wonder if the Buddhists would receive an equally tolerant reception if they would show up in America’s bible belt and tell people there that they will all go to hell unless they accept Buddha as their savior.
Religious tolerance in Buddhist Thailand
20. The “suicide squad” riders
These are generally young people from all over the world who rent a motorcycle to explore Thailand or just get around.
Most of them have little or no experience with riding a motorcycle, and in most cases they don’t have a motorcycle drivers licence.
You can easily recognize them by their wobbly and unsteady driving style, and they keep falling off those scooters in droves.
The motorbike shops who rented them those bikes are doing a brisk business overcharging them grossly for the repairs on the bikes after their accidents.
In some touristy places it is very common to see lots of such tourists bandaged up with scrapes and burns from their falls, and sometimes those marks are referred to as tattoos. The local clinics are also doing a brisk business fixing up the fallen riders.
You are required to have a Thai or international drivers licence in Thailand, however the vast majority of those tourists don’t have them, and the motorbike rental shops are not asking about them as well.
When these scooter riders get stopped by the police and asked for their licence, they are totally surprised that they have to pay a fine. They seriously thought that in Thailand “everything goes” – no need to comply with any laws.
The bike rental agencies are only interested in the money and less with enforcing the laws. It’s a little like the Wild West of bike riding.
21. The “non-touristy” tourist
Most tourists go to well known tourist destinations. That’s where you find plenty of accommodation, a wide variety of food, lots of activities, things to see, entertainment, and English speaking locals.
However there are tourists who find it beneath themselves to go to such places, and they are seeking out non-touristy ‘non-spoiled’ places.
There are plenty of travel agencies who recognize this, and they advertise tours to such supposedly ‘non-touristy’ places. Then minivans descend on such locations and disgorge their loads of non-tourists who busy themselves imagining that they are seeing the “real” Thailand.
They prefer the most out-of-the way and undeveloped places since they assume that this is the real Thailand, and the rest of the country – the vast majority of it – somehow is not the “real” thing.
The poorer and less developed, the better. If they see some simple wooden huts and primitive conditions with uneducated farmers, they are in ecstasy because this must the “real” Thailand.
22. The wife seeker
Thailand is a huge marriage market. Tens of thousands of men come here to find a wife.
And tens of thousands of Thai women are on the lookout for a western man to marry.
They both benefit for different reasons. The western man gets an often much younger and much prettier woman whom he would have little chance of finding in his home country.
The woman gets an improvement in her economic situation and in her social status.
Can this be real love? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no. How do these relationships work out? Just like all marriages in general. Some last, and the couple lives happily ever after, and some end up in disaster. There is nothing new here in this regard.
The ‘relationships in Thailand’ article series
23. The party animal
Every month there is a gigantic full moon party on the Thai island of Ko Phangan.
Tens of thousand of mostly young people from all over the world assemble on the beach in Haad Rin, and for this night they party harder than they ever did in their life.
The event is saturated with booze, drugs, thumping music at top volume from dozens of bars and discos, fire dancers and all kinds of spectacular entertainment.
It is a young party goer’s heaven, and a nightmare for older or quiet-seeking people. Huge amounts of money are being made by vendors and suppliers. On the morning after the event, the beach looks like armageddon until the locals manage to clean it up.
There are plenty of parties in Thailand, but the original full moon party is by far the biggest and most famous. Many travelers go to Thailand primarily to go to this “mother of all parties”.
The author, Shama Kern, has been a long time resident of Thailand and is married to a Thai woman. He is also the founder of Thai Healing Massage Academy. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.