Chiang Mai: Things to Know Before You Go

Waking up in the morning to a gecko hovering overhead as you lay in bed, strangers standing close enough for you to feel their breath on your neck, and desperately rummaging through your purse for a tissue because you’ve discovered a tad bit too late that there isn’t any in the restroom- these are just a few examples of things I’ve had to adapt to living in Chiang Mai. I’ve been here for a year now, but there are still a few things my westernized American brain has a hard time acclimating to. The following is a list of things I wished I had known prior to my move to Chiang Mai. It would have spared me a bit of frustration and irritation while adjusting to life as an expat.

Personal space is nonexistent.

In the US, personal space is pretty much a necessity. We require a certain amount of space to feel safe and comfortable. There are a few exceptions such as a concert, elevator or crowded train or bus. But in general, everyone expects to have their own little fortress surrounding them. In Thailand however, people will bump into you on a regular basis or walk right up on your heels when they stand behind you in line. They will also stand right next to you at the counter when you’re making a purchase, instead of behind you and waiting their turn. There have even been a few times where I could literally feel someone breathing on me, that’s how close they were standing behind me.

How I feel in checkout lines

When you buy something, be positive you want it.

Back the States, I’ve grown accustomed to 30, 60 or 90-day return policies. Macy’s even has a 6-month policy in some cases. Not up in here, I bought a blender once and about 2 weeks later the motor went out. I returned to the store with the original packaging and receipt in hand. No dice. They said I had to ship it off to the manufacturer and it would take about 2 months., so I just purchased a new one. Another time I bought headset, but it wasn’t compatible with my computer. The next day I tried to return it. Instead, she sold me a converter to make it compatible. Which by the way was the wrong one, so it still didn’t work and even though the salesperson suggested the adapter, I was STILL unable to return it.  Most stores have a 7 day or no return policy.

Cash is king.

Always make sure you keep plenty of local currency with you. The ATM machines charge a minimum of 200 baht ($6.45) per transaction on top of whatever fees your bank may charge. With the exception of the large shopping malls, most businesses don’t accept debit cards, and the ones that do usually have a 3% fee. Some places also require a minimum purchase amount in addition to that fee. Even when I purchased my motorbike from a dealership, I had to pay 40,000 baht ($1,290) in cash because they didn’t accept credit or debit cards.

Thai baht

When out dining with friends, don’t expect to actually eat together.

Everyone’s food WILL arrive at different times, regardless of you all ordering together. Food is usually brought to the table one or two dishes at a time, as it is made. They don’t prepare the food for the entire table and then bring it all at once. Also, the food won’t come in any particular order. The appetizer may come after you’ve finished with your entrée. Dessert may come before your drink. I don’t understand it, but that’s just the way it is at most places. Also, make sure you have or ask for anything you may need when your meal arrives. If you need anything else, napkins, more water etc., food drop off is usually the only chance you’ll have to ask. They will not come to check on you or clear away dirty dishes. Customer service here is overall nonexistent, but the food is amazing, so I just had to learn to deal with it.  Also, if you’re in a rush, I suggest that you ask for your check immediately after ordering. For some reason, it always takes them several minutes to process payment, even when using cash.

When out and about in local areas, there most likely will not be any tissue or paper towel in the bathroom.

I found this out the hard way. Using toilet paper is a western practice. In Thailand, particularly in the local areas, they use the squatty toilets and it’s common to use a hose that is attached on the wall next to the toilet. In some instances, there may be a large bucket of water that you dip a scoop into to cleanse yourself. Then you pour another scoop of water in to the toilet in order for it to flush, but there won’t be any paper available for to dry yourself off. No thank you. I make sure to keep a pack of tissue and hand wipes with me at all times.

I prefer the one on the right whenever possible

Insect repellent is a necessity.

It may feel as though you’ve only gotten bitten once or twice, then the next day you realize you have a dozen or so unbearably itchy insect bites ruining your day. You can avoid that by keeping a small bottle of insect repellent with you. I STILL have marks on my legs from a flurry of bug bites I receive several months ago.

Dual pricing: Farang v/s Local

Farang is what the locals call foreigners. We are charged higher prices for some attractions such as parks, waterfalls, museums and at a few other places. I’ve even heard of there being different food prices at food stalls in some areas. Dual pricing stems from the idea that all foreigners have money, so they try to get as much of it out of us as they can, when they can.

Yup, 0.32-0.65 cents local and $3.20- $6.45 for tourists. Utter bullshit.

Hanging power lines, uneven sidewalks, lack of accessibility

If you are in a wheelchair, use a walker or have trouble climbing stairs, it may be a bit difficult for you to get around here. There aren’t many places that have ramps or elevators and depending on which part of the city you are in, the sidewalks can be uneven, have giant cracks and missing chunks big enough for you to fall in to. Some sidewalks are narrow and sometimes there may be hanging wires or a tree growing out of the ground blocking the path that you must maneuver around. Also, the curbs are quite high in some places and they don’t taper down to allow access for a wheelchair. I can think of a few occasions where I’ve seen people in wheelchairs in the streets instead of the sidewalk. Even as an able-bodied person I don’t enjoy walking in some areas. I’ve stumbled on the wobbly and broken sidewalks a few times and I’ve also run into a low hanging power line once, with my neck, while riding my motorbike at night.

Police checkpoints

If you plan on driving a motorbike here and you don’t have a motorbike license, be prepared to pay a 500 baht ($16) fine. The police checkpoints primarily in the touristy parts of the city. They will let three Thais on one motorbike with no helmets pass through, but if you are a foreigner with your helmet on, you will still be stopped. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. If you plan on staying here long term and want to drive legally check out this article about getting your Thai motorbike license:

Check point in the Old City section of Chiang Mai

Geckos and roaches and rats oh my!

This is the only other issue outside of the lack of personal space that I haven’t fully adjusted to yet. In Thailand the rats the size of cats and bold enough to be out and about during the daytime. Not even in Chicago had I seen rats out in the daytime. The roaches are big enough to put a leash on and geckos are everywhere! In the trees, crawling on the sides of building, bathrooms, restaurants and in your home. I know they’re harmless, but they resemble miniature alligators and it creeps me out to the max.

I hope you found my list of mini rants somewhat helpful. Even after adjusting to most of the things on the aforementioned list of “complaints”, there hasn’t been even one day that I regret establishing a new life here. This is the safest and one of the friendliest places I have ever been. Chiang Mai is an amazing city, filled with amazing people and I hope you get to experience it one day!