Thailand, an Obstacle Course for Seniors
Originally posted on August 1, 2015
I live a contented, stimulating, healthful, and sometimes even exciting life here in Thailand. But I am not a Thai apologist or a Pollyanna. I have written about many of the negative aspects of retiring here (Floods , Reasons not to retire here , The climate , The perils of starting a business here , and others. I don’t write about politics even though that topic would fit in here nicely.)
So I am quite aware of the negative aspects of life here in the Magic Kingdom. It’s not a paradise. And even though I think the positives by far outweigh the negatives, I believe that all prospective retirees should know as much about life in Thailand as they can, warts and all.
I just recently read an article from Chiang Mai City Life magazine, Golden Years in a Flawed Paradise about the many obstacles one encounters, especially seniors, while living here. There are many, and I wanted to elaborate on some of them, and describe how I deal with them.
Yes, sometimes going through a typical day here is like running an obstacle course or the high hurdles. Let’s see how best we can maneuver our way around them.
Air quality – there are times when it is healthier not to breathe
I recently got an email from a runner asking “I’ve heard horror stories about the air quality in Chiang Mai. Are they true?”
Here was my answer:
YES. There is a period here in Chiang Mai when the air quality hits the dangerous levels. During those times, March and April, not only do I not exercise in the toxic outdoors, I usually just stay in the house with the air conditioner on.
The bad air comes from the burning of the fields and the forests. This is something that they have been doing for centuries. Lately though, with more people and more fields to burn the air quality problem in the north has gotten intolerable.
In the south it is wetter and they don’t burn as much so the air quality is much better. But even there sometimes, when the winds are right, the south will get smoke from Indonesia where they also burn. The smoke covers all of Singapore and Malaysia and sometimes southern Thailand, though not every year, as it seems to be happening in the north.
How do I deal with this? The best place to be for air quality during March and April is the south, near the sea – and if the Indonesians aren’t burning then that is where we head. The other 10 months of the year the air quality in the north is quite good.
Sidewalks – this is where my years of karate training and learning how to fall come in handy
Since city planning here is basically an oxymoron, sidewalk curbs can be almost any height. That’s not really a problem unless you step off a curb without looking, which is something I often do.
Here is one story: Many years ago, I was out for a midnight stroll looking up at the night sky when I started to cross Tapae Road in Chiang Mai. I stepped off the curb, which it turned out was at least double the height of a standard curb, and because of the curb’s unusual height (and the star gazing) I did a complete summersault in the air, landed flat on my back, got up and walked for about 30 seconds before I stopped and tried to remember what had just happened. I wish I could remember the acrobatic experience but it is still a blank to me to this day. I am sure my karate sensei would be proud though.
If the same thing happened to me today I am not sure my karate training would keep me out of a hospital bed.
Most streets in Thailand, unless they are right in the center of town, will have no sidewalks at all. You just have to walk on the road or street. But if you find yourself walking on a real sidewalk you are very likely to encounter random pieces of rebar sticking straight out of them, missing or misaligned paving stones, piled up cement blocks, sand, gravel or other construction materials, deep holes, parked motorcycles, and hanging electrical lines; all these making the obstacle training course my Marine Corps son has had to run through seem pretty undemanding by comparison. And when the sidewalk is unexpectedly clear, that’s where a noodle shop or roadside barbeque will spring up, blocking all passage and forcing you to walk in the street anyway.
How do I deal with this? When I am in town I never walk anywhere.
Crossing the street – zebra crossings and crosswalks mean very little
While we are still out on the Thai streets, you may find that pedestrians in Thailand are looked at somewhat differently than they are back home. I like to give the example of my former home, Seattle. There it is the law that pedestrians always have the right of way. Even when they are illegally crossing the street, you still have to stop to let them cross.
In Seattle, even if you see someone walking towards a crosswalk and it just looks like they intend to cross, you have to anticipate this and slow to a full stop to let them go first. Failure to do this will result not only in a hefty fine but often you will be forced to listen to a three-hour lecture on safe driving.
Not so much in Thailand.
Here the pedestrian has almost no rights at all, lowest on the food chain. Even if you are at a crosswalk or zebra crossing you will have to wait for a break in traffic to cross. No one will stop for you. It won’t matter if you are blind, pregnant, holding children, handicapped, or older than dirt like I am, no one will stop for you.
How do I deal with this? Since I don’t walk much as I said, this isn’t a frequent problem for me. But occasionally I do have to cross a street. The way to do this is to stick your hand out, make eye contact with the driver, walk slowly into the street keeping your hand out, palm pointing towards the driver, and when you are far enough out there that the driver is forced to stop then you can cross. But watch for those motorcycles and other cars that just might be swerving around the stopped car since they would never think that a car would ever stop for a walker.
Public restrooms – even when you can find one, be careful what you wish for; your knees might not thank you
Still out on the street, and now looking for a public restroom here in Thailand. You’ll be looking for a long time. There aren’t any. Shopping malls, supermarkets, hospitals, national parks, train and bus stations, and all temples will have restrooms open to the public, as will almost all restaurants. If you have to go, look for one of these.
But many restrooms you find will be of the “squat toilet” variety. No need worrying about putting up or down the toilet seat; there may not be one, just two places to put your feet and a hole between them. And unless you have been doing certain yoga exercises, seniors will find squatting a bit torturing to the knee-joint. Also, almost no restrooms will have toilet paper available.
How do I deal with this? One of the most useful adages I have in my travel repertoire is “Pee while you can.” You’re at someone’s house and about to leave. Pee before you go, even if you don’t feel you have to. You’re at the mall and on the way home. Pee before you leave. You’re visiting a temple and are about to get in your car. Pee first. You get the picture.
And always bring a private supply of toilet paper with you. You’ll think that a bit overkill and silly at first, that is until you get your first case of Bangkok-Belly and turn around as you are squatting and trying not to fall off, or fall in, and look for the roll of toilet paper that is supposed to be there, but isn’t. I don’t have a suggestion about how to keep your knee joints from blowing out while using a squat toilet except maybe adding deep knee bends to your daily workout, and ibuprofen is pretty good for dealing with the aftermath.
Stairs, and playing with levels – never take gravity for granted
Thai house and building designs often incorporate what in Thai is called “playing with levels”. In offices and houses all over the country rooms are built at different levels. Step down to the living room; step up again to the kitchen; down to the bedroom; just what our aging knees and backs love.
There is no reason for this change in levels; it is just customary to build this way. They also play with levels in office and public buildings. I have asked my Thai friends about this (since this is how they designed their own houses) and they have said that it simply “looks nice” that way.
Last week I was at an immigration office here and walking around with my eyes looking up to find the right window (not star gazing this time) when the floor suddenly changed levels, I stepped off without realizing it; gravity took over, and I almost ripped up my back. I was sore for a few days.
I have also had the opposite happen to me when the floor level stepped up. I kicked the step, tripped, and fell flat on my face, the papers I was carrying flying across the room; a perfect entrance into a crowded waiting room.
To go along with the level changes is the fact that in staircases in Thailand there is no standard height for steps and one staircase may have three or four different step heights on one flight of stairs. (The Standard height for a “riser” is 7 3/4″. I’ve seen them as little as 4″ and as much as 11″. ) For us who are a little older, going up can be difficult; going down can be dangerous.
How do I deal with this? Watch your step! It’s best to always look down especially when going from one room to another, and step gingerly. I always hang on to the handrail when going up and down stairs. It is probably a good thing to not be constantly swiping at your smart phone while walking. And you probably should leave the star gazing for sitting on your back patio.
Language – why can’t anyone understand me?
I just met a Vietnamese woman who is retiring to Thailand with her French husband. She asked about a few Thai words and could repeat them back to us flawlessly. Her French husband, not so much. Vietnamese, like Thai, is a tonal language.
I believe that learning the language of the country you are moving to will make your life so much fuller, meeting new people so much easier, and confusion about what people are thinking and meaning so much less problematic. Okay, easy for me to say, right?
We’ll, it is true that Thai is not the easiest language for westerners to learn, as our French friend above has found out. It will be a long hard slog to learn even the rudiments of Thai. But it will be worth it!
I really don’t care how old a person is. It is a fallacy that an older brain finds learning new stuff impossible. We just have to work harder. The problem is an older brain is usually a lazy brain – hey, we’ve retired, right?.
Most people, no matter what their age, can learn a new language, if the effort is put in. And this goes even for impossible languages like Thai. Check out this TED Talk about learning languages. It’s pretty good advice.
How do I deal with this? Even after many decades of studying Thai I still put in many hours a week learning new vocabulary and phrases, and I am still working on getting my tones right. I am planning that a long time from now, when I die, it will be right after learning a new Thai word.
Buying clothes – size matters
You would think that going out shopping for clothes would be a fun thing to do here. It would be if you can find anything that fits you. I am 5’7”, well I was until I began to shrink; you oldies know what I am talking about. And when I first came to Thailand many years ago I towered over almost everyone. I am still taller than most but lately Thais are becoming lots taller than before. But they are still tiny compared to most westerners. And so are their clothes.
When even little me goes to buy a shirt or underwear I am lucky if an XL size will fit. Often, if they have it, XXL is the way I have to go. And I am only 5’7”. “XL” and “XXL” have quite different meanings here than in the west. You normal sized westerners, men as well as women, will have trouble finding clothes, underwear, and shoes that will fit. Oh, they make them in western plus sizes here but they are almost all for export only and are barred from being sold in country.
How do I deal with this? Luckily I can find the Thai-defined XL and XXL sizes that will fit me, but the selection is limited, and my 10½ shoe size is right at the upper limit here. So I buy pants and nice shirts when I am home in America (which isn’t too often lately). I buy twice what I normally would, start wearing half of them right away, and I keep the other half wrapped and with their tags still on. I break them out a few years later. It’s like getting new clothes at Christmas, but unlike Christmas, I at least get stuff that I like and that fit.
You can also go for the custom-made and bespoke clothes and shoes.
Et. al. – but wait, there’s more
Bureaucracies – Patience and a bit of luck as well as always prepping beforehand and bringing the correct forms and papers will get you through Thai bureaucracies like Immigration, the land office, and getting a driver’s license.
Utilities – Patience will also be needed when the electricity cuts out. If you are really lucky this will occur only once or so a week. It is always best to have a good flashlight and a bunch of candles handy. And off course the tap water will stop flowing right after you have worked out for an hour in the middle of the hot season and sweat is pouring off you and you have forgotten to use deodorant and guests are ringing your front doorbell.
Handicapped accessible – If you are handicapped, Thailand, even with all its smiles, will not be a friendly place. It never even crosses an architect’s mind here that ramps and widen doorways might help you. Public buildings are beginning to get better. The local immigration office was one of the first to be accessible using a ramp, and most modern shopping malls will have handicapped restrooms. Sadly, the sign in front of one of them here reads, “Crippled Toilet”, and just this week I saw a sign that read “Lame Restroom”. At least it’s a beginning.
Working and volunteering – Huge hurdles are set up blocking foreign retirees from working in country. The explanation for this is that they don’t want foreigners taking the livelihood away from a Thai. So work permits, required for any foreigner wanting to work in Thailand, are not allowed for those on retirement visas. “Work” here is hard to define. I heard of a person who was arrested for singing and playing a guitar at an “Open Mike Night” at a local pub without a work permit. Want to volunteer to use you skills and your free time to help out here? You need a work permit or you may be arrested and deported.
How do I deal with this? Patience will cure most of these ills. Just remember you are in a third world country run by a military junta. There’s lots to do that don’t involve working or volunteering. Check out some of my past blogs to see what I am up to. Fill tanks with water while it is running and learn how to take the Asian-splash-bath for times when a water buffalo wallows on and breaks your water pipe (this really happened to us). Always have your phone and tablets and laptops charged. You can then read, and talk, and watch a movie even when the power is out.
To conclude: All of the above “slings and arrows of outrageous” Thainess can be dealt with. They rarely bother long-term residents here and newbies will quickly learn how to jump the hurdles and avoid the obstacles that get thrown in their way. But at least now you can’t say that you weren’t warned.