I remember very well the day I applied for my first one year business visa at the Royal Thai Consulate in Munich, Germany. I had been traveling around Southeast Asia and especially Thailand many times and after two several month long internships at companies in Bangkok I was finally offered a permanent position as a legal advisor at one of Thailand’s biggest law firms.
That day when I stood in line at the small consulate a 60-something year old retired German asked me if I was going to Thailand for a long holiday. “Or are you doing an exchange program over there?”, he wanted to know. I told him nope, I’ve already been through all this and I was getting a one year Non Immigrant Business Visa to start my full time job in a big company in Bangkok the following month. And that I was moving there for good. His reaction was a mixture of being shocked and amused. He took a deep breath, like the old expats like to do when they think they know better, grinned and said wisely (in German):
You are moving to Bangkok? I would never do that. Bangkokians are unfriendly, hectic, stressed and impolite. They definitely haven’t invented the slogan “Land of Smiles” in the capital.
I said “Let’s see. I think it’s a good opportunity and I want to take it” and kept smiling inside, thinking he had no idea. As I’m writing these lines now, almost four years since I’ve talked to that old German guy, I start to more and more realize that his rough and smart-aleck kind of statement wasn’t as erroneous as I first thought.
It’s not that Bangkok is a bad place to work. Bangkok is great for that and it’s without doubt the best place to make money in Thailand. Nowhere else do you have so many business, working and networking opportunities as here and you get extremely motivated by seeing all these expensive cars, new condos, shopping malls and successful people around you every single day.
But there must be a reason why you hardly meet any expat who has been living and working here for more than 10 years consecutively. At least no company employees, maybe some guys doing their own thing like freelancers or guys running location-independent businesses that allow them to get out of Bangkok whenever they feel like.
Because that’s the thing. Living in Bangkok is like a love-hate-relationship. At least for me it is. I need to get out of here at least once every two months and if that’s just for a weekend trip to the beach. And what I found the longer I’m living here, the shorter I want these intervals to be and the longer the trip I want to take out of the city. But that’s getting more and more difficult if you work in an office and only get 15 days off a year. Is this how most Farangs with full time jobs feel and part of the reason why there are still so few “normal” long-term foreign employees living in here? I think so.
But then why is that, why do we tend to feel bored, unhappy or stressed the longer we are living in Bangkok compared to places like Phuket or Chiang Mai? I think it all comes down to:
Bangkokians are so different than Thai people elsewhere
I think it’s important to understand that Thai people don’t leave their families and friends in their provinces because they think Bangkok is more fun, but because they think they can make more money here.
I barely meet Thais in this city who say they enjoy living here, in fact most of them say they don’t like it, it’s always so hot, always so busy, people always so unfriendly. They take a trip out of town (dtàang jang-wàt, ต่างจังหวัด, literally “another province”) whenever they can and for a lot of unfortunate not-so-well-paid people the only chance to go home is during Songkran, fathers day or mothers day and for important family occasions like weddings or funerals.
Just two weeks ago I talked to a pretty waitress at a popular bistro in Sukhumvit Soi 13 and she said she’s bored (bʉ̀a – เบื่อ) and tired (nʉ̀ai – เหนื่อย) of working in that busy bar in that busy street in that busy, busy city for less money than she initially expected when she left her hometown in Phitsanulok about six months ago. “I stop work here end of the month and go back home, kǎai kɔ̌ɔng (ขายของ)”, she said – for selling “things” somewhere in her hometown, and that’s usually clothes they have someone in Bangkok send over that they then resell for a small profit. Or simply a small corner shop. “Less money, right?”, I asked and she said “Châi, dtɛ̀ɛ sàbaai gwàa” (ใช่แต่สบายกว่า – Yes, but more comfortable, which means as much as more happy).
If Thai people don’t feel well (mâi sàbaai, ไม่สบาย) they don’t just make sad faces, but also act in a more selfish manner than they would do back in their home provinces. If you have ever left the elevator in a busy office building and some people rush in without looking, or simply walk in an area where there’s a lot of people and people walking criss cross and you get out of their way to prevent hitting them – you know what I mean.
One of the core characteristics of Thai people has always been being greeng-jai (เกรงใจ – to be considerate with other people). Unfortunately, this value has gotten less prevalent in Bangkok society during the last years and that’s even worse than just not deserving the slogan “Land of Smiles”. And just like with any capital city in developing countries, it’s not uncommon for some of the unhappy and unfortunate people to engage in criminal activities or prostitution.
Prostitution. If there weren’t so many young Thai women who aren’t happy with their 9,000 Baht a month working in a hectic restaurant and decide to start working in the male oriented entertainment industry of Bangkok, then a lot of western guys would spend their holidays elsewhere. No doubt about that.
And even the hookers in Bangkok, if you compare them to Pattaya or Phuket: If you walk down Soi 4 in Nana it’s very rare these days that the ladies start yelling at you in excitement like they do in Soi 8 in Pattaya or Bangla Road in Phuket. Again, this comes down to the fact that people, and bar girls being no exception, feel less happy here than in other Thai cities.
Bangkok is fun and full of opportunities, however the longer you live here the more you want to be independent and be able to get out on the beach for a few days whenever you feel like and not being stuck in a boring and / or underpaid day job, or you will start making serious faces sooner or later like a lot of the Thais who moved here from their villages. And feel the same way, too.