When The Chips Are Down
By Dazed And Confused
I thought after almost two decades of visiting Thailand that I was finally getting a handle on the place, but yesterday I was thrown a curve ball that’s had me re-evaluating the Land of Smiles and my attitude to it.
It all started with my missing chips (I can’t bring myself to call them French fries any more, not after the bastard French tried to screw the whole Iraqi thing). I was in a pub in Sukhumvit Road. It wouldn’t be fair to say which one because I’m a big fan of the place and I’ll still be going there. The food’s good and the manager’s a real nice guy.
I’ve been going to this pub for the last five years, and I guess I’m there at least once a week when I’m in Thailand. I’m friendly with the staff and a good tipper – I usually leave at least 20 baht no matter what I eat or drink, often as much as 50 baht.
On my last three visits I ordered the same thing – gammon steak, chips, a fried egg, and mushy peas. A couple of coffees. No problem. Yesterday I went for lunch, sat down at the same table I’d been at before, and was served by the same waitress. I ordered the gammon steak and she smiled and said ‘Not boring?’ which I figured meant that by now I should be bored ordering the same thing. I said no, it was just what I wanted.
So, I sit down and read the Bangkok Post. My food arrives. Gammon steak, fried egg, mushy peas. No chips. I asked the waitress where my chips were. ‘Coming,’ she said. Fine. I wait. No chips. I wait. The waitress is over at the bar, talking to the female manageress. No chips. Eventually I go over to the waitress and ask her where my chips were.
‘Coming,’ she says. So I ask her why the cook hadn’t put them on my plate. Blank looks. Didn’t the cook realise that something was missing? More blank looks.
Then realisation dawns. The chips were being cooked. They’d been completely forgotten. So I asked the waitress why the cook had forgotten the chips. More blank looks and shrugs. I asked her again. ‘Maybe the cook thought you wanted mushy peas instead of chips,’ she said.
So I ask her why the cook would think that. I’d had that meal three times previously, why today would the cook decide not to give me the chips? That’s when it all went surreal. At this point there were two waitresses and the manageress facing me. No smiles. Not a flicker. I was smiling and nodding and being as nice as pie, but the famous Thai smiles had evaporated like sweat off a camel’s hump.
No one has ever ordered mushy peas with gammon steak before, says the waitress. This was the waitress who had served me the very same meal on at least two occasions. I told her that she’d served me exactly that meal four days earlier and she shook her head. I couldn’t believe it, I was being called a liar by a waitress.
Then the manageress, her voice loaded with contempt, tells me that she’s been working there for years and that no one has ever ordered gammon steak and mushy peas before. It was my fault for ordering something that wasn’t on the menu.
So, I stand my ground and insist that I ordered the same meal on the last three occasions at the pub. Lots of shaking of heads. Impossible, says the manageress. At this point the farang manager comes in and the manageress points at him and tells me to talk to the manager. It was clear from her tone that this wasn’t because she wanted the matter resolved. It was because she was Thai and I was a farang and she didn’t want to talk to me about the matter. I should talk to another farang about it. We were both below her, was what she meant. Go away and stop bothering me, was the subtext.
Fine. I went over to the manager. I was still pretty laid back, all I wanted to know what I’d done differently that time so that in future I could get what I wanted without confusion. Like I said, he’s a nice guy and wanted to make things right. I said there was nothing to make right, everything was cool, I was just surprised at being told that I’d never ordered my favourite meal there.
The manager’s explanation was that his staff didn’t speak English very well, but that’s not true. And his other explanation was that we farangs all look the same to them. Also not true. We all know how good Thai memories can be – go back to a go-go a year after a single visit and they’ll probably remember your name and what you drink. Nah, it’s not a memory problem.
I ran the situation by a friend. His explanation was even simpler – Thais are stupid. He might be right, but stupidity doesn’t explain the bad attitude. The hostility. The contempt.
By the time I left the pub the Thai smiles were back in place, the polite nods, the ‘see you again’. But by then I knew that the smiles weren’t real. I’d seen their true faces, and they weren’t pretty.
So what did I learn from this sorry episode?
1) There is no point in tipping at this pub. In fact I’m re-evaluating my whole approach to tipping in Thailand. I’ll probably still leave a few coins, but the days of my leaving 50 or even 100 baht as a tip are over. There is no point. If I can be treated with such contempt by people I have been tipping handsomely for five years or so, then I’ve been throwing my money away.
2) I shall treat the waitresses at the pub as if they’re stupid and tell them exactly what I expect to get on my plate. I’ve seen long-term expats do this and I’ve always thought them incredibly rude for treating staff as if they were idiots. But now I understand that the only way to get what you want in Thailand is to be precise about your requirements. You cannot assume that they will use their initiative. That is why quality control is such a big issue in Thailand. Thai workmanship in the main is crap and has to be inspected at every step. Anyone who has ever had a house built here will know exactly what I mean.
3) I’ve always known that the Thai smile is a mask rather than a genuine expression of emotion, but this experience has reinforced that opinion. The true feeling of the staff was revealed as soon as I questioned them. The smiles went and the contempt showed. You want to see the true faces of Thais who work in the go-go bars? Take out a camera and point it at the stage. After almost two decades of visiting Thailand, I’ve decided that in the main Thais are not really nice people. Sure they smile at you a lot, but as soon as they don’t get their own way the smile vanishes. The worst treatment I’ve ever received by airline staff was a check in guy at Thai Airways who pointed at me and screamed at me when I objected to being bumped off a flight to Hong Kong, despite arriving two hours before departure. Try complaining to Thai Airways Customer Service Department and see how far it gets you. Unless you threaten them with going to the Bangkok Post, they’re not interested. The most objectionable driver in the world is a wealthy Thai at the wheel of a Mercedes. Try to get your car in front of his and see how friendly Thais are. Go to a Post Office and complain when somebody pushes in front of you. Then you’ll see how the Thais really feel about foreigners. Try to tell a Thai teenager that she shouldn’t be using a mobile phone in the cinema, and you’ll soon discover how contemptuous of us they are. Thailand is a great country so long as you accept it for what it is, and the people for what they are. So long as you don’t expect Western standards of workmanship, service, efficiency or courtesy you won’t be disappointed! And I guess that’s the big lesson I learned. There is no point in complaining. No point in making my feelings known. In future when my chips don’t arrive I’ll just shrug, smile and say ‘mai ben rai.’ But behind the smile, I’ll be thinking that Thailand will never change, never improve, because it’s not in the Thai nature to listen to criticism, to learn from mistakes. So screw ‘em.
Western standards don't exist here. We can fool ourselves into thinking that they do, but they don't. As I have said numerous times before, the best service I have ever received was in Thailand – but so was the worst. You get a much better gauge of people in negative or less than ideal circumstances, like this, and as you say the Thais don't score so well.
The average Westerner tries to be a good person – decent, polite and fair. However, when I see the way that wealthy and dare I say it, successful Thais, deal with the other locals, they treat them with utter contempt. And the wealthy Thais get what they want. Perhaps there is something in this?