Where Farang Fit In
Thailand is a class-conscious society where each and every person has his or her place. And just where you fit in to society can have many effects from education opportunities to job prospects to the way others perceive you and treat you, from the common man on the street to officialdom. The higher your status and the higher your position in society, generally the easier life will be. But what about us foreigners? Where do we fit in?
In theory you could list the names of every single person in Thailand and place them from the person with the most status at one end to the person with the least status at the other. At the very top would be members of the royal family and at the bottom would likely be a new-born baby from a troubled, impoverished family. It might all sound rather harsh to your average Westerner who was brought up to believe in equality, but egalitarianism is not really a thing in Asia.
Many things determine where one fits in to society and their relative status, from place of birth, family, skin colour, education and so on.
As far as birthplace goes, Bangkok is at the top of the list. But it’s not so much your place of birth and more about your family roots. A family established in Bangkok for many generations will have a certain status – and anyone born in to that family is essentially afforded a certain status. If it was a race, they’d be starting ahead of the pack.
Your family name comes in to it. Some surnames, for example, may show royal or noble links which are all very high-status.
The colour of your skin can be a factor. Dark skin may indicate one is, or comes from a family of farmers or labourers, jobs generally done by those in Thailand with low status.
But it goes beyond the factors you cannot control like place of birth, family, and skin colour to include plenty that you can.
Education is a part of it and the higher one’s education, the more status comes with it. Graduated from an esteemed university abroad? Even better. Doctors and professors automatically gain a certain status – as they do in the West – but you can also throw in high-ranking government officials and politicians as positions which come with a certain status in Thailand – but which may not be so readily admired in Farangland.
Language and accent come in to it too, as they do most everywhere. Even in the politically correct West, what are your first impressions when you hear someone speak like they’re on the set of Coronation Street or The Beverly Hillbillies?
And then there’s money. How much money you have is part of it. It’s not so common in Thailand, but some high-society folks may have started life on the wrong side of the tracks. Social mobility in Thailand is not what it is in the West and someone born in to a poor, rural family will face greater challenges climbing the ladder than someone born in similar circumstances in, say, the United States.
And don’t forget behaviour and deportment. Someone who ticks all the boxes of those in the upper echelons of society but is seen as an uncouth will see their status lowered a little if they are seen to behave like a buffoon.
Admirable traits are not necessarily determinants of where one fits in to Thai society, at least in terms of the big picture. Such desirable qualities as being honourable or charitable do not appear to play much part in establishing one’s status.
Thais very quickly establish the pecking order when meeting someone for the first time. No more than a couple of questions are usually all that is needed to understand how they relate to someone else. Just a few more questions and they have a pretty good idea of where this person fits in to society overall – and by definition, how they need to behave or be seen in this person’s company. Kissing ass might be necessary.
So what about foreigners? Where do we fit in?
The same data Thais use to place their fellow Thais doesn’t always work with foreigners – and that can cause Thais to make judgments about a foreigner’s perceived status based on misinformation or misunderstanding, giving them a false picture of where that foreigner may fit in.
Let’s say a Thai meets a foreigner for the first time. One of the first questions will be where he comes from. Liverpool, England, the foreigner says. The Thai knows Liverpool because of the famous football team and this will likely cause them to think this is someone of at least moderate status because, after all, Liverpool is a highly successful and glamorous football team. The Thai mentions football and the fellow from Liverpool then mentions that he lives in the suburb of Anfield, where Liverpool’s home ground is. Now the Thai is positively excited as he knows of Anfield, one of the most famous football grounds in the world. Now the Thai is convinced this is a foreigner of considerable status. But what the average Thai almost certainly doesn’t know is that the suburb of Anfield in Liverpool is one of the very poorest suburbs not just in Liverpool, but in all of England. Of course, this does not mean someone from Liverpool is of low status, but the Thai now has a false impression about the foreigner.
The whole skin colour thing doesn’t work in establishing a foreigner’s status and education mightn’t either. Mark Zuckerburg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates all dropped out of university.
So if one’s background, place of birth, skin colour and education may not be of much help to a Thai attempting to establish the relative status in Thailand of a foreigner, what does?
When a Thai is figuring out the status of a foreigner in Thailand, it tends to come down to the foreigner’s personal presentation, perceived wealth, job (if working in Thailand), behaviour and the company he keeps.
A well-dressed, well-groomed foreigner – someone who looks and carries themselves well all the time – and who is seen to visit places where high-society types go such as Siam Paragon or 5-star hotel restaurants, will likely be considered a person of at least some status.
In my first few weeks teaching in Thailand way back in the late ‘90s a class of adult students invited me to join them one night after class at Saxophone Pub. A couple of the guys in the group complimented me on my presentation and noted that I always wore a white business shirt. As I recall, I’d bought half a dozen identical white business shirts which I matched with more colourful neckties and trousers. One of my earliest lessons about life in Bangkok was that you can never go wrong wearing a white business shirt.
When it comes to behaviour, the Thais are more observant of the little things than the average Westerner and they do file it all away and form a profile of you – and may establish your status based on what they see. The difficulty is that the cultural differences can cause a distorted picture.
The nicely dressed foreigner who has been seen to get on a public bus will confuse the hell out of the Thais who consider that buses are for people of low status. Even taking taxis regularly will get them scratching their head and wondering why you wouldn’t buy your own car if you could afford one – or even if you can’t afford one for that matter! Financial prudence isn’t necessarily a part of status; being seen to spend up large regularly is an indicator of someone of at least some status.
But perhaps the most reliable means for a Thai to weigh up a foreigner living in Thailand is the company the foreigner keeps, specifically the Thais they spend time with.
A foreigner seen wining and dining with well to do, society Thais will be considered a high-status individual. The foreigner who has a stream of sex workers visiting him in his condo will be considered an uncouth who has zero self-respect.
The behaviour of some foreigners resident in Bangkok confuses Thais like crazy. Fooling around with ladies of low status in the view of others is almost unthinkable to the average Thai. In farang parlance: use hookers by all means, but do it behind closed doors and out of sight of others, lest your status be marred. And if you really must have a mia noi with whom you may be seen in public, a former beauty queen would be a good choice.
But what does it matter what the Thais think of you? Many foreigners find the idea of a society based on class and privilege distasteful and don’t want a part of it. But if you want to be taken seriously in Thailand away from the farang ghettos and outside the Sukhumvit / Silom bubble, then being seen as a person of at least some status is part of it.
In class-conscious Thailand, the status of those close to you and with whom you spend time rubs off on you so if you are involved with a society lady, you automatically get pulled up towards her level. Get hitched with a hooker and you get pulled down. No doubt some would rather be involved with a bargirl than a high-society lady and all power to them.
It’s largely academic when it comes to tourists who tend to be given a free pass. But for long-term expat residents, while you fall outside the system and will never be considered Thai, you’re still pigeonholed to some extent.
The average Thai is comfortable with the class system insomuch that knowing where they fit in and where others around them fit in helps them to know how they should relate to and behave around others. The nuances of the Thai language lend themselves to the class / status system.
While change in Thailand is being driven by young urbanites who embrace democracy, transparency, decency and fairness, concepts that are perhaps not entirely compatible with a class structured society, Thailand’s class structure is not going anywhere any time soon. But with greater social mobility in Thailand today it is not as rigid as it was.
Many foreigners scoff at the idea of a class-structured society and I was certainly one of them, considering it an antiquated idea that has no place in the 21st century. At the same time, if you want to do business in Thailand – serious business with serious people, and not a hobby business like running a bar – it is helpful to be aware of Thailand’s class-structures.
Last week’s photo was taken from inside Nana Plaza – on the top floor to be precise – looking back towards the entrance of the plaza with the JW Marriott Hotel in the background. I’m afraid I am all out of prizes so nothing for the winner to take home this week – but you will get a “well done” email from me in its place! So, my clever readers, where was this week’s photo taken?
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Evolution of the naughty boy.
Mea culpa: I’ve tried all of the suggested alternatives to gogo bars except the online ads aimed at Thai clients. I’m sure there’s an ecosystem there, but there’s also the go-go ecosystem. I’ve spent my share of time in the bump-and-grind emporiums (and had great fun, especially in the early 90s) but that ship has sailed. My current fave spots are the small shophouse-massages in the Phrom Pong area: you can find a delightful companion for a couple of hours for about 2.5K baht. Rooms are not deluxe, if you want that then head for the big places out near Huay Kwang / Rachada. However the attitude is right and if you bring the sanuk, it’s even better. I also enjoy Soi 6. Go-gos in 2018? Not interested.
The Thai scene IS fun!
Myself and two others had a great night out on the town last May in Thai Karaoke joints out in the Udom Suk area. We hit 3 neighbouring places and the last one had a couple of guys on stage playing music. None of the places were full of stunners but there were a couple of choices and you only need one and my history book has seen worse having made a visit to the house. Each place we were surrounded by pleasant, cheerful girls interested in sharing our drinks and having a good time. No one shot and out. The first and the last place were the best value and the one in between we were kind of taken, but 3 guys, 3 stops, and cost at each stop was about 500 baht each. It certainly was refreshing being away the gogo scene. It was very Thai but at no time did we feel unwelcome from not only the girls but even the Thai men patronizing the places. Language skills needed and the 3 of us made a party of it.
The changing bar scene.
I just came back last week after 2 weeks in Bangkok and agree that the gogo scene in Soi Cowboy is expensive. All but 1 girl I spoke to wanted 2,500 short time and barfines at least 800. I don’t understand Cowboy 2 bar where all girls there have a barfine of 3,000 baht. Who pays that? They are no more attractive than in other bars. In Thermae 2 girls I approached immediately said they only go with Japanese men. Why? The nicest girl I saw asked for 4,000 and I noticed she was taken shortly after 8 PM open time on 3 occasions. I enjoyed going to some of the night bars that pop up around Cowboy and Soi 23. Some don’t even set up until 11 PM and stay open till 5 AM. Barfines 500 and some very nice girls asking 2,000. I found myself playing Connect 4 with a 21-year old which took me back to many years ago in Pattaya.
Choosing Bangkok over Scandinavia.
I had an interesting experience. Outside <bar name removed – Stick> I started talking to one of the dancers who had spent most of her life in Sweden. Her mum moved there when she was about 6. And she had spent a few years in Denmark where I am from. She spoke Danish fluently and honestly I was quite surprised she was working in a gogo bar when she has a Swedish passport and need not worry financially if residing in Scandinavia. When asked about that, she said she had split up with her Danish partner, was tired of the cold and had decided to move back to Bangkok for a while and enjoy the warm weather. She claimed not to go with any customers and would not let herself be barfined for sex (is that possible?). On a side note, she had a cold and asked me to barfine her so she could go home and sleep. She would pay me back, she said. I agreed but when the mamasan asked for 2,000 baht (higher barfine because of Halloween) she said she would stay on a few hours more. 2,000 baht for a barfine that only includes taking the girl out of the bar! The normal barfine rate is 1,200 baht, the girl informed me. That is crazy in my world. In Denmark she had worked in a nursing home for the elderly. Perhaps working in a gogo in Bangkok is more fun than caring for the elderly…
Hunting for druggies.
The boys in brown were out in force on Rachada last night. Just after the intersection of Rama 4. My taxi was pulled over at 11.30 PM. The couple of cops were polite and one actually spoke fairly good English to counter my poor Thai! Still a rather unpleasant experience being asked to turn out my pockets and explain where I had been and where I was going to etc. Bit surprised to being asked if I had drugs on me given that I’m 56 and those days long gone!
Apple sees a bright future in Thailand.
In relation with your predictions of the Thai future, if the corporate Apple powerhouse opens an official store in Bangkok (see Bangkok Post article) it means they consider the country as a prime market. The average buying power of the Thai citizen has increased enough for them to buy these luxury items. In comparison, Apple has a pretty low official presence in Europe. Sure, there are plenty of re-sellers, but you do not get the Apple store experience. Eastern Europe doesn’t have any.
From multiple sources in Sin City comes word that what was for a long time my favourite bar in Pattaya, Secrets is going to be updated. The jungle drums say a change in format is in store in January with a sports bar being mooted. Watch this space.
The word from Sin City is that while the scene for naughty boys might have moved over to Soi LK Metro, it is Walking Street where you still find the lookers – and for many that is reason enough to continue visiting Pattaya’s ground zero.
It’s several months since Club Electric Blue in Patpong closed to make way for a steakhouse, but don’t fret if you can’t find your favourite Electric Blue dancer – they haven’t left the scene altogether. Many former Electric Blue dancers can be found in the next bar over, The Strip.
Comment from a friend in Bangkok at the moment who spent some time out on Soi Nana, “In the soi 4 bars, the women looked to be in the 35 – 45 age range and that might be being charitable!” That has been my impression in recent times, it has to be said.
Just around the corner from Soi Cowboy in Crazy House, Indians (or those who look Indian) need to be aware that they may be asked by security to show their passport. Exactly why they are asked for their passport is not known, but my best guess is that they are screening Indians and Indian nationals may not be allowed entry, whereas ethnic Indians who hold the passport of another country such as Singapore, United Kingdom, New Zealand etc may well be allowed inside. Why this is and how long this has been going on, I do not know.
Popular Pattaya bar Babydolls has a novel special promotion on Monday nights where if you buy a lady drink for a lady you get a free drink for yourself (draft beer, soft drink, house pour spirit).
Down in Pattaya, Crystal Club will celebrate its anniversary with a big bash on Saturday November 17th. Crystal Club is one of the bigger bars in Soi LK Metro, having merged with what was the coyote bar next door. Nightly there are around 60 girls in the bar. Do stop by for the party if you find yourself in Pattaya that day.
All is not what it seems when it comes to short-time hotels. Why is it that gogo girls so keen to use short-time rooms when a customer’s hotel room will almost certainly be more comfortable? There are many reasons. For starters, there are so many short-time hotels these days and some are not even a stone’s throw from the bars. They sort of blend in to the surroundings. Did you know, for example, that Nana Plaza has 3 different short-time hotels within the complex? It’s very convenient for the gogo dancers who can do the business and as soon as she is done with that customer, go straight back to the bar, get back up on stage, hunt for another
victim customer and the cycle repeats. A short-time hotel so close to her bar means it’s quick and easy for her. Another thing the ladies like about using short-time hotels is that from the moment the fee for the room has been paid the clock is ticking. The standard these days is 60 minutes and in many short-time hotels there will be a solid banging on the door at the 55-minute mark signalling you’d better get done quickly because your time is almost up – or be prepared to cough up cash for another hour. To which it has to be said that most gogo dancers would be most unimpressed if you used the full hour! And you do know that plenty of short-time hotels pay commissions, right? Some pay a flat-rate of 50 or 100 baht to the girl. Often it’s paid when the girl leaves which is one reason why she might send you on your way first and linger a little. And then there are bar owners who have negotiated a commission deal with the short-time hotel themselves. For every girl from their bar that uses that short-time hotel, the bar owner gets a 50 baht or 100 baht commission per girl per time. Some bars have been known to make in excess of 50,000 baht a month in commission from certain short-time hotels. Bosses who have negotiated deals like this are often insistent that the girls use a particular short-time hotel. The girls are usually in the dark over this and wonder why the boss flies in to a rage when a girl goes to a different short-time hotel in the area.
In an industry rife with bullshit, the epitome of the nonsense is girls claiming that a customer of hers cannot go with other girls in the bar. It is pure BS, but amazingly some girls still make customers feel guilty about going with a different girl. Repeat business is not so common in the bar industry these days and many girls seem to put much of their effort in to getting a guy to agree to go with her and pay the barfine – and from that moment on it’s all downhill. With this in mind, I wonder if some still try on that bullshit to customers saying that he is hers and he cannot go with anyone else? Quite ridiculous, really.
Putting together what people tell me about the massage they get in many of the massage houses along with what others tell me about the quality of the naughty they get in said massage houses are, I am beginning to think that many of these massage houses are a waste of space. The odds are that on some sois – and Sukhumvit soi 23 seems to keep coming up – you’ll get neither a good massage – because in most of the massage shops the girls aren’t trained in massage and don’t actually know how to perform a proper massage – and you won’t get a good lay either because most of them really would rather not be there. If you can’t get a decent massage nor get laid, what’s the point? (There are at least three professional massage venues on soi 23 where you will get a good real massage if that is what you’re looking for – Rain Tree is one of them.)
The Ploenchit Fair used to be one of the highlights of the year for expats and I was dragged along once, way back in 1998. I didn’t know that many people in Bangkok at the time and while I was told I would see lots of people there that I hadn’t seen in a while – because apparently most Bangkok-based expats made a point of stopping by – I don’t actually recall seeing a single person I knew. What I do distinctly remember is seeing a lot of people I had regularly seen down in the Thermae! The Ploenchit Fair has returned to its rightful location on the grounds of the British Embassy where it has not been held since 9/11. The terrorist threat was such that it relocated elsewhere…until now. I’m not sure quite where the Ploenchit Fair fits in to the whole expat scene these days, but for those who are interested in checking out what was once one of the highlights of the year for expats, more details can be found on the poster above.
The Australian Embassy joined its British and American counterparts this week by becoming the third major embassy in Bangkok to announce that it would no longer be issuing statutory declarations which declare income or bank balances for the purpose of visa extensions. There’s not much more to say to this, other than I would expect the embassies of most countries to follow and any that don’t will be outliers. The Aussie Embassy will no longer issue stat decs for this purpose from January 7th, 2019.
Why don’t Thais typically wear earplugs or other hearing protection when they operate power tools?
Indus, one of the best Indian restaurants in Bangkok and one of my favourite spots for a pig-out, has long operated a weekend brunch menu. Where some other Bangkok Indian restaurants do a Sunday buffet brunch, at Indus (on Sukhumvit soi 26, roughly half-way between Sukhumvit Road and Rama 4 Road), it’s not a buffet as such; instead the dishes you choose are made to order. This is great because not only is everything freshly made, you can request spicier (or milder) versions. This sets Indus apart from the other Indian restaurant Sunday brunches at the likes of Rang Mahal and Maya where it’s a standard buffet. It’s a real shame that Indus is going to change the format of the weekend brunch, especially as it seems to have gained in popularity recently.
Why do some foreign residents of Bangkok do everything they can to be Thaier than the Thais? I just love it the way some frequently drop phrases in to the conversation such as, “I speak Thai” when in fact they barely speak taxi Thai. But my favourite is, “I have lived in Thailand for xx years” when in fact what they really mean is that Thailand has been their base for xx years while much of that time has been spent outside of the country working offshore – but they will never qualify their comment with that because it would mean less street-cred, I guess. I can’t make my mind up whether this sort of one-upmanship amongst foreigners in Thailand is cute or sad, or perhaps a bit of both.
Reader’s story of the week comes from Larry Cameron, “Lessons Learned #3: Prisoners of Culture“.
Khao Sod comments on the different prices a Thai businessman and the Thai Army paid for the same model of helicopter.
A German is the latest foreign crook arrested in Bangkok this week on suspicion of various crimes back in the Fatherland.
The one thing I am still to get to grips with since returning to the saddle is gathering bar industry news and gossip. There is not as much news and gossip featured in the column as I’d like. When I was in town I was not sure that I would resume writing a weekly column. I had intended to resume writing a monthly column and figured I could do that without a great deal of effort…but before I knew it the weekly column had been revived. If I had known this I would have spent more time gathering material and I would have made more effort reacquainting myself with old friends working in the bars, bar industry figures etc. I didn’t, and now I am paying the price. I am going to have to get back to Bangkok before too long because gathering news isn’t as easy as it once was, and neither is commenting on a city I’ve spent precious little time in over the past couple of years. I’ll get on top of it.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org