Thailand: Culture and customs
Thailand is indeed a unique country in many ways. It has never been colonized by another nation and this in itself is an achievement for a developing country in South East Asia. A couple of centuries ago, Thailand gave parts of Siam, as Thailand was formerly known, to both France and Great Britain in return for remaining intact and keeping their sovereignty.
A shrewd move indeed, as both European powers had the military might to take it anyway. This reduced the size of the country to what it is today. King Rama V was a wise ruler who visited Europe many times and he was largely responsible for bringing road and railways to the country. King Rama V began a long standing relationship between Thailand and some European countries that helped Thailand on the road to development.
Their lengthy independence has assured their culture remains truly Thai although there is a lot of western influence creeping into their lives. Thai culture is embedded in Buddhism which accounts for 95% of the population. Thais are renowned for their tolerance and this is due to Buddhist teachings, in fact many areas of Buddhism are reflected in Thai society. Thais are non-confrontational and great lengths will be taken to avoid such situations, they are very self-conscious, this expresses itself as shyness. A happy race of people, Thais follow the Buddhist precept of “living for the moment”. Buddhism states that we should only focus on the moment and as each moment passes, it will create both a past and a future. This is great for keeping stress at bay. Thais are known for their smile and rightly so. I truly believe that these people know how to make the most of what they have!
The Royal Family are highly revered in Thailand so never make any derogatory remarks, as the Les Majeste laws here are severe. The King of Thailand has reigned for over 6 decades and he has done so much for his people and this is recognized, you will not find a house that doesn’t have his picture on the wall. Always stand when they play the National Anthem at cinemas or sporting events. This is played at 8am and 6pm every day on all TV and radio stations. There are some areas where it is played outside so if you happen to be there, stop and wait for it to finish before continuing on your way. If you are unfortunate to drop a bank note or coin, never put your foot on it. The feet are considered the lowest (and dirtiest) part of the body and the King’s head is on all bank notes. The head is considered the most important (and sacred) part of the body therefore you should refrain from touching Thai people on the head. Also pointing with one’s feet is considered extremely offensive. It is easy to do this if you are laying down and not aware the direction your feet are pointing so take with this one. Extra care of this should be taken when in a Buddhist temple.
The wai is by far the most common form of greeting, made by placing the palms of your hands in a praying position with the thumbs gently pressed against the chest and dipping the chin slightly to meet the tips of your fingers. The wai should be returned as any greeting should and the higher your hands, the more important the person you are waiing. The wai is also a show of respect and you will see Thai people wai as they pass a Buddhist shrine. If you really want Thai people to warm to you, learning how to wai correctly is a must, along with a few Thai words.
Pointing at people is considered impolite although it is ok to point at animals and inanimate objects. If you wish to motion someone to come to you, raise your hand to eye level, palm down, and flap your fingers in a downward motion as you might do in the west when turning your hand upwards and moving your fingers upwards, however in Thailand this is a sign to “bring it on” in an aggressive way.
Public showing of affection has always been frowned upon however I have noticed a definite change in the past ten years, it isn’t uncommon to see boy and girl walking along hand in hand nowadays but that would never have happened twenty years ago! Technology has brought western influence into their lives, only time will tell if this is a good thing. I personally feel that Thai culture is strong enough to withstand the onslaught of foreign ideals and habits.
Buddhism promotes inner serenity and this is another reason why confrontation is avoided in Thailand, most situations are met with a smile and life goes on. Hierarchy is very important to Thais and they may ask what you consider to be personal questions such as your income level, marital status, in order to fit you in so to speak. There are some quirky little things you should be aware of, when a Thai is offered something they don’t want, they will give a slight nod of the head. This can be confusing as in the west that would mean “OK Let me have it”. Appearance goes a long way in Thailand, and appropriate dress for temples is important. No flip flops, or bare shoulders and women should wear skirts below the knee. Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch women so if a monk is passing, a female should take care not to touch him. A monk will not sit next to a woman on public transport for this reason. It is traditional to remove your shoes before entering a Thai house and try not to step on the threshold as it is considered bad luck. Never step over food when walking inside the house. Thai people use the floor as we would use a table so the floor is always scrupulously clean.
It is customary for Thais to have a variety of dishes and everyone has a plate of boiled rice to which they add from each of the food offerings. There will be a spoon for each dish and we should use that spoon, rather than our own, to take from the dish. Thai people rarely use knives when eating, probably because most of their food does not require cutting. Putting the fork in your mouth is not the done thing here.
Thai food is very spicy and Thai people seem to take great delight in watching a foreigner’s reaction to that, so be careful and if spicy food is not to your liking, use the words “Mai Phet” which means not spicy. Some tips for table manners,
Don’t leave rice on your plate, although a tiny bit is acceptable as it shows you are no longer hungry. It is seen as wasteful and frowned upon so only take what you think you can eat. You can begin to eat as soon as the food is on the table (or floor). Don’t lick your fingers, there will be tissue provided and wait to be asked before taking a second helping.
Thai toilets are squat jobs unless you are in a hotel or tourist area and this can be a problem for some. There is usually a tub of water next to the toilet with a scoop inside. This is for washing and flushing and there should also be a bin for tissue paper (if you use it) as this bungs up the plumbing! In general, Thai toilets are very clean, I guess in this heat and humidity germs spread rapidly, so cleanliness is best.
Thai people offer some of the best hospitality in the world, you will be treated like royalty if you are ever invited into a Thai home. The house would be very tidy and your hosts will be attentive and warm. Thai people eat all the time so food would naturally be served as would chilled water or fruit juice. You may notice Thai people stooping slightly when they pass you, this is because it is deemed impolite for their head to be higher than yours. You may notice that when a Buddhist monk holds an audience, he is usually raised slightly on a wooden platform.
Thailand is very family oriented. They don’t have the social care programs that we do in the west so having lots of children guarantees you will be looked after in your old age. The family values hold everything together for Thais, children deeply respect their parents and this is often publicly demonstrated on Father’s or Mother’s Day which fall on the King and Queen’s birthdays. Teachers are also held in high esteem, as they are regarded as the carriers of wisdom to be given to the next generation. Teacher’s Day falls on January 16th each year and all students will pay their respects to each teacher. I have been fortunate to be present for about 15 of these ceremonies and it is very emotional as the students thank us for helping them achieve their objectives. Parents’ wishes are obeyed and many choose a particular career path because their parents instructed them to. Thai people get married much later in life than young people in the west. A man will wait until he has finished his higher education and then work a few years until he is in a financial position to take care of a wife. The groom will pay a dowry (sin soht) to the bride’s family to demonstrate his ability to take care of the bride although this is often returned to the groom shortly after. Marriage is divided into two parts, first there is the registration at the local Amhur (government office) and then the party / reception which is usually held at a hired venue. Children are often farmed out to the grandparents as the wife is working so the kids actually get the grandparents’ values rather than their own mother or father. This has been put forward as a reason why the culture is so strong and that may be true.
Thai people like to have fun, “Sanuk” is the word and life is very much about having a good time. Menial tasks that we make us miserable are carried out with a smile and workers can often be seen laughing as they joke with each other. Thai culture is the main reason why I have stayed here, and even after thirty years it is refreshing to leave my home every day and be met with smiling faces.
The Thai language seems very difficult for westerners to master as it is tonal. There are five tones and many words have five different meanings depending on the tone used. There are 44 consonants and 22 vowels which can produce sounds that we have problems making. Actually I wrote a book on Thai language for foreigners that was published by Asia Books about 15 years ago (Learning Thai: Just enough to get by and more ISBN 9789748237336). The best advice I could give someone who really wants to become fluent is learn to read and write first. If you can read then you know the tones and will have much better pronounciation. If you are here for a short time you would be well advised to learn a few words as the Thai people will warm to you. In Bangkok most road signs are in English as well so travelling isn’t a problem.
Mai Bpen Rai
This means “it doesn’t matter” and really sums up the Thai attitude to things you cannot change. I think it is a reflection of Buddhism, not allowing small things that are out of your control to bother you. I have seen first-hand how stressed people are in the developed world and I think we could all learn something from this. If a Thai is stuck in a traffic jam for a few hours, he will enjoy the experience because if he wasn’t in the car then he’d be somewhere else. I have noticed many little things that really stand out with Thai culture. Sometimes workers will come to work when they aren’t supposed to because in their eyes, they enjoy the work so they don’t concern themselves about the money. Thai people are incredibly helpful and if you feel they are a bit stand offish with you, it’s probably a language issue as many Thais have a poor understanding of English. This Mai bpen rai attitude explains why Thais are not normally punctual. Western businessmen can be frustrated by this but I have yet to meet anyone who could change it. Patience is a virtue and it needs to be exercised in Thailand, whether in a store or a restaurant, things may seem to drag on and on and you should count to ten and let it go!
Thai society is very tolerant of transsexuals or ladyboys as they are known. I have witnessed ladyboys getting on buses without a hint of resentment. In some ways Thailand is contradictory, I mean sex is not talked about and affection is not shown in public but there is a massive sex industry here and I’m not just talking about foreigners. Thai men usually have a minor wife or perhaps they visit a massage parlour (not the regular kind) that are dotted around the city. These places are nicknamed the “goldfish bowl” as the girls sit behind a huge glass window with number badges attached to their shirt.
The legal age to consume alcohol is twenty and you must be 18 to smoke although nobody really checks unless you happen to be in a place that gets raided. You can buy alcohol from11am – 2pm and then from 5pm to midnight. A small individually owned store will sell you alcohol outside the hours but any chained shop will not as the cash register records the product and time sold. Strange as it may seem, you can circumvent this law by purchasing a case of beer or liquor!
Driving in Bangkok is a form of meditation. You must be completely focused at all times as traffic passes you on both sides especially motorcycles that whip in and out of any small gap. To a newcomer, Bangkok traffic is chaotic at best, motorcycles filling in any small gaps there might be between cars, swerving in and out like a swarm of bees. Surprisingly enough there are few accidents, probably because a traffic accident costs money.
As a pedestrian you need to take great care, crossing the road means looking right first so if you come from a place where they drive on the left, remember this. Always look both ways, even on a one-way street. Many a time I’ve stepped out onto the road, looking toward the oncoming traffic on my right, only to hear a beep as a motorcycle passes directly in front of me going the wrong way! There is a law against jaywalking so be careful where you cross the street. Thais cross the street at the most convenient point, even if there is a footbridge they will cross directly under it. A zebra crossing does not mean the traffic will stop for you, so you cannot assume cars will stop. Flashing headlights does not mean “after you” rather it signals that the other driver is coming through!
If you decide to rent a motorcycle during your stay be very careful and you might want to check your holiday insurance (if you have any) as some exclude accidents caused when the policy holder rents a motorcycle.
Another interesting road signal I have never seen anywhere else is putting the hazard warning lights on when approaching an intersection, this tells you the driver is going straight on. Seat belts are compulsory in front seats but the rear is not, although most cars have them. Interesting that coaches and buses do not have seat belts fitted. Be careful when out and about in Bangkok regarding litter. There is a fine of 2,000 baht for littering and the local government officials (Tesakit) will always closely monitor foreigners and if you as much as drop a cigarette butt, or a snack wrapper and they will swoop on you in no time. They don’t enforce this one with the locals as far as I know.
Bus services are frequent and cover all areas. The A/C buses are blue or yellow while red is the colour for non-air buses which I have been told are being phased out. Years ago there were small green buses and for two baht you could have an experience similar to that of a rollercoaster. These were privately owned by the driver so the more people he got, the more money he made. Packed with people they would whizz through the traffic, jam packed with terrified passengers bursting out on to the rear standing platform, a mass of arms and legs, jostling to get a good position. In the middle of this heaving mass of humanity would be the conductress, worming her way through the squashed bodies to collect the fare. It wouldn’t matter where you were or indeed how long you were on the bus, she would always find you and she remembered who’d paid and who had not! I recall one time hanging from the back of one of these, on my way to teach on Sukhumvit road, it was raining at the time and I was the last one to get on, which gave me a few square centimetres of foot room, just enough to get one sole firmly planted. I had my briefcase in my right hand, trying not to let the wind take it from my grasp and my left hand was firmly wrapped around the steel bar above our heads. My face is pushed against the guy in front so I can’t really see anything. I knew what to do, stand still, focus on the left grip and it’ll all be over before I know it! I am actively implementing this when I feel a sharp jab in my ribs, as this small female face pushes between two torsos and smiles, clipping her ticket box repeatedly, as they do! I figured I could have a free ride as both hands were occupied when a hand slid through and took my briefcase allowing me to find the two baht, which she expertly swapped for a ticket, then disappeared as quickly as she came!
The government has a long term plan to expand BTS (skytrain) and all mass transportation systems as well as the construction of new and widening of existing roads. A high speed train that will run from Bangkok to Nong Khai has also been approved and this will link up with Laos and eventually people will be able to travel from Bangkok to Beijing on a single train journey.
Taking a motorcycle taxi can be a sobering experience although it is by far the quickest way to get around the city during rush hour. I used to take them regularly and I always tried to get an older guy as they tend to be a little less speedy. Oh and always agree the fare beforehand. You should wear a crash hat and the driver should provide this although enforcement of the law is not consistent.
Buddhism & Temples
Buddhism is by far the largest religion in Thailand with some 95% of the population practicing. The temple has always been a central point for all Thais, much more so in the past than the present day. Temples were also schools, held cremation funerals as well as being places for counselling and resolving conflicts among villagers. When you go to the outer provinces, the role of the temple in society increases. Villagers borrow tables, chairs, pots, pans, glasses or anything needed for a social gathering. I think this is good as the money to purchase these things came from the people themselves. Most Thai males enter the monkhood at around twenty years of age. This is important for a number of reasons, mainly because it helps the young man understand life and to appreciate the simple things and uphold sound moral values. Some stay in the monastery for three months and some decide that their future lies within Buddhism and they become ordained as monks. Monks shave their head and eyebrows, this is symbolic to represent the lack of self. The daily life of a Buddhist monk involves rising before the crack of dawn and doing some menial tasks before setting out to receive alms from the people. This food is either consumed by the monks or donated to poor people who come to the temple for assistance. The monks will return to the temple by 9 or 10am, work some more, perhaps gardening or general cleaning or even cooking, the monks work together as a team to keep the temple in good order. They are also there to receive the people for a host of reasons, personal problems, affairs of the heart, advice about business or anything that the villagers require advice about. The temple is also the place to take unwanted pets. This seems to happen all the time, a family buys a puppy dog and all is fine, until the dog grows and starts chewing everything, so one day he is put in a cage and taken to the temple gates where he is released to join his many friends who have suffered the same fate! The monks never turn animals away, instead they take care of them as best they can. Some temples offer stunning architecture with massive Buddha images adorning the grounds. They are all very well maintained and they are still the cornerstone of Thai society.
Violence and crime
Crime figures are relatively low when you consider the high level of poverty in this country. The severe conditions in Thai prisons has a lot to do with that. In the west, jail is a place where you have certain rights, three meals a day, to exercise, play sports, study, watch movies, the list is endless. In a Thai jail if you don’t have money, you don’t survive, period. The conditions are horrendous and this helps to keep people on the straight and narrow.
One thing they do here that I haven’t seen anywhere else is reenacting the crime. Once a suspect has confessed, he is taken to the scene of the crime and made to go through the motions of the events that led up to the actual deed. If there is a victim then the offender is put in front of them (or their relatives) to beg forgiveness. This is very humiliating for the perpetrator and is said to help his Karma by facing the people affected by his deeds. Assassinations are common in Thailand, mainly for business or political reasons. It seems to be an acceptable way to remove a competitor from the field of play!
Violence is not common, apart from a few alcohol related incidents, it is rare and usually for a reason. Born in London, I feel safe walking the streets on Bangkok at night, something I would never do back home. Thailand is very safe for tourists and the tourist police are always very helpful.
The Thai Education System
One might think that the education system doesn’t really warrant a mention in this script, however the answer to most questions as to why Thais do this or that, lies within the Educational system here. The system of education is rote learning or learning by memorization. This seriously suppresses creativity, imagination and initiative in growing children. It does not foster leadership qualities but produces followers, or sheep as we’d like to call them. I taught in a wide range of Thai schools for twenty odd years so I am qualified to talk about the methodology they use.
I believe this kind of learning has lasting consequences, for instance, why is Thailand referred to as the land of copies? It is true the Thais can copy anything and that is exactly what they are taught to do at school. They copy from the whiteboard, from text books and from their friends. So each generation is lacking in creativity and imagination and this shows through in social patterns. Many expat managers find it hard to understand why the workers don’t think as we do but of course they were not taught to think like us. I think Thailand has realized this must change, with ASEAN group regulations being applied in 2015, if Thailand is not competitive, they will lose out to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However it is not easy to change something as ingrained as the education system. The teachers are the key, they need to be shown why a learner centered approach works better, rather than be told “you must do this”. We in Europe, took almost three generations to become learner centered in our schooling, so it is not a quick process to implement.
It has far reaching consequences in other ways, I noticed a trend about ten years ago. Someone would open a store selling something, say children’s clothes, and it would do quite well in the beginning then another shop would open across the street, selling the same thing, then another and yet another, all within a few hundred metres of each other. Someone had seen the initial shop opened and decided that he too would sell kiddies clothes as they sell well, not thinking at all about the dynamics of supply and demand. Others quickly followed until there is a glut. According to natural selection, all but one must perish, leaving the one with the best product / price / policy to service the demand in that area. This I have noticed everywhere and it just keeps repeating itself.
TV & other media
Thai TV soap operas are amazing! Void of any creativity, the acting sucks and is about as exciting as watching paint dry! Otherwise TV is fine, news, current affairs, game shows, sports and documentaries make up the schedule, along with a fair share of foreign movies, usually late at night. The TV channels are TV3, TV5, TV7, TV9 and TPBS (Thai Public Broadcasting Service) with an option of cable TV through several providers. The internet connectivity has vastly improved over the last few years, with all of Bangkok having broadband available although I’m sure this isn’t nationwide just yet. There are numerous Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city and all hotels offer this facility (free mostly). The radio also has a large choice, several FM stations broadcast in English 105FM being the most popular.
There are two national daily newspapers, Bangkok Post and The Nation, so keeping up with current affairs is easy. In the tourist areas of the city there are many free magazines and maps you can browse through. Cinemas show all foreign films with the original soundtrack and there are lots to choose from, almost every mall has a movie theater.
Thailand has a long and colourful history with arts and crafts playing a major role. One particular art I love is fruit carving, originating many years ago when the wealthy Thais used fruit or vegetable carvings to adorn the dinner table. It is also regarded as a form of meditation and is still popular today. There are several schools in Bangkok where you can learn this intriguing skill.
As far as dance goes, Thailand has mythical dramas such as Ramakian, a Thai version of the Hindu Ramayana, which was partly composed by Kings Rama 1 and 2. Dance also plays a part in Lakorn, a musical story, often used with puppets in the southern parts of the country. In the past, troops toured the country performing “Liggae” which was very popular. The performers would adorn themselves in beautiful costumes complete with make-up and act out a series of dramas, often comedy playing a large part.
Thai music is also quite varied, country music is represented by Ad Carabao and Pop music’s eternal star Pee Bird, Thongchai Macintyre.
Thai movies broke into the international market with Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) in 2005 starring Tony Jaa. The movie was later edited and given a new name “The protectors” before hitting the US market with good box office figures reached.
Muay Thai (Thai boxing) has gripped the world and this has had a positive effect on the domestic development of the sport. Bua Kao (white lotus) is a Thai boxer who twice won the K1 Max titles in 2004 and 2006. This has led to several World champions and Olympic Gold medals in boxing and weight lifting. Thailand is well represented on the world stage in badminton, weight lifting and golf, with several pro golfers in the PGA top 100. The national soccer team is well ranked among South East Asia although they have yet to qualify for the world cup finals. The Thai Premier league is slowly gaining popularity as soccer has been kick started by the tremendous following the Thai fans have for the English Premier league and the Spanish and Italian leagues. Indeed many high profile teams such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool play here once every two tears. This is warmly welcomed by the fans and every game is a sellout. Admittedly the visiting team don’t usually field their strongest team, it is more of a PR exercise than anything else, plus the Thai National team get some well needed experience playing top notch teams. Snooker is popular here, with a snooker hall never more than a few Sois away, inevitably it would produce some world class talent like James Wattana who rose to third in the world rankings in the 1990’s.
Thailand has had some tennis success, Tamarine Tanasugarn, or Tammi as she is known, stayed in the world top twenty women’s PGA rankings for a few years and she was once doubles partner to Maria Sharapova. The pinnacle of her career was in 2008 when she reached the quarter finals at Wimbledon.
Paradon Srichapan reached number 9 in the men’s PGA world rankings in 20056 and his success gave him superstar status, he even had a red diplomatic passport. Always polite and respectful on court, he boosted Thailand’s reputation on the world’s stage.
Perhaps the most famous Thai sports person is Khaosai Galaxy. A former Muay Thai boxer who converted to international boxing, Khaosai made 19 successful defences (16 by KO) of his Super flyweight WBA title between 1984 – 1991, a record that has only ever been matched by one other fighter, Eusebio Pedroza, who successfully defended his Lightweight title 19 times. Khaosai Galaxy is in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Khaosai has a twin brother, Khaokor Galaxy, who was also a boxer and in 1988 he won the WBA Bantamweight title which makes them the only twin brothers ever to win WBA titles.
Thailand is a leader in athletics among South East Asian countries, regularly topping the medals table in the SEA Games which is held every two years.
Doing business in Thailand
As in all countries, Thailand has business etiquette,
Most Thai business people are Chinese to some extent and they are very comfortable when dealing with their own kind. Foreign people however, bring a level of uncertainty with them so the Thais will go a little overboard with the hospitality. The word for “yes” in Thai is “Chai” however the word “Krapp” or “Khaa” (for a woman), which is an acknowledgement (Yes, I follow), can also mean the affirmative (Yes, I agree with you), therefore if you are asking probing questions, verify the response “Krapp” or “Khaa” to check that the meaning is actually “yes, I agree’.
Name cards should be exchanged at the beginning of an introductory meeting and should be given to the most senior person first. It is a good idea to place them on the table in front of you and nod agreeably as you put them in your bag / pocket or make a comment like “Nice design”.
A list of the participants and their respective positions should be forwarded if you are having the meeting in Thailand, status is important here and knowing who is who will enable them to arrange the seating correctly. Timekeeping is important, even if your host arrives late, it is always good business protocol to be on time and well prepared. I have been to many international business meetings as a translator, hired by the foreign party in case there are language problems, which there often are. Business meetings in Europe are usually efficient and to the point, with some emotional argument thrown in if the situation demands it. This approach will sink like a lead balloon in the land of smiles. If it is the initial meeting, some small talk about families, hobbies etc is in order and this is the time you may be invited to play golf or perhaps a dinner date. Patience is needed in this environment, long lunches and short breaks happen frequently and it does no good to get irritated. Chill out and let your hosts take the lead. A small gift is perfectly acceptable at any time, something from your country would be most suitable.
For a country with so much patience and tolerance, I find it strange that “pushing in” in queues is acceptable here. I try not to get flustered by this and it can sometimes be very blatant with physical pushing. I have tried to figure this one out and failed so I don’t know everything about Thailand! Perhaps they’ve seen it in foreign movies so they consider it normal.
Thais can be very caring and considerate yet when there is a traffic accident they just stand around and watch. I have been told by several well educated Thais that this is because they do not want to affect the person’s karma. I have seen this a few times and it is very difficult for someone from a western society to accept.
A funny thing, Thais will cover their mouth when using a toothpick, which is fine with me, yet they will pull something out of their nose in public and examine it openly!
I have spent just over half my life here in Thailand, most of the rest was in England so I can make some comparisons of the two cultures. One thing that stands out for me is the quality of life in Thailand. Thai people, irrespective of their backgrounds or financial status, enjoy life and try to live in harmony with their neighbours. There is no real social system in place here so everyone must work, whereas in the UK people are almost encouraged to live off the state! I recall the last time I visited my home country, in 2004 it was. I got talking to a few teenage girls as one of them was my niece, anyway I asked one what her goal in life was and she replied without any hesitation that she wanted two or three kids, by different fathers, so she could be a single mother and claim social benefits for her and the children until the kids reach 16. I was shocked and remarked what a strange goal to have when they all chimed in saying we all want that!!!!
I have spent some time in Isaan, the northeast of Thailand, where my mother in law is a rice farmer, so I got to know how the rural people live.
My MIL lives in a small community village with the farmland adjacent, in total there may be close to one thousand families living there and they have social events such as weddings, funerals and house warmings that all are invited to attend. When you arrive at the house, a lady will be seated in front of a table and she will record your name and how much money you will donate (pink envelope). All is recorded and if you go to someone’s house who had previously attended one of your parties, you must give more than he or she gave you. One time we visited when my MIL was preparing for a “small house warming party” as she called it, to celebrate the new roof she’d just had done. I decided to help so I bought 3 cases of beer, thinking that would be a major addition to the pot. An hour later a truck pulled up and they unloaded at least 50 cases of beer, 25 cases of rice whisky, soft drinks and all sorts. I thought we were going to entertain the entire province, while my wife said it was a small gathering, 2 or 3 days, nothing special. Starting from 5am people kept coming in their droves, pigs were being slaughtered out the back, all the women were cooking while the men drank whisky and watched cock fighting. The place was heaving for three days and nights! When it was all over my wife announced that her mum received a total of 378,000 baht! I was dumbfounded! My MIL explained that when she is invited to attend another’s social gathering, she must pay more than that person did this time and in the course of time, she must visit all the people who came today, so in the long run, it’s costing her money. There is another activity in rural communities that is worth a mention. They call it “share” and a group of people, say twenty, agree to pay in a fixed sum per month over a fixed period, say 12 months. The most trustworthy is the one who keeps all the money and records everything in a notebook. So, on the first of every month, all twenty people gather in a room and pay their share. Let’s say for arguments sake each share is 3,000 baht (100U$), so 60,000 baht is collected every month in this manner. If someone wishes to withdraw their pot, that is 3,000 x 12 months, which would be 36,000 baht, then they would write on a small piece of paper, how much interest they would be willing to pay per month. The highest bidder gets to withdraw his or her pot but must pay that interest (plus the principal) for the duration of the twelve months or remainder. So let’s say for arguments sake that a person offered 800 baht interest and that was the highest bid, they would then receive 36,000 in cash but must pay 3,800 every month until the term is up. The interest money is kept apart from the capital and when the twelve months is up, the interest money is divided equally among those who did not cash in their shares. So, in effect this system offers two things, a chance to borrow money, or an opportunity to make money from the interest paid. Even in Bangkok this system is very popular, with some families having 7 or 8 different shares with different groups. When they need cash to pay for schooling or hospital visits or any emergency, they cash in a share or two. This makes much more interest than leaving it in the bank also. It can become quite tense as perhaps seven or eight people wish to cash in their shares at the same time and of course, only one can do that per month so competition can be fierce! They all sit apart from each other and carefully scribble their amount on a tiny piece of paper which they hurriedly fold as soon as they finish. All eyes are on each other as the head person (banker) reveals who offered the highest amount of interest. The wealthier ladies sit at the back, happy that the interest rates will be higher due to the competition.
The community plays a vital role in Thai society and I am happy to see positive things happening in Bangkok, if you go to the big supermarkets at around 6pm you will more than likely see an aerobics group doing their thing in the car park. It usually involves a leader / instructor (pro dancer) who dances on a raised platform and the participants line up in rows. It is nice to see the young, old and in between mix together for healthy exercise on a daily basis.
In most large moo bahns (housing areas) there will be a committee who will receive money from the local government and will oversee the maintenance of the village as well as funding and organizing social events for The King or Queen’s birthday and other festivals. There is definitely a healthy community spirit here and it really showed during the floods of 2011 when large areas of Bangkok were under more than a metre of water. I was amazed at how well the people adapted to it, free transport was available to all, boats were distributed evenly and emergency services were provided by the army and police. I often wonder how the British would cope with something as drastic as that!
I have often been asked what exactly is it about Thailand that holds such an attraction to me, I have pondered this question and I have to say it’s a mixture. The Thai people, warm, sincere, fun loving and happy, are what they are because of the Buddhist influence and the culture is so colourful. The climate suits me, coming from a cold place plus the food is out of this world! One good way to describe Thailand is an assault on the senses. I have travelled through 84 countries in my life, with a seemingly endless wanderlust, drifting from one border to the next and the day I arrived in Thailand, the desire to travel just vanished into thin air! I never really understood why I roamed this planet for many years. I remember meeting a guy in his forties who was hitchhiking to Barcelona and to me he was ancient and I was fearful of spending the rest of my days as a nomad, drifting with no real direction. I now realize I was simply searching for the place to live out my life. I must admit that I am not happy on the rare occasion when I leave this wonderful Kingdom, I think that’s only happened five times in thirty two years and when outside the country, all I can think about is coming back!
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