Readers' Submissions

At Your Service? Hardly!



Two nights ago I arrived home after another grueling day in the salt mines. Well, not really, but it sure seemed like a long hard day attempting to have my young students answer a seemingly simple question. The question was, aside from “Have you eaten?” the second most asked question in Thailand. That is of course, “Bai nai?” – “Where are you going?” I had printed out a host of colorful destinations, from Big C and Swensen’s, to 7-Eleven and KFC. Only a few short English words were necessary to answer the question. “I am going to…” Apparently it was going to take more than a single lesson to nail this one down. No big deal though. I know that they will nail it down… after a few hundred repetitions. After all, these boys and girls are only five years old!

Still, I was hot and tired by the time I walked in to our bedroom, ready for a hot shower and a cooling blast from the air conditioner. The hot shower went off without a hitch. Our instant hot water heater works like a charm. It’s a wonder these money saving devices haven’t made their way into the American market. As for the cooling blast from the air conditioner, well that was an entirely different matter altogether. After about five minutes of operation, a stream of water began gushing out of the front grill, onto our bed. Within seconds the bedding was soaked. I on the other hand needed a cold soaking, because I was fuming. No, this was not because Sawadee is a psychopath who goes into an uncontrollable rage every time a piece of technology fails to function properly, and needs to be hosed down before he goes berserk. I was pissed because I had recently paid someone to fix this exact problem!

A few weeks ago the AC began leaking water. No big deal. My wife called the shop where we had purchased it from and politely requested that a service technician come out to fix the problem. This was a problem we knew could be fixed. About a year earlier we had experienced the same problem. The fellow that fixed it informed us that mineral deposits had built up, which had clogged the drainage tube to the outside of the house. Okay, so it was time to repeat the cleaning. It would not take long to do, or be very expensive. Getting someone, in this case Somchai, out to our house wasn’t easy. He would say that he would be there at an approximate time, and then simply not show up…and never call to say that wasn’t in fact coming. It took three days of aggravation before the fellow shuffled his way into our home. I was not there at the time, but apparently it was one of Somchai’s many cousins who showed up to make the repair.

Note: I’m sure at least someone out there is wondering why I always refer to any Thai technician, shop employee, government worker, etc. in my submissions as Somchai. The answer is simple. Why not? Somchai is a common name and serves well as a personification of the Thai “everyman” here in the Land of Smiles. I humbly apologize to all the real Somchais out there, who are hard working honorable folks.

My wife is never to stand over a repairman’s shoulder when he is working, especially if he seems to know what he is doing. After an hour the fellow packed up his ladder and toolbox, and my wife handed over a few hundred baht. End of story. Problem solved. This was until the leak sprang up anew. Problem not solved.

Now the waiting game began once again. Eventually Somchai # 2 shows up. It was then that my wife found out that Somchai # 1 had never actually cleaned out the damned drainage tube! Like an idiot, the first question I asked my wife when I got home was of course why? (The first question that actually came into my mind was WTF, but I never ever use even mild profanity in front of my tee-rak.)

Why? Why? Why? Asking this simple question during the course of life in Thailand could truly send a person off the edge, so it’s advisable to ask the question sparingly. It’s for this reason I no longer ask why Somchai ran a red light and almost took out my truck. I don’t ask why he insists on backing his car into a parking space, even if he is holding up a line of traffic. I definitely don’t ask why “the farang is always wrong”. These are pointless, almost rhetorical questions. The only answer is of course, “because this is Thailand, stupid!” Got it?

In the end, the blocked tube was cleaned out. My wife says she pointedly insisted that Somchai confirm that this was indeed the case. Was this repair done without charge, since we had paid to have it done the first time? Yeah, and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny stopped by for afternoon tea on their way to visit Santa! Yet a second time a few hundred baht were paid out, and if you think that I was less than pleased about it, my wife was absolutely livid. In the end though, she was quicker than I was to eventually just forget about the whole sorry episode. She of course has had a few more decades than I dealing with Thai service…or more properly the lack of it than myself.

Before anyone gets the impression that I have never had good service here, let me assure you that I have had very good service, as excellent in fact as you could hope to find anywhere in the world. The problem is that it is often the exception rather than the rule. On one serendipitous occasion, some truly world class, piss poor service lead me to find some folks who offered the exact opposite.

I needed a new color printer for my computer. My old HP 3-in-one worked well enough, but I regularly need to print dozens of color pictures for school, and the HP could not be retrofitted with external ink tanks. (The price of a single color ink cartridge is way too expensive.) In Big C a computer shop had a Canon printer which with external ink tanks installed for 1400 baht, which I thought was quite reasonable. When I hooked up my new printer, I immediately had a problem. What emerged when I printed a page that was blotchy, with black streaks, and the colors were clearly off. Some colors in fact did not print at all. Okay. It was time to read the manual and go through the trouble shooting list. Nothing I did improved the situation. Okay. It was time to pack up the printer; head back to where I bought it and see if they could fix things.

There is a look you get when you walk back into a Thai shop carrying something you recently purchased. More accurately, the person who sold you something is now doing his or her best to pretend that you are invisible. Thai motorists have this “non-look” honed to perfection. They rarely if ever will make eye contact. If they pretend you don’t exist, you can be safely ignored. Like children playing an elaborate game, the spell of non existence is broken if two drivers make eye contact.

So, now I trudge back into the shop and explain my problem. Would they please (pretty please with sugar on top) fix the problem? I said I’ll be back in an hour to pick it up. Upon my return I found my printer back in the box and was assured that there was “No mo ploblum!” Okaaaaay. At home I am back at my desk attempting to print some pictures. Unfortunately the “ploblum” was the same as before. Had they even looked at the damned thing? I had my doubts. Once more I am back in the car headed to Big C. You won’t be surprised that I got some dirty looks from Somchai and his pals. Suddenly I am “the ploblum.” I make it clear to them (I know enough Thai to say what I need to say) that they either need to fix the printer so that it works, give me a new printer, or refund my money. The word refund may have six letters, but make no mistake about it; Thais consider it a “four letter word”. (By the way, just in case you ever have need of it, the Thai word for refund is คืนเงิน, which is pronounced kheuun ngern) This time I intended to stand over Somchai’s shoulder until he fixed my printer. It is clear after a few minutes that Somchai is clueless. He mucks around uselessly and finally…and most reluctantly makes a call to his cousin Somchai 2. After a half hour Somchai 2 shows up and starts angrily pulling and prodding at the ink tubes running from the place in the printer where there would normally be an ink cartridge. In the process he is scratching the hell out of the printer. By the time he is finished, my new printer looks as if were ten years old. The cover no longer closes properly, and although it prints better than before, it is hardly operating normally. He throws it (none too carefully I might add) my printer into its box and coldly hands it to me…so coldly if fact that I should have been wearing insulated gloves to prevent instantaneous frostbite. The message is clear. “Hey Mr. Farang! Get the hell out of here and never ever show your face again!” What to do now? I am stuck with a new printer that works like crap.

Well, luckily for me I mentioned my problem to a good Filipino friend of mine who teaches science at my school. He recommended a small computer shop where he had been treated well. What a pleasant contrast it was to walk into an establishment that actually prided itself on first rate service. This shop is run by two brothers who had each spent several years abroad; one in Canada and one in Australia. Their English was excellent, as was their attitude. Here, the words, “How may I help you?” were more than false courtesy. Within ten minutes my printer was working properly. One brother carefully explained the simple steps I needed to know to keep it working well. I took out my wallet to pay, but was cheerfully told that that for such a small thing there was no charge. Now I know that some might think that this was a mere ploy for future business, but I’ve since spent some hours chatting with them, and I assure you that they were simply being “neighborly”. Since that time I have given additional business, and have recommended to my friends that they go there as well. When I am treated with respect, I am an extremely loyal customer.

As you may know from some of my submissions, I take a fair amount of medicine. The pharmacy where I go here in Lampang has a knowledgeable and well-mannered pharmacist, and has the lowest prices in town. I spend quite a tidy sum there each month.

The Toyota dealership here does a first rate job taking care of my Vigo. They are fast, efficient and more spotless than any garage I ever was in back in Farangland.

There are many other places, from the shop where I bring my ironing <Umm, isn't that what your wife is for?Stick>, to the place I bought my bicycle, who do an excellent job and treat me politely.

Sad to say there are also some real horror stories to tell. In a recent submission, Spin Cycle, I detailed my pathetic attempts to fix my washing machine. I also related a story about shoddy service at a Bangkok camera store. I won’t bother going into those episodes again.

Inevitably I have to ask myself if the word service is part of the everyday Thai vocabulary. Yes, I know it’s in the dictionary. (บริการ , pronounced baaw-ri-gaan) I’m talking about whether it’s part of the Thai psyche. Do Thais feel it is demeaning to take good care of their customers, is it simply that most Thais really don’t care how they are treated, and so don’t really expect anything better? Is there no tradition of providing good service? Thais, certainly the ones I know rarely, if ever, leave a gratuity. Considering the way I am often treated in a Thai restaurant, I am not inclined to leave a tip, which after all is suppose to represent a small reward for good service.

Ah, the delight of eating at your typical Thai restaurant! As you relax in spotlessly clean surroundings, you will dine on delicious food, prepared in a hygienic kitchen, and served by polite and smiling waiters and waitresses who strive to make the dining experience a delightfully memorable one! Did I get that right folks or is Sawadee having a psychedelic flashback from his hippie youth?

Before I go further, let me share a genuinely delightful Thai dining experience. If you are in Pattaya, I highly recommend eating at small French restaurant called Bordeaux. Stick and I have dined there together on three occasions, and I can honestly say that all my experiences, from the moment I walked in the door, to the time I left, were first rate. It is in the soi next to Tuk Com which is off South Pattaya Road. There is an old maxim that says that in life there is price, service and quality. Choose any two of these that you like. In the case of Bordeaux, we hit the jackpot and got all three. There was delicious food…perhaps the finest I have had in Thailand. Please know this is coming from someone with a classical culinary education. The service was professional. Our waiter was always there to provide what we needed when we needed it, without being obsequious. The waiters there can actually answer questions about the items on the menu…I mean they know how they are prepared and can answer questions about them. This is a true rarity in Thailand. Lastly, the prices were extremely reasonable, so dinner here isn’t going to break anyone’s budget. Just thinking about the place makes me hungry!

Compare this pleasurable dining experience to one I had about five years ago in Lampang. A new Japanese restaurant had just opened up, and a friend and I were eager to try it. The restaurant advertised Japanese food, but was entirely owned and operated by Thais. We ordered our dinner. I order shrimp tempura. An unusually long time later, the waitress brought my friend his dinner. It is all too common in Thailand that everyone’s dinner does not arrive at the same time. After waiting for a while I told my friend to go ahead and eat his dinner before it got cold. I motioned the waitress over and asked where my dinner was. “Oh, we are out of shrimp.” After counting mentally to 10, I had her bring the menu over and ordered chicken yakitori. I wasn’t all that happy about being left waiting for my dinner, but I was hungry and didn’t feel inclined to make an issue out of it. Old Sawadee has an extremely high boiling point, and someone has to really make a dedicated effort to make me angry. I waited and waited and waited and still no dinner appeared. My friend was long done with his. I should mention that the two of us were the only customers left in the restaurant. It took some time to find the waitress and inquire where my dinner was. The girl was deliberately hiding out near the kitchen behind a stack of boxes. My dinner? “Oh sir, we are out of chicken also.” My friend, being a long time ex-pat, was laughing hysterically. I was not laughing. I asked the waitress to call the manager over. Somchai was at the bar enjoying a whisky…deliberately ignoring what was going on under his nose. With a cool and calm demeanor, I asked him why I was left there dinnerless. If some reason you were out of these two items, didn’t occur to you tell me something that I could order? Somchai was unperturbed.

“Oh, the waitress was too embarrassed to tell you” he finally mumbled. He didn’t seem all that concerned about my poor treatment. Well, he said, “We won’t charge you for the bottle soda water you had”.

Gee, that was generous of him. That must have set him back 4 or 5 baht maximum. What was left unsaid is “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” I didn’t. In addition to never going back there, I made it a minor hobby of mine to tell every living soul I know not to go there.

Listen folks, I understand that things don’t always run as smoothly as you might want in the real world, especially in a restaurant. I can even understand the waitress’s fear of losing face. What rankles me no end is a manager who sits on his ass and doesn’t do anything to find a simple solution to an easily corrected problem. In this case, Somchai, if he had been doing his job, should have been aware of what was available on the menu. After the initial problem with my shrimp, he should have made damn sure that the second order was prepared as soon as possible. I certainly would have, and I’m certain that most of you in that situation would have. All I can say is that this one hell of a way to run a business…unless you are talking about running a business into the ground.

In between these two polar extremes is what most folks experience every day: generally lackadaisical service performed by decent people who just don’t think very much about what they are doing. In many restaurants it is often difficult to have someone come over to your table and take an order. If two or more people are dining, everyone’s food rarely arrives at the same time. Often times the plates, bowls and cutlery could use a good cleaning. Many times …at least out in the countryside, you have unwelcome “guests” at your table…buzzing flies. Then there is the matter of receiving your bill…a correctly totaled bill. It’s not the kind of experience that inspires you to eat out often. In many parts of Farangland, especially in Europe, being a waiter is not seen as just menial job. It is a proud profession. A waiter in a fine dining establishment can earn a very handsome living. When I was in culinary school, I had to take a course on service, and had to spend time waiting on tables. There’s nothing like a little “hands on” experience!

Please do not think I am a snob, who looks down his nose at anything less than a Michelin starred experience. The best Tom Yom Koong I ever had in Thailand was at a small shack by the side of the road on the way to Korat. If there a real hot dog cart in this jasmine scented land, I would happily be chowing down a few dogs…hopefully with onions, mustard and sauerkraut. I actually feel a bit uncomfortable in overly formal dining situations. I would rather relax in a place with good beer on tap. In Bangkok, The Londoner and Bei Otto come to mind when thinking of places to have a hearty meal and a beer.

The point I would like to make is that whether a restaurant is a rococo palace, or a “hole in the wall”, it should: be inviting, clean, serve food that you would be proud to say you cooked (or at least not ashamed!), and treat your customers with friendly service. By the way, even a hut with a thatched roof and a packed dirt floor can be clean, and a so called fancy place with crystal chandeliers can be dirty. Your attitude to running a business makes the all the difference in the world. Let me give an example.

A good Thai friend of mine has a hair salon, and I have been getting my hair cut there for many years. She is a lovely woman, friendly, does an excellent job, and doesn’t charge very much. Her place of business though is frankly a dump. The same long cob-webs that were hanging from the ceiling five years ago are still hanging there. The walls have never to my knowledge been washed, let alone painted. An unpleasant smell wafts its way in from the toilet. This woman is married to one of my best friends in Lampang, an American who teaches at the local Rajapat University. Over a few drinks one day he said that when it came to his wife’s business, he gave up long ago attempting to give advice. If she wants her salon to be filthy, well that’s up to her. Her salon is well located. If she cleaned the damned place up, she would undoubtedly attract a higher class clientele. The affluent Thais who live here would never set foot in the place. How much would a through cleaning and a few buckets of paint cost? Apparently anything would be too much for this otherwise intelligent woman.

It would be remiss for me not to mention the fact that good service back in Farangland is not always the best. Still I think I can say that the “what the hell” attitude common in Thailand is not the norm.

My wife, after spending five years in America, came to appreciate a well run business that offered good service. When she decided to open her own Thai massage business, she took to heart the old maxim that you only have one chance to make a first impression. Her modest business, which is run out of our home, is as pleasant and inviting as you could possibly ask for. She has two rooms: a “fan room”, located in a screened in area on our front porch, and an “AC room” which she converted out of a guest bedroom. Both are nicely decorated. Both are comfortable. Both smell delightful. The aroma from the hot herbal treatments she gives has permeated everything nicely. It’s a treat just to walk in and inhale deeply. Before giving a massage she questions clients about their medical condition in case some aspect of massage might have an adverse effect. Foe some elderly folks she even takes their blood pressure! Soft, relaxing music always accompanies her massages. In addition to her initial training at Wat Po, she has studied at a number of places both in America and here in Thailand. It’s not uncommon when I wake up a 5:00 AM to find her in the living room reading a book about massage, spa treatments, aromatherapy etc. She also does research online. Before she begins a massage she closes her eyes and says a prayer to put her in the proper frame of mind to begin a healing procedure. In Farangland she could easily make $100 for a massage. Here in LOS she earns a pittance. Still, she puts 100% effort into each and every massage. Add to this the fact that she is warm and caring person, which sows through in the way she treats her clients. Not surprisingly, she has a lot of repeat customers. Why not? Everyone walks away feeling a whole lot better.

A more common massage experience in Thailand is to be had in an ill smelling room, on a mat whose sheets probably have not been washed after each use, by someone whose knowledge of Thai massage is second or third hand…and is not terribly concerned if you ever return for another massage.

Ah! A customer who is happy enough to return to your business! Thinking long term…that is to say beyond the next 24 hours is not generally part of the Thai view of the world. Long term planning is rare. Unless your business caters primarily to a constantly changing customer base, such as a coffee shop at Suvarnabhumi, you really depend on repeat customers. That is something not in the awareness of many Thai businesses. As far as loyalty to customers who have given you a lot of business in the past, the attitude is too often one of, “Well what have you done for me lately.” Take the place where I bought my bedroom air conditioner. It was not an inexpensive unit. It cost almost 40,000 baht. Hey, Sawadee needs a machine that can provide the BTUs he richly deserves! I bought not one of these, but two; the other for the guest bedroom now serving as a massage room. When we were building our house, we bought all our wiring, conduits, switches, fuse panel and lighting from this place. You would think they would treat such customers with a little respect, and yet when we had our recent debacle with our AC, they did not hesitate to charge us twice for a repair that should have happened the first time Somchai was there. Yes, it was only a few hundred baht, but it’s the principle that pisses me off. I may be old fashioned in this regard, but in my book, customers…especially good and loyal ones should never be treated poorly. Pleasssse do not tell me that I do not understand Thai culture, or that I’m “imposing my western way of thinking” onto an Asian society. I won’t buy that excuse.

Okay. Everybody take a deep breathe or two. Once again let me take a respite from being critical to relate some pleasant experiences that illustrate how can be in Thailand.

There is another pharmacy in Lampang that I go to for “sundry items”, such as hydrocortisone cream, vitamins, and children’s medicine, and a host of other minor purchases. The pharmacist and his wife are such nice people. I’m hardly making them rich, but they treat me as if I were a VIP. They often throw little gifts into my shopping bag, and always have a calendar or two for me in December.

The little coffee shop I go to almost everyday is a cute, comfortable little place run by a well spoken, highly educated woman. Her coffee is way above average quality, and far below what you’d pay in a place like Starbucks. Many of my submissions are written at her computer during my lunch hour. We often have some lively conversations. I appreciate the way she treats me. She appreciates the business I give her. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.

After my negative comments about Thai restaurants, you might be surprised that I have some favorable ones to make as well. Believe it or not, service wise, I have nothing but nice things to say about my local KFC. The guys and gals there are extremely hard working, do what they do well, keep the place clean, and always have a smile on their faces for me. If Sam has been behaving himself when we go to Big C, I often bring him for some French fries, and they have a smile for him a well.

In Bangkok, the folks at Dasa Books are very helpful, and I have been treated well at Duke's Express at the Emporium.

In Chiang Mai, when we were building our home, we did quite a bit of shopping for appliances at the Home Pro there. I found that the employees we dealt with were quite knowledgeable about the products in their departments. Back to fast food again, the

McDonalds at Carrefour do a super job. It may be just “slinging” burgers and fries, but they do a job which is often hectic, for not very much money, but are professionals in what they do. That is saying a lot.

I’m sure those of you have spent time here in Thailand have “gold stars” to hand out for a job well done…and horror stories from hell that strain belief. The same can be said for countries all around the world, including Farangland. I am always happy to relate the positive, and will continue to do so whenever I receive service worth mentioning. I will also continue to let you know about the worst of the worst. I certainly hope I have more of the former than the later to talk about. I would rather have a smile on my face than a frown. Still, you just never know what to expect when you walk into a Thai business. Behind door # 1 is Heaven. Behind door # 2 is the Abyss. The question is, are you feeling lucky today?

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Stickman's thoughts:

Excellent and it's all so true. The best service I have had in my life has been in Thailand, as has the worst!

One of the sad things about service in Thailand is that it can often be so bad in so many places that you find yourself just returning to the same old places, those where you know you won't have a bad experience!