Living and Working in Bangkok Thai People
There are many reasons why people decide to move to Thailand – the tropical weather, the exotic culture, the paradise-like islands and beaches, the delicious food and the fact that one can have a decent lifestyle for a modest amount of money. But in addition to all of these reasons so often given, the Thai people themselves are an attraction. The majority of Thai people are friendly and often when you smile at a Thai you will receive a pleasant smile back. Certainly of all of the places that I have been lucky to visit, I have never met a nation of people as friendly as the Thais. Welcome to Thailand, the Land Of Smiles!
There is a real community spirit amongst the Thais, and a feeling of national pride. The Thais seem to get along with each other a whole lot better than us lot from Western countries. Where in the West there always seems to be some sort of conflict, in Thailand the locals seem to get along a whole lot better. A good example can be seen in schools. In the West, bullying is a problem with the bigger, tougher kids often picking on the younger, weaker ones. This sort of nonsense does not occur in Thailand (though they do have some really fierce inter-school battles with knives and guns as is reported in the press from time to time). You also see it in everyday folks' lives. Many Thais go out of their way to help their neighbours, far more so than I have seen in the West. When cooking food, one person may cook extra and walk around the community, be it an apartment building, a village or wherever, and deliver bowls / plates of food to their neighbours. This all contributes towards creating a warm spirit amongst the Thai people.
The Thai smile itself needs some description. Thais will frequently smile at all manner of situations, but the Thai smile should not be interpreted the same way you interpret smiling in the West. In the West if someone smiles it usually means they are happy or pleased about something. That may be the meaning in Thailand, but it is just as likely something different. Thais may smile as a form of apology. They might smile if they are asked a question to which they do not know the answer. They might smile in an attempt to diffuse a situation. Most importantly, a smile in Thailand does not necessarily mean the same as a smile on the West. Thais do however look favourably upon people who smile frequently and often. So smile as much as you can! Thailand is a rather litigious society, with many disputes not necessarily solved in court, but rather in a police station and I have sometimes wondered if one of the reasons Thai people smile so much is so as to not piss off others!
The Thai people are incredibly patriotic and love their country. Ask the average Thai where they would like to go for a holiday and they will usually say somewhere in Thailand – even if you state that money is not an issue. Hypothetically, give a Thai the option to emigrate to another country and they would usually turn it down. As one of my Thai teachers once said to me, "I feel very lucky to have been born in Thailand" and she then looked at me as if being born in the West was based on some sort of bad karma, a sin that I had committed in a previous life! The Thais really are happy in their own country and this contributes to making Thailand a really nice place to live. How many other countries have you ever been to where the people genuinely love their country and are simply disinterested in going elsewhere?
Thais are very proud people and their love of their country is very strong and although you may hear Thais complaining about the Bangkok traffic and pollution, the economy, politicians, corruption and various other facets of life, you should be very careful about making such criticisms of Thailand yourself. To do so could be taken as a huge insult to the Thai and would not endear you with that person at all. As nice as they are, Thais are not very good at dealing with criticism, even if it is light-hearted, or even meant as a joke or an ice breaker. This is something that one needs to be aware of. Thailand is still a developing country, and there are a few things that happen that Westerners often wonder about. While these issues may occur, often it is best NOT to talk about them, or at least not highlight them in conversation with Thai people. They know that such things exist but would prefer not to be reminded of them. Intelligent conversation and discussion about some of the problems and issues that exist in Thailand is not always easy to find, especially amongst those people with a modest education – which really is a good percentage of the population.
Thai culture is extremely complex and even the most conscientious and diligent foreigners who have lived in-country for a long time and have made an effort to understand as much as they can will inadvertently make cultural mistakes, yet Thai people are generally very tolerant of foreigners. Foreigners continually make cultural mistakes in Thailand, yet the Thais will more often than not waive these cultural errors, choosing to overlook them and continue to smile and be happy. This happy go lucky attitude and the level of tolerance in Thailand makes it a very easy and pleasant place to live. To a certain extent, Thailand has isolated itself culturally, distinguishing the country from so many others, though the Thais understand that they need to be tolerant of those who do not understand Mother Thailand's ways.
I often feel that I discover something new every day about Thai culture but while I am learning more, it can at time feel like it all just seems to become more and more confusing! But have no fear for so long as you are polite and make an effort – as you should in any new country that you visit, you needn't be aware of all of the complexities and peculiarities of this unique and rich culture. A colleague once described the situation as being similar to peeling an onion. You peel away at the onion and feel that you are getting closer and closer to the centre. But really, you are not making a lot of progress and there are literally 100's of layers to go until you reach the centre. You may live and work in Thailand for a long time but unless you move to Thailand from a very young age, you will never reach the centre of the onion.
There is a very distinct class system within Thailand. Business and the distribution of income in Thai society is largely dominated by the wealthy – the predominantly Bangkok based Thais, many of whom are ethnically Chinese. The Chinese Thais, as they are often referred to, can be recognised by their fairer skin and more Chinese look. At the other end of the spectrum are the villagers and farmers from the countryside, the rural Thais, who are easily recognisable by their darker skin and generally smaller, often stockier stature.
It doesn't matter what strata of society one comes from, Thais are very concerned about their appearance. Don't go thinking that the casual attire you see one the islands and beaches is the norm in Thailand. Thais are very concerned to look good and tend to dress a little more conservatively than your average Westerner. Just a trip to the local shopping centre, or even the supermarket will see Thais make sure they are "politely dressed" with men usually in long pants or jeans and women wearing something decent. Women always make a point of making sure that their hair is done and their make up is applied. It is not really that common for Thais to go to any sort of public place apart from parks, beaches or sports facilities looking casual. Judgment is made on one's appearance very quickly in Thailand and Thais are conscious of this and do their best to look decent.
The class system in Thailand is a little different to that in certain other countries where the lower class Thais do not resent those in the upper class. In fact, the lower class may look up to the upper class and aspire to be in a similar situation. While the wealth in Thailand is predominantly in Bangkok, there is also a lot of money in the south of Thailand where a number of industries thrive.
While they live together harmoniously enough, many people from these two particular groups have very definite opinions about each other. Some "native" Thais consider Chinese Thai to be greedy because of the Chinese Thais' apparent love affair with money and their reluctance to part with it. As employers and when in business, some Chinese Thais have the reputation of being real penny pinchers, negotiating every price down to the last satang (1/100 th of baht!). Further, the Chinese Thais do not tend to be as friendly as the native Thais. The Chinese Thais do work hard and tend to be more driven and business oriented, like so many Chinese people throughout SE Asia and around the world. I have heard some Chinese Thais describe the Thai Thais as lazy. One could argue that the Thai Thais do not have the best work ethic in the world and some things tend to be done at their own pace and in their own time. Indeed, wherever you are in Bangkok, you will likely see peoples laying around, maybe even sleeping in the middle of the day. And I often join them because of the heat! I maintain that Thais as a race are amongst the most friendly people you could ever hope to meet. (The people in neighbouring Laos and Cambodia are very friendly too.) Notwithstanding these racial differences, there are not the same social problems in Thailand that exist in Malaysia, and especially Indonesia where there is real tension between the "Chinese locals" and the "native locals" – and indeed legislation in place that gives advantage to some groups.
Males and females are brought up in a very different manner in Thailand. Girls are taught to be prim and proper and to do everything in a most polite and feminine reab roy way. At times it seems the girls in Thailand today are brought up much the same way as they were 100 years ago, but as Thailand becomes more and more influenced by the West, girls are starting to become a little more rebellious, and not necessarily conform to the traditional model. Young boys on the contrary are given freedom and encouragement to roam and have fun. You can see symptoms of this within Thai society on a day to day basis. Only a small percentage of Thai females smoke and those that do tend to be from either the very high or the very low echelons of society, where smoking will not damage their social status, which is already secure. As a percentage of the population, many mire Thai males smoke than females, but not nearly as many as in the West. Watch Thai children in public – public transport is a good spot to observe. The Thai girl will set there quietly, minding her own business while the boys, in many cases, will be yahooing around having a riotous time! As their lives develop, some Thai men may become quite promiscuous whereas a married Thai woman would seldom stray away from her husband. While these stereotypes do still predominantly remain, things ARE changing – and in 20 years time, some people question whether Thai society will not be all that different from the West, notwithstanding that the current Government is doing all that it can to keep Thailand in the 20th century and retain the traditional Thai values and morals.
I'm not so sure I like the way the wealthy in Thailand seem to do things to protect their position in society by removing opportunities for the poorer folks and continually pushing them down. A bright kid from a poor background may miss out on the chance to study at a good school because of bribes paid to that school by the rich parents of a less intelligent kid to allow their kid to get a place that he / she really shouldn't have had. Yep, I have seen this first hand and have even had certain wealthy people tell me exactly how much it cost to get little Somchai into a good school. It is so often a case of the wealthy buying their way in society and trampling the opportunities of the poor. And then there is entry to certain prestigious institutes and establishments. This old boys club continues right through one's life time and the poor are almost slaves to the rich in many cases. This really winds me up so I had better leave this here.
This class system takes many, many forms. The very clothes that people wear are an indicator of what sector of society people where – not just fashion names here, but the styles that they choose to wear. The places where people go, the way they choose to travel, the places that they eat and God damn it, even the food they choose to order! Whatever you do in Thailand, it so often seems that you are being looked at, examined, and your place in the hierarchy is determined. Another example is sport. Bangkok Thais tend to like soccer which would be their favourite sport whereas in other parts of the country, Muay Thai is more popular, at least in terms of participation. Some Bangkokians may consider Muay Thai to be a "peasant's sport". People from poorer provinces with dark skin continue to struggle to be accepted in Bangkok and often find it difficult to get work other than unskilled labour.
Upon meeting someone new, Thais will often ask a few questions based on age, job, education, family and other general information to gauge the other person's status. They will then address them accordingly with pronouns and honorifics that reflect their relative status. Someone of superior status would be addressed as pee followed by their nickname while someone of a lesser status would be addressed as nong and then their nickname. As a foreigner, I don't like to use these terms as I feel they re-enforce aspects of the Thai class system, something that I am not fond of.
Thai people have both a "full name", that is a first name and surname, which tends to be used on all official documents, in employment and generally used at more official occasions. In addition to their real name – or cher jing, all Thais will have a nickname, or cher len. Thai names can be long and may be difficult for a non-Thai to pronounce correctly while the nicknames are conveniently short, usually one syllable. Examples include Nok, Daeng, Noi or Fon. When meeting a Thai person for the first time, they will usually offer you their full name but if you get to know them better and become more familiar with them in a social context you will be probably refer to them using their nickname. Some nicknames are just an abbreviated form of the full name such as the name Suripon which may be shortened to Pon, as a nickname. Many Thai nicknames have a literal meaning and a few of the more common nicknames are listed here.
Gai – chicken
Daeng – red
Fon – rain
Jeab – baby chicken
Sanuk, the Thai word which means fun or enjoyment is paramount in the Thai way of life. The Thais believe that for something to be worthwhile, it really should be sanuk. If it's not sanuk, it may quickly become boring to the Thais. Thais can frequently be seen laughing and enjoying themselves in whatever they are doing. If the enjoyment wanes, the activity may well cease. This carries on all the way into employment and a Thai may resign from their work if it is not sanuk although as often happens, economic necessity may compel them to do something that they do not necessarily enjoy.
The whole idea of living a lifestyle where everything is fun is great in principle, but it doesn't always work. One example is that there are certain things in life that are quite frankly a hard slog and there are times when you imply have to do the hard yards. In certain situations, the locals can get fed up easily and not want to do the hard yards. A classic example is in the study of English where certain parts of it, particularly the grammar parts, can be difficult and require extra work. Thais can get very bored when it comes to things like this and complain that it is not sanuk. The other situation when things get take the other way is when they try and make something sanuk and it gets out of hand. Take the case of an auction. We got to an auction to bid on an item but the idea is to try and get it for a god price. Take a simple household item like a glass. Such would sell in a department store for perhaps 10 baht. But if you were to auction it off to a bunch of Thais, the whole idea of bidding against each other is deemed to be fun and they will keep bidding well beyond the 10 baht price and son of them, the "winner", might end up paying as much as 100 baht for it, ten times more than they should. Yep, sometimes the idea of sanuk gets taken just too far!
All Thai people, from every strata of society, and every religion, are very, very fond of His Majesty The King. The world's longest reigning monarch has dedicated his life to his country and his people. Not only are there many, many royal projects that his majesty has overseen, he is a visionary whose philosophy drives the Thai people. His majesty has impressed upon his subjects the importance of self-sufficiency and this has now become a part of Thai people's philosophy. One should never make any negative comments whatsoever about HM The King or the royal family. To do so is the ultimate insult to Thai people, Thailand and the country's most respected figure. Any negative comment may result in an extremely harsh reaction from Thai people. It is also a very serious breach of the law. The seriousness of this cannot be overstated. Simply do not joke or even make the slightest criticism of HM The King or anyone in the Royal Family.
The vast majority of Thai people are Buddhist and while people are free to follow any faith, you should also be careful about discussing anything religious related, especially about Buddhism. While in the West intelligent discussion is encouraged, irrespective of the topic, here in Thailand, religion and the monarchy are best not talked about at all if you have any negative opinions whatsoever.
Buddhism is the dominant religion with the vast majority of the population claiming to be Buddhist, well over 90% of Thais. There are a few provinces in the deep south, just north of the Malaysian border, that have a greater number of Muslims than Buddhists to the point that even though they are geographically Thailand, you could be mistaken for thinking you were in Malaysia. Funnily enough, in these particular provinces, the culture really does not feel so Thai and I have never felt entirely comfortable down that way. And it should be noted that over the past few years there have been safety issues. The deep south of Thailand is the one part of the country where it is wise to seek out travellers information from your embassy before venturing there.
Thai people are generally friendly, charming and hospitable but unfortunately many lack the opportunities, or money, to get a good education. With agriculture still the largest industry in terms of employment numbers, many Thais work in a position that in the West would be classified as unskilled labour. With limited opportunities for employment in the countryside there is no real requirement for a higher education there. Having said that, those who reach a higher education are certainly admired in Thailand.
With 50 odd students in classrooms in government schools, students don't get the same amount of individual attention and to further exacerbate the problem, the Thai education system quite simply does not emphasis the need for students to think for themselves. Student-centred learning has been mentioned a lot in the press, though whether the curriculum changes to introduce this more modern teaching style, who knows? Having had the pleasure and privilege of teaching English in some Thai schools, I have had the opportunity to observe the way the Thai teachers teach. Their teaching methods are a little dated and many simply stand at the front of the class and preach at the poor students who are expected to sit there and listen and lap it all up but they quickly bore of it – it's not exactly sanuk is it?! This contributes to an education system with room for improvement. That said, with 50 students in a classroom, teachers cannot give the students too much flexibility for fear that they will run riot – they simply have to keep the lessons tight and standing up in front of them and talking at them, followed by giving them some exercises. Rote learning is alive and well in Thailand and Thai students are very good at remembering things. Critical thinking is sadly not high on the list of Ministry of Education.
Outside of Bangkok, many students only go to school for 6 years, which used to be the minimum requirement, meaning that they received a very limited education. (For some of the really unlucky kids, they may have got even less.) Fortunately, the powers that be are seriously looking at overhauling the education system, and with a bit of luck replacing the current one with a system that will hopefully produce more well-rounded students. Part of the reason that some kids get such a limited education is that the parents simply don't have any money to pay the school fees, buy school books and uniform. Of course this is extremely sad. Another reason is that the parents simply pull the kids out of school so that they can help around the family business which is often a farm.
In Thailand there is often a rule or a way that things get done – and almost everyone (but not foreigners) knows it! The fact that most people do something a certain way is probably because they quite simply aren't encouraged to try and think outside of the square and do it differently. You have to be careful because if you question others, someone may lose face – and you really do not want to be responsible for that! This can be rather frustrating at times. There is not a lot in the way of challenging the way that things are done and trying to do them "better". This means that when mistakes are made, or when a system is being used that is not entirely efficient, it will in all likelihood continue to be conducted in that manner and improvement or change will be very, very difficult. Foreigners unwittingly stray from the rules every day. A classic example of this is in McDonalds where I will ask for an iced coffee without ice and you will get some mighty strange looks from the attendant. Iced coffee without ice? Is he crazy? Fortunately, Thais who have been educated overseas or have had exposure to foreigners seem to realise that some people do things a little differently. Actually, I have noticed things changing a lot and I guess it is because there are more and more foreigners in Thailand these days, that is more and more people doing things differently.
Sometimes we have to remember Stickman's little rule: For foreigners two plus two often feels like it equals three! Don't try and think about it too much because that's the way it is. As foreigners living and working in the Kingdom, we do have to remember that Thailand is not our country and that we are here as guests, often uninvited guests! While some aspects of life in Thailand can be frustrating, try to look in the bright side and at all of the positives, of which there are so many! My advice is to just get on with things and try not to let the little things bother you too much. That really is one of the tricks to enjoying a happy life in Thailand. If you are the type who sweats the small stuff, you might struggle.
Loosely related to this is the Asian notion of "face". Face plays a big part in life in Asia and cannot be underestimated. Every effort should be made to understand the issue, and how to operate in such a way as to not cause others to lose face. Face is sort of like one's reputation or image and concerns one's demeanour, their way of doing things and indeed their very success in life. It concerns so many things from the clothes that one wears, to the way that one goes about their daily routine right through to job and possessions. Someone with a lot of gold jewellery gains face because the gold shows that they have been successful in one way or another – maybe they had a job that gave them enough income to buy the gold in the first place or perhaps they have a wealthy boyfriend who lavishes them with gold jewellery. Why do you think many folks in Thailand openly wear their mobile phone (or phones!) on their belt or outside the body where they can be seen? Everyone can see that they have this expensive device and they gain face! Contrast this with a poor farmer whose clothes are old and less fashionable. This fellow will potentially lose face, or at least not be looked at favourably, due to his presentation and his perceived position in society.
Back in my homeland, I like the fact that I can go out and wear pretty much anything. People will not pass judgment on me. This is one thing I prefer about my own country over Thailand, though even back there, one does not want to look too much like a homeboy for fear of being negatively stereotyped!
When a Thai makes a mistake or does something wrong and this is pointed out to them or perhaps worse still, others are made aware of it, the Thai who made the mistake loses face. This can in fact be quite hurtful to a Thai and if a Thai loses face badly enough, there is no knowing how they may respond, and quite frankly, there is no limit to what they might do.
I am of the opinion that this can become a problem in the workplace. Someone makes a mistake but the error is not pointed out. So, as the error has not been brought to their attention, they continue to behave / do things in that manner and the mistake continues to be made again and again. This inhibits one's ability to improve, develop and make progress. In that way, face can be detrimental.
You can however use the concept of face to your own advantage. Praising someone in front of their friends / colleagues / peers will make them gain face and you will find that they may suddenly become more helpful and / or more receptive towards you. If someone is being unhelpful or not providing the level of service that you require or expect, rather than complain as you may in the West, consider complimenting them on something that is positive about themselves and you may find that the level of service increases! I don't like pushing Western values and the way of thinking upon those within Thailand, but one cannot help but wonder if face can hold things back. Certainly, as Western investors continue to invest in Thailand, many will struggle to accept this. The issue of face is a big one and you need be aware of it.
Another way to look at face, or the way that many Thais may look at it, is that they want people to view them in a positive manner, and they want to be seen as good people. To a small number of Thai people, they may be more interested in being seen to be a good person than actually being a good person. Contrast this with most people who are more likely to genuinely want to be a good person and less concerned (though still concerned somewhat) with what others think of them.
In Thailand, remember that things may happen in Thai time. Arrange to meet someone at a certain time and they may well arrive quite late – sometimes as much as an hour or more – don't be too surprised because Thais operate on this concept of Thai time which basically means, they'll turn up when they are ready. I have got to say that for me, frankly, I don't like it nor I do I accept it. I always tell Thai friends that I may be meeting that for me, this is totally unacceptable for them to be so late. Some people may find it shocking that someone would mention this, but it does mean that they are almost always on time. Generally speaking, folks from the higher end of society are far more punctual than those from the lower socio economic sector. Hardly PC to say this but hey, in my experience that is how it is!
The Thais are generally a friendly bunch and charm first-time visitors. But everyone has their limits and you don't want to upset a Thai. If pushed too far, some Thais may not just lose their temper, but go absolutely berserk. My theory as to why this happens is due to the concept of remaining calm at all times despite what is happening around you. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of this in principle and it has got to be a good thing. Dare I say it though, I think we all need some sort of outlet for our frustration and anger at times and this concept denies this much needed outlet. It seems that some folks have all of this pent up anger and if they flip, good God, they have the potential to go crazy!
Be very, very wary if you get into an altercation with a Thai. Unless you have some military training, are accomplished at martial arts or are armed, they will likely kick your butt good and proper. Thais who are prepared to roll their sleeves up and get involved in a confrontation on the street tend to be hard and wily. And be aware that if there is an altercation involving a foreigner and a Thai, other Thais will often side with his compatriot, notwithstanding that they do not even know what the dispute is about! A colleague of mine once said "If you get into a fight with a Thai, you are fighting all 65 million of them". However, don't read too much into this paragraph as you are very unlikely to ever have any such problems unless you are the type of person who attracts trouble.
Traditional Thais deplore violence as much as the average Westerner but Thais from a rural background might see violence and using their fists as a typical way to end a dispute. It is said that Westerners should avoid getting too friendly with Thais from the lower classes who have had a few drinks but my experience is quite the opposite and that these people are very hospitable and quite a laugh. Hey, if nothing else it is a great way to practice your Thai language skills! Please do consider that most altercations Westerners are involved in occur late at night, usually after midnight – and involve alcohol. They often originate in the naughty nightlife areas so with a bit of luck elsewhere you will be just fine.
A lot of foreigners living in Thailand seem to have a love / hate relationship with Thailand and the Thai people. There are all sorts of reasons for this. Many Westerners get frustrated at the amount they put in to Thailand, both in terms of investment and in terms of effort, but are then given very little in the way of rights. There is a very real feeling that Western residents of Thailand, even long-termers, those people who have been here for many, many years, that we are no more than long-term tourists. We cannot buy land. We must always go and pout our hand out for a new visa every year. We have to pay more to enter national parks and to buy various products and services and we are so often made to feel that we are nothing more than walking ATM machines. It is true that Westerners relocating to Thailand will never be afforded the same rights as Thai citizens. It is no use complaining about it as that is the way it is. I simply recommend that you deal with it. That works for me.
Not that different from this feeling that some people get that we are welcomed for out money, and only our money, is that it is very unlikely that anyone will hit you over the head with a piece of wood, or stick a knife into your ribs and demand your money and valuables. That said, local con men have no qualms about tricking it out of you, or telling you downright lies to get their hands on your hard-earned. The belief seems to be that if you were silly enough to give it up then you deserved it – even if you were cheated!
A few examples:
- A friend had the misfortune to be in police custody. A policeman asked where the fellow came from and my friend replied New Zealand. The policeman then started going on about how he would love to go to NZ and could my friend help him with 20,000 baht for the ticket. This simple request was turned down and was not accompanied by any bribe – like hell the policeman wanted to go to NZ!
- Another friend went out with a work colleague to a restaurant. The bill was modest – less than 300 baht. The Thai colleague who was older, more senior in the company and probably better-paid insisted he had no money even though my friend had seen a few thousand baht in the fellow's wallet earlier that evening! This even goes against the Thai system of the oldest / most senior person picking up the tab. The fact that no other Thai saw the manager essentially shirking responsibility for the bill meant that he didn't lose face. Curious.
- I have heard of some people who have asked their farang friends for a loan for this or that but never paid the money back – in fact they probably never had any intention of paying it back in the first place. I hate to say it but loaning money in Thailand – to a Thai OR a Westerner – should be seen as giving a gift, so only give it if you can afford to, and are prepared to lose it.
This is where another important concept needs to be mentioned. A lot of Westerners do give the Thais grief about this and that, but I have found the average Westerner in Thailand to be no better, nor no worse. Thailand doesn't always attract the best of the West – and that is being polite.
I have always thought that the Thais are a wonderful race of people, so friendly and gracious as hosts, but that money has this nasty habit of marring some. This is easily overcome by not flashing a lot of money around, not disclosing your financial situation and simply not getting into discussions on the subject of money or income. Downplay any conversation that swings your way and concerns money, income or assets, especially money earned in Thailand. I admit that it can't be easy for locals who work hard all of their life for a relatively low salary and see foreigners coming to their country earning what really can seem to them to be obscene amounts of money. The highest paid foreigners earning as much in a month as a Thai doing menial work might earn over their entire life! Unfortunately, money can, at times, buy respect, and that is a hard pill for many Westerners to swallow. Yep, it is those with the most money and the most toys, the most gold and the most Mercedes Benzes who get the most respect.
There are several phrases that you may hear the Thais use that concern fundamental concepts that are practiced in daily life in Thailand. A lot of these phrases use the word "jai" – which means heart. Following is a small guide to some phrases that you are bound to hear in Thailand.
Jai yen – literally translated as cool heart. The idea is that you do not lose your temper and that you remain coo, calm and collected at all times. If you ever show impatience or show strong emotions, you will not impress the locals. The Thais often use this phrase when someone gets hot and bothered. It should also be noted that loosely related to this concept is that men should never lose their temper with a woman. It is considered seriously bad form.
Jai dee – literally translated as good heart. It is used to mean that someone is kind. Kindness, especially to people who have less than you, or the doing of good deeds, is looked upon very fondly in Thailand. What does get me a little irritated is when someone is referred to as jai dee for giving money, such as a large tip in a restaurant. I personally see the concept as being separate from money.
Jai ron (often pronounced jai lon – note the "l") – this is literally translated as hot heart. It is often used to describe people who are hot tempered or impatient, particularly farangs. It is not quite an insult, but neither is it endearing. If someone describes you as jai ron, you may want to try and cool down a but.
Greng jai – this concept is one of the cornerstones of life in Thailand and is very difficult to translate into English. The closest word is consideration, but really that does not come close. Greng jai is considering other people's feelings and may also refer to deferring to someone of superior status. It therefore deals with the hierarchical position in society that every Thai citizen is aware of. An example would be the employee who has discovered a problem in the workplace. Whereas in the West we would expect the employee to report the issue to their superior immediately, in Thailand they often will not say anything as by "Greng jai-ing" their superior, they do not want to provide that person of higher status with a problem that needs to be solved! For us Westerners, this is a fairly difficult concept to grasp and it took my quite some time in Thailand before I could get my head around it.
Mai pen rai – this could just about be the national phrase of Thailand – the phrase that so many of us use to identify many things Thai. Main pen rai means no problem, never mind, it doesn't matter as well as host of other things. Thais use it liberally, and if one wants to survive in Thailand, one will find that they really should use it often. Failure to use it can result in one getting oneself worked up and tense. However, this phrase can become problematic when a Thai starts using it in a situation when the farang considers it inappropriate. Case in point is when you are politely pointing out to a vendor or a service provider that there is an issue with said service. God knows how many times the service provider has said to me mai pen rai and wandered off as if the problem was solved! Just imagine that in the West: You make a complaint and the service provider says "never mind" and wanders off!
T.I.T. (This is Thailand) – This is not a Thai concept at all but a coinage of the great Bernard Trink, a columnist in the Bangkok World and later the Bangkok Post. Trink wrote the nightlife column that seemingly every farang male in the country immediately turned to when he opened Friday's Bangkok Post. "T.I.T." is often uttered from the lips of farangs when they get frustrated at aspects of life in the Kingdom.
It is not always easy to understand Thai people and their ways of doing things. While they share many similar traits with people from other Asian nations, there are also a few concepts and principles that are unique to Thailand and the Thais. The important thing in Thailand is not so much to understand the Thais – I doubt you'll ever be able to really understand Thailand, but rather to make sure that you operate in such a way so as you fit into Thai society and do not make a habit of upsetting the Thais or rocking the boat along the way. I think too many Westerners feel that the Thais are trying to pull one over them when they aren't. Just because the Thais may do some things differently to Westerners does not mean that these things are wrong.
Remember, you are a guest in their country, often uninvited, so you really should do everything that you can to fit in! If you find yourself constantly complaining and criticizing the Thai ways of doing things, perhaps it is time to go home? Having said that, there is nothing wrong with questioning what is going on around you, and of course you should NOT blindly accept everything as being ok! Just remember, and most importantly learn to accept, that this is Thailand, and try as you might, you will never be able to change the Thais and their ways – and neither should you even try!
I like to use the example of a person who wants to swim up a river. The problem is that the river has a very heavy current and the water is flowing down-river rapidly. You can jump into the river and try and swim up-river but all you will succeed in doing is expending a lot of energy, becoming tired and ultimately get nowhere. It's the same with trying to change things in someone else's country. You'll get yourself all hot and bothered with little or no result – so don't even bother in the first place! There are many good things about Thailand – and of course there are a few not so good things too. It's the same in EVERY COUNTRY! Often it is just a case of accepting the good with the bad.
Along with learning the language, one of the best ways to help you understand Thailand and the Thai way of doing things is to develop a bunch of Thai friends. By this I do not mean the people working in your apartment building who you smile at each day, but real friends, people of a similar background, with similar jobs and of perhaps a similar age, who you meet up with or go out with from time to time. Such Thai friends are invaluable in helping you to understand Thai ways. And if you ever have any serious problems, they would likely know the best way to approach it. The sad reality is that many farangs living in Thailand may not have many Thai friends, if any, and this can result in some farangs living in Thailand having a somewhat narrow perspective. One needs that balance of having friends from different backgrounds.
A good number of the Thais living in Bangkok were actually born outside of the capital. Bangkok has grown at a rapid pace, increasing from around 2 and a bit million inhabitants in the early '70s to around 10 or 12 million today – no-one is quite sure how many people currently reside in what is said to be the world's 20th most populous city. With this in mind, and taking into consideration the diversity of Thai people, you will see many types of communities in Bangkok. You can find parts of the city with large gated communities housing well-to-do, wealthy Thai families whereas in some areas you'll find genuine slums. Bangkok is actually quite diverse.
While outside of Bangkok, both the cities and all of the countryside are largely populated by Thais, Bangkok is quite cosmopolitan with many minority groups represented. As far as Westerners go, the Japanese are said to make up the largest expat group in Bangkok with over 23,000 Japanese nationals registered with their embassy although the embassy claims that it is probably more like 30,000 Japanese citizens living in Bangkok alone. There are a lot of Americans and Brits here too. Every nation, even North Korea which has a consulate in the eastern part of the city, is represented in Bangkok
A good chunk of the Western expat community is centred around the Sukhumvit and to a lesser extent, Silom and Sathorn areas. It pays to be prudent in your every day business when dealing with other Westerners as the expat community is only so big. If you upset someone, particularly someone at your place of work, you may suddenly find doors closing all over the city. Case in point: There are only so many jobs available to Westerners and if you did something silly or stupid, word would travel around the farang grapevine quickly. The next time you were applying for a new job, you might discover that your errant behaviour precedes you and may preclude you from getting that position.
Over the years there have been a few high profile instances involving Westerners up to no good in Thailand. Word spreads like wildfire and everyone knows what is going on.
Westerners tend to stick together in Bangkok and socialise together at what is really a limited number of venues. This along with the emergence of a number of Thai-based Western expat discussion forums online means that there is always someone else aware of just what you are up to! Jealousy is an issue for a lot of Westerners, particularly poorly paid Westerners who have lived in Bangkok for a long time and have never really lived their life here the way they wanted to, largely due to earning a relatively small amount of money.
As we get older in life, we tend to make friends less quickly and less easily as compared to when we were younger. As a newbie to the Bangkok scene, it is likely that you will arrive without any friends or with just a few drinking buddies who you met previously while on holiday. Take your time to make friends and be aware that as someone who may be a little lonely, and craving the conversation of other Westerners, you may be willing to make friends quicker than would be considered prudent. There are plenty of dishonest, insincere farangs about who would like nothing more than to make a new friend who they will try and hit up for a few baht with tales of woe. Take your time and select your new friends with patience and care, just as you would back home. Loneliness is a small price to pay when you take the time to choose real friends.
For all of the good things about living in Bangkok, the Western expat community is a bit of a mixed bag. There are many really nice, quality people and through this website I have met and made many new friends, great people who I have huge respect for. There are also a lot of really questionable folks and Bangkok being Bangkok, that has to be expected. But one thing I have noticed about the western expat community is the lack of any community spirit. Many seem to look after number one and many seem to perceive new arrivals as a threat to their lifestyle. Bangkok doesn't have nearly the same community spirit that say Pattaya does or for that matter, just about any other part of the country where Westerners tend to be very helpful to one another. It is sort of weird really. But don't let it bother you too much. The huge number of Westerners living here means that there are just so many people here, so many sports teams, clubs, organisations and so on that you will have no trouble meeting some like-minded people, and if you stay here for a while, you too will meet some great people and friendships will be formed.
I guess Westerners in Bangkok tend to socialise most with others in a similar income bracket. English teachers tend to stick together. Professionals and expats tend to stick together and a lot of retirees spend their free time together. Remember that the average Western resident in Bangkok has probably only lived in the city for a handful of years so we all tend to make new friends here. It is not like our old school buddies or rugby mates are around to hang out with. The transient nature of being a foreigner in a country where essentially it is very difficult to get permanent residency means that the friends you make do tend to move on in time.
It is no secret that many Westerners in Bangkok, and other parts of Thailand, don't have the best reputation. I raised more than a few eyebrows when I announced to friends back home that I was moving out here. But don't let that put you off. If you don't spend your life down at the naughty bars you will avoid much of the flotsam.
As far as folks from other developing countries go, there is no shortage of Indians in Bangkok and there is a small Indian-dominated area called Pahurat where you can buy all sorts of Indian bits and pieces such as Indian made bangles and jewellery etc. A lot of the Indians in Bangkok front the city's many tailor's shops, particularly those targeting foreign tourists. But don't be mistaken for thinking that that is the only industry Indians are involved in. Plenty of Indians have property interests and many bought at the right time many years ago. Big chunks of Sukhumvit Road and the side sois are or were until recently Indian owned. There are also more than a few Indians in the money lending business. Despite the less than positive reputation that the Indians have with the Thais (which I personally put down to jealousy due to the Indians' relative success in business) the majority of Indians are great. I've always been fond of Indians and enjoy hanging out with them, eating with them and discussing life. Unfortunately, the Thais don't have the highest opinions of the Indians (along with other nationalities from the sub-continent like Pakistanis and Sri Lankans).
Bangkok's bustling Chinatown is close to Pahurat and always seems to be a hive of activity – and has without a doubt consistently the worst traffic jams in Bangkok – and that's really saying something! You can buy all the usual Chinese stuff down here. Around Sukhumvit Soi 3 is a small Arab / Black African area where transients from these parts seem to stay short to medium term. It's is a great place to get some good, reasonably-priced Middle Eastern food.
Beautiful temples scattered throughout the city clearly illustrate that Buddhism is clearly the dominant religion in the Thai capital. Beautiful Buddhist temples and shrines can be found all over the city, but there are small pockets where Muslims can be found. There is something about the Islamic Thais that I find much less endearing than the average Thai of a different faith. The Thai Muslims seem to be much more serious, can be quite intense, and don't always have that happy go lucky attitude that many Westerners find so infectious. Mosques can be found in many parts of the city, but the major areas for Muslims that I know of are in the Prakanong area, up near Ramkhamhaeng and also in the Patumwan area, near the Saen Saeb canal. There have been major problems in the south of Thailand with the Muslims although for the time being, Bangkok doesn't seem to have been caught up in it.
Remember that Thailand is the only country in South-East Asia to never have been colonised and the Thai people are tremendously proud of this fact and with it are VERY nationalistic – it's not just pride, it goes way beyond that to a point I would term semi-extreme nationalism. In a way it is a shame that Thailand was never colonised because all of the neighbouring countries have reaped benefits from colonization including better infrastructure (Malaysia), strong language skills (EVERY country bordering Thailand) and an understanding of the world around them. Thais are friendly people who try and make foreigners welcome, but some can be ignorant of the world around them. Just remember not to criticise them or their country and you'll be right!
I cannot refrain from mentioning the PC, that is all of this politically correct nonsense, that is plaguing the Western world in the 21st century. One of the joys of living in Thailand is that the PC nonsense largely hasn't caught on here…yet. In job ads it is not illegal to specify exactly what sort of person is required i.e. you CAN say that you want a pretty university graduate who is aged 25 – 30 and over 165 cm tall. Thai people often speak their mind and there is no problem telling someone that they are fat, if in fact, they are actually fat! Now this might all sound somewhat negative and mean-spirited to a PC Westerner, but I think the nonsense of PC in the West has gone way too far and fortunately, it seems as though this disease has not spread to Thailand, as I say, yet.