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Living in Bangkok: Live Local, Eat Local

Bangkok, Thailand traffic
Bangkok traffic.

I'm surrounded by men in black leather whose jackets read, "Black Angels, Easy Riders". Women in tight jeans and tighter tops writhe next to them. On stage, a bandana-clad Thai man is shouting "I'm never gonna die... Born to be wiiiiild!" Most of these men are former Buddhist monks.

Most Thai males, in fact, spend a period of time in a monastery, before going on to become bankers, businessmen, or bikers. It's an ancient Thai tradition. 

Last year's Bangkok Cycle Fest was my introduction to the Thai biker scene. It's a scene I discovered via my friend Wat—a longtime member of the Black Angels Easy Riders. It's a scene well off the normal tourist path and one quite different than its American counterpart. Perhaps it's the influence of Buddhism. Or those months spent meditating in a monastery. Whatever the cause, Thai bikers seem more peaceful, more welcoming, and gentler than those in America.

These sorts of encounters are rarely open to the tourist. As a tourist you notice the big attractions: The Grand Palace, the fabulous beaches, the hill tribes. But expat life provides a more subtle experience. You slow down and become immersed in the processes of local life. You discover strange and interesting sub-cultures. You take your meals at roadside restaurants—sitting on plastic chairs, gulping motor fumes with each bite.

I have chosen to live what might be called a "hobopoet" life in Bangkok. While many foreigners congregate in the modern sections of the city (such as the Sukhumvit Road), I've chosen to live in a less glamorous section of town in order to stay on the "Thai economy". This has been a rewarding choice. I live in a neighborhood across the river from central Bangkok in a "Thaistyle" apartment—meaning it has an Asian toilet, no hot water, no phone, no kitchen, no appliances, and only one room.

I lack a few modern conveniences, but the room is clean, comfortable, and safe. And there is another benefit. By avoiding a building that caters to foreigners, I save tremendous amounts of money. Many expats claim that 7000 Baht (almost $200) a month is the cheapest rent possible in Bangkok. I pay 2500 Baht (about $60). 

I chose to do this for the same reason that Thoreau went to the woods, and others have chosen a deliberately simple life. Simplicity, for me, is a means to greater freedom. Without the worry of large expenses, I can afford to work when I want, where I want, and as long as I want. Because my lifestyle is simple, I have the time to write, maintain two blogs, travel, and maintain a rich social life. Living more simply allows me to work less- thus freeing more time for exploring Thai culture.

This is an important benefit. Several years ago, I lived and worked in Seoul, Korea. However, my work schedule was so intense that I rarely had time to make friends or explore the culture. Most of my energy went into my job and recovering from it. As a result, I feel I had very little contact with the Korean culture, despite living there for a full year. 

Another reward of living simply is that I have constant interaction with Thais in my neighborhood. I chat regularly with my landlady, the woman who runs the nearby laundry shop, and an upstairs neighbor. I feel part of a community. I am a resident, not a tourist. Because my work schedule is relaxed, I can take life slower and enjoy these simple contacts. 

For transport I bought a used motorcycle for 5000 Baht ($140). The bike saves money on taxi and bus fares and has connected me to Wat and his biker friends. I have also gained the unique experience of commuting to work with the city's other residents (an exciting, if not pleasant experience).

Living outside the upscale expat zones and driving my own motorcycle has delivered a more immediate living experience. I'm exposed to the day to day cycles of Bangkok life. I have more time for exploration and relationships.

My best memories, in fact, are of relaxed social gatherings rather than tourist attractions: picnics in front of Wat's house with a UN assembly of bohemians....

Living "more local" can be challenging... pollution, crippled animals, traffic, homeless people, noise, hassles, heat, and inconveniences plague my day.

But these challenges are offset by a great many benefits: more lasting friendships, deeper insights into the local culture, a slower pace of life, greater autonomy, less work, and a sense of contributing to the host country.

How To Live Closer to Locals In Bangkok

  • Avoid the expensive expat regions of Sukhumvit Rd and Silom/Sathorn. Instead, consider living in areas less popular with foreigners, such as the Victory Monument, Chinatown, or Thonburi areas.

  • Sacrifice a few Western conveniences. You'll save a lot of money by accepting a place with an Asian toilet and no hot water (as Thailand is a tropical country, hot water is not a necessity). Living in a "Thai neighborhood" will increase your chances of interacting with and befriending Thais.

  • Avoid taxis. Taxis are expensive. Consider buying a used motorcycle, which will save you a great deal of money and provide more freedom and flexibility. If the thought of driving in Bangkok terrifies you, use the bus and subway system.

  • Eat on the street. Sidewalk restaurants are the lifeblood of Bangkok and can be found everywhere. These places provide fantastic food at incredibly low prices (a fraction of the price of a normal restaurant) and are the most popular hangouts for Bangkok's Thai residents.

  • Make friends with Thais. Many Thais are eager to socialize with foreigners, and many speak English, so the language barrier is no excuse. Most Thai people are happy to teach others about their culture, food, and traditions- and they will delight in helping you any way they can.

  • Learn a little of the language. Thai is a very difficult language for many foreigners to master. However, it's quite easy to pick up a few useful phrases for use in restaurants, shops, taxis, and bus stations.

A.J. Hoge currently has a Masters degree and over 10 years of English teaching experience. He lived and taught in Bangkok, Thailand.

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Living in Thailand

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