Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Thailand
Thailand has a relatively reliable postal system, and every subdistrict and district town has a post office. In addition to offering routine postal services, some offices are equipped with postal box rentals, overseas telephone facilities, and express mail services. Regular mail within Thailand usually takes two or three days, while express mail takes one to one-and-a-half days. International mail to and from Thailand takes about two weeks.
Your mailing address during training will be:
“Your Name,” PCT
242 Rajvithi Road
Bangkok 10300, Thailand
Only letters will be accepted at this address. Wait until you are assigned to your site and have packages sent to that address. Keep in mind that there are often high customs fees placed on packages, especially for electronics.
Public telephone booths that accept both coins (one baht for local calls) and phone cards are available in almost all towns. If a booth is not available, private homes often offer telephone facilities for a reasonable charge, typically a minimal flat fee plus the Telephone Authority of Thailand (TAT) per-minute rate, which depends on the destination and length of the call.
Cellphone systems in Thailand use frequencies of 800, 900, or 1800 megahertz, but 900 is the most effective for up-country sites. Other frequencies may not work in Thailand. Cellphones, which are extremely popular in Thailand, can be purchased for as little as 2,000 baht (approximately $50). Trainees are given the funds to purchase a cellphone during training as it is a safety and security requirement. Volunteers regularly use text messaging to communicate with each other, their Thai friends, and with the U.S.
Approximately 60 percent of Volunteers live in housing with phones in place. The service charge is about 300 bahts per month (which does not include the cost of calls). When Volunteers move to their assigned sites after training, they complete an emergency contact form with their name, address, telephone number (or the number of the nearest neighbor), and a map to their home, which is kept in the Peace Corps office in Bangkok for emergency purposes.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Shops that provide Internet and e-mail access exist in cities throughout Thailand, even in rural districts. The cost for access is 15 to 20 baht (less than $1) per hour.
Most computers in Thailand are IBM or IBM compatible, though there a few Macintoshes. Many Volunteers bring laptops. There are plenty of computer repair shops in Bangkok and most other large cities in Thailand. Should you decide to bring your own laptop, you are strongly encouraged to get it insured.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer, you will receive a monthly living allowance. At the time of this writing, the monthly living allowance is 7,500 baht (approximately $187), which will be transferred to your bank account at the end of each month for the following month. Most Volunteers find this allowance to be more than adequate. Like Peace Corps Volunteers worldwide, those in Thailand are expected to live at a level commensurate with that of their Thai co-workers. This means that dinners out at expensive Bangkok restaurants or visits to spas designed for European tourists will not be possible. However, the allowance is certainly enough to enable you to purchase the basic necessities and to go to the movies or have a night out occasionally. Because you will receive your living allowance only once a month, you will have to budget wisely.
Access to a U.S. dollar account is possible throughout Thailand via ATMs with Cirrus or Star networks. Bring your ATM card and use those funds for vacations, etc.
Food and Diet
The food in Thailand is extraordinary. A popular joke is that Thais are either eating, talking about what they recently ate, or planning what to eat next.
The staple food is rice, so you will find a variety of rice (or noodle) dishes for all three meals. For example, you might have boiled rice with some type of meat for breakfast, fried rice or noodles with or without meat for lunch, and boiled white or brown rice with curry or stir-fried vegetables for dinner. Breads, rolls, and doughnuts are available in almost all convenience shops (including 7-Elevens and AM/PMs). In these mini-marts, Volunteers can also occasionally find cereals, spaghetti, and peanut butter. All kinds of vegetables and fruits are available year-round, and tofu can be found in most locations.
Food stalls in district towns offer reasonably priced cooked food and are open from early morning until late at night. Food stall vendors generally meet the Thailand Ministry of Public Health’s standards for sanitation and food handling.
Volunteers can cook for themselves, buying meat, rice, vegetables, and fruits from local fresh food markets at their site. Food is relatively cheap and can be purchased comfortably with the monthly living allowance. Vegetarians can also eat well in Thailand, but some may find it difficult to maintain a strict diet, especially in some social contexts.
The transportation system in Thailand is good and convenient. One can travel to and from sites to other towns, including Bangkok, via air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned buses or, on a few regional routes, by trains (with sleepers), or airlines.
Transport within towns is typically by covered pickups with two rows of seats or by bicycle. The Peace Corps provides a mountain bike and bicycle helmet to every Volunteer for travel to offices and schools, for errands, and for pleasure, and trainees and Volunteers are expected to be comfortable riding a bicycle for short to moderate distances. Car transportation arranged by a school or office is sometimes available to schools that are too far to reach by bicycle. Driving or riding as a passenger on a motorbike is strictly forbidden. Finding a consistent means of transportation can be a challenge, especially in the early months of service. Peace Corps will provide you with a monthly transportation allowance.
Geography and Climate
Thailand is a tropical country with generally warm weather (averaging 84 degrees Fahrenheit or 29 degrees Celsius). The heat peaks in March and April (to about 95°F or 35°C), with some cooler days in November, December, and January. The hotter months are followed by the rainy season, which can last from April to November. On most days the rains last from minutes to hours—they are not the typhoon-driven rains of some other tropical countries. A few Volunteer sites are located in the mountains of the north, where temperatures can drop to 59 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15° to 20°C) in the cool season, which can feel rather cold in houses without insulation. Snow does not fall in Thailand.
You will spend much of your free time playing sports, eating, going to movies, attending Thai festivals and cultural events, and socializing with your Thai colleagues and neighbors. Dating as it is known in the United States will be noticeably absent. Your ability to adjust to and enjoy this kind of social life will be an important aspect of your success as a Volunteer.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
The following is a basic description of the dress and personal appearance standards expected of trainees. Although they may seem somewhat restrictive, they are designed to help you make the transition into your new Thai community and to maintain the good reputation of the Peace Corps. Upon first arriving in the country, you may have too little knowledge of Thai customs and beliefs to make informed decisions on appropriate dress. Following these dress standards will help you avoid unintentional offenses and incorrect assumptions on the part of Thais. Once you are at your work site, it will be up to you how you dress. By then you will have enough knowledge of Thai culture to make informed decisions.
You will hear references to riap roiy, a Thai term that means “appropriate and complete.” When used to refer to clothing, riap roiy means appropriate professional clothing, which in Thailand is very similar to what people in America wear as teachers or office workers. For men, this consists of a collared shirt, nice pants, a belt, and casual dress shoes. For women, it consists of a dress or skirt with a modest hemline (at or below the knees) and a blouse with a modest neckline and sleeves. If the blouse or skirt is sheer, a camisole or slip is necessary. If you follow these standards, you are unlikely to offend anyone in Thailand. It will also reduce the amount of unwanted attention you will receive. (For more information, see the packing list later in this book. You will be happiest if you bring clothes in your personal style that fit within these guidelines.)
Male Volunteers should know that long hair, beards and moustaches, and earrings are generally not worn by Thai men and are not appropriate, particularly in the rural provinces.
Multiple-pierced ears and body piercings are also not appropriate for either gender. Tattoos that are not discreet, especially for women, may also cause unwanted attention in rural areas of the country. If you have large tattoos, be prepared to wear clothing that will cover them.
Peace Corps/Thailand emphasizes community integration and intentional relationship building as the most effective way for Volunteers to enter and be accepted into Thai communities. Feedback from Thai counterparts and supervisors also indicates that the first three months at site are critical, and Volunteers need to be at their site as much as possible in order to be viewed as a community member. The first 30 days after being sworn-in, Volunteers cannot leave their site except for medical, and visitors are not allowed in the first three months.
Peace Corps/Thailand is very serious about Volunteer professionalism, as each Volunteer also has the responsibility to represent Peace Corps so that the image and reputation of the agency will meet the high standards that we are expected to maintain. It is disrespectful to the people of Thailand, to Peace Corps/Thailand and to fellow Volunteers to act or behave in any less than a professional manner. To be successful in Thailand you will need to develop good relationships. Trainees and Volunteers are expected to adhere to the following professional standards:
- Show respect for the people and culture of Thailand at all times.
- Observe local standards of behavior, dress, and protocol.
- Comply with policies that ensure your safety and security.
- Strive to integrate into your community and Thai society, spending more time with Thai colleagues and counterparts than with other Americans and expatriates.
- Consider learning the local language as an ongoing responsibility during your entire service.
- If you choose to drink alcohol, only drink in a socially appropriate, culturally respectable, sensitive, and safe manner, respecting yourself, your country, Peace Corps and the people of Thailand.
- Behave as a professional colleague of your Thai co-workers, other Volunteers and Peace Corps staff, resolving any differences through openness and respectful dialogue, avoiding gossip, rumor, or personalization of any conflicts.
- Be completely open and honest with Peace Corps staff about difficulties you face as a Volunteer or Trainee, enabling a collaborative approach towards resolution of any problems.
- Recognize that you are a co-owner of the Peace Corps Thailand public image, along with staff and the more than 7,000 Volunteers who have served in Thailand before you.
- Understand that as a development worker, you embrace a grass-roots, community-based approach to development, working to meet the needs and wishes of as many community members as possible.
More detailed information about the Peace Corps’ approach to safety is contained in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Thailand is a relatively safe country, especially in the provinces where Volunteers live and work; although petty crimes and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur, most Thailand Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal security incidents. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Thailand. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
In addition to the emergency action plan described later in this book, Peace Corps/Thailand has an emergency contact system (i.e., a phone tree) for contacting Volunteers, which is tested periodically. Peace Corps/Thailand’s emergency action plan is coordinated with the U.S. Embassy. For reasons of safety, Volunteers in Thailand must obtain approval from the Peace Corps office in Bangkok for vacations, and Volunteers must also notify the office when staying overnight in a place other than their home. The office will ask for specific travel plans, including dates, hotel names, and telephone numbers.
Rewards and Frustrations
Most Volunteers find that the main challenges of service are not physical hardships or safety and security issues, but psychological stress caused by limited language, cross-cultural misunderstandings, and differences between Americans and host country nationals in values and expectations. Lack of structure in some situations and social pressure to fit into the role of guest, teacher, and official are issues for many Volunteers. While frustrating, these challenges present opportunities for tremendous learning.