Readers' Submissions

Thai Culture



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Stick recently questioned in one of his Sunday pieces whether a culture could be flawed. My thoughts on the piece were that, with the richness of the subject he had chosen to spotlight, he was remarkably mild in his assessment. Then Sawadee2000, a normally affable chap who enjoys chronicling his life in the north and finds pleasure in most that surrounds him, wrote a long and extremely critical essay inspired by the response of Mrs. Stick to a reader’s question. Then we had Dana’s excellent rant at the quality of work emanating from Bangkok House Publishing. All these things are related, as all revolve around aspects of Thai culture. Before we go any further, let us clarify culture. We are not talking about culture in the art sense. We are talking about culture as in the way of thinking, the way of life here.

First, Stick’s comments. As he says, much of life in Thailand revolves around face and, although he eludes to the damage that can cause, I don’t think he goes nearly far enough with what he wrote. The damage can be incredible and unlimited, even resulting in murder or suicide. Did you know that Thailand, the Land of Smiles, has one of the highest suicide rates in the world? And we are not just talking about distressed foreigners who have been stripped bare, financially and emotionally, by those who have, how shall we put it, different values in life. The stress that keeping face puts on people, as they strive sometimes under impossible conditions to ‘do the right thing’ and the frustration that must boil up inside them when they know they cannot criticize someone for doing a poor job, eventually has to explode one way or another. It always does, resulting in violence or self-destruction as things become all too much. We’ve all read countless examples of the apparently mild-mannered Thais suddenly snapping when they reach breaking point. Anyway, enough of that. I wrote about face already and you are welcome to read that if you have the time.

I had a bit of Thai culture going on outside my house the other morning. A young guy kept hitting a young woman (both I'd guess aged around 20 or so). My wife who was listening over the wall told me it was because she was complaining that he had not been home for two nights and she had called him something unpleasant, which he objected to no doubt because he felt he had only been doing what Thai men are expected to do, which is stay out all night and then come home whenever he likes as if nothing had happened. Fortunately the guy wasn't hitting the girl particularly hard because he was trying to attack her while balancing his bicycle. If he was doing the job properly I might have felt compelled to go and help her. Anyway, I didn’t have to make a difficult choice whether to help this girl or not. Which is fortunate, because then they might have both turned on me, and my wife would certainly have scolded me for getting involved and trying to prevent someone being seriously injured. Maybe she deserved what she was getting too, but I doubt it. So that’s one side of Thai culture, men believing that they can treat their women like dirt and then demand they cook dinner for them.

Which leads on to something every single one of us who has every ventured into a gogo bar has experienced. The vast majority of girls who are employed there, who are prostitutes, feel they have been forced into that kind of work because they have had a Thai boyfriend or husband, who when she became pregnant did a runner. Because Thais are not exactly known for accepting responsibility for anything they do, let alone something as important as fathering a baby. Or he was thrown out of the house for repeatedly doing what the guy outside my house had no doubt been doing, spending time drinking and fornicating with other women. The girl then has no choice but to find any work she can get, often then having to leave her child with a parent or grandparent to look after and bring up. I’d guess that over 80 percent of the girls dancing at any one time have a photo of their little kid in their locker. Because it is part of Thai culture to love ‘em and leave ’em. If a girl working in the bar hasn’t split from her husband or boyfriend, very often he is back home either in the village or with her in Bangkok or Pattaya or Phuket quite happily living off her earnings as a prostitute. The girls working in a bar who do not have either a baby or a partner make up a pretty small percentage of the total. Just part of the culture.

Then we have the families who turn a blind eye to their daughter selling her body to all-comers because having material goods like a new fridge or even a car – and showing off to the neighbours – is of far greater importance than any moral sense they pretend to have. It’s all a stupid, infantile game, isn’t it, as the family pretends to believe their daughter is a waitress who gets good tips because she’s such a good worker, while everyone knows that the sweet girl who left home six months or a year ago and now returns with tattoos and a designer handbag full of money is a prostitute. Worse still are the families who sell their kid to the agents that tour the villages of Issan looking for fresh meat to install in the Thai brothels, where the girls are kept as prisoners and forced to service multiple clients a day for peanuts or nothing at all. Remember, the prostitution on show in the tourist areas of Thailand is only the tip of the iceberg. Every town and village in the country has its own little ‘scene’ going, and there can be very few Thai men who have never been with a prostitute. All part of the culture, of course. Don’t argue with me whether that is right or wrong. I’m just saying it exists.

Many girls who end up in the ‘tourist trade’ really do need the money because their family really is poor, and that is precisely why the government turns a blind eye to the business. Instead of providing a financial back-up to such people, they quite cynically allow the poor to turn to prostitution so they can fill the financial gap themselves. Put another way, by quite clearly allowing the trade to go on, in every city, town and village, the government actually encourages prostitution, as well as the police often actually benefiting from it by taking their cut of the profits. And it is allowed to go on in full view in the tourist areas because the authorities know full well that if it was stopped then tourist arrivals would plummet far more than they have already. Because, no matter how much they try to pretend that people come here for the beaches and shopping and temples, I’d venture that a very high percentage do not. They come for the prostitutes. Thailand does not have the best beaches and best shopping and a unique collection of temples. I know. I’ve looked around, and so have an increasing number of others who are fed up to their back teeth with the bullshit and scamming they often have to put up with here, right from the moment they arrive at the airport.

Let’s move on, to something that was the subject of Dana’s submission I referred to. I was brought up to believe that if a job is worth doing then it is worth doing well. Well, that certainly doesn’t seem to be the norm in Thailand. Sure, there are some magnificent buildings that, at least on the surface, match anything in the world, so that shows what Thais can do if they can be bothered. But most times they can’t be bothered. Any old way will do. Look at any sidewalk in Bangkok as an example. You constantly have to watch where you are walking because of all the holes and uneven surfaces. Even when they are repaired or relaid, they are back to their old state within months or even weeks, because the job isn’t done properly. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not too stupid to do the job right. So, the reason for the state of things is they just can’t be bothered to do the job properly. They have no pride at all in what they are doing, which indicates no pride in themselves.

Or, most probably, a misplaced pride in themselves. Thais are extremely good at that, and their desire to ignore any defects there are in society was the subject of Sawadee2000’s submission. They are brought up from birth to believe Thailand is the greatest country on earth, and absolutely no one can convince them otherwise. They are the master race. I was in London earlier this year and went to eat in a fast food place. In a KFC if you must know. Shut up. I find it tasty. There were few seats free but there was a long counter and I took a seat right at the end. A Thai woman told me I couldn’t sit there as she was saving the place for her group. The way Thais save tables in Thailand by placing something there while they queue, because they cannot grasp the concept of ebb and flow, that by the time they get their order tables will be free. Instead, half the tables are ‘taken’ but no one is sitting at them, creating fewer tables, which is why they ‘reserve’ them….(chicken and egg syndrome). Anyway, as there was nowhere else to sit I told her I wasn’t moving, so I got the muttering and glares while I ate. Now here is the thing. I asked her why she thought she had a greater right to the place than me, who had arrived earlier, and she said “I am Thai.” I kid you not.

Then there is the unbelievable (except in Thailand) violence that occurs between schools. We can often read of fights between students of rival schools who attack each other with knives and even guns. They like to board buses and stab people to death, and quite recently a group went on a rampage at Siam Square, right in what could be described as the centre of Bangkok in a city that lacks a recognisable centre. I wonder what the hundreds of tourists in the area thought of that. Doesn’t quite fit the image shown on the tourist posters. Remember, people die or are maimed for life in these attacks. Often. But it’s been going on for ever, and is just another accepted part of Thai culture. While talking of Siam Square, that of course is Scam Central for the wonderful boys in brown, the local constabulary, who removed the waste bins from the area and now lay in wait for people to throw away their cigarettes before entering MBK or other stores in the area. Then they are leapt upon and fined. If they are foreigners. Sometimes the police are so helpful they even produce their own cigarette ends if the victim doesn’t smoke and denies he has done anything wrong. Those upright members of society, the Royal Thai Police, were described by a United Nations report as a well-organised group of criminals, but they are only the most visible source of corruption.

That of course is the most pervasive part of Thai culture, along with the importance of face. Corruption. It is so deeply ingrained into Thai culture that everyone expects it and accepts it. There has been so much written about that, and it is so well known, that I can’t be bothered going into any of that here. But there was recently a letter in the Bangkok Post from a tourist who drove about 4000 kilometres around the country, and he was stopped by the police eight times during his stay, requesting a donation. Only once, he said, did they have a legitimate case. He said he won’t be back, even with his Thai wife. My own wife’s reaction to the story was that if he didn’t like it he didn’t have to come back. Plenty are obviously getting that message. A friend here recently flew up to Bangkok from Phuket on the flight that links tourists to their midnight departures. Thai put on a 747 for that, because seats used to be in great demand for so many connecting flights. On this occasion, according to my friend, there were about 30 passengers. Perhaps they should change the plane to a turboprop instead. Anyway, that kind of corruption is peanuts to what goes on in big business. I’m not saying it is unique to Thailand, far from it, but usually to find other places where it is so pervasive you’d probably have to go to the lowest end of African society. Not exactly something you’d want to aspire to.

I’m getting tired of this, and so are you, so we’ll keep things short as I finish up. How about the huge class divide in Thailand, where people are judged by the colour of their skin, what part of the country they come from, what job they have, what kind of car they have, and on and on and on. As soon as they meet someone, a Thai will immediately initiate a class assessment, and decide if they are close enough in class to mix with them. Part of the culture, to judge others on something they often have no control over. The way Thais will often lie to tell you what you want to hear. Nice of them to want to keep others in a happy frame of mind, but an utterly useless concept if you want to know what is actually going on. Such as in a business meeting, where you lay out your case, plan, whatever, and everyone sits and nods and smiles. You go away thinking you have sold the idea, but what has actually happened is that they didn’t agree with you and will ignore everything you’ve said. Discussion is often out of the question, as that could be seen as conflict.

Finally, if you want to get a good indication of Thai culture, look at any of the main Thai TV channels, any day, any evening. Watch the mindless game shows, or the dramas that everyone laps up. Watch how the class divide is there in every episode, the poor person from Issan being mistreated by the rich city folk, the backstabbing, the violence against women, sometimes by women. And spend a bit of time in Thai traffic, seeing how utterly selfish 99 percent of the drivers are, never showing the slightest hint of courtesy.


Stickman's thoughts:

I'll put money on it, Barry, that eventually you choose to retire elsewhere…as will I and many others. This place is not what it used to be, not even close.