I moved to Thailand to teach English 14 years ago. Initially intending to stay for a year, I’m often surprised I’ve been here so long and that I’m not planning on leaving. Sure, Thailand is a great country, it’s beautiful, it’s exotic, and it’s interesting.
But what is it about Thailand that keeps somebody like me – a single, female, British-American writer – so entrapped and enamored of the place?
I’ve thought long and hard about this question and it seems to all boils down to this.
The happiness of the Thai people, the lack of complaining and whining often exhibited by people in Western countries, the sheer joy to be alive that most Thais have, and the relaxed attitude that makes life in Thailand so wonderful.
Before coming to Thailand, I moved from England to America and lived there for 20-plus years. I must admit, even though it had its good points and although my parents love it there, I never settled, didn’t really want to live there, and breathed an enormous sigh of relief when that plane took off for Thailand and I was free of it.
I remember touching down in Bangkok and thinking “Now my life begins”.
The first few months in Bangkok were tricky of course. Settling down to a new culture, attempting to learn a difficult tonal language with an alphabet I couldn’t read, and dealing with the traffic and terrible pollution of Bangkok were trying.
Also frustrating was the “mai bpen rai” attitude of the Thais – mai bpen rai means “never mind” and Thais ‘never mind’about everything.
Nothing is done in a rush, nothing is really a problem, nothing is bad enough to worry about and, as a Westerner with a Western mindset, sometimes I could have quite cheerfully killed everybody in Thailand and caught the next plane back to the US!
What’s interesting though is, after a few months, the ‘mai bpen rai’ attitude of the Thais rubs off. Before you know it, you’re one of the Mai Bpen Raiers and it’s amazing how much happier your life suddenly becomes.
The little frustrating things, that are part of a normal day for most people, stop worrying you. Your stress level is lower, your headaches go away, and your constant neck stiffness from being angry all the time in places like America just dissolves away.
I remember the first day when I came home from my new job teaching Thai kids. I think I knew then I would never be leaving Thailand.
In the US, I would have been stressed and frustrated, maybe even frightened from the atmosphere of violence and threat now in American schools. Here, I had just taught four lessons to a large class of 12 and 13 year olds and it was one of the best days of my life.
When I had arrived at school, I had been shown my desk by an administrator, told I would be teaching in 30 minutes and left to get a cup of coffee and introduce myself to fellow teachers. There were no introductions, no showing me where my classroom was, and no even telling me what I was teaching! If I’d been in the US, by that point I would have been freaking out.
But, being in Thailand, nobody worries about anything so my attitude was already “never mind” before I even got into my classroom.
When I opened the door and walked in, any slight stress I had was immediately gone when the whole class stood up to say “Good morning Teacher” and then followed this by a wai (the Thai greeting whereby you hold your hands together like in prayer, then raise them to your chin, and do a slight bow. Beautiful and incredibly respectful).
Then I heard one girl say in Thai to her friend “Ajarn suay maak” – the teacher is very beautiful. I’m not, but I knew then I was born to be in Thailand.
I taught at the school for three years and most of the time it was a pure joy. I could go into school in a terrible mood but, by the time I had been greeted at the school gates by twenty students all grinning widely and making jokes, following me around holding my hand, and Thai teachers giving me breakfast, my bad mood was gone.
I was treated with great respect by the parents and the Thai teachers, loved by my kids and adored by my school.
At the end of the three years, I left teaching to pursue my own business here. I knew then though I could probably never leave Thailand and that still holds true.
Any morning I walk down my small lane, I’m greeted at the end of the lane by the motorcycle taxi drivers who ferry people up and down every small street in Bangkok. “Where are you going?” “How are you”, “Have you eaten yet?” Their greetings ring in my ears and their smiles follow me as I wend my way through the crowds.
The bus conductor gives me a big smile because I speak in Thai and ask how he is as he’s giving me my bus ticket.
The old lady selling temple flowers at the foot of the steps to the overpass flashes me a huge grin when I give a beggar and her little girl a few pennies and says to me “Khun jai dii” — you have a good heart.
I’m given free snacks at the train station because the woman who works behind the counter sees me every day and loves that I can speak some Thai.
This is the beginning of a normal everyday for me.
Add to that an almost always sunny day, warm weather, great food, an inexpensive cost of living and I ask you – if this was you, wouldn’t you love Thailand as I do?
Wouldn’t you be happy, relaxed and content? And wouldn’t you truly deep down in your heart know, as much as you think you should leave Thailand, you know you never will?