Friday, November 30, 2007

Life in Thailand

Neil Stoneham says that Thailand is a diverse and fascinating country offering everything from historical culture to relaxing and thrilling leisure pursuits. Outstanding for the laid-back attitude and friendliness of its people, the kingdom is well worth a visit.

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Introduction to Thailand
Visiting Thailand

Getting around
Housing
Jobs
Study
Leisure
Healthcare

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Neil Stoneham, is a 35 year-old British journalist currently living in Bangkok, Thailand. He has been here since arriving as an international school teacher in 1999, changing career when an opportunity arose to work for the Bangkok Post at the beginning of 2004.

Neil writes mainly educational features for the learning post supplement of the newspaper but also writes freelance pieces for other publications. In addition to his full-time occupation, Neil hopes to one day finish a radio drama script or maybe even get over the 10,000-word threshold of his elusive first novel.

Neil will be happy to answer any queries you may have about visiting or living in Thailand. He has a particularly good knowledge of the international education scene, although is unable to recommend specific schools for your child.

Introduction to Thailand: Although Thailand’s unofficial moniker as the “Land of Smiles” has become something of a cliché, it is no less true because of it. Smiling is a Thai specialty, as is cooking some of the tastiest food on the planet and a warm welcome wherever you go.

Renowned for its tolerant and ancient peace-loving culture, Thailand has become a Mecca for people from all walks of life. Whether you’re looking for an idyllic beach, historical monuments or an extremely diverse nightlife, then Thailand has something to offer.

Living here can be an exhilarating mixture of pleasantness and frustration. If the fumes and chaos of Bangkok become a little too much, for example, you’re only a short ride away from tropical paradise and inexpensive resorts. It’s also well situated for visiting the rest of Asia and Australia is only four hours away by plane.

More and more Thais are learning to speak good English, so communication should be fairly easy, especially in the tourist areas of Bangkok, Chiang Mai (Thailand’s second largest city) and beachside resorts.

Thailand has a constitutional monarchy (the current King is the longest serving monarch in the world) and has a proud history of never having been colonized. Royalty is revered absolutely and it is never appropriate to speak negatively about them, even in close company.


Buddhist Monks walk out of a temple in Bangkok

It is also worth noting that the tsunami-hit areas around Phuket are recovering much quicker than their counterparts in other countries because of the more advanced infrastructure. So be sure to make Phuket an option if you are planning a holiday here.

Visiting Thailand: The high season from October to March is the most pleasant in terms of weather. Temperatures are bearable and can even be quite pleasant around Christmas time. Note, however, that this is also the most expensive period for resorts and hotels.

April is best avoided as the temperatures can reach into the 40’s and, no matter how used to it you are, it still feels unbearable.

The rains come in June and temperatures settle down again. Visit from this time until September if you like a good bargain and don’t mind the odd shower.

Most of Thailand is safe. However, there is a lot of unrest from separatists in the southernmost tip of the country, particularly in the provinces of Yala, Narrathiwat and Pattani, so they are best avoided.

Getting around: Bangkok is notorious for its traffic jams and this would seem a fair assessment. Having said that, it is often no worse than in many other major cities, and you can learn to navigate your way round much more efficiently after you have been here a while. There are plenty of ways to get around Bangkok and whichever mode you choose will largely depend on how adventurous you are.

The safest and most efficient way of getting around is by the Sky Train which snakes above the city in most major areas, including the business districts. Then there is the relatively new underground Metro which complements the sky train routes and, again, serves important areas. Nonetheless, at present, the service is fairly limited to central Bangkok but work is ongoing and by the end of the decade, the public transport system should be on a par with any modern city.

Next up, Bangkok is served by a very cheap taxi service. The taxis are mostly quite new and air-conditioned, as well as being in plentiful supply – you’ll never really have to wait more than a minute or two before flagging one down. However, this means they also clog up the rounds, thus compounding the traffic jam situation.

The skytrain in Bangkok

Taxi fares are charged by the meter and anyone who offers to take you somewhere for a price should be refused as the chances are they will be ripping you off. A sizeable minority of taxi drivers, it has to be said, also like to throw in a few fairground-like thrills into the bargain while they are driving you to your destination! It is, nonetheless, a service most favoured by expats and seems to work fairly well.

If you’re adventurous, you might like to try the famous samlor or ‘tuk-tuk’ as they are better known. These three wheeled fume-belching open-air taxis are a fun and cheap way to explore the city. Fares are negotiated in advance with the driver. Also, for the even more adventurous, motor-cycle taxis can speedily wind their way among the traffic if you’re in a hurry.

If you are looking to travel around Thailand, the train network is certainly a cheap and comfortable, if very slow, option. Most destinations are served from Hua Lompong station in Bangkok and sleeper carriages are available on long overnight journeys. The road network is also an option if you want to hire a car. Road quality is usually fairly good with the majority of signposts written in English as well as Thai.

A modern air-transport system serves Thailand as well as other international destinations. New, low cost airlines are bringing fares down to both domestic and Asian cities. Thai Airways International (THAI) is the national carrier and very good it is too. In anticipation of the new Bangkok International Airport (to be opened sometime in 2006), THAI are going through something of a revamp, so the service should eventually be top notch.

Housing: Most expatriates live in condominiums or rented houses. These are in plentiful supply in most major Thai cities and there is a good range available.

Depending on your budget, it is possible to live in anything from a modest one bedroom apartment, to a grand 200 sq metre condo overlooking the city. Most condos come with a swimming pool and gym facilities. Rental prices are usually about half to two-thirds of the price you would pay for the same thing in the UK.

By law, foreigners are not allowed to own land in Thailand. You can, however, purchase apartments above the ground floor and these can be fairly inexpensive, although – thanks to the booming economy – prices are going up fast.

In addition, the laws for purchasing apartments mean that, unless you have a good stock of money back home (where a third or more of the money has to come from), getting a loan from a Thai bank is quite difficult.

Some foreigners opt to get round the law by purchasing property through a Thai partner or friend, although, in certain circumstances, this might not be a good idea.

Jobs: Thailand is a popular country for expatriate workers. The perks and standard of living here makes it an attractive proposition, which means it can be fairly competitive. A large number of expatriates have been sent here by their companies back home but there are a sizeable number of them who got jobs while visiting Thailand.

By far the most feasible option for foreigners is to work as an English teacher. Acquiring some formal qualification, such as TEFL certificate, will virtually guarantee you work here. There is a reason for this, however. The salary for most English teachers is very small and you will be lucky to earn anything more than 30,000 baht (₤450) a month. That’s enough to get by but don’t expect to be able to afford any luxuries.

A Thai man places durians onto a pile at a fruit market

Try www.ajarn.com to get the bigger picture. You will require a work permit and special visa (which must be obtained outside the country) to work in Thailand. These require a huge amount of bureaucracy and, unless you have a job sorted out already, it is pointless trying to obtain one.

Working illegally is not advised unless you don’t mind risking a spell in the Bangkok Hilton (and I don’t mean the hotel). Try these English language newspapers for the latest vacancies – www.bangkokpost.com or www.nationmultimedia.com.

Study: Thailand probably has the most diverse and varied international education scene in the world. There are some excellent schools here, although they are not cheap. However, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a school which fits your budget and location requirements. www.isat.or.th is a useful resource as is the Bangkok Post’s education section www.bangkokpost.com/education.

The local government education system is going through a period of radical change and, although there are many success stories, there are few Thai schools that would come close to international schools in terms of suitability for expatriate children.

Universities mostly cater for the local population although a few of the bigger universities offer courses in English. My general impression is that they are not quite up to the standards of good British or American institutions but are certainly an option for students who want to study abroad.

Leisure: There are so many ways of spending your leisure time in Thailand, it is impossible to mention even half of them here. As a general guide, however, read on.

Restaurants serving local and international cuisine from all corners of the planet can be found in our capital. And Bangkok certainly has the best nightlife, ranging from the modern hip dance clubs on Royal City Avenue to the famed dens of iniquity on Soi Nana or Soi Cowboy. Whatever rocks your boat, Thailand can certainly rock it!

If you want something more tranquil, visit the islands of Ko Samui, Ko Samet, Phuket or the land resort of Hua Hin. Jungle and countryside can be found in the beautiful Kao Yai national park (just a couple of hours drive from Bangkok) or the high mountains of the north around Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai.

If you want history, a must is a visit to Kanchanaburi – home to the fascinating “Death Railway” and the fabled Bridge Over the River Kwai.

Thailand welcomes people of all nationalities, religions and cultures as well as those from the LGBT community.

Health care: Good health care is readily available in Thailand. Bumrungrad hospital in Bangkok provides world class private health care and there are many smaller international hospitals around areas populated by tourists.

It’s a good idea to take out health insurance if not provided by your company or if you are visiting.

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