Thailand is one of the most affordable and interesting places in the world to think about retiring. One challenge, though, for the foreign retiree, can be culture shock. No question, Thailand is an exotic option. Thais take for granted behaviors that would take you and me by surprise… and Thais say and do things that you and I would never say and do.

It’s much easier to navigate all this if you’re prepared for what to expect.

Here, therefore, are 22 do’s and don’ts to help the retiree and expat make friends and avoid faux-pas in this part of the world.

#1: Never live alone.

Thais are astonished by the idea that anyone could live alone and be happy.

#2: Get rid of ghosts.

Thais take ghosts seriously. For Thais, ghosts are real, and they’re present. Thais hold special ceremonies after the death of a loved one, as no one wants ghosts to remain at home. I’ve known Thais who have moved house after sensing ghosts in a rental home.

#3: Make merit.

Thais believe that giving a donation to a Buddhist temple, and then receiving a blessing from a monk, makes a positive difference and spells good luck. Even if a monk blesses a car, and that car promptly gets smashed by a cement truck, Thais stick to their views.

#4: Yield to the better car.

In the Western world, when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, we yield to the car on the right. In Thailand, when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, Thais yield to the better car. In the Western world, if we buy a new car we may feel superior. That new-car smell makes us feel over the top. But when Thais buy a car they actually become superior.

#5: Forget about he and she.

Thais who speak English often use “he” when talking about a woman and “she” when talking about a man. Thai language fails to make the distinction, so they figure they can safely ignore the distinction in English, too.

#6: Categorize by age, not gender.

If someone asks about our siblings, we’re likely to say, “I have three brothers and a sister.” A Thai would say, “I have two older ones and two younger ones.”

#7: Forget singular versus plural.

Thai language lacks the facility of changing singular to plural with a simple “s.” When giving instruction, a Thai might, for example, point up and say “upstair.”

#8: Eat when you’re hungry.

Thais have little notion of three meals a day at fairly fixed times. They eat when they’re hungry. A child telling her mother, “I’m hungry” at 10 a.m. would be given something to eat…not chastised for “skipping breakfast.”

#9: Drop off final consonants.

With Thais who speak weak English, “rice” becomes “ri,” “motorcycle” becomes “motocy,” and “guest house” becomes “gue hou.”

#10: Put food in plastic.

When ordering takeout food in Thai, instead of saying “takeout” or “put in a bag,” you say “put in plastic.” Similarly, a grocery store clerk will ask if you want a “plastic” instead of a “bag” for your groceries.

#11: Don’t sweat.

A friend who lived in Thailand and who liked to play tennis once explained that, when he’d play with a group of Thai men and women, and the object seemed to be to play as hard as possible without breaking a sweat. If racing for a ball meant breaking a sweat, Thai players would let the ball go. Similarly, if Thais unload a truck, better to unload in three hours without breaking a sweat than in two hours while sweating. In general, Thais prefer to work longer rather than harder.

#12: Pay more at night.

Street food prices are higher at night than at similar food vendors during the day.

#13: Serve Thais first.

If I walk up to a currymonger ahead of a Thai, I’ll get served first. If the Thai arrives first, she’ll be served first. But if we both arrive at the same time, and the currymonger has no idea who arrived first, she’ll serve the Thai first, every time. I particularly like this rule, as I think it shows a minor pride in being Thai.

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#14: Stick to the group.

Thais prefer doing things in groups rather than individually, whether taking a vacation, having a coffee, or living (as above).

#15: Take care of parents and siblings.

Thais tend to do whatever it takes to provide for family. If necessary, Thai women will raise children for brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Hill tribe girls will even turn to the lucrative sex trade to provide for their parents.

#16: Enjoy.

Thais use the world sanuk, for joy, fun, pleasure. Thais try to lead a life full of sanuk. Foreign corporate bosses often have a tough time adapting to the Thai need of sanuk at work.

#17: Forget schedules and plans.

We westerners with more rigid schedules — like our three meals a day — must look foolish in this regard.

#18: Never expect the return of a security deposit.

A friend asserts that “as of this writing, there have been no known reports of a security deposit being returned” by a Thai landlord. If you intend to rent in this country, this is a simple reality to adjust to. Amortize the amount of the security deposit when figuring your monthly rent and deciding whether to do a deal.

#19: Find out if he/she’s married.

Thais ask first off if you’re married, to avoid insulting you. I figure pretty much the opposite is true in the United States.

#20: Take your shoes off before entering a home.


#21: Smile.

The French neighbor were furious and offended when McDonald’s began requiring workers in that country to smile at each customer. What an outrage, the French seemed to think, to smile when you don’t feel like it. Thais have a different attitude. They smile at everyone, regardless.

#22: Use motorbikes creatively.

Think Dad, Mom, a 6-year-old, and baby on a motorbike. Dad talks on the hand phone and smokes a cigarette. Mom holds the umbrella with one hand, sustains the baby with the other. The young boy carries the family dog in his arms. All wave when the neighbors pass on a motorbike going the other way.