21 Things to Know Before Moving to Thailand
If you’re planning on moving to Thailand, ยินดีด้วยนะ (congratulations)!
This gorgeous country of 70 million people has something for everyone, from its tropical beaches and verdant jungles to its awe-inspiring temples and mouth-watering street food.
The land of smiles is also the perfect place for an expat, as it combines a cheap cost of living with a welcoming attitude towards foreigners – plus, it’s perfectly placed for travelling all over Asia and Oceania.
Fill in the form at the top of this page to receive up to six free shipping quotes, and find out how much it would cost to make the move of a lifetime – chances are, it’ll be less than you think.
Traditional Thai boats sitting on one of the country's hundreds of islands
1. This country is long and spread out
Like its neighbours Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, Thailand is a long country, extending around 1,650km down the Malay peninsula.
That’s about the distance from England to Morocco.
There are also 1,430 islands in Thailand, meaning that if you’re ever looking for a piece of deserted paradise, you’ll have plenty of options. Just hire a boat, and the country’s your oyster.
2. Feeling hot, hot, hot
The average temperature in Thailand stays between 24°C and 29°C throughout the year.
And depending on where you settle down in the country, you can expect around 2,500 hours of sunshine per year, which is about 1,000 more than most UK locations receive – so make sure you get some sun cream and a reliable hat.
It can get as hot as 35°C in summer, and winters aren’t cold, with an average temperature of 24°C in December and January.
On the flip side, you’ll want to prepare yourself for some very rainy summers. The southwest monsoon affects Thailand from May to October, with heavy rains a common sight.
3. The public healthcare system is poor
There are many excellent reasons to move here – but Thailand’s public health offering isn’t one of them.
A 2018 study published in The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ranked the Thai healthcare system 76th in the world.
That’s 53 spots behind the UK, which came 23rd.
Thailand may have earned a higher ranking if it spent more than a measly 3.8% of its GDP on healthcare – a lower percentage than struggling nations like Chad, Sudan, and Yemen.
As is, most expats in the country opt for private insurance.
4. Buddhism is the official religion
93.5% of people in Thailand are Buddhist, according to government data.
This won’t usually affect your everyday life, except when you see one of the country’s many stunning Buddhist temples, but make sure to respect the local Buddhist customs.
Cover your knees and shoulders unless you’re by the pool or on the beach, ask permission before taking someone’s photo, and try not to raise your voice in any situation.
But mainly: if someone asks you nicely to change your behaviour, do so.
5. That’s not the Buddha
Make sure you know the difference between the Buddha – born Siddhartha Gautama in India around 2,500 years ago, whose teachings are the foundation on which Buddhism is built – and the Laughing Buddha.
The latter figure, who has been immortalised in statues all over the world as a jolly, pot-bellied man, is Budai, a Buddhist monk born in China around 1,000 years ago.
He is said to have wandered through villages with a sack full of food and treats, generously feeding children and the poor, and identified himself as the avatar of a deity called Maitreya just before he died.
Both are important cultural and religious individuals, but they lived in different countries, were born in different millenniums, and had different impacts on Buddhism.
Budai (above) and the Buddha (below) at Wat Plai Laem Temple on Samui island
6. Thai food is even better in Thailand
It’s hard to imagine, but the delicious takeaway pad thai you crave every so often is a pale imitation of the delights available to your taste buds in Thailand.
Get ready for a flavourful, sensory food journey like no other. You’ll find great options wherever you go, just by approaching some street food purveyors.
After you’ve experienced exactly how delectable locally made pad thai can be, try a northern speciality called khao soi. This creamy coconut curry noodle soup is scrumptious, especially with extra, deep-fried crispy egg noodles on top.
Then, try the simple pleasures of pad kra prao, which mixes minced pork, rice, and fish sauce, before sampling the spectacular hor mok ma prow awn – a red seafood curry that’s eaten directly out of a coconut.
And don’t skip out on dessert, as the combination of mango, sticky rice, and condensed milk in a khao niew ma muang will round your meal off perfectly.
7. Living costs are gloriously low
Life is generally much cheaper in Thailand.
If you have £1,500 to spend per month, you’ll typically be more than comfortable – and depending on where in the country you live, you may find it difficult to spend even the majority of your salary.
Practically everything, from food to rent, to petrol, is at least half the price you’ll have to come to expect.
Everything, that is, apart from attractions like national parks, museums, and temples, which will usually charge foreigners a higher price than locals – often 10 times as much. This stings at first, but you get used to it.
8. The drinking culture is generous and low-key
Going out for drinks with new Thai friends is a wonderful experience, especially since the culture emphasises generosity.
You’ll usually drink as a table, so you can win over your group by buying a bottle of a spirit like whisky, and a couple of mixers to go with it.
As with all things, Thai people will shy away from anything that causes someone embarrassment, so try not to get too visibly or loudly drunk.
It’s also worth mentioning that the legal drinking age is 20, and drinking in parks and places of worship is generally forbidden, though drinking on the street is fine.
You’ll only be able to buy alcohol between 11am and 2pm, or between 5pm and midnight, so plan accordingly – and on Buddhist holidays including Visakha Bucha Day and Māgha Pūjā, you won’t be able to purchase any at all.
9. The beaches are glorious
Thailand is blessed with countless beautiful beaches, both on the mainland and on its hundreds of islands.
Electric blue waves lap onto white sands wherever you go, against a beautiful backdrop of soaring mountains or swaying palm trees.
You can join hundreds of others sunbathing on the popular beaches, or with just a little research, you can find a secluded one near you and fully relax.
10. Try all the sports
There are more popular sports in Thailand than you’ll have time to enjoy – so we’ll start you off with the highlights.
Whether you’re into sports, or simply want to try something new, you should try takraw, a game that’s the polar opposite of volleyball, in which you have to stop a woven rattan ball from hitting the floor with any body part except your hands.
Make sure you also go to an exhibition of muay Thai, which loosely translates as Thai boxing, and forms a crucial part of mixed martial arts.
More widespread sports like badminton, football, and golf are also hugely popular across the nation, and can be a great way to make friends.
11. Status is a huge deal
As in most cultures, a person’s status in society is important – however, your status can change. It all depends on your current age, education, income level, job title, and your family’s position and connections.
This rears its head in many situations, including when you’re greeting someone with the traditional wai greeting, which involves pressing your palms together and slightly bowing your head.
The person with the lower status should generally go first, but you’ll likely be excused as a foreigner. However, you must make sure you return a wai if someone else offers it.
You’ll also find that if you’re in a group at dinner, the highest earner will typically pay for the meal.
Bangkok is genuinely this stunning
12. The culture is collectivist – unlike ours
Most western countries, including the UK, have an individualist culture – that is, a focus on achieving your personal goals and maintaining your personal rights.
Thailand is one of several eastern nations, including South Korea and China, to take a collectivist approach to society.
This means people will generally focus on working towards shared societal goals, and will therefore do what’s best for their group – whether that’s their family, company, or nation – rather than themselves.
So when you’re in Thailand, make sure you genuinely work to advance your group’s aims, even if it doesn’t benefit you. You’ll make more friends that way.
13. This is a politically volatile nation
In 1932, a bloodless coup led King Rama VII to end 700 years of absolute monarchy by accepting democratic rule (still under a monarch) and the creation of a constitution.
The king said at the time: “I am willing to surrender the powers I formerly exercised to the people as a whole, but I am not willing to turn them over to any individual or any group to use in an autocratic manner without heeding the voice of the people.”
Since then, there have been another 12 coups, which have produced another 19 constitutions.
Thailand has alternated between democratic governments and military dictatorships in a seemingly unending cycle.
So prepare yourself for a country where the leadership may change suddenly and undemocratically, and where it’s dangerous to protest against the authoritarian government or monarchy – though that often doesn’t stop Thai people.
14. Patriotism is everywhere
This widespread dissatisfaction with the political system is complicated by the importance of patriotism in Thai society.
Flags are everywhere, the national anthem is broadcast twice per day at 8am and 6pm – in public and on TV – and the royal anthem is typically played before performances at cinemas, plays, and concerts.
The royal anthem is more sombre, while the national anthem is much more upbeat and strident – though like many countries’ songs, it includes lyrics about “uniting the flesh and blood of Thais” and sacrificing yourself for the nation.
Don’t worry about singing along or learning either of these anthems. Just be respectful, which means standing and staying quiet throughout – and avoid badmouthing the royals.
15. Thailand has never been colonised
Between them, European powers have colonised almost every piece of land on Earth – but not Thailand.
This is a point of pride for locals, as it makes Thailand unique among nations in south-east Asia.
In fact, it’s part of a tiny group of countries that have never been colonised by European nations, joining Japan and the Korean peninsula – as well as Liberia and Ethiopia, depending on how you define colonisation.
This achievement is mainly due to Thailand’s willingness to enter into exploitative trade deals, give up land when necessary, and act as a buffer between British and French colonies.
16. Locals take special measures to stop anyone losing face
When in Thailand, you’ll want to be aware of kreng Jai, a cultural phenomenon that translates as ‘consideration’, but in practice means an unwillingness to upset others, especially in public.
So remember that if someone says ‘yes’, it may not mean yes; they may just be trying to avoid making you unhappy.
You should follow this lead, and avoid any action that could be seen as disrespectful.
Whether you’re talking to a colleague or a friend, if you disagree with their opinion or you’re angry with them – and you want to talk about it – make sure you do so privately.
In a similar vein, you should bring a small gift if you’re visiting someone’s home, and take off your shoes before entering.
17. The land of smiles is more complicated than that
The Thai aversion to losing face is part of why the nation has its ‘land of smiles’ nickname, and why its people are often perceived as being laid-back.
This is largely down to a cultural expectation that people should hide their negative emotions – so try to keep any anger, sadness, or jealousy to your private conversations.
The country’s nickname is also a nod to the fact that the Thai language has words for 13 distinct smiles, from ones expressing sadness and deviousness to others showing encouragement or pride.
You won’t be expected to learn all 13 – instead, look deeper than a smile to understand the emotion someone’s trying to convey.
The five-day Songkran festival is a wonderful way to herald the new year
18. Feet are unclean…
As in many countries, it’s customary to take off your shoes when entering someone’s home, and when visiting temples.
This is because while feet are seen as the dirtiest part of the body, shoes are viewed in an even worse light.
Many shops and offices will also expect you to de-shoe – you can tell whether it’s necessary by checking for a large pile of footwear by the front door.
You should also make sure you don’t point at anything with your feet, touch someone with your feet, or put your feet on a table or chair – and if possible, try not to sit cross-legged.
19. …and heads are sacred
Don’t touch anyone’s head or hair.
Locals use the same logic that deems feet as inferior to view heads and hair as superior, which means they’re off-limits to all but someone’s family and closest friends.
This also applies to children, so don’t go ruffling your friend’s kid’s hair.
If you do accidentally touch someone’s head, apologise quickly and you should be forgiven.
20. Avoid the tap water
The tap water isn’t safe in most parts of Thailand, so stick to boiled, treated, or bottled water.
Bangkok usually has clean tap water, as it follows World Health Organisation guidelines, but before you breathe a sigh of relief and reach for a refreshing drink, check the news or ask a neighbour if it’s safe.
The water supply often encounters issues, like in February 2021, when the system was unable to desalinate much of the water.
This led to salty water with sodium levels reaching 12 grams per litre – 60 times higher than the Water Regulations Advisory Scheme’s recommendation.
21. Watch out for ghosts
There are numerous ghosts in Thai folklore, and you’ll find tales of spirits wherever you go – but it goes further than just stories.
People will generally take the approach voiced in the popular Thai saying: “You may not believe. But never offend the spirits.”
In order to avoid suffering a ghoul’s wrath in case they end up being real, locals will leave gifts like food, money, and incense, and sometimes even arrange dance performances for the ghosts’ enjoyment.
A poll taken in 2020 found that 43% of Thai people believe in ghosts at least somewhat, and whether someone is a believer or not, they’ll still usually protect themselves against all eventualities.
And to be fair, 34% of Brits believe in ghosts, so let’s not throw stones in this glass house.