Downsides and risks of living in Thailand


Last edited: October 07, 2022 at 07:24:35

Despite all its obvious advantages, Thailand does have some serious problems that can affect your well-being, your safety, your health or your investments. No matter how appealing life in Thailand appears to be judging from sunny holiday pictures or even during a long stay during a first year, one should not forget that in most aspects Thailand is still a developing country, despite what typical Thailand lovers tend to tell you. The fact that the underground in Bangkok is more shiny than the one in London doesn't mean that the country is really developed, nor the fact that you can get so many different types of cuisine in Chiang Mai. In a separate article, I address the question whether Thailand is in fact a failed state or not.

Disregarding what you call it, a first, second or third world country, sooner or later you'll come to experience some of the major downsides of Thailand whether you like it or not.

Thailand the perfect holiday destination
Judging from the perfect holiday pictures, some people think Thailand is a paradise

1. LOW EDUCATION LEVELS

This is probably Thailand's biggest problem, because from low education levels everything else derives: a lack of awareness of what's going on, a lack of drive, a lack of depth, corruption and so on.

Education levels in Thailand are very low at virtually every type of school and every age group (from kindergarten to university). This is shown year after year by numerous international rankings but it should be obvious to you if you really engage with Thai people. You can notice from the lack of depth in the conversations, from the quality of work delivered and from the shallowness of Thai society in general.
There are 'universities' in nearly every small town and many young people you meet have graduated from a university but they end up working as a sales staff in Homepro rather than what they were trained for. I've met countless graduated university students of English or Business English completely unable to engage in any conversation.

The main reasons for low education lie in Thai culture and the Thai approach to education. Thai culture lacks drive, passion, competitiveness and curiosity. Instead it promotes social harmony, order, respect for parents, elderly and the teacher.
The Thai approach to learning is by repeating-after-me (the teacher), not by questioning. Students are not allowed to fail because 'the parents have paid', so they are given another chance and yet another chance until they pass.
If you have foreign teacher friends, they will tell you many stories about how frustrated they are not to be able to apply 'normal' educational standards, even though the school advertises a "Cambridge" standard.

This is not to say there are no smart people here, but they haven't been stimulated optimally and the ones that end up at the so-called top universities constitute the future elite, aggravating the de facto class society that Thailand is.

On average, Thai kids spend about the longest amount of time in school or in after-school tutoring in Asia, while Thailand is proportionally one of the highest spending countries in the world on education, but the quality of education is still poor. A teacher friend told me how children go home showing their parents a map of the world where they have colored each country differently. The parents are satisfied that their children learned so much about the world, but in fact the children don't memorize the countries, they merely used the map as a drawing.

Low education standards can affect you as a foreigner in many ways: it will be harder to find local friends to have a good conversation with, it will be harder to find a partner to have a serious relationship with, it will be harder to find good staff with knowledge and skills, and in daily life you may run into all kinds of problems, many of them can be derived from the problem of low educational standards.

Low education is a vicious circle because low quality teachers teach the next generation and ignorance is bliss. It is also a major factor in the political divide of the country, because with more education comes more equality and more opportunity for individual development.

Some foreigners claim that in their home country, people are also uneducated, I cannot comment on that, international rankings research a whole bunch of factors and can tell you more about that. But in practice and in daily life you can notice, and if you've been around in Asia you will tell the difference immediately. The Phillippines are poorer than Thailand but it's easier to meet educated people, probably because in general the command of English is better and so people have more access to international knowledge.

2. LACK OF MOTIVATION

Thai people are happy and easily content, making them very relaxed and easy going. Some of the most commonly used words in Thai are sabai สบาย and maipenrai ไม่เป็นไร. The meaning of sabai is closer to being comfortable than to being happy, while maipenrai translates best as never mind. Thai people want to be comfortable, with enough money, playing with their phones, drinking coffee or whiskey. It is very hard to meet Thai people with a target or passion, they are extremely laid back, if they can enjoy today they won't worry about tomorrow.

There are cultural, historic and probably geographic reasons for this lack of drive, lack of motivation and lack of passion. I believe the main cause lies in their interpretation of Buddism, which makes them very apathic, lethargic, accepting their fate and the situation they were born in without wanting to try to change it and with a distant hope of a better next life. Geographically, Thailand is a very fertile country without many natural disasters or challenges, making it easy to harvest a bit of rice and vegetables even if you don't work hard.

Now for the foreigners in Chiang Mai, for the majority it's the same: they are laid back and feel attracted to the relaxed atmosphere. Only for smaller groups, such as entrepreneurs and digital nomads one could argue that they have a drive, but if you're a dropshipper living of 20k a month and can't afford to live anywhere else in the world, one could question that too.

The downside of all of this is that if you feel energized mixing with people with new ideas and inittiatives you will have a bit harder time to find them in Chiang Mai. And if you need local people to perform, for example while renovating your house, you may get disappointed.

3. POLLUTION & LOW ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS

Now even if you're kind of a hermit or don't really bother about how motivated and how educated people are around you, pollution is definitely going to affect you. When I talk about pollution it is not only air pollution, but also pollution in the water that you drink and in the food that you eat. Fact is, even if you're careful, you're going to get quite some in your body.

Chiang Mai is notorious for its air pollution especially in the period that foreigners call the Smokey Season: basically end of Feb until April or so. This is the period of traditional slash-and-burn of rice fields and woods all over the north of Thailand and the neigboring countries Laos and Myanmar. For a few weeks, Chiang Mai 'prides' itself in the world top, the world top of the most polluted cities in the world!
In the course of April and May, the worst of the pollution slowly fades away, but all through the year, there is still a significant local air pollution along all major roads. This is mainly because fuels used in Thailand are of inferior quality and cars are not well-maintained. Seeing complete black or white smoke coming out of the exhaust pipes of red cabs and normal cars is not an exception.
If your apartment is near a main road, check your exhause fan in 2 months: there will be a sticky black pollution on the blades. The same black sticky pollution sinks down on the surface of roads, and if you had perfectly white Sketcher shoe soles, I guarantee you that they'll be black with a week.

Water pollution happens in various forms. First of all, tap water in Thailand is not potable, quite the contrary: small amounts of chlorine are added to it as a lazy way to let it flow to households and businesses without major problems. Even if you don't use it for drinking, cooking or steaming rice, it still flows through your shower. The intake of pollutants from shower water through your pores is actually much higher than you can imagine, and people with sensitive skin may suffer. Have a look at the inside of the water tank of your apartment building, or open the tab again after a disruption and you see what brown filth is coming into your room. You can buy special water filters to purify your shower water but even those won't be 100% effective.

RO water is the standard water quality you get in restaurants and it is used to make ice blocks which are served in your glass, but it's dubious how really clean and healthy that is for your health. Some people have reported getting sick from ice blocks due to bacteria or unhygienic circumstances in which they were kept.

Read more about drinking water quality here

Finally, food safety. When living in Thailand, you will not be able to avoid intake of pesticides from vegetables and fruits. Every time you eat out, you will be eating veggies, meat and other food with some kind of pollutants in it. Even if you stick to so-called 'organic' food or restaurants, this is not strictly regulated and checked in Thailand. Realize that much of Thailands crops are not allowed to be exported to western countries because of this, and therefore consumed at home.


Advertisement for pestice free vegetables means that a lot of other vegetables
are treated with pesticides and have residual pesticides when sold.

4. LOW ETHICAL STANDARDS: CHEATING, LYING, HONESTY

It's of course difficult to get hard facts on how much people are lying and cheating in Thailand versus other countries, but from all the countries I've lived in and visited, it's definitely the one where it's most widespread.

Lying and cheating happen so often in Thailand mainly because of cultural and societal reasons. Thai culture doesn't like directness or confrontation, so a harsh 'no' is often worse than a polite 'yes' and then getting out of it with excuses. If you thought you had a date with a girl and she doesn't show up because she had to meet her sister, that's because she didn't feel comfortable enough to meet in the first place and didn't want to say no.
This is the type of lying that you may be able to accept when you understand enough about Thai culture because it's their way of trying to stay polite.

The type of lying that you may not be able to accept is when Thai people plainly break contracts on the grounds that 'the situation has changed' and the type of cheating that you will not like is when a friend or acquaintance 'borrows' money from you to subsequently disappear.

Lying in Thai society is so widespread that people often don't believe you when you tell the truth, in a way they already expect dishonesty.

The damage is small if your date doesn't show up, or if you lose a few thousand baht on someone you thought was a friend, but will be bigger if it concerns a property or custody of a child.

Unfortunately, Thailand also attracts less honest people, people who enjoy using the mazes of the law or corrupt the police. So the danger of being scammed does not only come from local Thais.

Read more about common scams in Thailand

5. PERSONAL SAFETY

In general, Thailand is a very safe country. There are hardly any real bad neighbourhoods or even no-go zones, such as in many countries in the West. People are polite in public, everybody always smiles and the chances of you getting in trouble on the street is very low.

This can completely change when you get into certain situations with local Thai people. Thai people are extremely peace loving, but if you get into real conflict, they will kill you over nothing. You won't be the first foreigner who gets stabbed by his girlfriend. Or it could be that you're dating a new girl and her ex shows up at your doorstep with a knife. It could be that you want to stop a local Thai from fighting in a bar and he walks to his car, grabs a gun and starts shooting.

Although guns are officially illegal for normal people, you can simply buy them online (!) and there is a market for hitmen who will make an opponent (hopefully not you!) cold for 10,000 baht or so (depending on how high-profile the case is). 

If your new girlfriend brags about her father having a gun, perhaps it's time to re-examine what it really is that excites you in this relationship.

Any moment that you're giving Thai people leverage over you, you got to realize that one day they may use it to walk over you: you put a house in the name of your wife or your girlfriend, you have a child together, or you make her a beneficiary in your testament. Unfortunately, there have been many cases in Thailand where foreigners deceased soon after they made up their testament with a Thai beneficiary, and the police is quick to close the case.

No matter how much you trust your Thai friend, girlfriend or business partner, make sure you don't tempt them by putting them in a leverage position over you.

6. WEAK GOVERNMENT, JUDICIAL SYSTEM AND CORRUPTION

You may think that this is not affecting your every day life in Thailand, especially if you're just in Thailand for a short time, but in fact it is a hidden factor that influences everything already and only becomes more obvious to you when you run into certain situations.

It is because of incompetent governance and corruption that money doesn't end up where it is supposed to be spent and the government doesn't provide good facilities, infrastructure, clean water, justice and so on. The water from your tab and the air you breath aren't clean because Thailand didn't invest in high quality water treatment plants, doesn't enforce on discharge of unclean sewage water and doesn't stop people from burning. These are all given to a tourist coming fresh to Thailand and seem unrelated to incompetent governance and corruption but they are.

The incompetence of the judicial system becomes more clear when you run into trouble: buy a 'wrong" property, start up a business with the wrong Thai partner, be cheated by a 'friend' or abandoned by your Thai wife and you'll realize that in fact there is no real justice in Thailand. Thai Courts tend to favor Thais over foreigners and if you're rich and well-connected you have more chance to win.
Much, if not most, of Thailand's judicial system was copied and imported from overseas by a small group of intellectuals just about a century ago, making it a system with many loopholes that doesn't really suit with Thai culture and didn't have the time to evolve over centuries in conjuction with changes in society like much of Western European law has.

7. TRAFFIC

Traffic is no doubt a risk factor in Thailand, no matter if you live here short term or long term. Newbee tourists, trusting the rules, cross a zebra without looking left or right, to get hit by traffic. But even long-stay foreigners can get involved in traffic accidents. Thailand is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to drive year after year.

Read more about traffic dangers in Thailand

8. A 'FARANG' WILL NEVER FULLY INTEGRATE

No matter how many years you have been living in Thailand, for locals you will always remain a foreigner or 'farang'. Of course, depending on your character and the way you interact with people, you can get great contacts and really enjoy living here, but there is a limit to real integration. That limit isn't as bad as in xenophobic countries such as Japan, but it isn't as good as more international multicultural places, such as Singapore or Hong Kong and modern Western countries.
It need not bother you in the beginning, but if you have chosen Thailand as your long term place to live in, it may get to you when locals still look down on you or discriminate you after you've been mingling with them for years.

9. LOW PROFICIENCY OF ENGLISH

On average, most Thai don't have a very high command of English. Reasons for this are a general lack of interest in the rest of the world and the fact that Thailand was never colonized. If you really want to get on with local friends, you really need to master some Thai, else you won't have much to exchange. Young Thai are often able to converse in written English, but their spoken English is on average still rather poor.
Thailand's proficiency in English is especially low if you compare it with Malaysia, the Philippines or Myanmar.

Unless your Thai is excellent, this limits your possibility of real connection to local people. There is always the language gap.

10. LACK OF DEPTH IN THE LAND OF COMFORT

Thailand is often referred to as 'the Land of Smiles', but in a way could be better described as 'the Land of Comfort', because that's what it's really all about in Thailand, for most Thai and for most foreigners. The ultimate aim for most Thai is to be สบาย sabai. What Thai people want, is to be comfortable, with enough money for shopping, someone to take care of you, someone to love, your family taken care of, and without too much workload.
The human scale of emotions of Thai people is very narrow and shallow. Thai culture does not really allow for deep feelings or a broad spectrum of feelings, everything is simplified and geared toward being sabai.
This becomes evident from the sheert total lack of real arts, poetry and original music in Thailand. For example, there is hardly any poetry in Thailand worth noticing, let alone alive poetry, there are very few great actors or artists capable of conveying a rich human palet of emotions. This explains why Korean soap and movies are so popular in Thailand: because Thai people are not able to express such wide and deep feelings.
Living here, it means that you may experience a lack of passion and richness of emotions with Thai people, a lack of fine arts, a lack of contemporary culture, refiness of the human experience.
In fact, Thailand is one big Comfort Zone, and if you're fine with that, there's no problem, but if you are seeking a deeper experience of life, you may not find it here.

11. LACK OF TRUE SPIRITUALITY

There are more than 400 temples in Chiang Mai alone, but there are very few people with a real understanding about spirituality. The roots of spirituality are ancient and deep in Thailand, but nobody knows the meaning anymore. People go to temples to make merit (ทำบุญ) on popular days or even make trips across the country along temples of a certain kind, but commit to cheating, lying and everything that the Buddha didn't teach them.
Perhaps some of the more spiritual places are those where you can study Vippassana meditation, but Thai people who come back from a meditation retreat typically say that they now understand how much their parents love them, while some Vippassana resorts have perhaps become more like a tourist destination.

12. ILLNESSES AND ALLERGIES

Living, or even visiting Thailand, exposes you to a number of risks for you health that you normally you will not be exposed to if you're from a safer country. Many of them could have been prevented or minimized if the government would have done its job, but unfortunately that's not the case.
A disease like dengue is usually highly underestimated by foreigners. Every year there are tens of thousands of people in Thailand who contract dengue, hospitals report it's one of the top three cases they get in certain periods of the year, in particular in the rainy season when there is more still water around for mosquitos to breed in. Unlike countries like Singapore, where the government has successfully clamped down on the occurence of dengue and malaria by imposing strict measures on leaving still water around your house (you can get fined for leaving a bucket standing in your garden that will collect rain water!), in Thailand the government does practically nothing and you will see still water literally everywhere.
Getting dengue doesn't make you more resistant for a next time, in fact you will have more risk if you get it a second time, so this is really a disease to avoid.
A lot of attention in Thailand has been going to covid-19, but the facts are that dengue has killed more adults and infants in every year that covid existed.

A lot of foreigners living in Chiang Mai develop all kinds of strange allergies, mostly due to pollution in the air or in water and food. Some decide to leave Thailand just because of that reason.
Other typical issues are skin irritations.


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Buckko Posted on October 05, 2022 at 23:24:13
This absolutely the way thailand is and the thai people are I could of written a book but now I dont need to you have allready written it this should be posted on tourist sites for people to see the real Thailand thanks for that I knew I was not the only one here thinking this well done
John M Posted on August 31, 2022 at 10:06:53
Great site, and so grateful I found it as I am moving to Chiang Mail next month from Los Angeles; thanks for all the info

Go Meiljin.... The only differences I see to the US is the pollution is worse, and jaywalking will definitely get you killed.

Education? If you have watched Jay Leno asking questions to "not-so-educated Americans", it's a must-see

Thanks again
Meiljin Posted on August 12, 2022 at 13:12:09
To be honest I feel like that happens in America also. I experience the same thing but in USA. Also not all foreigners are good learning of the dharma. Thailand is a Theravada Buddhist country but they do follow animism which is traditional and mixed with Buddhism. Education level? Have you been to Los Angeles school? They can't even do arithmetic math for Christ sake! Also the English Thai people use is UK English.
Dhamma Posted on August 04, 2022 at 05:08:48
I lived in Thailand and was a monk at a notable forest monastery for six months.

In general, most Thais know very little of Buddhism and Ajahn Chah used to always say that westerners that practice Buddhism , practice in a way that is more authentic and true to the Dhamma than majority of how Thais practice it .
Jiang Posted on July 26, 2022 at 09:16:22
Most of what the writer described are what i experienced personally living in Thailand. Although Thailand is a Buddhist country, I was really really surprised (or rather shocked) that most Thais have hardly any knowledge of the Dhamma, what more of the practice. Most Thai men are not interested in going to the monasteries. It is mostly the ladies who go to the temples. They chant and pray devotedly, following rites, vows and rituals which are actually obstructions to the noble path. The lack of interest in the real teachings of the Buddha (Dhamma) is reflected in the characteristics of the modern Thais - lack of honesty, motivation and depth of contemplation resulting in poor understanding of matters that affect daily life such as corruption, pollution, accountability and poor motivation to learning and being better persons. The attitude of 'sabai sabai' is taken to such an extent that the Thais in general are too 'comfortable' to want to make much efforts to scratch the surface and get to the core of truths.
mm Posted on June 26, 2022 at 16:24:33
An example of Farang who lived in Thailand for quite a long time but still know very little about Thailand because all they see is themselves and they think the world evolves around them. Very shallow
Chansiri Posted on April 27, 2022 at 19:36:35
คุณน่าจะอยู่จุดจุดเดียว เช่น กรุงเทพมหานคร แล้วคุณสรุปความเป็นประเทศไทยของเราได้อย่างไร
Rudy Hodges Posted on December 17, 2021 at 04:36:34
Moving to Thailand
Rika Posted on November 13, 2021 at 06:00:26
Easy to be happy is not less deeper than western definition of happiness. One example, Buddhism that they embrace is a profoundly deep wisdom and practice, arguibly involve much deeper thoughts than the current science. It is just different way & value sets to approach life but it is not less than your definition/perception how happiness should be. As well as knowing that you dont need to toil your self, that work-life balance is important is not a downside too. Your experience depends on what kind of people you met. Btw I am not Thai nor live in Thailand.
Ton Posted on March 24, 2019 at 02:29:20
Every word is true. I've been living here professionally for 10 years now and gone trough each and every situation you subscribe.

On top of all of this, once you have managed to get some knowledge into the Thai brains, they become 1 eye in the land of the blind and you are no longer needed.
i love this website Posted on March 14, 2017 at 08:57:26
i love this website
nemrut Posted on February 23, 2015 at 09:52:33
How is this different from Americans obsession with achieving happiness...two sides of the same coin with one being more extreme?