Unlike what some expats-to-be might believe, living in Thailand as a traditional expat is not always the same as settling for a relaxed life in a beach resort. After all, lounging under palm trees and planning a stroll to the nearest wat (Buddhist temple) is rather different from hurrying to business meetings.
Of course, elderly retirees and young work-and-travel backpackers indeed go for a more laid-back life in Thailand. The holiday settlements on Phuket or exploring the country’s north, e.g. the regional metropolis of Chiang Mai, are valid options for such foreign residents.
Expatriates, however, are more likely to accept an intra-company transfer or a career opportunity. These usually take them to Bangkok or the industrialized Pattaya-Chonburi Metropolitan Area on Thailand’s eastern seaboard. For these foreigners, living in Thailand often means urban sprawl, traffic chaos, and air pollution.
Expat life in Thailand definitely has its downsides, but it is also an excellent occasion to familiarize oneself with the culture of Southeast Asia’s most important nation.
Almost 68 million people are currently living in Thailand. Most of them belong to the four ethnic groups of Thai people, who came from southeastern China about a thousand years ago. However, apart from demographic minorities such as the Khmer or Hmong, there is a sizable Sino-Thai (Thai-Chinese) community living in Thailand, especially in Bangkok.
Many Sino-Thai identify as multi-racial, with ancestors from both groups, having adopted Thai surnames as well. The ethnic Chinese in Thailand also tend to be bilingual or trilingual — speaking Mandarin Chinese, the respective Chinese variety from their family’s former home region, and, of course, Thai.
Thai — or, to be more precise, the central Thai dialect — is the official language for all people in Thailand. It is a mandatory subject for all schoolchildren, too, including expat kids living in Thailand and attending an officially accredited school.
English is also an obligatory foreign language taught at all Thai schools, and many street signs are bilingual (Thai and English). However, as in so many other countries, do not necessarily expect the average person on the street to communicate fluently with foreigners.
While living in Thailand, you will certainly meet plenty of businesspeople, academics, students, or front-desk staff in the tourist industry who can speak fluent English. Among the older population, the urban working classes, or the rural populace, though, it wouldn’t do to rely on English.
When you prepare for relocating to Thailand, consider attending a Thai class. Admittedly, Thai may be a bit tricky for expats whose native languages are not tonal or who do not distinguish carefully between various registers, such as street Thai and religious Thai.
But you are bound to make a better impression as a foreign resident living in Thailand if you try to pick the basics of the local language. Expat children are obligated to take Thai classes in school. This rule applies even if your children attend a private or international school during their life in Thailand.
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