Rules Of Thai Society

No Shoes, No Sweat, No Schedules

Vicki and I have been hanging out in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and other Thai cities, off and on, for some 25 years.

As I look back on our Thailand time, I see that Thais often follow different rules. Thais take for granted behaviors that take me by surprise. Thais say and do things I would never, or rarely, say and do.

Here are some Thai rules I’ve observed up close and personal:

  • Never live alone. I have a 91-year-old mother who lives in Los Angeles, California. Should the subject come up, Thais invariably ask, “Who does she live with?” I respond that she lives by herself, in her own cottage, with her own car, and that she loves her life. Thais seem astonished that she, or anyone, could live alone and be happy.
  • Get rid of ghosts. Thais take ghosts seriously. They’re real, and they’re present. Thais hold special ceremonies after the death of a loved one, as no one wants ghosts to remain at home. We’ve seen Thai friends move house after sensing ghosts in a rental home.
  • Make merit. Thais believe that giving a donation to a Buddhist temple, and then receiving a blessing from a monk, will make a positive difference–and spell good luck. Even if a monk blesses a car, and the car promptly gets smashed by a cement truck, Thais stick to their views.
  • Yield to the bigger car. In the western world, when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, we yield to the car on the right. In Thailand, when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time, Thais yield to the better car. In the Western world, if we buy a new car we may feel superior. That new-car smell makes us feel over the top. But when Thais buy a car they actually become superior.
  • Forget about he and she. Thais who speak English often use “he” when talking about a woman and “she” when talking about a man. Thai language fails to make the distinction, so they figure they can safely ignore the distinction in English, too.
  • Categorize by age, not gender. If someone asks about our siblings, we’re likely to say, “I have three brothers and a sister.” A Thai would say, “I have two older ones and two younger ones.”
  • Forget singular versus plural. Thai language lacks the facility of changing singular to plural with a simple “s.” So, if I arrived at our guest house when Vicki was already there, instead of handing me the key, the front desk people would point up and say “upstair.”
  • Eat when you’re hungry. Thais have little notion of three meals a day at fairly fixed times. They eat when they’re hungry. Vicki and I recently did a road-trip with a young Thai woman and her 8-year-old daughter. We returned to the car after a temple visit and the daughter said, “I’m hungry.” Instead of saying “That’s what you get for skipping breakfast,” Mom gave her some money to run out and buy something to eat. Meanwhile, Mom, Vicki, and I waited in the car.
  • Drop off final consonants. With Thais who speak weak English “rice” becomes “ri,” “motorcycle” becomes “motocy,” and “guest house” becomes “gue hou.”
  • Put food in plastic. When ordering takeout food in Thai, instead of saying “takeout” or “put in a bag,” you say “put in plastic.” Similarly, a grocery store clerk will ask if you want a “plastic” instead of a “bag” for your groceries.
  • Don’t sweat. I used to play tennis with a group of Thai men and women, and the object seemed to be to play as hard as possible without breaking a sweat. If racing for a ball meant breaking a sweat, Thai players would let the ball go. Similarly, if Thais unload a truck, better to unload in three hours without breaking a sweat than two hours with sweat. In general, Thais prefer to work longer rather than harder.
  • Pay more at night. Street food prices will be higher at night than at similar food vendors during the day.
  • Serve Thais first. If I walk up to a currymonger ahead of a Thai, I’ll get served first. If the Thai arrives first, she’ll be served first. But if we both arrive at the same time, and the currymonger has no idea who arrived first, she’ll serve the Thai first, every time. I particularly like this rule, as I think it shows a minor pride in being Thai.
  • Stick to the group. Thais prefer doing things in groups, rather than individually, whether taking a vacation, having a coffee, or living (as above).
  • Take care of parents and siblings. Thais tend to do whatever it takes to provide for family. If necessary, Thai women will raise children for brothers and sisters, sons and daughters. Hilltribe girls will even turn to the lucrative sex trade to provide for their parents.
  • Enjoy. Thais use the world sanuk, for joy, fun, pleasure. Thais try to lead a life full of sanuk. Foreign corporate bosses often have a tough time adapting to the Thai need of sanuk at work.
  • Forget schedules and plans. We Americans with more rigid schedules–like our three meals a day–must look foolish in this regard.
  • Never return a security deposit. A friend asserts that “as of this writing, there have been no known reports of a security deposit being returned” by a Thai landlord. Vicki and I have adjusted to this reality. We amortize the security deposit when figuring the rent and deciding whether to do a deal.
  • Find out if he/she’s married. Thais ask first off if you’re married, to avoid insulting you. I figure pretty much the opposite is true in the U.S.
  • Take your shoes off before entering a home. Always.
  • Smile. When Vicki and I lived in Paris, our French neighbor pounded into our apartment one day, furious and offended. She’d just learned that McDonald’s requires workers to smile at each customer. What an outrage, she thought, to smile when you don’t feel like it. Thais have a different attitude. They smile at everyone, regardless.
  • Use motorbikes creatively. Think Dad, Mom, a 6-year-old, and baby on a motorbike. Dad talks on the hand phone and smokes a cigarette. Mom holds the umbrella with one hand, sustains the baby with the other. The young boy carries the family dog in his arms. All wave when the neighbors pass on a motorbike going the other way.

Paul Terhorst

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