Readers' Submissions

Thai Ways And Wais


Thai people are a peculiar lot. Smiling without reason most of their waking day when not stuffing their mouths with food, they seem to live carefree lives of honest labor and good intensions. When I worked in Bangkok, I knew never to schedule a meeting with my staff before 10 AM or after 3 PM due to traffic concerns and the need to eat at least 5 times a day. Once a meeting is scheduled, I would expect the principle invitees to arrive more than 30 minutes late. This always gave me time to catch up with the junior staff about the latest movies and new restaurants in the area. Once the meeting was concluded, I knew that everything we had discussed would be forgotten immediately. Oh well, it helped me pretend I was making a difference in our office’s efficiency, while I knew the current project would turn out the same as all the other projects. Eight weeks of slovenly work and then one final week of insane activity. That last week, my staff would work 16 hour days in a mad dash to complete all the tasks they had neglected, while I stewed in my office with the door shut. In the end, everything turned out right, which made me feel bad for all the evil thoughts that had been percolating in my head. As much as I tried to change this manic cycle to a steadier, western pace, I also knew I was digging my own hole. At some point, you realize if you want to get out of this hole you have to stop digging.

I shouldn’t have been too surprised. My own experiences with Thai people when not at work, should have prepared me for this type of work ethic. Within my small circle of Thai friends, planning our off-duty activities made no rhyme nor reason. Waking up on a Saturday morning, we were supposed to be going to a market, dinner at a new restaurant, and then to see the latest movie. Before I had finished my first cup of Milo, my girlfriend, who had been working her hand phone since waking, says we are now meeting her friend at a temple. Asking why the change, I only receive shrugs so I know that further enquiry would only make me angry. I got another cup of Milo. As the day progressed, we ended up not going to the temple, instead meeting someone at the zoo, shopping in MBK, and then eating at our favorite outdoor stall near my condo. At some point in this confusing day, I start to feel frustration growing inside so I resort to repeating my favorite Thai phrase, “beer sing”, and sooner or later someone listens to me and fulfills my request.

My personal theory is that this habit of constantly changing schedules and plans, along with the commitment to do things together within your assigned group, makes Thai people less prone to ask questions about why things are the way they are. If you were to track down the long story of why a plan had changed, your head would start to spin. Noi hates shrimp and Tu has to work later today while Somchai’s dog bit him last night and … yikes! Beer sing! Better to say “mai phen rai” and just go with the flow. Once conditioned this way, it starts to affect the way some Thai people see the rest of the world. Why does the sun rise in the east? Wait, the sun is stationary while the earth rotates around and spins on its axis which is tilted and … why did I ask this question? Time to eat.

As serendipitous as Thai people may seem at first glance, they can be fairly rigorous when it comes to other things in life. For example, taking their shoes off before entering a house or a temple. This is so ingrained, they don’t even think about it. In fact, shoes and sandals seem to magically fall off their feet one step before they reach the door. I have tried to acquire this smooth skill but I always botch it up and end up pulling my shoe off with my hand, much to the horror of the Thai people around me. So, on lazy, hot afternoons, you can see me practicing in front of my condo, never quite getting it right. My neighbors sometimes stop for a few minutes to watch, then walk away smiling. Mothers, however, pull their children’s arms and hurriedly rush away. I am at the point of trying to invent a spring-loaded sandal that, with a twist of my ankle, the sandals fly off my feet. Alas, I lack the initiative so I am resigned to performing my clown act every time I enter a doorway.

The other action that Thais perform perfectly without fail is the wai. Learning when to give or receive one is also a skill that eludes me to this day. When I first started to visit Thailand, I, like all the other newbies, would wai everyone and everything; the hotel receptionist, the waitress, even the cab I was about to take to the airport. I did know better than to wai the soi dogs. When I would check in at my favorite hotel, I used to wai the maid which produced no end of giggles from her. Eventually, I started to catch on that there were rules about when to wai. I read a couple of books and even had my Thai wife try to explain the rules to me, but without fail on every trip, I will at some point wai at the wrong time, producing laughter from friends and embarrassment in my wife. We eventually came up with a system where I stand tall when meeting people unless my wife jabs me in the ribs, and then I wai away with abandon. However, on my own, I’m a complete mess; pulling shoes off at doorways and waiing the taxi driver. When I go out, I sometimes notice small groups of children gathering behind me in anxious anticipation of what silly thing I will do next.

But the one rule that literally frustrates me the most is when to take a shower. I understand why frequent showers are important when living in a hot and humid climate like Thailand, but after taking one in the morning, I am completely lost. Do I shower before lunch or wait until before dinner? If we eat dinner late, is that my evening shower or do I have to take another? Again, the correct interpretation of this rule seems be genetically encoded in Thai people while farangs end up taking too few or too many. I do know that you have to shower before lovemaking, but when does one shower wear off before you have to take another? My wife, who is the true apple blossom of my eye, has determined a love shower has to be taken right before action commences. As her showers can take 20 minutes and mine 5, I usually go first. So, while she showers, I start to snore in bed as the Viagra slowly drains from my little brother. My wife has lately had enough of this routine and resorted to twisting my ears a few times until I awake to perform my marital duty; a strange arousal technique, but effective. I wonder what would happen if two Thai lovers decided to make love after a long, sweaty day of waiing and sandal removing; would Hanuman arise from mythology and banish them to Langka?

Of course, Thai people have the same sort of problems when they live in the west and try to emulate our ways. But ours seem so much more draconian; full of shame and fear. A faux pas in a formal setting could mean alienation from a community forever. At least in Thailand, well meaning but stupid farangs will be met by loud sighs and laughing children at worst. But with a little help, they will be forgiven their heathen tendencies and welcomed into the second class of Thai society. Yes, they will never be Thai, just as Thais will never be members in good standing of the union of farangs. But at least in Thailand, both of us will have more fun. And that’s what’s most important, isn’t it, that we all just relax and enjoy life?

Stickman's thoughts:

As much as Thai ways can at times frustrate us immensely, this pursuit of fun and happiness is something that's hard to argue against.