Tieland to Thailand

Quit Your Job – Sell Your Stuff – Travel Abroad

"We spent last year selling everything and paying off thousands in consumer debt, planning our wedding, and ultimately figuring a way out of the daily nine to five. Twelve months later here we are living a truly free and location-independent lifestyle, currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand"

Overcoming Culture Shock in Thailand

Overcoming Culture Shock in Thailand

I remember when I started shopping at our local Thai market. Chris and I were settling into our new townhouse in Chiang Mai and adjusting to life abroad. The conventional nine to five was far behind us and we were still excited and intrigued by everything. I was trying to buy a few items for dinner, but things were…different. Stumbling through the market, not knowing where things were or what they were called, was the first of many times I dealt with culture shock in Thailand.

I was trying to find my way around the produce and meat aisles, racking my brain in search of the stalls where I had seen piles of chicken carcasses and big beef bones last week. Surely I’ll find something as simple as chicken stock.

I was the only farang shopping at this particular market, and I could feel the eyes on me as I browsed through the narrow aisles. I recognized the vegetable stall I shopped at before and made a detour. The vendor acknowledged me and silently handed over a small basket so I could collect my vegetables. I pointed to one I was unfamiliar with and asked (in Thai) what it was called.

Arrai na?” “Excuse me?” The vendor had no idea what I had just asked. I repeated myself, but my choice of vocabulary and foreign accent failed me. Even though I had spent countless afternoons studying Thai, it turns out I said the simple phrase all wrong!

I just wanted to slink away, but I still had to pay for the forgotten basket of produce I was holding. I asked the price and fumbled with coins and bills as payment, my math a bit fuzzy. I would have given anything to be able to hand over a credit card.

I moved on, already reluctant to continue shopping. A bit later I tried to order a bag of spicy papaya salad. Again, I spoke in Thai, requesting that it be made spicy. But as I was accepting my bag of som tum, I noticed it lacked the tell-tale bright red chilies that make it hot. I must have messed up again!

So I left, bothered by the accumulated grocery bags heavily hanging on my arms and upset with my poor Thai communication skills. I had walked halfway home before I realized I had forgotten the chicken stock.

I felt defeated over something as simple as grocery shopping. I couldn’t understand the few Thai signs that labeled various stalls, I had trouble counting and handling cash, and I couldn’t communicate with the vendors. How long would I feel this way? Would I allow anxiety to prevent me from doing something so fundamental as shopping for groceries?

What I was experiencing was culture shock in Thailand. There were many more instances where Chris or I felt overwhelmed or confused by what was going on around us. And as much as we learned about Thailand before moving here, we hadn’t learned much about daily life in Thailand and the ups and downs that would frequent us.

Culture Shock in ThailandSo what can we share with aspiring expats to prepare them for challenges they may face while adapting to life abroad? Here are the problems we first wrestled with and how we eventually overcame culture shock in Thailand.

You’ll Be Misunderstood

Chiang Mai’s Old City area is very expat friendly and even Thailand’s second declared language is English. However, we should have never thought we could just waltz into Thailand without serious consideration for the language barrier. Being misunderstood happens, just as I was unable to properly communicate with the vendors at my local market. We’ve noticed that it is particularly challenging any time we ventured farther from the Old City. Often, it’s even worse when we attempted to speak Thai! It was all too frequent to be met with confused or blank faces.

The best thing we did for ourselves was made friends with Thai locals: our favorite smoothie lady; the guy that gasses up our motorbike; the guesthouse owner we now hang out with at least once a week. Whatever Thai we learned was reinforced through our new friends. It’s a great way to gain confidence living in Thailand and learn about what goes on in life below the surface.

Not Everything is Cheap

Not everything is cheap, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Yes, the local beer and food are cheap. Yes, housing, utilities, and public transportation are hardly bank-breaking. And yes, the clothes and gadgets sold at outdoor markets are a steal.

But the reality is that prices jumped once we stepped foot in any comfortably air-conditioned indoor shopping center. We expected the cost of groceries, clothes, electronics, and general household goods to be a mere fraction of what we were used to seeing back home, but they weren’t!

This was probably our biggest surprise after moving to Thailand. We heard so much about how cheap it was to live here, so we had assumed everything was cheap. We admitted to blowing our budget the first few months as we tried settling down. Buying necessities and things we believed would make us comfortable cost more than we realized, which made us panic when we went over our budget.

We later learned that we should have budgeted about one and a half to two times more per month for the first two or three months. This would have allowed us to be comfortable (that’s what’s it’s all about, right?) without feeling guilty about spending the money.

Not everything is cheap, but we eventually found the little mom and pop places or specialty shops that sold things for less compared to the big and convenient grocery, home appliance, and department stores. We just needed time to find them ourselves or to learn about them from fellow expats.

Boredom Will Eat You Alive

Culture Shock Comic

So we quit our jobs and lounged around all day, but we gradually found ourselves becoming lonely and bored.

The truth is, without the co-workers we saw on a daily basis or the friends we could call up whenever we wanted company, we felt alone. And boredom inevitably cropped up after we “retired” from a busy work schedule. Lounging around, watching TV, browsing the internet, or exploring the city could only be done about a hundred times before we wanted, no needed, change.

We tried filling our days with entertainment. We found new Western restaurants to eat at (our old pastime), we took out-of-town trips to explore more of Thailand, and we went out for drinks more often. We were stuck in permanent weekend mode and were spending money every. single. day.

Eventually we realized that we didn’t have to keep up a full schedule like we did back home. We learned to take a step back from our go-go-go lifestyle and deliberately embraced one that was much slower. We focused our energy on personal growth and learning things we hadn’t made time for before. Once we told ourselves that it was ok to live on our own terms, we were able to find that happy balance and relax.

Missing the Comforts of Home

We missed simple things like full-sized couches (wooden chairs just don’t quite make the cut) and shower stalls (as opposed to “wet bathrooms” where you can wash your body and the entire bathroom at one time!) We missed having plush carpet to walk on and wished we didn’t have to deal with helmet hair every time we hopped on the motorbike.

And as much as we love Thai cuisine, eventually we wanted to taste the familiar flavors of home. We are extremely lucky that Chiang Mai has an amazing selection of Western cuisine, but that also made it all too easy to deviate from the affordable local food and explore the more expensive foreign options. And what used to be a money-saving technique (and a hobby) by cooking our meals at home was more costly and troublesome than we had anticipated. Many of our go-to recipes often required hard to find ingredients (like cheese) or certain cooking methods (like roasting), and those don’t work well in Thailand!

We eventually made little changes to our living arrangements and lifestyle. If bringing the gas stove inside made me a happier cook, I did it. If installing a shower curtain prevented us from going bonkers over wet toilet paper, we did it. If indulging in tapas or pasta once or twice a week satisfied our European food fix while eating at budget-friendly local Thai restaurants the rest, we did it!

We learned to make small, inexpensive changes or trade-offs that eventually made us happier and more comfortable.

A Look Back on Overcoming Culture Shock in Thailand

The irony about culture shock in Thailand was that, at first, we didn’t recognize it as the problem. But once we realized that something had to give to make this new relationship abroad work, and that something was us, things started falling into place.

Thailand didn’t change for us. But by accepting change in ourselves and learning to become resourceful and flexible, we were able to overcome culture shock. That’s ultimately a major part of a successful transition into life in a new country.

What have you heard, if anything, about culture shock in Thailand? Is this something you’ve experienced before in another country and know what signs to look for?  What ways do you think you can prepare for it before making the big jump?


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Chris and Angela sold everything, paid off their debt, and left behind the nine-to-five lifestyle in the US. Today they live as full time expats in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Subscribe to their weekly Thailand Vlogs on Youtube! To see a full list of their blog posts all in one place check out the Archives. For more frequent updates follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

  • Patrick Morgan says:

    I am moving to Phuket in April to take my TEFL class…I haven’t decided where in Thailand to settle after that. I have found your blog well written, visually appealing, and very useful in preparing me for expat life. Thanks so much!

    March 10, 2015 at 10:24 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      You’re very welcome, Patrick! Thanks for taking the time to let us know we’re doing a good job on the blog. We wish you all the best in your TEFL course and new life at the beach!

      March 10, 2015 at 10:53 PM
  • Marianne Miller says:

    I have to say, I stumbled across your Facebook page a few months ago while I was preparing for my visit to Thailand. I think I read over every single article you posted, and became so obsessed with your blog that I was sharing your blog info with all my family, friends, and coworkers. There were so many times that I wanted to comment and reply to pictures and articles in your Facebook page, but it just wasn’t me to do that, so instead I think I just “liked” photos and blogs.

    Well fast forward to the present day. I’m back in the states from Thailand. And now I really want to leave a comment.
    This article here, was the one that left such an impact on me. I found myself in similar situations, and the best part about it, is I remembered your words in this blog… And it made me feel a little sense of home. And that I’m certainly not the first, nor will ever be the last, to feel those feelings of insecurity when trying to adapt and accustom myself to a surrounding that was completely outside of my comfort zone.

    Thank you for sharing your lives, and your story.

    Sending you both blessings, from 9,000 miles away..

    February 19, 2015 at 12:57 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Thanks for being such an avid follower, Marianne. It’s ok if you don’t comment…we often don’t either on the blogs we read! But we do appreciate that you’ve written a response to this post. So many people can relate to culture shock when they first move to Thailand, and it’s always comforting to know that you are not the only one feeling those crazy emotions. What’s awesome is that you’re not letting culture shock stop you from your return to Thailand later this year!

      February 21, 2015 at 11:54 AM
  • Biron says:

    Really insightful post about what it’s really like (obstacles included!!) to move to SE Asia. TY!

    January 9, 2015 at 9:03 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      While everyone has their own different stumbling blocks, it’s better to be aware that moving abroad is not going to be perfect than going into it thinking you’ll adjust without a hitch. Every traveler can relate for sure!

      January 9, 2015 at 9:48 AM
  • Leigh Anne says:

    I’m so happy to have found your blog. My son (13 years old) and I are moving from Texas to Pattaya in January. It will be our first time to live outside of the US. While I’ve been to Thailand a couple of times as one of the “two week millionaires,” I’m nervous about the culture shock of actually living there. My husband works in the Middle East, so it will just be me and my son most of the time. We do have some Thai friends there, so I think that will help. It’s good to have a sort of timeline of what to expect emotionally so that I don’t hit the panic button!

    October 15, 2014 at 1:35 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      We’re glad you found us, too :) Great phrase, “two week millions” – that’s exactly we felt vacationing here, but it’s definitely a different story when you live in Thailand! It’s awesome you’ve decided to move here with you son, but that fact that you’ve visited in the past and have Thai friends should help to smooth out the culture shock. Just know that you’re not the only one who feels little crazy about little things… with time it’ll pass. We wish you the best!

      October 15, 2014 at 9:54 AM
  • Tanya dye says:

    I am at this stage and found myself crying over our pizza at airport plazas couple days ago. But we have met some very kind people that have went out of their way to show us how to get cheaper beer, food, explained to us Thai ways and we our counting them as friends in our first week here.

    August 12, 2014 at 3:27 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      All it takes is a few kind hearted people to show you the ropes. Hopefully you’ll look back on this incident and laugh!

      August 14, 2014 at 11:38 PM
  • Michell says:

    I know what you mean. I’m from Asia and when I first came to US I experienced culture shock too not only the language barrier but the place where I live. I use to have many people around before but in US its not many people staying outside their houses lol! My English accent is different and I’m frustrated at first too when people didn’t understand my English because of my accent. The longer I live in US the better. So it will be alright.

    August 5, 2014 at 7:49 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      American’s do stay inside a lot and often not talk to each other outside, even neighbors! At least that was our experience. It’s good your accent is improving that longer you are in the US. We hope our accents aren’t so bad when we speak Thai :)

      August 6, 2014 at 9:59 AM
  • James says:

    You haven’t settled into Thailand until you master to use the water hose after toilet instead of toilet paper 😉

    July 15, 2014 at 5:43 PM
  • Wesley Travels says:

    This is so true, very well written guys.
    I hear a lot of people saying everything is cheap, but it isn’t that cheap.

    July 3, 2014 at 8:05 PM
  • irinabaumbach says:

    Hey both of you,
    very well written article! And it’s all very true. I’m a German Expat living in Chile and although it’s not that shocking different like Asia would be, I still made very similar experiences. Your diagram is well made too, and I just linked it on my blog. Thank you.

    June 11, 2014 at 6:06 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Glad you like our diagram, Irina. We think no matter where you move too, culture shock can be overall quite similar across the world. Good luck in Chile!

      June 16, 2014 at 10:59 PM
  • wesley says:

    Great Post, I love Thailand such an amazing place

    June 10, 2014 at 5:15 PM
  • Mike H says:

    It sounds like you are doing just fine.

    I am an American who has been living down in Bangkok the past 8 years, and I work nearby. I do love Chiang Mai so good on you for settling there.

    Please feel to drop me a note the next time you are in Bangkok.


    June 8, 2014 at 8:24 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Things are going really well, thanks! After a little bit of an adjustment period we’ve managed to settle down nicely. Hope all is well with you in Bangkok.

      June 8, 2014 at 9:33 PM
  • Asset-Grinder says:

    Great blog guys as I just found it. Always wondered how it would be to leave it all behind! gret job and keep us updated!

    June 5, 2014 at 4:30 AM
  • Ed Levenson says:

    Hi guys; excellent blog, great, clear and concise info, and terrific writing.. You have the right idea and you seem like cool people. Did you catch Anthony Bordain in Chanig Mai(CNN) I watched it tonight and it re-kindled my asia leaning ways (navy and merchant seaman in & out of asia for 25yrs). I’m 51yo now and I have enough savings to live there for a long time (I read your budget post-excellent) but I wouldn’t have actual income. I’ve been a RN for 25yrs and I was wondering if there’s work there for an expat RN or other ways to supplement a reasonable or modest income; otherwise I was thinking semi-retirement there (snowbird) 6 or 9 mos; contract in the states 3 or 6 mos (?) What’s the crime like there for farangs / any danger ? Are people/vendors in you face trying to shake you down or gouge you on prices (rip you off etc) If I rented an apt or condo is it safe to leave it for 3 or 6 mos ? Is Chang Mai an ideal location for a single 50yo who still likes to party off and on ? Despite best intentions, i never made it up there, ie past partying in Bangkok and Pattaya.. Pattaya blew my mind a couple of yrs ago re: over populated, over commercialized, over run with foreigners; too much, too soon(advice please thanks) Kop khun kha/kap (spelling ?)

    June 2, 2014 at 2:03 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Thanks for the compliment! There are very few physical jobs a foreigner can do in Thailand, aside from teaching. As a RN, there may be a very small chance, but your best bet would be to work through an online agency or simply semi-retire.
      We have always felt very safe in Chiang Mai, and Angela regularly walks to the market with no problems. If you were to have a condo or apartment, may we suggest that you sublet it since there are so many travelers that visit Chiang Mai for a few months at a time.
      We’ve had a few times going to restaurants and the prices on the bill were a few extra baht more than the menu, but nothing ridiculous. Prices are good with tuk tuks and songthaews. We bargain at the markets, and won’t buy something if we feel we’re being ripped off. The western stores are pricey, but no different than what you’ve seen in Bangkok and Pattaya. There are definitely places to go out and party whenever you fancy that. Chiang Mai is well worth checking out!

      June 2, 2014 at 11:43 PM
  • Marko says:

    Hey guys, I haven’t posted on here in a while I’ve been really busy.
    On the news here in Australia its claiming that Thailand is all in a mess, and friends who no of my plans to “follow” in your footsteps have asked how I really feel now about moving to Thailand.
    So just wondering, what things are like over there from your perspective and how it impacts you.
    Another note which you briefly touched on in this post, but haven’t anywhere else on the site is “what it is exactly you do all day, now that you have quit the nine to five ect”???
    Would love to know generally a bit more about the day to day life of retiring early in Thailand.
    Cheers Guys
    Great site Az always

    May 24, 2014 at 5:47 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Other than not staying out really late at night (curfew is 10pm as of May 23rd, although there are still establishments open past this we’ve noticed) we do the same things each day. We still have hung out with friends, gone out to eat, gone to the market, gone to the gym, etc. We’ve seen a small group of soldiers at two gates in the Old City, but they weren’t hostile. We’d like to think that this is a dispute Thailand has to settle with it’s government and people, and that we have nothing to do with it and aren’t affected by it (minus the curfew).

      We’ve talked about doing a post outlining what we do all day, now that we are out of our office jobs. It’s more than just watching TV, we promise!

      May 25, 2014 at 12:39 PM
  • 50Satang (@fiftysatang) says:

    Pak Arai? – Vegetable What? – What kind of vegetable is it?
    Nee Arai? – This What? – What is this?
    Nun Arai? – That What? – What is that?
    Gee Baht? – How much Baht? – How much does it cost?
    Tao Rai? – How much? – How much?

    Learn these sentences and you will be walking like a King in the market 😀

    Arai Na? is actually “Say What?”, “What did you just say, I cant hear you”, “What?”

    Anyway, good reading!

    /I’m Thai

    May 22, 2014 at 6:39 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Thanks for sharing! I was trying to use the phrase: “nee ree-uk wah arrai ka” which I thought meant “What is this called?” I was later told I should be saying “nee keu arrai ka” But sticking to something simple, like “nee arrai” is easiest :)

      May 22, 2014 at 10:27 AM
      • 50Satang (@fiftysatang) says:

        You are correct in both sentences. Despite your effort, It might come as a surprise for some locals that you speak Thai, I bet they find it funny and at the same time confused, no harm intended. The pronunciation might play a big part. But hey, keep learning. It took me years to master some of the European languages.

        May 22, 2014 at 11:33 AM
        • Chris and Angela says:

          I know pronunciation place a huge part, and a blonde girl speaking Thai is a surprise factor. I’ll keep practicing!

          May 25, 2014 at 12:28 PM
  • rogerluc says:

    Once you get your living and transport costs you need to set a good budget. Sometimes it just feels like monopoly money when you’re whipping out hundreds or thousands of baht. The interesting thing about the language is that if you speak a little Thai correctly (tones) everyone assumes you really do speak good Thai. Which, of course, you don’t. So that’s a tricky part.
    On Saturday evenings at 6pm there is a free group who gather at the Focus Coffee shop just north of the Maya mall. We gather to share language with many foreigners in a casual atmosphere. It’s great.
    I’m stuck on Western food a lot. A new find is the 3 Little Pigs Soul Kitchen. Owned by an American they serve the best pulled pork sandwiches in the city.
    It’s always fun to find new places.

    May 21, 2014 at 4:19 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      It does feel monopoly money! Do they advertise the Focus Coffee group on Facebook somewhere?

      We’ve had pulled pork from Butter is Better on the southeast side of the city, and it was really good. They have other things like mac and cheese and eggs Benedict. We’ve eyeballed 3 Little Pigs Soul Kitchen but haven’t gone in. Good to know if we want excellent BBQ!

      May 22, 2014 at 10:39 AM
    • Roger Lucarelli says:

      Hi Guys…Language Exchange Chiang Mai is the FB name for the Focus group. We meet each Wed. and Sat. @6pm. Usually about 25 folks show up. It is run by Daniel Styles. Hope to see you there sometime.

      June 25, 2014 at 3:15 PM
      • Chris and Angela says:

        Awesome Roger. Thanks for sharing. That’s a good sized group!

        June 26, 2014 at 12:57 AM
  • John says:

    Hi Chris and Angela,
    I think to prepare for my big jump, my most important thing will be to read Thai. I don’t have to speak it clearly but know what things say on signs is very important for me. Even though I have an app for my phone to translate any things I wish to say and found one to translate words on a sign, If the sign was hand written I doesn’t work. I am lost if I can’t read street signs and important things like that.
    Yes I also experienced the High cost of big malls and comfort such as a good pillow and clean sheet that I have bought ( pillow) there and brought my own sheets on each trip. Linens are very expensive in a Thai dept. store.
    I still need to figure what to do with my days when I move there.

    May 19, 2014 at 11:24 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      It’s funny you mentioned your qualm with pillows and linens – we had the exact same issue and spent a fortune at Robinson! Learning to read road signs, or at least, recognize what they say, is a good start especially if you plan to drive. What’s the app you use to translate?

      May 21, 2014 at 11:22 AM
  • chrisappleford10 says:

    Hi Chris and Angela, we’ve just arrived in Bangkok and like you said, while some things are cheap, a lot of things are the same price as back home in Australia. We found the same thing in Vietnam and Cambodia as well. We’re about to set up camp in Chiang Mai for 1-2 months, and we’re very much looking forward to stopping for a while and becoming part of the community. Can’t wait!

    May 19, 2014 at 7:18 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      This is an awesome milestone for your family! You’ll see that Chiang Mai is cheaper than Bangkok (food, housing), but the big store purchase prices hold true. We hope you have a wonderful time here. We absolutely love it. If you need any tips for places to go, just ask :)

      May 21, 2014 at 11:42 AM
      • jimu711 says:

        Hello you two and thank you for all of your tips. I am arriving from Seattle in a week and am wondering what you might recommend as where to stay (guesthouse) upon arrival. I plan to rent an apt. but in the interim….thank you Jim

        October 21, 2014 at 1:33 PM
        • Chris and Angela says:

          It’s hard to recommend a place without knowing your taste in guesthouses. Budget? Area? Nearby conveniences? Style? There are so many places to choose from!

          October 21, 2014 at 8:32 PM
  • larry747beck says:

    nice post and all to real, having been here, this is my 24th time in the last 18 or so years and most of

    that time was volunteering at an orphanage up north 2-5 months each time. Now am living here and

    it is different, even tho I get buy just fine and now have a wonderful Thai girl friend who was born and

    raised here her whole life (shes 50) I am 65 and this helps so much with everything. But just

    yesterday I was ordering my watermelon shake and I said I want a DANG MOUW BUN ( or

    something like that) and the guy started to laugh so hard and my GF to….I said whats so funny…she

    said YOU SAID U R DRUNK…..its dang moo. well we all had a good laugh… and if you want to have

    dinner some time let me know we would love to.

    May 19, 2014 at 2:46 PM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Wow, we didn’t know you volunteered at an orphanage. That’s serious commitment for as many times as you have visited.

      We’ve had similiar situations misspeaking… like asking for nahm blah (fish sauce) vs nahm blao (water). Yikes! You’ll remember how to say watermelon forever now :)

      May 21, 2014 at 11:46 AM
  • Eleni says:

    Great post, thank you! We experienced culture shock when we moved to Canada from Greece. Like you, we did not recognize it for what it was. Having experienced culture shock once we knew what to expect. For the time being, we are still in the honeymoon phase here in Bangkok.

    May 19, 2014 at 8:07 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      Congrats on your move to Thailand! If you’ve been through culture shock once before, you’re strong enough people to handle it again. Enjoy all the fascinating things about Bangkok and don’t sweat the small stuff…. but you knew that already :) Good luck!

      May 19, 2014 at 10:20 AM
  • agnesstramp says:

    I agree with prices. It’s very similar in China. Everything is getting more expensive and it’s easy to overspend when you come here, especially when you don’t control your expenses.

    May 19, 2014 at 7:29 AM
    • Chris and Angela says:

      I’m sure people think, oh, it’s “Made in China” so it must be cheap. Some things are but a lot of things aren’t. And of course, buying lots of cheap things really add up after a few months… yikes! It definitely takes self control to not burn through your budget.

      May 19, 2014 at 9:31 AM

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