Let's begin with an English lesson and a couple of definitions.
A bung (noun, slang) - a small financial gift often given to tradespeople as an appreciation for services rendered.
A drink (noun, slang) - see ‘bung'.
An old school sparky
During his working life, my father was an electrician. And he was a damn fine one too. He had a solid reputation for quality work and he always tidied up after himself. His mantra was "I treat your home like I would treat my own"
Apart from holding down his regular day job for Birmingham City Council and looking after the wiring in many of the city's most important buildings, he made money on the side by ‘doing foreigners' (a British slang expression for cash-in-hand payments from friends and neighbors).
Faulty light switch? Broken wall socket? My dad was your man. No job was too small.
And of course one of the greatest benefits to being a good, honest tradesman was when people slipped a five or ten-pound note in your top pocket as you gathered up your tools and made for the exit door.
"Lovely job John. There you go. Have a drink on me"
"Thank you for coming at such short notice John. There's a little something for your trouble"
"Thanks John. Get yourself a packet of fags"
Bungs, drinks - call them what you will - they were always gratefully accepted.
My Dad packed in work shortly after his 52nd birthday and retired to a country finca with its own swimming pool in a beautiful corner of Spain. Those bungs and drinks soon added up. And as my Dad always used to say - ‘a good electrician, plumber or motor mechanic is never out of work'
I grew up in a ‘bung culture' as well. I was barely 15 years old when I got my first Saturday job working at a greengrocer's for ten pounds a day. Those extra pound coins slipped into your pocket by customers for carrying a heavy box of fruit and veg to their car meant the world to a young lad obsessed with spending money on records and clothes.
So thanks for the life story Phil but what's this got to do with living in Thailand? Well quite a lot in fact.
Good tradespeople are tough to find
Even though I've been here for well over two decades, there are still aspects of Thai culture that I can't fathom out and probably never will. They are aspects of the culture that continue to fascinate and annoy me in equal measure. Welcome to today's topic - how badly Thais seem to treat tradespeople.
In a relatively poor country like Thailand, you would think there'd be a long line of odd-job men queuing up to unblock your sink or build you a nice little brick wall at the end of the garden, but over time I've found the complete opposite to be true. The hard-working and reliable guys just ain't out there. So when you do find one, then take my advice - you hang on to him for dear life. You look after him and you keep him sweet. Good handymen in Thailand are like gold!
The magnificent Khun Prawit
For a number of years, Khun Prawit was always my go-to tradesman. Polite and cheerful and in his early 50s, he was the quintessential jack-of-all-trades and master of none. His business card (not that he ever carried any) said ‘air-conditioning specialist' but in truth Khun Prawit could turn his hand to anything.
It was during one of his annual visits to the house - to perform maintenance on all the air-conditioners - that he nodded towards my new flat-screen TV and offered to install cable TV with all the sports channels included - for just 6,000 baht. That wasn't 6,000 baht a year - that was a one-off only payment. I bit the man's hand off and the following day I had a cable TV box, every TV channel on earth and a remote control almost as big as the sofa.
I gave him 6,000 baht and a couple of hundred on top for a job well done. That was the bung. Every time Khun Prawit came to the house to repair something, regardless of how small the task, I always put a little drink in his shirt pocket.
One morning when I turned on the TV and found I had no picture, I called Prawit on the phone and he was round within the hour. Perhaps he regarded me as ‘the farang who always tips' but who was I to care? There was an important football game that night and I needed my TV working. That was all that mattered!
But whenever my mother-in-law called him to come out and inspect something faulty, Khun Prawit would find any excuse to no show - from being out of town on business to being laid up in bed with backache. And all because my mother-in-law never tips tradesmen.
In fact on one occasion, she looked horrified when I gave Khun Prawit a 500 baht ‘Christmas box' (there's another very British tradition by the way)
"There's no need to give him that sort of money" she would say "he's a long-standing friend of the family"
The way of the world
I've never had the heart to tell her. Never had the inclination to explain to her how the world works. That tradesmen the world over - be they English, Thai, Russian or Chinese - all love a bung. And that's why when I shout for help, Khun Prawit is at the house in no time but when my mother-in-law does the same, it falls on deaf ears.
So what have I observed when it comes to how many Thais treat tradespeople from the moment they roll up to the house in their battered old van? Firstly, the wai is sometimes never returned. I guess it's important that the tradesperson knows their place from the get-go. When it comes to the refreshment department, you'll make do with a dusty glass half-filled with tepid drinking water and be bloody thankful. And finally, there's no such thing as a bung or a tip.
I've watched my mother-in-law be presented with a 450 baht bill, fish a 500 baht note out of her purse and stand there and wait hands-on-hips for the change. And there will be me cringing in the background.
Thais treat tradespeople like shit.
I can't escape the fact that taking good care of tradespeople is a very British thing. While they're on the job, we British fuss over electricians, plumbers and the like with endless cups of tea or coffee and do anything to make sure they're comfortable. In fact I'm smiling now as I recall times when my Dad would return home, muttering and cursing, from doing an electrical job where the property-owner had not offered him a single ‘cuppa' (cup of tea) all day long. It was known in the trade as "doing a dry ‘un" - but such occasions were extremely rare.
Old habits die hard I suppose - but I'm always proud that treating tradespeople with respect and kindness is one aspect of British culture that I brought to Thailand with me - and one that I'll hopefully never give up on.