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Culture Shock: From Tokyo to Bangkok

When most travellers talk about culture shock they refer to it in the sense of the feeling they get when they leave home and travel to a new far flung destination. Or also in the sense of ‘reverse’ culture shock when they return home after a period of travelling and try to adjust back into their previous routine.

When we arrived in Argentina from the UK as newbie travellers there was a small period of adjustment I suppose with the weather and the language, but in terms of any actual shock I can’t say I really experienced it. Then again it does have a very European vibe so we were probably eased into South American culture. And we haven’t been home yet to experience the opposite.

But in the latest leg of our adventure in moving from Tokyo to Bangkok, wow have I noticed a difference! Maybe it’s so much more because they are both big cities in the eastern part of the world and in the back of my mind I had expected more similarities but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Calm V Chaos

Having travelled up through Japan from lesser populated cities, we had prepared ourselves for the well renowned hustle and bustle of the big smoke and we were right too. The humidity, the neon flashing lights and the crowds in Tokyo leave you exhausted after a day exploring but whilst this familiarity transfers to my experience of Bangkok so far the chaos is 100% magnified.

There’s a similar amount of traffic in both cites but the combination of large multiple lane roads and the quietness of electric operated vehicles in Tokyo provides a vast starkness to the traffic jammed narrower gas fuelled roads in Thailand. Yesterday we witnessed a siren blaring ambulance stuck in a rush hour roadblock for the entire time it took us to order a meal and eat it in an overlooking restaurant! It’s so loud walking down the street that you practically have to shout at each other in order to have a conversation.

This contrasts vastly with the hushed tones of the Japanese language, in fact I’m not sure we even heard anyone shout in Tokyo actually! In Tokyo, residents and tourists alike also religiously adhere to only crossing the roads when the green man appears but in Bangkok it’s a frantic free for all on roads and pavements alike as motorbikes come whizzing at you from all directions! It’s both invigorating and terrifying at the same time.

busy tokyo road A ‘busy’ Tokyo crossroad!

Clean V Dirty

The Japanese are well-known as a society for having some of the highest cleanliness standards in the world and so as much as I was not expecting to have to take my shoes off to enter a public toilet I was not at all prepared to witness two separate incidents of adults shitting in flower beds in the street, as I did within hours of arriving in Bangkok.

I was truly dumfounded – and this comes from someone who has travelled in China where kids dress in crotch split trousers to enable them to relieve themselves wherever and whenever, so it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to street defecation. On a completely different note, that shouldn’t really be in the same paragraph, the cleanliness of street food vending is going to take some getting used to here in Bangkok.

As we ate a delicious lunch today at a packed out locals place I looked around at the cats sat on neighbouring tables scratching themselves and the flies swarming around uncooked meat laid out in the open I had to remind myself that we have eaten in many places like this all over South America, and never once been ill yet. I’m not sure flies even exist in Tokyo.

street foods Hmmm….

Friendly V Business

We’ve only been here a day so maybe we’ve just not been in the right places yet but so far I’m struggling to understand why Thailand has the reputation as the of ‘Land of Smiles’. Don’t get me wrong, the Thai people we have met so far have been polite and helpful but very much in a professional business sense and I’ve not seen a genuine smile so far from anyone we’ve passed on the street. Maybe the smiles are reserved for high season? And this contrasts greatly with our experience of Japanese people where from the get go even if we were looking slightly hesitant at a metro ticket machine or took our map out to locate where we were a passer-by would insist they helped you.

It is also custom in Japan for every employee to say welcome when you enter and thank you for your custom when you leave a shop or restaurant (irrespective of whether you bought anything) and so although this did seem a little over the top, when we first arrived in the country we became used to it. It’s much more want we would expect as westerners here in Bangkok with a quick thanks being received after a purchase.

Sarah buying street foods Business all the way!

I don’t want to come across as if I don’t like Bangkok because despite what might seem like negative comparisons my overall first impression is that I’m going to love it here once I get used to the different culture. I can say without a doubt that the lower cost of living, vast array of street food and custom of massages being an affordable routine rather than luxury treat are definitely going to agree with me! I just find it very interesting having experienced the unexpected initial reaction that I have.

What about you? Have you experienced culture shock? Where were you? Let us know in the comments!


temple with text overlay culture shock from tokyo to bangkok

MAtt S

Saturday 1st of July 2017

You are not in Japan or Thailand long enough to even know about the place. Japan can make you hate human beings who repeatedly say the same things to you like robots.

Sarah McAlister

Wednesday 5th of July 2017

Thanks for for your comment Matt, we really appreciate it. The article was just an observation, based on our experiences of the differences between the two countries. Of course everyone's will be different. Cheers, Sarah


Saturday 9th of July 2016

very nice to hear a true account, hope it gets better as you move around to new places x

Sarah McAlister

Tuesday 26th of July 2016

Either it has or we've just become accustomed to it - although thankfully I haven't seen anyone else doing a poo in the street! Sx

Sarah McAlister

Monday 11th of July 2016

Thanks Eileen. Now we've been here a week it's starting to feel more normal! Sx