Sometimes You Just Feel Helpless in Thailand

Living in Bangkok is such a dichotomous existence. On one hand, your street smarts, social acumen, and moral judgement get tested and honed to such a razor’s edge that any existence you had back home seems soft and closeted in comparison. But on the other hand, parts of your life become black holes as certain skills get pushed so far into the background that you wake up one day and realize that you don’t know how to do simple tasks anymore. I was thinking of this the other day as I sat in the back of a taxi when the realization hit me: “I have no idea where I am.”

I’ll use this as an example, but let me back up a bit. I like to think I know Bangkok pretty well, and can ferry myself around the city with a goodly amount of accuracy – but only by using public transport and taxis. When it comes to actually driving somewhere or navigating the highways and tollways, I’m useless, because I don’t have a car. So when I was sitting in the taxi the other night and realized that the driver had either taken a new way or was fleecing me for some extra baht, I was pretty helpless. I knew roughly where I was, of course, but as for giving precise road directions to my destination – not a clue. As it was, I just reaffirmed with him where I was going, he said, “Yes, yes, that’s where we’re going,” and I resigned myself to just paying whatever the meter was. What else was I going to do?

Could have been worse, I guess...

Could have been worse, I guess…

This is a perfect example of the helplessness you can sometimes find yourself in in Bangkok – I was totally at his mercy. I can ride the motorcycles, boats, trains and buses like a star, but when it comes to actually navigating the big-boy roads, I’m a stranger in a strange land.

Another area where this feeling comes up is dealing with paperwork. My embarrassment at my crappy level of spoken Thai is well-documented, but I don’t feel so bad about my sad reading/writing skills, as only the most learned of students ever get fluent. Naturally, dealing with Thai-language paperwork renders you completely helpless. I won’t go into details – mainly because they’re too numerous to pick only one – but it really is a humbling experience when you’re following someone around like a lost puppy while they do all the work, speaking only when spoken to and signing on dotted lines when you’re told to.

There are plenty of other areas where you find yourself utilizing elaborate sign language and half-Thai: telling your maid where to clean (how do you say ‘door jamb’ in Thai?), explaining the details of your international transactions to a bank clerk, walking into a hardware store and trying to find the missing screw off of that one thing that’s probably holding your refrigerator together…and more. Granted, many of these places have staff who speak enough English that you can get it done eventually, but often the results are…mixed.


Of course, I don’t expect everyone to speak English – this is Thailand and I should speak Thai, and if I’m in a difficult situation where I can’t communicate properly, that’s my own damn fault. But still…there’s nothing like one of these stories to remind you how lost you can sometimes be outside your comfort zone.

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2016-11-17T15:48:10+00:00 Language, Thailand|0 Comments

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  1. Mike April 21, 2012 at 7:17 pm - Reply

    I have been enjoying your posts having just found your site.

    What you say here is very true & scary as I am about to move to Thailand full time with my wife.
    Of course I have stayed there every year for months but moving is another thing.

    Like you my Thai is limited. I plan to improve & hopefully get better but this post sure reminds me of how i felt many times while there.


  2. Jay April 22, 2012 at 6:28 am - Reply

    I feel you brother! I don't think I will ever get past that helpless feeling and it does add to the day to day stress when I can't 'make things happen' like I did back home. Thankfully a lot of Thais can be very helpful, which partially makes up for their lack of efficiency : ) Nice post GTD.

  3. Frodo Douchebaggins April 22, 2012 at 9:07 am - Reply

    Living in Thailand is like Wile E. Coyote when he's run off a cliff — you're fine until you look down…

    By the way, the sign says "don't wash your feet in the bathroom" (ห้องน้ำ) so presumably they meant "toilet" in the water closet sense rather than place where pee goes sense (สุขา) so it's not as direct an admonition to practice good hygiene as it might as first appear.

  4. Jeff April 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    This really gets at one of the things that I find scariest about traveling or living in another country even after doing it a lot. No matter how self-sufficient you are, there are times that you just have to trust people and hope they don't screw you over.

  5. Jack April 23, 2012 at 4:15 am - Reply

    Door jamb is "kawp or sun pratoo" (ขอบ or สัน ประตู). It's high time you learned how to read fluently, cowboy.

  6. Greg April 23, 2012 at 4:56 am - Reply

    Thanks for comments, everyone. And Jack, thanks for that. Undoubtedly this will become one of the words I remember but need once every decade, but words like 'help' or 'stairs' will fail to materialize when I need them. 🙂

  7. The Other Greg April 23, 2012 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Well, the sign does actually read "Don't wash your feet in the bathroom / washroom", as opposed to the "toilet", but I get the point. Just when I think I'm doing pretty well getting along in Thai I'll slam up against some simple task that linguistically defeats me. I guess it incites me to keep workin' at it….. Don't give up!!!

  8. Roger April 25, 2012 at 4:39 am - Reply

    Greg, thanks for the great post, I have enjoyed reading about your adventures in Thailand as I have dreams to retire there one day. I currently live and work in China and I can relate to the experiences you have while not being able to speak the language. The paperwork scenario is the best example of why I need to learn the local language no matter where I live. Despite all your trials and tribulations it still sounds like you love the place. Keep the good work going and thanks for you insight in Thai life.

  9. Greg April 26, 2012 at 3:15 am - Reply

    Thanks Roger, glad you enjoyed it. Thai is hard enough to learn, but manageable – I can't imagine what it must be like in China, whose writing systems seems many times more complicated. And yeah, I do love Thailand, as much I bitch and moan sometimes, I always ask myself where I'd rather be and can never come up with an answer. 🙂

  10. Tim May 14, 2012 at 8:05 am - Reply

    This is one aspect of moving to Thailand in three years that I have given a lot of thought to. I have always been used to doing for myself and being the oerson that many come to in order to get things done. I have helped a number of Thai people here in Canada with their problems, ( with the assistance of my fiancée who is Thai.

    We are moving to Thailand in three years. First priority is to go to language school but I am not confident in my ability to learn the language.

    Still, being aware of the difficulties and not wearing rose coloured glasses I will be ready to accept what is.

  11. Greg May 15, 2012 at 4:23 pm - Reply

    Thanks Tim, I guess this is what the Thais refer to as karma – you should have no problem finding people to help you. 🙂 As for learning the language, well, I suck at languages too, but you'll be amazed at what you can pick up merely by being forced to choose between learning and eating.

  12. Jim February 5, 2014 at 2:42 am - Reply

    Eventually I left Thailand because I got tired of pointing and doing pantomime. It became extremely draining and frustrating for me. Also, regardless of what anyone might say, I believe it is near to impossible for a western person to become fluent in Thai because it is too difficult for us. This is sad for me to recall because almost everything else about Thailand was very nice.

    • Greg February 5, 2014 at 8:16 am - Reply

      Hi Jim, it’s certainly true that foreigners will find it very hard to become very fluent, but I do know several who are 99% there. They are exceptional, mind you, but I think with enough practice we can learn enough to greatly increase our quality of life. We just have to expect that it won’t be as easy as learning French or Spanish. 🙂

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