Volunteering abroad means getting used to a new way of life in a country that may be completely different from home. Thailand is no exception; when you volunteer here, you’ll witness customs and traditions that seem a world away from your previous experiences. As well as the cultural and ethnic differences, there will be some surprising lifestyle quirks to see – keep reading to find out more.
In terms of culture, Thailand may be different from what you’re used to. For example, it’s customary to greet others through the traditional Wai gesture, which means placing your palms together and touching them to your chest, just above your heart – this is a sign of respect. In Thailand, residents are reserved, and sudden outbursts of emotion are uncommon; volunteers are expected to respect the local way of life with decency and restraint.
In addition, Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist nation, dotted with religious landmarks like temples and statues of Buddha, which are revered by the Thai people and visitors alike. This may be different from your lifestyle back home but it’s integral to the local culture in Thailand.
These customary and cultural differences can be witnessed from the moment you touch down but you’ll experience many other variations as your volunteer trip progresses, some of which may strike you as strange or surprising. Here’s our pick of the top ten funny things you’ll see when you volunteer in Thailand.
1. Swimming fully clothed
If you’re from somewhere in the Western world, you’re probably used to swimming in a suit, trunks or even a bikini. In many Eastern nations, however, it is commonplace to swim fully clothed, and this is something you will notice when you volunteer in Thailand. It may seem strange to foreigners but this is how most Thai people swim, and they are as accustomed to wearing clothes in the water as you are to swimming in a bathing suit!
There are a number of reasons behind this seemingly strange lifestyle quirk; primarily, Thai people keep their clothes on when swimming to maintain a level of decency, and visitors to Thailand are advised to follow suit or risk offending the sensibilities of onlookers.
In addition, the Thai sun can be very hot, so clothing can provide some protection from the damaging rays. The coolness of wet clothes provides some relief from the heat, which can be stifling at times. Wearing clothes when swimming also prevents tanning, which Thai culture associates with poverty and outdoor working; pale skin symbolises a leisurely, higher class way of life.
2. Skin whitening lotions
In the same vein, Thai people idealise white skin as a symbol of high social status; in Thai culture, having pale skin indicates a certain lifestyle and job type – darker or tanned skin is associated with manual labor out in the fields and a life of poverty.
For this reason, it has become popular in Thailand to use skin whitening lotions, which can be bought and administered by the user, or provided as a beauty treatments at dozens of clinics all over Thailand. It may seem strange to foreigners, especially to Westerners who pride themselves on a glowing tan, but in fact Thai residents would associate that ‘healthy glow’ with a lower social class and menial work.
Although estimates suggest that half of Thai women use whitening creams on their skin, the health effects have been called into question, with some ingredients used in the lotions being associated with skin blistering and swelling, as well as a range of more severe symptoms.
3. Drinking beer with ice
Beer is a popular alcoholic beverage in Thailand, as it is in many other nations around the world. When Thai bars serve beer, however, there is one key difference that sets the country apart from many Western nations: beer is served with ice.
You may be used to a tepid pint but when you volunteer in Thailand you’ll enjoy an icy cold beer like the locals. Ice is added to beer in Thailand to give the drink a refreshing edge, which you’ll be grateful for after a long day at your volunteer placement with the tropical Thai sun beating down.
There isn’t a great choice of domestic beers – most are imported for other nations, but if you do want to sample some authentic Thai beer try Chang, Singha or Leo, which are reputedly among the best beers to hail from the nation. What’s more, enjoying a refreshing pint is relatively cheap in Thailand, so you’ll be able to try a range of beverages when you want to unwind in your free time.
4. Soaking policemen during Songkran
The Songkran Festival is an important date in Thailand’s events calendar, marking new year. Taking place in the middle of April, Songkran runs from April 13th to 15th and celebrates the end of the dry season. Everyone gets involved in this joyful festival, which is characterized by water fights up and down the country that even the police tolerate.
Needless to say, Thailand’s officials often get caught up in water fights themselves, with it being something of a custom to soak police officers during the course of the festival. Even monks can get wet during the event, which is arguably the most important of the year and thus the mischievousness is tolerated well by all.
Armed with buckets and water pistols, crowds will gather in the streets to enjoy the watery fun and various companies attend offering refills, either for a small fee or free of charge. In the biggest urban areas like Phuket the celebrations last for a couple of days but in some parts of the country it is not uncommon for the soaking to run into a week-long event!
5. Riding a motorcycle with an umbrella
Road safety in Thailand is likely to be a world away from what you’re used to back home – expect to see all sorts of surprising sights when you wander down the busy streets or use the transport networks. Motorcycles and scooters are popular in Thailand but not everyone adheres to the laws of land where road safety is concerned.
Frequently, you may see people riding their motorbikes while holding an umbrella – this is to keep the hot sun off. You may also see several people on a single motorcycle and not one of them wearing any protective clothing or shoes. While it’s a legal requirement to have a driver’s license (and an international permit if you want to drive or ride abroad), many of the motorists you see will be driving or riding illegally.
Because of the mayhem on the roads, you might want to stick with public transport, or use taxis and tuk-tuks driven by experienced motorists who are used to the road conditions. If you do plan to hire a motorcycle, or ride with others, it’s advisable to wear safety gear, including a helmet, and make sure you have a license, international permit and the necessary insurance in case you have an accident.
6. Gasoline-filled whiskey bottles
When you’re traveling around Thailand, especially in the more rural areas of the country, you may notice seemingly random unattended stands of whiskey being sold by the roadside. This is quite a common sight but don’t be fooled by the cheap prices – the contents of the bottles on display are not for human consumption!
Look closely at the bottles and you’ll notice the strange colors of the contents, which can be red, green or yellow. The bottles have been filled with gasoline, not whiskey; the original contents of the bottles are long gone and stallholders use the empty bottles as a quick fix for motorists who need fuel but aren’t within easy reach of a gas station.
The gasoline bottles are particularly popular among motorcyclists, as they can be poured into the engine with ease and returned to the shopkeeper to be refilled. Bikers can then be on their way again without having to worry about running out of fuel. Bottles are either full or half-full and often organized in this way for motorcyclists who may require a liter or half a liter of fuel respectively. The carts are usually unattended but the shopkeeper will appear when somebody stops by the cart to make a purchase.
7. Iced coffee in plastic bags
Thailand’s hot and humid weather is one of the main elements volunteers will need to acclimatize to; the heat is hard to escape but Thai people counter the effects in a number of ways, one of which is adding ice to drinks like coffee, which is served in plastic bags by street food vendors.
Coffee, or oliang, is brewed in a cotton sock and usually served hot over ice with condensed milk and sugar. There are different varieties of coffee to try – some are mixed with other ingredients like roasted sesame seeds to give the coffee a distinctive flavour. The ice is cooling and the chilled bag provides some tactile relief from the heat.
Just as you may be used to being served a drink in a cup from a food van or a takeaway restaurant, plastic bags tied with a rubber band are the normal way to be served food and drink from street vendors in Thailand. If nothing else, it can make the beverage or snack easier to carry as you continue about your daily business.
8. Toilet paper napkins
When you visit the restroom in a Thai restaurant - and depending on how upmarket the eatery is - you’ll often find a roll of toilet paper, or ‘sanitary napkins’ beside the lavatory, as you would in most other countries. It can be a little unnerving, however, to discover a tub of the very same tissue paper on your dining table when you return to your seat.
In Thailand, napkins aren’t commonplace; instead, there will be a box of toilet paper on the table. You can usually tell what sort of establishment you’re visiting by whether the toilet paper is displayed in an ornate box (high-class), a plastic tub (mediocre), or left as is on the table with no attempt to encase it (budget).
In the cheaper restaurants, the lavatories are not always restocked with toilet paper, so the roll on the table can come in handy!
9. Four people per bike
As touched on previously, road safety in Thailand can be lacking, and you may encounter all sorts of surprises on the streets, including up to four people sharing a motorcycle at one time! Despite the danger and illegality of traveling in this way, it is common for Thai people to ride two, three or four to a bike.
The Thai police don’t tend to get involved in motoring misdemeanors of this kind, so it’s something you will see often when you volunteer in Thailand. If officers do decide to get involved, they can usually be bought off by the people involved and so the incident isn’t taken any further.
If you plan to hire a motorbike to get around during your time in Thailand, be aware that the traffic flows are different here and the left-hand side of the road is used as opposed to the right. It’s worth spending some time as an observer before deciding to hire a vehicle and attempting to navigate the Thai traffic!
10. Bangkok: the world’s longest city name
It may sound like something lost in translation but Thailand’s capital Bangkok actually has the longest name of any city in the world – in the native Thai language only, of course.
Visitors usually refer to Bangkok as just that but in Thailand’s official language the full ceremonial name of the city is Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit, making the city the record-holder for the longest name.
When you volunteer in Thailand, you can see the name written out in full if you visit Bangkok’s Administrative Building; the wall at the front of the structure bears the full Thai name, inscribed in gold lettering.
The rich, diverse culture and lifestyle of Thailand is a major draw for visitors to the country. Much of what you see and experience when you volunteer abroad may come as a surprise but is to be enjoyed and respected as quirks of the nation. By all means enjoy the bagged street food, have a go at pronouncing Bangkok’s official name and join in the local festivities, but remember to be safe and respectful of the Thai way of life, no matter how surprising it may be.