Hot Take: “Culture Shock” in Thailand

Programs for this blog post

Teach in Thailand Program

Authored By:

Taran S.

If you look up the definition for culture shock in the Oxford Dictionary, you will find the following:

the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.

Okay, disorientation caused by a sudden subjection to an unfamiliar culture. Sounds understandable at first glance, but I find something rather imperfect about this definition. In my eyes, this principle of being shocked by another culture implies that you are expecting something easily recognizable when you go to a completely new environment. It implies that maybe you are searching for shards of familiarity in places where you shouldn’t.

As humans, it is difficult for us to conceptualize things that we have not experienced before. This is why change can be scary. Because the unknown can be scary. It’s okay to admit that! But why would you travel across oceans and expect people to act like you, interact with others like you, eat like you, like the same music as you, or do literally anything else the way that you do?

This is why I feel like the term “culture shock” is part of a limiting mindset. Going somewhere new does not mean that you will be met by jump scares at every turn. It means you are stepping into an environment that is full of learning opportunities. The growing edges of your mind will continue to expand as you experience more and more of the unknown. This is exciting! The real shock would be denying yourself the joys of something so different than what you are accustomed to.


On that note, I have put together a list of things in Thailand that were initially very different for me, but now I don’t even think twice about. I thought for a month to come up with this list because these things have become so normal to me now. And that is a gorgeous achievement - adopting and practicing a new culture with ease, because you have opened your mind to it.


Things in Thailand that were initially very different for me, but now I don’t think twice about:

-sweating for the better part of the day

I am from Texas, this is true. For more than half of the year, the climate is not so different from Thailand. The air is heavy with humidity and the heat is devastating; however, I grew up in air conditioning. Windows and doors create firm boundaries between the inside of buildings and the outside of them. It is easy to be completely indoors, unfeeling to the harshness of the climate. But here? So much is outdoors, or partially outdoors. Air conditioning is common in public spaces, but you cannot expect it to circulate or reach all corners of a space. It takes longer to cool off. It takes a few showers throughout the day. But you know what? Every day when I happily walk to the market to get my groceries, I feel sweat drip all the way down my back, and I don’t mind.

-not being able to drink tap water

I know a lot of Americans who wouldn’t want to drink their tap water, but it is something that I did every day. I filled up my Brita filter with sink water religiously, and also would take the occasional cheeky sip of hot water in the shower (does this make me a monster?) Luckily, I haven’t had any slip-ups yet, but it has become second nature for me to hit the filling station at my school’s dorm apartment any time I need water for anything.

-every drink you buy (coffee, juice, coconut water, etc.) being given to you in a little plastic bag with handles

Initially, the little-plastic-bag-with-handles culture was pretty bad for my climate anxiety. I will still give a polite “mai ao, naka” when possible, to let the vendor know that I would not like the bag. That being said, I also understand the utility of the little plastic bag with handles. I am now living in a pedestrian society, and in my daily life I am walking to every place that I need to go. So, if I buy a drink, I am probably also buying veggies and fruits and toilet paper and some freshly seasoned french fries and…gosh, I only have two hands. And I might not even be going directly home. Give me the little plastic bag with handles please :’)

-throwing away toilet paper instead of flushing it

To be candid about this, I’m unsure what makes Thai plumbing different from the plumbing in places where we do flush toilet paper. However, I just know that we should not do it because it could clog the pipes. I do not fight that. I am also haunted by the thought of clogging my toilet on, let’s say, a Friday night, and I can’t reach the maintenance person at the school grounds. I don’t even know who I would contact in that situation (that’s obviously a me problem). At first I felt a little gross about it, but it’s not such a bizarre practice with #1, and it’s also not bizarre with #2 if you use the bum gun. Which leads me to my next point…

-using the bum gun

This lovely device is present in just about every toilet situation that I have encountered in Thailand. It’s like a bidet, but attached to a hose instead of coming out from inside the toilet. It definitely took some getting used to. And it does get pretty wet tbh. But I love it!! It makes me cringe to think about going #2 without using a bum gun afterwards.

-turning on the water heater before taking a shower

This is such a small thing, but it was new for me. I was, dare I say, a bit confused the first time I took a shower in my own home. But it’s easy, it saves energy, and it makes sense.


They’re everywhere. They’re adorable and harmless. They make a mystical chirping sound. The one that hangs out in my shower is my little buddy.

-attitudes about motorcycle safety

In Thailand, the riding culture is immensely different than what I experienced in Texas. Firstly, the car-to-motorbike ratio is roughly 1:1. Because of this, people riding motorbikes experience the beautiful phenomenon of being perceived by people driving cars. In Texas, riding a motorcycle is heartbreakingly dangerous. I rode a motorcycle back home and I was very serious about my safety. I wore all the gear, all the time: helmet, gloves, armored jacket, armored jeans, and riding boots. I would not dare to ride at night. That’s a death wish! A rider in Texas is conditioned to believe that nobody driving a car will see you. It can be a heavy truth to carry at times. But in Thailand, you can breathe a little easier knowing that your motorbike is seen, even at night. You are surrounded by motorbikes; people know to look out for them. That being said, you will also see a lot of people riding motorbikes without a helmet, without gloves, wearing sandals, having two passengers behind them, sandwiching a standing child between them and the handlebars… it seemed dangerous to me at first. Okay, of course, that’s not super safe and accidents do happen. But it does make sense within the cultural context. I have witnessed much less road rage (if any) and the traffic ebbs and flows. People on motorbikes have a safety net of visibility that makes all of their riding practices acceptable.

-taking shoes off when entering certain spaces

I take my shoes off at least twice a day. It makes sense why people wear slides. I was so happy when I finally bought my own pair.



TLDR; if you approach new cultures with a curious and open mind, nothing will be shocking   :)

Peace and Love,