List of Interesting Things Unique to Thailand
Now that I’ve been living here almost 2 years I’ve assembled a list of interesting things unique to Thailand and Thai culture:
1. Car parking – Here you have to reverse into a spot instead of pulling in forwards. When I went back to the US over Christmas I instinctively pulled into a supermarket parking spot quickly backwards in one pass and my friend was really impressed as that isn’t usually done in the US. <Actually, you don't "have to" as such, it is just that that is what most people do – Stick>
2. Car parking (part 2)- In Thailand you can block another car from coming out of their parking spot provided that you put the car in neutral (‘Gear Wang’ in Thai). When the person needs to exit they simply roll your car out of the way. If you did this in the US it would cause a major altercation and you may find your car vandalized when you return from shopping.
3. The No Refunds policy- Throughout Thailand there is a general policy of no refunds on any purchases made. I find this interesting as a fair returns policy encourages the consumer to try new products and generally gives the consumer more confidence in the merchant. For example, you’d trust that a new stereo system would work and would expect the merchant to replace it if it didn’t. Or if you bought some produce at an expensive grocery store you could return or exchange it if the food was spoilt when you tried it at home. Not so in Thailand. I asked my wife about this and she said it is to protect the store from people cheating them. This is an example of Thai logic. <People would abuse this system hence it is the way it is – Stick>
4. The Sniff kiss- this is done when a woman sniffs your neck and lifts her head upwards in one quick motion. My wife explained that as Thai people copying the way people kiss in farang movies and generally don’t like it when I sniff kiss her. I do find this uniquely Thai in the same way that rubbing noses is unique to the Eskimos. <Maoris do this too – Stick>
5. Agrarian mindset to approaching life- Often the simple fish trap (‘Sai’ in Thai) serves as a metaphor for approaching life in Thailand. This cylindrical bamboo trap has a funnel shaped end that is placed against the flow of the river. The fish moving through the current get funneled into the neck and once through find it impossible to escape. This concept of catching is used within dating (catching a guy) as well as catching cars for routine traffic infringements. In Thailand (unlike the US or other parts of the world) a policeman won’t wait around to find you speeding and then follow you to pull you over. Rather there is a speed checkpoint just before a major toll stop in the road and all speeding cars are caught by radioing the license plate to the police waiting by the toll area. There is no limit to the number of the cars caught this way; it’s just like the Thai fish trap. Similarly policemen will wait at intersections looking to fine motorcycle riders who are not wearing helmets. Interestingly enough some riders notice the checkpoint ahead and then turn around. Usually the police won’t pursue them. There seems to be a preference to catch things passively doing the least amount of work possible. My wife says it’s because the police are lazy (‘Key Kiat’ in Thai).
6. Collective mindset of the locals- In Thailand there is an overwhelming urge to mimic what everyone else is doing around you. This is brought about by the cultural upbringing and is ingrained in the subconscious mind. For example people don’t stop at the BTS just because the National Anthem happens to be playing; they stop because other people are still and they don’t want to be singled out by being the only one moving. To go against the grain will make a Thai feel very uncomfortable. This is also why sometimes people ignore the victims of an accident as other people are doing the same thing and they may be feel that it’s safer to go with the flow than risk helping and getting scammed or caught up in some trap (see #5).
7. Collective mindset of the locals (part 2)- In Thailand it’s quite common to drive along the highway for long periods of time and see nothing followed by a short stretch of a dozen vendors all selling tamarind, grilled pork, sea salt or whatever local delicacy is customary in the locale. You can see this in the city where there is a cluster of 7-11s all in the same area followed by a void of 7-11s in an adjacent area. It is counter-intuitive to all the concepts taught in economics regarding supply and demand and market saturation. Inevitably these vendors will collaborate to set the same prices even though they may be different owners involved. To undercut by price would only invite ‘problems’ hence the collective price gouging of tuk-tuks in Phuket and Hua Hin. When I asked my wife about the reason all the roadside food vendors cluster together she said it was to ‘catch’ (her words) more cars driving by who may not want to make a sudden stop at one vendor but who may reconsider at the cluster of vendors.
8. The subtle use of Thai dance in everyday life- Here the hand signals seem to be influenced from traditional Thai dance and this permeates normal daily life. If you are at the local Tesco and ask a worker where the light bulbs are you will get a graceful sweep of the arm with the palm held out as if to stop an approaching person, the fingers splayed and stretched out signaling the general direction of light bulbs. It’s all done in an artistic form reminiscent of classic Thai dance. Similarly the security guards in my soi will stop you from leaving the car park if there are cars coming by holding the palm and fingers down. If there is traffic approaching slowly and he wants to emphasize for you to wait he will start to flicker his fingers rapidly in a style that is very similar to Balinese classic dance.
9. The obsession with whistles for male Thai security guards and other workers- It seems like Thai men are boys trapped in an adult body given their apparent fondness for using whistles. Many times I’ve parked the car needing no assistance only to find a hyper guard showing off his dazzling ability to make different whistle sounds from the short staccato burst of several high notes to the long chirp signaling it’s time to stop. This is usually accompanied with hand signals as described in #8. If you take the public boats on the river the staff use a complicated system of whistling notes and sounds to signal and communicate with the driver. It’s quite impressive, actually.
10. Use of non-verbal communication- Thais are without doubt one of the masters of the art of non-verbal communication. A certain look or facial expression can communicate a tremendous depth of emotions and people are sensitive enough to pick up on all the subtleties. This art even extends to signaling during driving. While driving I’ve seen my driver turn on the hazard lights when he sees traffic ahead and has to slow down quickly and I’ve taken to doing the same thing. This is to indicate to the cars behind that there is a slowdown ahead. My wife also uses the hazard lights when approaching a 4 way stop sign to signal she is going to go straight through. It is a very skilled and efficient form of non-verbal communication.
11. Approach to death and hierarchy of relationships- When working as company director the father of one of my senior staff passed away. I attended the funeral as expected and noticed how people handled death as a normal and natural process. There was no crying or people saying “sorry for your loss” as there would be in the US, rather it was just an understanding that death is just another part of life. I found this to be a healthy way to approach life- and one that is lacking in the West. What was particularly funny was that when another colleague asked if I was going to the funeral I commented that he did not attend his wedding. My colleague’s response: “You can get married many times but your father dies only once.” Once again I was presented with unarguable Thai logic.
There is no shortage of "interesting things" here and this is one of the aspects about Thailand that the average Western tourist likes. It is so different to home.