Things that Surprised Me About Thailand

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One year ago today, I landed in Bangkok and began my six-month journey around Southeast Asia — and, though I didn’t know it yet, a life of full-time travel.

I had prepared for Thailand — I had read the guidebooks, perused the photo galleries, and had read hundreds of blog posts on the country.  But no matter how much you prepare, there are so many things that you won’t know until you arrive and experience it yourself.

Like the following:

7-Elevens are everywhere.

Think McDonald’s is the most common chain in Thailand?  Think again.  In a two-block radius from my guesthouse near Khao San Road, there were five or six 7-Elevens.

It’s actually pretty convenient because they sell everything, from 50-cent Red Bull to red bean paste-stuffed cakes.  I ended up in 7-Eleven a few times on most days!

Thais love their cover songs.

I was in Thailand five times in total in the last year — and each time, I knew I hadn’t officially arrived until I heard a breathy Thai girl singing, “Ooh, sweet child o’ mine,” and a flute bleating out the famous guitar riff.

That song is the epitome of Thai pop music.  Just about every song was a cover of a Western hit, sung by a fragile-sounding girl.

You get a plastic bag for everything.  Also, straws.

Even if you just buy a bottle of water at the store, the girl will put it in a plastic bag without you even asking — and give you a straw, no matter what you’re drinking.  And if you shake your head and take the bottle on your own, she’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

Despite this fact, there are no trash cans.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked around in Thailand looking for a place to throw away whatever I have in my hand.  There aren’t a lot of trash cans in the Thai cities I’ve visited — often, I’ve had to find a bathroom somewhere and throw it out in the trash can there.

The one exception: street cart vendors.  But I wouldn’t put anything besides their own disposable dishes in there.

Massages are everywhere — and awesome.

With cheap massages and pedicures everywhere, Thailand is THE destination for spa deals.  The cheapest hourlong massage I had was in Chiang Mai, at 100 baht ($3.33).  Most in Bangkok were around 200 baht ($6.66); I shelled out 300 baht ($10) for a massage on the beach on Koh Lanta.

What surprised me was that they were all over the place, and each spa offers so many different treatments.  A lot of people choose Thailand for spa vacations, but to me, that seems like a waste!  You don’t need spa vouchers to get pampered for cheap in Thailand.

Little lizards climb the walls.

It was one of the first things I saw when checking in at my guesthouse — a tiny lizard climbing the wall.  It turns out that they are everywhere in Thailand, as well as most of Southeast Asia.  With the exception of an ENORMOUS lizard that I saw on a wall in Kampot, Cambodia, they are completely harmless and won’t come near you.

They will attempt to murder you with their cuisine.

I knew the food would be spicy, and I accepted that — but it didn’t hit me until I arrived in Koh Chang after a few months in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.  In those countries, the cuisine was spicy but to a reasonable level — after coming back into Thailand, it felt like my esophagus was disintegrating!

Know this: the concept of “medium spicy” or “not so spicy” does not exist in Thailand.  Be prepared to push the chiles to the side at the very minimum.

So Thailand was full of surprises.

I feel quite nostalgic tonight, thinking back to the girl that I was then and how incredibly happy she was.  Not that I’m not now — I’m still deliciously happy.  But look at that top picture — I was smiling that hard and wide for days.  Nothing could take that away.

Taking this trip was the best decision I ever made.

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24 thoughts on “Things that Surprised Me About Thailand”

  1. Interesting facts that I would have never known….and now I have an intense desire to visit for the spice factor alone! I love that Thailand is chock full of 7-11’s however when I lived in Charlotte, NC I couldnt find one and was all “Whats a girl gotta do to get a slurpee around here?”

  2. Don’t comment much Kate but I really enjoy your blog. IF I was a traveler I would really benefit from all your treasure troves of knowledge. Maybe someday I will but till then I get amazed daily by the wealth of foreign tidbits of info you share. Have a massage for me…

  3. Great post Kate! I have been reading your blog for a while but I think this might be the first time I have commented so: “Hi!”

    I am heading to Thailand in December so I will be sure to look out for these things while I’m over there. So keen for some cheap spa treatments 🙂

  4. It’s been less than 48 hours since we’ve touched down in Bangkok, but we have already observed all the things you mentioned! The biggest surprise were the cover songs and the nearly non-existing trash cans (what’s up with that?!). Looking forward to discover more surprises in Thailand over the next few months!

  5. I love those little details that you can’t possibly know until you finally arrive somewhere, and love this post Kate! It’s actually made me even more excited to go to Thailand (eventually, after NZ!) and find out my own little details 🙂

  6. I have been reading your blog for quite sometime and impressed with your experience about Thailand… I can relate to it very well.

    Do you know of some organizations that offer free/barter volunteering in Thailand? I am planning to do some volunteering work early next year.

    1. Nisha, talk to Dwight from In Search of Sanuk ( He is the volunteerism guy in Bangkok — he does everything — and he brought me to some refugee families last year.

  7. Thailand – and especially Bangkok – is a special place for me, as well. Even though I’m planning to do South America this year, I did consider going back to Southeast Asia again instead.

    If anyone here is wondering why on Earth they should go to Thailand or Southeast Asia in general (like many of my friends and family wondered when I left). Trust me: it’s not something you will soon forget and definitely something you shouldn’t go your entire life without experiencing.

    Another thing that I never expected about Thailand … I am tall. I mean I’m only 5’8″ but I was often the tallest person on the MRT in Bangkok. So fellas, if you’re the underdog (literally) here – you might have lots of game in Southeast Asia. Hell, even I managed pretty well and I’m old and ugly. 😉

  8. shoot, I missed out on this article while away on holiday.
    the trash cans went completely missing in 2006 / 2007, when eight bombs in Bangkok went off on new year’s eve that had been mostly concealed in trashcans. 3 were left dead and almost 40 injured. there were some conspiracy theories as to who did it. anyways – beforehand, there used to be a lot more trashcans. they just disappeared almost like overnight afterwards.

  9. In addition to your comment about how you get given a plastic bag for everything you buy, I also noticed that almost all food and drink seemed to come actually served in a plastic bag. Take-away soup? Just pour it into a plastic bag and add a straw tied with an elastic band! I even had my first cocktail in a bag in Bangkok…a slightly stranger concept than the traditional bucket!

  10. My brother suggested I would possibly like this blog. He used to be
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  11. I know this post is older, but I just got back from 2 weeks in SE Asia (definitely not enough time!) and reading this made me giggle inside. Although it’s 2 years+ past your trip…all these things still ring true! I was reading your blog for a couple of years and super jealous of the adventures, just finally started on my own. Thanks for making people like me realize exactly how non-scary and completely MANDATORY it is to just go for it! I will be a lifelong solo traveler.


  12. We loved this blog post 🙂

    One suggestion for ANYONE going to Bangkok, is to find the club called CLIMAX. The best cover bands you will hear, anywhere! These bands are very famous in Bangkok – don’t be surprised if you see a singer being handed a 100USD bill, as a tip!!! A superb night out. (We only found out from a friend who lives there – insider knowledge is a great thing.)

    7Elevens are everywhere, its just as easy to find one in Koh Samui as it is in Bangkok.

    The disposal of litter seems to be a big problem in many places we have visited in SE Asia. We are currently in Koh Tao and the looks of “what is she doing?” are very apparent when I say no thankyou (in Thai) and point to my daypack. (I can fit a 5L bottle of water, 2 packs of coconut milk, mangoes and bananas in there and hey, no plastic bag is needed.)

    We have taken to gecko watching too. They are everwhere although the biggest ones we have seen so far were in Amed, Bali.

  13. I’m glad your discoveries were happy ones, although the spice levels do make me nervous! I’m already keenly aware that my upper threshold for spicy is probably their version of bland. Still excited to make my way there, hopefully soon!

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