Daily Mundane: What Does Life as an Expat in Thailand Look Like?

This past winter I attended a party on my annual home leave. Amongst all the celebration and catching up on life, I was asked the standard flurry of questions about my life abroad. But many of those questions surprised me because people were curious about the basic items. What did my house look like? My office? How did I buy groceries?

I quickly realized just a few years ago before moving I had the same questions. In fact, I remember combing through blogs looking for just this kind of information to help paint a picture of what my life might look like abroad. Maybe too many expats think, as I had unconsciously begun to, that daily life isn’t very intriguing. So there is surprisingly little detail on the mundane details. I decided to write this blog to fill that gap for other future expats and answer some friendly questions.

1.Housing. I live in a high rise building in Bangkok in a modern apartment. I do not live in a traditional Thai house on raised stilts like the one below. (This is one of the questions I received.)

*photo by Greedy Gyal https://greedygyal.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dsc_0005.jpg

Instead, this is my apartment and the view from my balcony on the 20th floor:

 

There is one notable difference in Bangkok buildings. All buildings have a little space for the house spirit. This is the one in front of my home. The one in front of my office is much larger. So the spirit houses tend to be sized according to the building and number of people occupying said building. The Thai staff in my building leave the offerings every day.

 

2. Food Shopping. Food Shopping options in Thailand range from very familiar to the less traditional. We have Tesco Lotus, Big C: a Walmart-like place, Tops: similar to Wegmans, and the fancier Gourmet Market. Street vendors are also a great resource. You can find most familiar foods in big cities like Bangkok and Singapore. But there are two categories that are generally difficult: 1) multiple brands of processed foods and 2) gluten-free everything and ‘health’ foods. I would say that the second can eventually be found to an extent, but it takes some work.

There are a number of foods that are very hard to find. In no particular order they are: chickpeas, flat leaf parsley, rosemary, whole wheat wraps, American cheese, most types of crackers and non re-constituted milk. I also still haven’t found all the items my father was looking for when he visited (like traditional sandwich bread, processed sandwich meat, familiar mayonnaise, etc.)

But there are other things I was sure I wouldn’t find here and have been pleasantly surprised. I’ve found really decent NY-style bagels at one specialty shop, and there is a growing paleo lunch and grocery service that helps source many of those diet-oriented popular items like organic wine, good cuts of meat from New Zealand, spices, etc.  If you’re more willing to eat mostly real food and more European style foods versus American style, then you will be fine. If you’ve always wanted to learn to cook Thai or more Asian food and have had a hard time sourcing those ingredients in the past, this will be a lot of fun.

Below is where I often buy my fresh fruit and eggs. Sometimes I also buy veggies, though I still prefer many cold weather vegetables (spinach, asparagus, etc) which means I need to shop in expat grocery stores that import vegetables. The fruit vendor is one of my favorites and I often visit her daily for a treat, usually Thai honey pineapple.

 

3. The office. Pretty standard office building in my case. Most places I’ve visited for customers are similarly standard. My company’s vehicles are all pretty standard looking vans and motorbikes. We don’t use tuk-tuks here in Thailand (those are for the tourists.)

One difference is that my office building (and many others) pay homage to the king. This is the main foyer to our office building with both a statue of a very popular past king, and a portrait of another. The second photo is a memorial sign right in front of the doors to the building to the recently departed King Bhumibol, who passed away last October.

 

4. Transportation. I take a combination of transportation around the city depending on where I am going and how much traffic I can tolerate. The metro and elevated sky train, plus moto-taxis are my preference on the weekends. I will only do moto-taxis for relatively short distances because they can be a bit scary in the city, but they are ridiculously efficient. I’ve even mastered the side saddle ride. I have not, however, attempted to take them in the rain like the couple below. No sir.

 

Riding the BTS:

 

This is the Regional rail train that goes out to the further provinces. I have to cross these train tracks every day to get to my closest Starbucks for my green tea.

And my terribly boring work transport – a Toyota Camry. I don’t drive in Bangkok, the traffic patterns make me too nervous and I can’t read all the signs. But with all the transportation options available it’s not really necessary. I do however, have a car and driver for many business meetings.

5. Shopping. Shopping is a bonafide event and past-time in Bangkok. Many of my Singaporean friends will even visit just to shop. The malls are plentiful, with tons of luxury and popular brands. One of the nearest malls is filled with DVF, DKNY, Gucci, Bottega Veneta and other similar stores. Coach is a bit low class for that place. I can also find stores for Toms, H&M, Banana Republic, Zara, the Gap and so on. Sizing is a bit trickier as the stores stock more of the smaller sizes and either don’t carry or don’t have many large sizes. But it’s worth looking because the Thailand Customs regulations can add a minimum 30% tax to anything imported. Oftentimes it’s hard to guess the base value they use to impose that tax rate, so you could end up paying more in taxes than an item is worth.

Finally, the very famous Chatuchak (aka Jatujak/JJ) market is a massive place to find clever designers and less expensive items. Google that one. But many of the larger malls, including the one close to my apartment, have weekend pop up shops that attract interesting designers. Pop up shops and temporary shops seem to be popular in Bangkok, and there are a few locations quite close to me (empty lots mostly) that are often filled with interesting shows.

6. Church. The main religion of Thailand is Buddhism. So you will find Buddhist temples, shrines, and monasteries everywhere across the city. Other religions are represented in Bangkok though, especially Islam and to a lesser extent, Christianity. I happen to be Catholic, which is a convenient travelers’ religion as the rituals are the same any where in the world. But the outside looks a tad bit different. Here’s the church I attend in Bangkok.

Yes, that is a Catholic church named Holy Redeemer.

So there you have it: some of the basic mundane items of life as an expat in Bangkok. Interested in knowing about other daily items of life in Bangkok or as an expat? Leave me a comment on this post!

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