01 April 2012

Thailand pResearch

As I've done in the past when I have an international trip coming up, I've been doing some pre-trip research (pResearch) about where I'm going, what to expect, do's/don'ts, etc. Here's what I've learned to date...

Misc stats and stuff

Bordering countries are: Cambodia (to the SE), Laos (E/NE), Myanmar (W/NW), and Malaysia (S). Also to the south is the Gulf of Thailand, off the North China Sea.

As of 2005, the population was about 64.8 million with a literacy rate of 92.6%. 95% of the country is Buddhist. According to the CIA Factbook, as of 2009, 9.6% of the Thai population was living below the poverty line. Unfortunately, they don't define what the definition of "poverty line" is for Thailand...they merely note that different countries use different standards depending on their relative wealth. By contrast, for the United States, it's 12%. In El Salvador, it's 38.6%

The "Bridge on the River Kwai" is in Thailand...on the western edge of the country. The river itself runs across most of the country.

In terms of land area, it's about the size of California plus Tennessee...just shaped differently.

Some cultural things:
  • Always stand (hands at sides) for the national anthem, which is played before movies, broadcast at 8am and 6pm daily, and at other times. Also stand for images of the king, which may or may not be displayed during the anthem. And never, ever say anything negative about the king or disrespect or deface an image of him.
  • Never point with your feet, touch anyone with a foot, put your feet up on chairs, or display the soles of the feet to Buddha statues.
  • Kind of in the same vein, don't cross your legs with one ankle on the opposite knee...it displays the sole of the shoe.
  • Don't touch people (especially children) on the head. If you accidently do so, apologize profusely.
  • Always take your shoes off when entering a home or temple. They consider wearing shoes inside to be disgusting.

There are colors associated with the days of the week. The last time I was in Thailand I remember that everyone (and I mean EVERYone) was wearing a yellow shirt on Monday. I asked about it and I was told that yellow is the color for Monday and because the king was born on a Monday, everyone wears yellow on Mondays to honor him.

The colors for the all the days are:
Sunday = Red
Monday = Yellow
Tuesday = Pink
Wednesday = Green
Thursday = Orange
Friday = Blue
Saturday = Purple

Wearing the right color on a given day, even if it is just a small bit of color, is a way to bring luck. Generally, a person's "lucky color" will be the color of the day they were born. I was born on a Friday, so that makes my lucky color Blue.

Black, as in Western culture, is the color for death and mourning. Although, I did find other web sites that said Purple was the color for mourning and widows and that black was the color of bad luck, unhappiness and evil. Either way, I'd say wearing black wouldn't be a good idea.


I always like to know at least a few phrases in whatever language I'll be immersed in...polite phrases like, "Hello" or "Thank you" and necessary phrases like "Where is the bathroom?" or "Not spicy, please." (VERY critical for Thai food, imo).

To that end, I've downloaded a bunch of 'learn Thai' podcasts to my iPod to try to learn these things. So far, it's not going so well...

For one thing, Thai, like most Asian languages is tonal...meaning the pitch is part of the critical meaning of the word. For Thai, there are 5 tones: mid (your normal speaking voice), high, low, rising and falling. These tones are applied to sylables, not words. So a polysyballic word could have a different intonation on each syllable. It's largely responsible for the "sing-song" reputation of Asian languages.

For a tone-deaf person like me, this presents a problem.

One of the podcasts I listened to talked about Thai tongue-twisters. One of them was the same word (spelling-wise) repeated with different intonations to make a Thai sentence that means "New wood doesn't burn, does it?" Without the varying intonations, the meaning doesn't exist. The phrase in Thai is: mai (high) mai (low) mai (falling) mai (falling) mai (high)

The other problem I'm having is just me. Apparently, my brain has language organized into "English" and "non-English". It's like there's this box in my head labeled "non-English" and it's apparently not well organized. Everytime I go rummaging around in the box for a Thai word, chances are really good that what I'm going to come up with instead is a Spanish word ... sometimes French ... maybe even American Sign Language .. or one of the random words in other languages I've picked up somewhere. "Matemshi" in Arabic (it means "Move it!") or "lekker" from South Africa (it means "Cool!"), for example. But I'm just not coming up with Thai.


One of the things I remember most fondly about my last trip to Thailand (2006) was the huge variety of fruit that was available...and a LOT of fruits I'd never seen or heard of before. It's frugivore heaven! Last time, I was there in August and this time it will be May so maybe there will be a different set of in-season fruits to try!

Fruits I remember:
Durian - one of those "you either love it or hate it" things. Put me down in the "Ugh!" category. The fruit is creamy and sort of banana shaped. It smells like rotting onions (blame it on the volatile sulfer compounds it contains). It tastes somewhat better than that, but not a lot. The smell is so strong, even in the hull, that in some places durian fruit are banned from public transportation.
Mangosteen - Loved it!

Jujube - I think these were in the fruit basket the hotel kept stocked in my room. I don't remember much about them.
Longan - I really liked these. They're very similar to another fruit in appearance but one grows in clusters like grapes and the other grows attached to the stem like brussels sprouts. I can never remember which is which. The taste is very similar, the only real difference is that the pit inside clings to the fruit in one and separates easily in the other.
Pomelo - like an oversized grapefruit but less juicy and milder flavor.
Rambutan - I really liked these too. They're about the size of a large egg, red on the outside with lots of neon green-tipped hairs all over. The flesh is translucent and tasty with a single pit in the middle.

Dragonfruit - These are tasty but I didn't have them much...in fact I may have eaten it only once, on the plane on the way to Bangkok. And at the time I had no idea what it was. The flesh is white or bright pink with tiny black seeds dispersed throughout. The outside looks like it ought to be an alien in a sci-fi movie...or something to aim at in a video game...sort of roundish, red and covered with bright green things that poke out like soft spikes.

There were lots of other "normal" fruits too...pineapple, banana, watermelon...but given an opportunity to try something new, I'll pretty much always take the new vs known. Especially in fruit. 

Insects, barbequed bats and grilled cobra...all of which I saw at street markets for sale...not so much. Although I'm not opposed to trying them, fruit just has more initial appeal!


I've been keeping an eye on what the weather is doing in Thailand right now (about 4 weeks ahead of my trip). Today, the 7-day forecast for Chiang Mai calls for daily highs of 98 to 100 (F), lows of 70 to 74, mostly sunny with a chance of rain a couple of the days, UV index in the extreme category, and relative humidity of 50%. Sunrise is 6:21am; sunset is 6:37pm although those times will shift some in the next 4 weeks as the days are still getting longer.

We've been having a really warm spring here in Iowa but not 100 degrees warm. The one thing that concerns me about the forecast is the UV index. The anti-malaria drug I'll be taking will make me more sensitive to the sun. Between the UV index and the meds, there's a really good chance I'll get fried if I'm not VERY careful.