It doesn't matter a jot whether you're a 20,000 baht a month teacher or a well-heeled ex-pat on a fat overseas salary, the time comes when we all have to do business with Thai banks. And if you're unfortunate enough to be classed as a foreign alien, then dealing with Thai banks is undoubtedly one of the real minefields of life in Thailand. I don't know what it is about them but if banks here have set out to be as 'foreigner-unfriendly' as possible, then they can all claim to be a roaring success. If you're looking to deposit a couple of thousand baht into your savings account or to bank the weekly takings from your grocery shop, then you'll have few problems. If you want to withdraw a bit of cash because the nearest ATM machine is not working, then step right up to the counter. Any other kind of transaction - ordering foreign currency, applying for a banker's draft, transferring money overseas, etc - and you're taking the staff so far out of their 'comfort zone that you begin to question whether it's actually a bank you've walked into.
My first problem lies with banks who don't display their signage in English - which is most of them. I hate the sinking feeling of walking into a Thai bank and just not knowing where to go or who to ask for help. You find yourself just standing there with a look of helplessness and hoping one of the staff will stop shuffling papers for a moment and take pity on you. The Onnut branch of The Bangkok Bank adopted a wonderful system several years ago where they employed a middle-aged gentleman to greet you as soon as you walked through the door. You told him what you were there for and he would direct you to the appropriate counter. It was an amazingly effective system and a godsend to any foreigner who found himself in a strange and busy out-of-town branch.
Like in most countries I guess, the level of service varies significantly from branch to branch. I spend a lot of time in banks and while I always endeavor to use the branch I'm most familiar with, it isn't always possible, especially if I'm on a tight schedule. Walk into a branch where my face isn't known, and the teller will bring up my details on the screen and look at me as if I were Osama Bin Laden's right hand man. I have to clock my reflection to double-check it's not a day when I've decided to venture out in my turban, robes and ceremonial sword. Even in a branch where I've made numerous financial transactions, the staff will question my signature or ask why I'm sending the money overseas. I know we live in times of due diligence and money laundering, but why does paying a thousand dollars into an overseas pension fund sometimes feel like I'm funding nuclear missile tests in a remote desert.
Last week I went into my local branch to buy a banker's draft. It wasn't a significant amount of money and the transaction should only involve filling out a form and waiting twenty minutes for staff to complete it.
"Could I have the form for a banker's draft please?"
The teller looked at me as if I wanted to discuss the results of her pregnancy test. She let out what I can only describe as a shriek of terror. "Banker's draft cannot. Not this branch"
What should follow in this situation is the suggestion of what to do next and where to go. I think in the customer service world, it's referred to as 'help'. But I'm only a customer. And a foreign one at that. She shoved the number of the helpdesk into my hand and waved me away. There's nothing I love more than calling a helpdesk on a Monday morning and hearing 'if you would like to apply for a credit card press 1. If you would like to take one of our bank staff out for dinner and a show press 2' You get the picture. I went to another branch and got the banker's draft within ten minutes. It's just a shame it took me over an hour to get there. My grandmother was right. Keep it in a tin box under the bed. Put a good lock on the door. And you know exactly where you are.