EFAM | Escape From America Magazine

Thai World

The self-centered pathology of Thai people is more than just individual selfishness, it’s a nationwide epidemic

The subtle differences between the workings of Thai society and that of my own country become not-so-subtle after a while.


What motivates the speech and actions of Thai people is a mystery not soon to be solved.  Live here a while and you’ll soon learn; the smile is a mask, the genuflecting “wai” their shield and no deal is ever really “done”.  When attempting to unravel it all, one should always remember, Thais are only motivated by things they think have a direct impact on them personally.

As the world watched the monster tsunami devour chunks of Southeast Asia, it witnessed the alleged caring and selfless nature of Thai people on CNN every night.

During a news interview with a nearly drowned Aussie, the tourist gushed about the fearless Thai hotel manager that risked his own life to pull him out of the churning abyss.  As a long time resident of Phuket, I remember thinking “The guy probably hadn’t paid his bill yet.”

While driving to the market I witnessed an unfortunate dog that had lost his life attempting to cross 3 lanes of morning traffic.  All week I passed this site, wincing a little more every day as the dog’s body succumbed to the elements.

“Why doesn’t someone take that dog away?” I asked my wife.

Incredulous, she answered, “Why I’m gonna get that dog?  Not my dog”.

I had just assumed that in a Buddhist country with all that compassion and temples and monks and such, someone would take it upon themselves to take care of the poor creature.  Ask ten Thai people the same question that I asked my wife and 8 of them will answer the same way; “not my dog”.  The other two would say, “How much you pay me?”

While visiting a friend who runs a property development firm here in Pattaya, he closed a huge deal for 63 units in his off-plan condo project.  With that deal he had the funding to break ground with confidence immediately.  He danced around the office in his bare feet and sent one of the staff out for champagne.

The remaining staff members observed his antics like cows watching a train pass.  None of them cared but the sales people; and they were unhappy.  That would make 63 units they couldn’t sell and collect commission on.  They could care less about the success of the company or financial health of the project.  For them it was money out of their pocket.

The self-centered pathology of Thai people is more than just individual selfishness, it’s a nationwide epidemic.  Last year, a gang of royalists clad in yellow shirts stormed the huge international airport, gumming up regional transport for days and costing the tourism, shipping and export industries dearly.  The economic damage to all sectors of Thai business suffers to this day.  Nobody is sure what they wanted.

For the past two years other inhabitants of the “Land of Smiles” have donned red uniforms and taken to the streets in an attempt to reinstall the leader that paid them to vote for him years ago.  They impede the process of governance by blocking access to Government House, stop up major thoroughfares and most recently poured blood on the doorstep of the current Prime Minister.

Dozens of countries have put out travel advisories due to the ongoing disruptions in Bangkok.  Empty airplane seats, empty hotel rooms, empty taxi cabs, empty pockets … high season just didn’t come this year.

This week, yet another gang of travel and tourism representatives are going to Bangkok to protest the protesters.  Everyone will talk and no one will listen.  I do not know the word for “compromise” in Thai; perhaps because I’ve never heard it.

The root of this mindset lies with the individual.  Walk around in Bangkok long enough and you will be rammed, full-stride and headlong, buy a Thai that apparently could not see you.  Invariably they will dust themselves off and look at you as if to say, “What the hell are you doing on my planet?”

You are not invisible, you have entered Thai World.  I live in Thailand … Thais live in “Thai World”.  And, apparently, Thai World ends about three inches from the surface of a Thai person’s skin.  The phrase “self-absorbed” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Perhaps the best example of this compassion vacuum was an experience I had a few years ago.  I was standing on my eighth floor balcony in downtown Bangkok, drinking wine with my best friend and his Thai wife.

It was rush hour on busy Soi 16 and we could see the traffic building up to a jam.  As the sun went down and the brake lights came on, we noticed a commotion several blocks away. A fire had started beyond some low-rise condos and the flames were soon licking into the air more than 7 stories high.

Within minutes we could hear the howl of fire trucks and police sirens.  As the blaze built to three-alarm status, we could see all the rescue vehicles stuck in traffic.  No one pulled over to make way for the emergency team.  Vehicles crept forward, nose-to-tail, as if the blaring siren and flashing lights did not exist.  It took 20 minutes for them to move 100 meters.

When the fire truck and support team arrived at the fire, I used my binoculars to see what was happening.  Under the billowing black smoke I could see fire suits being donned, and hoses being reeled out … but none of it in a hurry.  One fireman, whose job it was to connect a big hose to the hydrant was standing there smoking a cigarette and talking to another fireman … right over the top of the hydrant … someone had to remind him to hook up the hose to the water source.

I handed my binoculars to my friend’s wife and exclaimed, “Those guys don’t seem to be in a big hurry to put out that fire”.

She looked for a moment, made a facial shrug and said, “Not their house”.  It was just that simple.

The next day I went to the site of the fire.  I could see that it had been what we in Thailand call a construction camp.   I walked by it almost every day.  When high rises and other buildings are being erected, huge teams of nomadic construction workers set up what looks like a shanty town to house themselves and their family.  This particular construction camp had stood for over two years and serviced three building sites nearby.

A fire in such a ram shackled cluster of half-assed sheds and tents, complete with propane tanks, gasoline and other flammables, must have been devastating.  I couldn’t help wondering if anyone died.

Stopping at a papaya salad vendor on my way home I asked the owner what happened.  She explained that all three construction projects were finished.  The lease the developer held on the land had expired.  To evacuate the site of the construction camp more expediently the owner had torched it.  They gave no warning.  I still don’t know if anyone died.

When you’re a tourist, the butt-kissing reflexive smile is included in the VAT.  But, when you live here, you’re just another dog in the dog-eat-dog equation.  And, if you aren’t careful you’ll be perceived as the big slow dog with no teeth and a fat wallet.  Even with all the smiling and bowing … it’s hardly a kinder/gentler place.  Welcome to Asia.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I still choose to live here above any other spot on the planet.  But, those considering a long stay in Siam should not expect to be bathed in the light of neighbor-loving Buddhism.  You should expect Thais to be Thai.

Most importantly, don’t be fooled by the show.  In Bangkok the Skytrain makes a slow curve right over the shrine of the four-faced Buddha in front of the Erawan Hotel.  Any day of the week one can witness throngs of faithful burning joss sticks and kneeling before the giant totem.  At first glance one could easily be moved by their devotion.

Most of them are asking for good luck in the lottery.

Editor’s note:  I have corresponded with many fantastic people during my time with Escape Artist but Bart Walters is by far one of the most entertaining and genuine people I have had the pleasure to be in contact with.  Bart writes about life in Thailand and permits me to use his work in exchange for a link back to the charity website that raises money for an orphanage in Thailand.  Please take a moment to visit the site, donate if you can and help support a good cause. Please go to www.care4kids.info Thank you ]

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19 Comments

  1. Jim April 24, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    Hi,

    Wonderful article. Gives great insight into the people and country. Very useful news for anyone considering living or working there.

    Would like more articles such as this by other ex-pats in other countries.

    Thank you.

  2. M Ah-Sing April 24, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Having read the above article I am wondering – How long has Bart lived in Thailand? and, is his Thai experience only limited to – Bangkok and Pattaya? Whilst I agree that the outwardly overwhelming Thai friendliness and hospitality must not be treated without suspicion, my experience of 3 yrs here in Northern Thailand leaves me with quite the opposite stance. On the trips I have made to Bangkok I immediately notice the difference in the Thai people, its like comparing ‘New Yorkers’ to ‘the rest of the Americans’. They are very different to the rest of the population. I also wonder which part his wife is from.

  3. Doug April 24, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    I have been to Thailand many times over three decades and while I wouldn’t disagree with any of what you have written, it appears that you have a very large axe to grind when it comes to living in Thailand. One can only wonder why you have chosen to live in a country where everyone appears to be so self-absorbed and money-oriented, and marry a Thai woman who apparently doesn’t share your concern or values over the appalling condition and tragic fate of animals left to fend for themselves on Bangkok’s streets.

    What else do you two not have in common?

    You say that you would still choose to live in Thailand despite all the negatives over any other place, but curiously you don’t explain why. There must be some positives for you, so what are they? Or is it, as I suspect, that the Thais fawn over foreigners whether tourists or expats who are treated as nothing special back in their own country? Can’t be the heat, humidity, pollution, traffic jams, Buddhism, ugly urban sprawl or only papaya salad. The girlie bars, perhaps? Even these are boring after a few visits. The smiles? Even you admit these are painted on regardless of the mood or motive. I’ve seen Thais indignant with rage who smile.

    I’ve also met more than a few Western men married to mainly less well-educated Thai women and I’m always struck by how superficial and immature these relationships are. The men are seen as walking ATMs and one can only wonder where love enters the equation when the Thais’ number one love is money. And no, I’m not a rabid feminist or anti-Thai. Just curious why so many Western men choose to live in a country which is so alien to core Western values and marry women whom they have little in common with (but would never admit it).

    Again, I agree with all that you have written, and that’s why I choose not to live in Thailand. Okay for the occasional visit in a five-star hotel, but not at this time when Thais are literally spilling blood on their streets.

    As for marrying a Thai woman, I’d rather become a monk: I’d have a more meaningful conversation with myself!

  4. J Green April 24, 2010 at 9:27 pm

    I live next door in Lao PDR and you could have been writing about this place. I travel often for medical care to Thailand as there are no good hospitals here so I have seen first hand what you say and I know it to be true. Thank you for a good article.

  5. Frank West April 25, 2010 at 2:33 am

    Hilarious and horrifying at the same moment. I am back in the UK after a long time in Thailand and can’t get over how nice the English are after the Thais… but nevertheless have to agree there is a strange magic to life in Thailand, you never quite know what is going to happen next, almost on an hourly basis! I will probably be back for another couple of decades of delight and distraction.

  6. damned April 25, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Thanks for the report on a non tourist life in thailand. I was taken in by the smile when there and wanted to make a home there. The economy made that impossible, unable to convert assets into needed cash etc.
    I would not want to manage assets long distance, where ever I live.

  7. Bill April 25, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    I stay in Thailand during the winter for a few months and he is absolutely correct here. I laugh when people call Thailand the Land of Smiles, I tell those people that the Thai people only smile when there is something that they want from you. They are always looking for the short money and not the long money and if you realize this you will have a great time there.

  8. Swancron April 26, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    So, let’s compare that to the good ‘ol USA. Here, instead of developer’s torching squatters camps, we have Wall Street bankers fleecing an entire country (not to mention several EU banks) and continuing to pay themselves huge bonuses while everyone sits around and scratches their heads. People here spend the better part of their time….eating, often while watching television programming that offers little or no real content. Many become so obese that they need little four-wheeled carts to drive them around because they can no longer walk. And best of all, those of us who are healthy, get to pay the bulk of their medical care.
    On the rare occasion we see someone walking, everyone in their cars wonders why anyone would walk? We’d rather sit, one person to a car, in traffic on the freeway. And god forbid anyone try and cut us off. Heck, we might just have a loaded gun under the car seat. I mean this is a country where everyone should have a gun, preferably high powered and of military origin.
    Yep, those Thai’s got some real problems. Me? I’m proud to say I’m an American!

  9. Dave April 27, 2010 at 10:43 am

    Hi. Interesting take on Thailand. I have spent a lot of time there as well but still have a pleasant feeling about the place and the people. Maybe you have a better insight into the truth tho. I hope what you have written is mostly not true. Would love to hear others opinions. Thanks!

    • Swancron April 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

      Dave: Like you, I have many wonderful experiences in Thailand. I regret the somewhat barbed tone of my earlier comment, but I really was only trying to put Bart’s take on Thai culture in perspective. I do feel that expats at some point grow sour toward their adopted culture and this piece is evidence of that. I visited with expats in India, Vietnam, China and Japan and they all tend to rant a bit. Perhaps it is part and parcel of living in a foreign world where one will never be totally accepted. Don’t know for sure on that. But I do know that I will return to Thailand. An even better place I felt was Vietnam – a magical place for me.

  10. Dennis May 4, 2010 at 4:31 am

    My wife and I have been living in BKK for about 7 months and have not had a negative experience since we got here. Any financial transactions such as the leasing of our condo from a Thai business woman to opening an account at the Bangkok bank were efficient and professional. So was the process of getting the utilities, cable and internet started. As a former underinsured American with a high deductible ($10,000) I am able to live here without health insurance because health care is affordable and I also find the Thai doctors and dentists to be competent and caring. There is always plenty of staff around to give you good service. I have traveled to over 50 countries and have lived or worked in 11 and find the Thai people to be the most polite and helpful by far. Would I buy real estate or start a business here? No, for obvious reasons regarding your rights as a farang-none. That alone eliminates a lot of potential problems.

    I am not sure what the point of this report is as the author states that he would rather live here than anywhere else on earth. If my relations with the Thai people were as bad as indicated I would be out of here in a heartbeat. This country and its people are not perfect. There is lots of poverty and corruption. The city and towns can be dirty and chaotic and the infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired but overall the Thai people make it worthwhile for me to overlook those issues.

    Regarding the dead dog, if it troubled the author so much why didn’t he pick it up? Also, before criticizing the Thais about their tsunami response look at the poor performance in the US to hurricane Katrina, a thousand dead from a disaster that was expected for at least 100 years.

    I find that if you treat people as you would like to be treated and try to respect their culture you will be treated well. If you come here only looking for cheap booze and pussy, walk into a nice restaurant in a bathing suit and tank top towing a hooker and haven’t taken a shower for a few days maybe your experience won’t be as positive.

  11. Gina May 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

    I appreciate the different perspective on Thailand. There are people in the US who have never heard a gunshot, unless it’s on television or Youtube. Then there are people living in the US where actual bullets fly through their bedroom windows who live in the suburbs and not the ‘bad neighborhoods’ as many would like to believe.

    Bart gives another perspective on living in Thailand as a resident, not a tourist. It’s nice to hope everywhere we travel people will be warm, the weather sunny and everyone smiling wants to be your best good friend – it’s not reality. Some will have a pleasant experience in their adopted country, others will pray daily for the plane to be on time so they can leave.

    At times it makes more sense to look at both, good and the not so good in order to make a more informed decision before you pack your bags and head for parts unknown. Bart didn’t muddy the waters for those who are determined to make Thailand a stop on their list of possible places to relocate. He simply gave you his perspective which doesn’t set well with many who responded because it’s not the ‘Everyone is your friend’ perspective.

    Thanks Bart.

  12. Gary Dorion May 20, 2010 at 9:50 am

    Well, it may be that, in a land where many people only make the equivalent of a few dollars per day, trying to make money becomes an all-important activity and colors relations between Thais and non-Thais. True, Thais may pray overly much about winning the lottery or something. And granted that the image projected of a devout Buddhist society doesn’t always measure up to expectations of non-Thais. Personally I don’t believe that all of the smiles are a facade that hide a selfish motive although, granted, I have only perhaps spent about six month total over three years in the country, basically Bangkok, Phukett, and northeastern
    Thailand.

    All in all I’ve found Thais helpful and courteous. I’ve been to some countries where I got the feeling that the locals were constantly trying to exploit non-natives-Peru for example. I do not get that feeling at all from Thais.

    I’d just like to share one story, however, that colors my attitude toward Thais. Last August I was swimming at Kata Beach in Phukett-granted I wasn’t supposed to be swimming as there were warning flags out-but the water and surf was just so incredibly good that I just had to stop wading and float in the surf a while. Well, it wasn’t too long before I wasn’t able to touch bottom any more and I began being sucked out to sea in a strong current. There was a line of surfers -mostly Thais- who were several hundred years off the beach. Normally I would never ask for help in such a situation but I was beginning to struggle and getting tired. When I was out near a young Thai – he looked to be about 17 – I finally relented and shouted for him to help me. “You need help?” he shouted back. He immediately began paddling toward me at full speed on his board and gave the board to me to ride in on the first big wave that approached. He gave me a push and I rode high into safety. He had to swim a good 25 yards towards shore to get the board after I finally made it to where my feet would touch bottom. I sent the board back to him. He probably saved my life.

    This was an instinctual selfless act in my opinion. He wasn’t seeking any reward or recognition. “Are you okay now?” was all that he said before paddling back out toward the line of surfers. To this day I remain grateful. He could have said, “not my problem.” And yet, I had no doubt whatsoever that he was going to help even before I asked for assistance.

  13. Josh Strike May 31, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    I think there’s something about the reflexive smile that makes the underlying attitude, once you discover it, that much more grating. In a country like Italy or Argentina, you find a sort of hamish kindness in most people once you get through the machismo and the pompous airs… and if you don’t find it, then at least they’re not afraid to be a**holes. Thailand is like the exact opposite; a kind mask almost totally covering a completely pompous attitude. You don’t see it as a tourist; you have to live there awhile. Nowhere is it more apparent than in Bangkok traffic. Our take was that many Thais as individuals are repressed and hemmed in by hierarchical social customs that prohibit genuine emotionality, and driving is their one opportunity to express anger at each other (and scare the hell out of the farang in the back seat).

    In my experience in Asia, this is unique to the Thais. Viets, for instance, are not afraid to tell you what they think at all… but take the way they drive in HCMC, you’ll find they’re incredibly courteous. No one honks, they go slow and careful, they don’t cut each other off, they weave around pedestrians. In Thailand, on the other hand, I heard more than once that if you hit a pedestrian, it’s best to back up over them to make sure they’re dead.

  14. gerry December 24, 2010 at 7:15 am

    Well the guy is obviously anti-Thai and maybe he doesn’t even care much for his own wife…
    Maybe he should just go back to England or Canada or where ever it is he comes from…
    But the big question I have is ” Why didn’t HE move the dog??????”

  15. John March 6, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    This is the typical “conventional wisdom” of the Thai ex-pat community. It is endlessly recycled and repeated, and every newcomer to Thailand is assaulted with this “message” upon arrival by the “wise old hands” who have “seen beneath the surface”.

    It is also completely mistaken. I believed in it for a long time until I was forced to realize that my interactions with Thai people simply didn’t fit the ex-pat “script”. I repeatedly met with genuine generosity and kindness on a surprisingly regular basis, when there was no possibility of the Thais getting anything out of me. I met with a surprisingly high level of honesty as well, and the Thai smile was more often than not a genuine expression of joy and good will. In fact,studies show that it is easy for people to distinguish between a “social smile” and a genuine smile, as different muscles are involved. If you begin to suspect only after months that the Thai smile is not genuine, then you are probably being paranoid, as if it really wasn’t genuine you would have noticed that the first couple of days.

    It took time for me to struggle free of the belief in the “wisdom” of the wise old-hand ex-pats, but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the official script and my own experiences allowed me to do so.

    I also went through a period where my interactions with Thais were quite negative, and this gave me some clarity on what affects the quality of your interactions with Thais.

    Essentially, mood and emotional state is paramount. If you are in a shitty mood, this has a vastly greater impact in Asia than in the West in how people treat you. If you are in a happy, benevolent frame of mind, you will be treated well, surprisingly well – you will elicit the same reactions from others. Asia, unlike the West, does not believe in sharp categories – even business has a strong emotional component, and if they don’t like you emotionally, no business can be done. Thai prostitutes will reject perfectly normal looking men if they don’t have a good emotional feel from them, even if they have no other prospect for the night. The ideal of being “professional” – putting your emotions aside and focusing on hard facts, is much weaker in Asia, if it really exists at all. Asians see their greater emotionality as a “wet” culture, and they see the West as an unemotional, “dry” culture, and to some degree they are correct.

    Even if you see this Asian mentality as somewhat immature, which it is, if you don’t adapt to it, you won’t have a good time – and it has it’s pleasant aspect as well, because interactions become more pleasant.

    Another thing I would say is that the commercial motive is very underdeveloped in Thailand – contrary to the “conventional wisdom” which says that Thais are motivated always by money and mercenary motives,I have found that the money motive plays a much smaller role in almost everything they do, even in business, than it does in the West. Feelings and emotion always trump pure considerations of money in Thailand. I cannot say how many times I have been given unasked for discounts or had small – sometimes even large – fees waived simply because the quality of the emotional encounter was pleasant.

    Another factor is self-respect. Sadly, many Westerners today, coming from a very democratic culture, do not understand how to behave with self-respect – and to show appropriate respect to others. Often, we think it is good manners to be obseqious to people of foreign cultures, almost out of a sense of historical guilt, but we don’t realize that this kind of behavior only makes us seem of little account in the eyes of people who live in a society where issues of social status are important. Many Westerners are treated poorly simply because they are overly obseqious and apologetic, and this sends the message that they are people of little importance who can be safely disregarded. If you offer respect to others, and behave with a certain amount of dignity and self-respect yourself, you will be treated extremely well, and will be shown genuine kindness, generosity, and friendliness, with no ulterior motive in mind.

    It has been a shocking discovery for me to find out how completely wrong the ex-pat “script” on Thailand is, and I would advise any newbie to read nothing on the “culture of Thailand” until he has spent a few months in the country – it will distort your perspective and give you a false script by which you will interpret everything mistakenly. After a few months, when you have come to your own conclusions, start reading. You will find most things wrong, and the good things will expand your understanding of conclusions you have reached on your own, rather than supply you with conclusions before-hand which you will have no idea of they are correct or not.

    People need to realize that most Westerners in Thailand are of an extremely bitter stamp, people who have been disappointed in life and consequently have an extremely distorted and warped perspective on things Thai – these are not the sort of people you want as your guide to the cultural landscape of Thailand.

  16. James(luckkyybuddha999)Swan September 17, 2011 at 9:35 am

    I find that the “Expat” title, is just a bit tiresome.I have lived in “LOS” now for three plus years.I am married and live with a large Thai family,in a Thai Village.The Village part is not in the “Hill Country” of thailand,but Saimai,a suburb of Bangkok.Thais always refer to their areas of living as a “Village” or Muang.I read a lot of forum posts on “Expat” sites,and find most boring and full of untruths.Live any place in the world,and somebody will find fault with everything about that place.It just plain gets down to “Acceptance”,or learning to try and change yourself,rather than trying to change ,persons,places or things that make you uncomfortable.Unless you accept things for what they our,then you will never find peace,happiness,or whatever your dreams might be.It is about the changes in your acceptance of life,on life’s terms,not fighting the outgoing tide.Jai,yen,yen.luckkyybuddha999

    • Steiner January 20, 2014 at 10:10 pm

      100% correct evaluation of how Thai people lack compassion.
      Lived here for years, spend a lot of time on the roads and I have never ever seen a Thai driver move over to let an ambulance past to help some poor unfortunate soul.
      I have however on numerous occasions seen Thai drivers block an ambulance responding to an emergency call so that they don’t miss a single place in a traffic queue or a red light.

      That has nothing to do with “Acceptance”, that is simply not caring about another human being and is simply not acceptable in any country!
      If you think any one of the people in your ‘village’ would move over to let an ambulance come to you aid think again, they wouldn’t!
      They would rather let you die unless they knew it was you and that possible future gifts would no longer come their way.

      You find the expat title tiresome? So you think of yourself as Thai?
      Stupid man, you are the only one, to the day you die or run out of money you will be the farang, nothing more.
      You are an expat!

      Thai people know nothing about the world, history or politics because they simply don’t care about anything that does not directly affect them.
      For one solid week I showed every Thai person I knew a picture of: Mick Jagger, Nelson Mandela and JFK, you would have to be under a rock somewhere to not know who any of those people are but not one single solitary Thai person knew who any of them were!

  17. Rob Marshman January 21, 2014 at 12:17 pm

    “Most importantly, don’t be fooled by the show. In Bangkok the Skytrain makes a slow curve right over the shrine of the four-faced Buddha in front of the Erawan Hotel. Any day of the week one can witness throngs of faithful burning joss sticks and kneeling before the giant totem. At first glance one could easily be moved by their devotion.

    Most of them are asking for good luck in the lottery.”

    This article is not bad and could function as a helpful dose of realism for those smitten with Thailand and thinking of moving there, but the four-faced statue in the Erawan shrine is not Buddha, but Brahma.

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