Living in Bangkok
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A comprehensive guide about living well in Bangkok
Living in Bangkok will be a unique experience for you. Indeed, Bangkok is a city of contrasts and diversity, which offers expats lots of opportunities. If you are interested in living in the Thai capital, you will find helpful advice on healthcare, education, transport, and more in our brief guide.
Life in Bangkok
Living in Bangkok is — like so many things in Thailand — a study in contrasts. On the one hand, quite a few foreign residents are backpacking globetrotters trying to spruce up their budget by freelancing as English tutors, for instance.
At the other end of the income scale, Bangkok provides numerous opportunities to the high-level executive to lead a jet-set lifestyle comparable to Zurich or NYC. Of course, neither of these extremes is representative of what life in Bangkok is like for the average expatriate.
Get the Required Vaccinations
If you consider relocating to Bangkok, you should take special care of your health. Going to see your family doctor in preparation for your life in Bangkok is a key point on any pre-departure checklist. First of all, your physician should see to it that you get the immunizations required for living in Bangkok.
These immunizations should include vaccinations for tetanus, diphtheria, polio, pertussis, MMR, influenza, and hepatitis A, most of which you may probably have. Moreover, for longer stays, you should also get immunizations for hepatitis B, rabies, typhus, and Japanese encephalitis.
Further shots to protect yourself against TBC or cholera are only necessary if your move to Bangkok involves working as a medical practitioner, an NGO employee in a slum, etc.
Stay Healthy in Bangkok
Unfortunately, living in Bangkok makes you more prone to tropical fevers, gastrointestinal infections, or respiratory diseases. Depending on where you come from or have lived before, you may be used to the malaria prevention measures and hygiene rules that life in Bangkok necessitates.
Please talk to your doctor about taking proper steps against malaria, dengue fever, and chikungunya, as well as about food and drinks safety. If you suffer from asthma and similar diseases, you might want to get professional advice on how Bangkok, with its traffic chaos and air pollution, could affect your lungs.
Take Out Health Insurance
Moreover, you should take out comprehensive medical insurance, either with a private Thai provider or with an international company, before starting your expat life. Of course, everybody hopes not to fall ill during their life in Bangkok, but if it should happen, you want to be prepared.
Thailand’s public health insurance system does not offer adequate care and reimbursement options to most expatriates. Therefore a private medical insurance policy frequently becomes inevitable.
Once in Bangkok, you may quickly find out that Thailand does not have a health system based on primary care. Patients do not have a family doctor whom they go to see for minor ailments, medical check-ups, and referrals. Therefore, when you choose a private clinic as your go-to place for health complaints, make sure to ask them if they have a general practitioner on the staff.
There is a primary care physician (Med Consult Clinic) in the Racquet Club Building on Sukhumvit Soi 49/9, catering especially to British expats living in Bangkok. However, most healthcare for foreign residents involves attending a doctor’s office hour at a private clinic or getting medical advice from specialists.
Put Aside Some Money to Pay for Medical Care
Living in Bangkok has the distinct advantage that excellent medical care is available, but it does come at a price. Most hospitals expect you to pay upfront for standard consultations, minor treatments, and medication, or to make a down payment on stationary treatment and surgery.
You should have a cash account or a valid credit card for medical expenses incurred while living in Bangkok. Also, for emergency situations, you should carry your insurance papers with you and know where the nearest private hospital is. Note down their emergency number. If something should ever happen to you, phone or make someone call the clinic directly.
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Education in Bangkok
From Pre-School Kids to Post-Grad Students
The Thai education system includes twelve years of free education. Nine of them are mandatory. Around the age of three, lots of Thai kids start attending pre-school, which is not a part of obligatory education in Thailand, though. Parents also have to pay for nurseries or kindergarten themselves.
From around age six to eleven, children in Thailand go through six years of primary education or prathorn. This is both free and obligatory, just like the following three years of lower secondary (mattayom stage one). During nine years of compulsory schooling, children receive education in several core subjects (maths, Thai, science, social studies, religion and culture, health and PE, arts, career, technology and foreign languages).
After that, many Thai kids go on to upper secondary school (mattayom stage two) until the age of 17. This often prepares them for university entrance exams. Other students simply go for three to five years of vocational training instead. They learn, for example, about home economics, commerce, business, or tourism.
An Ambitious Education Policy
Thailand’s governmentis taking out measures to ensure the highest literacy rate possible among its population. Right now, 6-7% of the adult population are still illiterate. Furthermore, efforts are made to strengthen especially poorer rural schools outside the Bangkok Metropolitan Region.
In 2009, the government spending on education accounted for a sum equivalent to 4.1% of Thailand’s GDP. Due to the economical struggles of the past few years, the proportion is currently not quite as high.
However, many public schools in Thailand suffer from underfunding and a bad student-teacher ratio as a result. This disadvantage, combined with the language barrier of having Thai as the only language in the classroom, leads to most expatriates selecting an international school for their children.
Opportunities for International Education
There are a number of fee-paying private international schools with usually good to excellent academic standards and modern facilities in the city of Bangkok and its metropolitan region. This list includes international schools in Thailand, most of which are located in the Bangkok area.
There are indeed quite a few schools catering to various expatriate communities and nationalities. Your choice of school is most likely to be influenced by the language of instruction, the curriculum, and the diploma course it offers. The availability of international schools should influence your choice of accommodation as much as the location of your workplace.
Transportation in Bangkok
Getting a Thai Driving License
If you are planning a longer stay, but think you cannot do without driving yourself, you need to get a Thai driving license from the Department of Land Transportation (DLT). An International Driving Permit for foreign drivers in Thailand is valid for a limited duration only, especially for tourists.
To get your Thai license, you need to go to the head office (1032 Phahonyothin Road, Bangkok) or one of the local branches. It is usually required to bring along the following documents:
- your valid passport with a non-immigrant visa
- two passport-sized photographs (which can also be taken at the DLT office)
- a medical certificate
- your work permit or an official proof of residence
- your old license from home
Theoretically speaking, you must still attend a class on driving safely, a color-blindness test, as well as a written and a practical driving exam. However, you might be able to skip the last one or two steps.
Ask at the DLT if you can avoid the exam(s) in case you are in possession of a valid International Driving Permit. You should also ask your embassy in Thailand if your home country has an agreement for a license exchange with Thailand.
Your Thai driving license will be valid for one year. You must renew it after that.
Don’t forget to take out a car insurance policy that is as comprehensive as possible. Many other drivers in Thailand might not have any insurance at all, and you certainly don’t want to pay for any accident-related expenses from your own pocket.
Getting Around in Bangkok
As we have mentioned before the traffic chaos in Bangkok does not show any signs of decreasing in the near future — quite the opposite. As a result of the city’s rapid demographic growth and urban expansion, Bangkok’s infrastructure, including the road network and public transport, is overburdened and does not live up to daily demand.
Driving around Bangkok is only recommended if you live in a location, e.g. in a provincial suburb, with a long commute and bad public transport links. There are high import taxes on motor vehicles, and buying a new car of a well-known quality brand isn’t that cheap in Thailand, either.
While the roads in Bangkok are well maintained and most street signs are bilingual (i.e. in Thai and English), drivers — particularly motorcyclists — can be rather reckless. Furthermore, depending on your own country of origin, driving on the left side of the road might be unfamiliar and confusing to you.
Getting to and departing from Bangkok is relatively easy. Bangkok has two airports: the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport, about 30 km east of central Bangkok, as well as the old Don Muang Airport in the north.
Both airports are well connected to the city center, either with the Airport Link or by regular taxi services.
Getting the Hang of Public Transportation
Expatriates without a car usually prefer the Skytrain, the underground, or the Airport Rail Link to get around in Central Bangkok. If your home or your destination is located close to the Chao Praya River or the Khlong Saen Saeb, you may also make use of an express boat service for part of the way.
Bangkok’s waterways are less crowded than its streets. Unfortunately, even all these services combined cover only a certain part of the city, not to mention the Bangkok Metropolitan Region, as you can see from a glance at this overview map.
Getting By with Buses and Taxis
The bus network is vast, comprehensive, and cheaper than the Skytrain, but it’s also slow (due to buses getting stuck in traffic jams), crowded, and not always very comfortable. The cheapest buses, for example, are generally not air-conditioned.
The bus lines and private fleets of mini-vans and mini-buses which link the suburbs to the fast traffic nodes via the elevated expressways are very useful for expats who do not live in downtown Bangkok. The mini-vans in particular are often more comfortable than regular buses, and faster, too.
Last but not least, there’s always the possibility to call a cab, for instance, via a 24/7 call-a-taxi service such as Taxiradio (1681 in the Bangkok area). However, using taxis on a regular basis is anything but cheap. It will fast increase your expenses for (relatively) quick and reliable transport in Bangkok.