Bangkok Phil

Why I never treat Thai tradespeople like shit

It's definitely a part of being 'British'

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.


The best bung is the one to the guy who owns the pick-up. On the last occasion I agreed a price for moving all my things a couple of miles. A bung then ensured that I had two eager helpers to help move everything up the four flights of stairs at the end. They will now be my go to guys for moving house.

By Mick, Phuket (29th May 2016)

Good article and very true.

By Brian, Bangkok (28th May 2016)

Scott has a point that all tips are appreciated... that is if you're the one getting them!

This article isn't about that. There are many times I begrudge giving a 'tip' to people... especially f they expect it as part of their 'job' and don't do enough to deserve one.

A 'bung' on the other hand sets up a 'relationship' between yourself and the recipient.

When I was building my house, I was out in the hot sun two or three times a week laden with a cooler of energy drinks, etc, for the poor fellows working in the unforgiving heat.

This definitely paid off for me and was genuinely appreciated by the workforce. I was prepared to do the same for the electrician, too... but he was a total ass so I didn't. I simply found one who was better, more friendly and 'bunged' him instead! ;)

By Mark Newman, Thailand (28th May 2016)

A tip, even if not a big one, will always be appreciated by any working man or woman. Well deserved in my honest opinion.

By Scott, Bangkok, Thailand (28th May 2016)

I think why many Thais hold tradespeople with such little regard is because of the 'mai pen rai' attitude. I've seen some downright shoddy work and for Thais to just accept it. They're angry at the work or they just accept it because they don't want confrontation.

I had some guys come over to paint my apartment. I told them that if they do a good job that I'd reward them. I told them a few times to put newspaper down. I came back and there were some paint drops on the wooden floor. I was so pissed off. They told me not worry. It can be cleaned off. I told them you can't use paint remover because it will destroy the floors. They chipped away for about 10 mins and said "finished". It wasn't!

I don't treat anyone with distain, but I'm always reiterating my point with handymen. Do a proper job and I'll pay you well. Every time they've tried cutting corners and still expected more cash. I simply couldn't get the message across.

I'm sure there are many good tradesmen out there, but unfortunately the bad ones and Thai culture has given them a bad name.

By Liam Gallagher, Republik of Mancunia (26th May 2016)

I am totally the same as Phil as I am a stones throw away in Leicester. I remember my mum plying workers that would come to our house with tea or coffee and the end results from the workers were always top notch. Now I am in Thailand and I sometimes need something done around the house I feel bad if I do not at least offer a glass of water. Nearing the end of the work I will have a crafty look to see how it is going and will usually nip to the ma and pa shop and either grab some beers or whiskey and ask the guys if they would like a drink when they are packing up. If my wife is at home she might even cook alittle something or just nip to a nearby snack stall. It's the little things that sometimes matters rather than the big things and it does grease the wheels when you might need something done again the next time.

By Anthony, Uttaradit (26th May 2016)

Nice article, and also a true difference between the west vs east. I do believe it's not a British thing, since it is quite normal in the Netherlands as well. A nice story to read.

By Bart, Netherlands (26th May 2016)

"Just more typical Thai bashing from the grumpy middle aged TEFL lifer set"

Followed by more 'grumpy middle aged TEFL lifer bashing' by the expat anonymous keyboard warrior set?

Actually the main point of the blog is to support the work of tradespeople and say treat them well and you will be rewarded. I can't help it if tradespeople are not looked after well by their own countrymen. That's just the way it is.

Tell you what Jack. You're very welcome to submit your own blog instead of taking pot shots at everyone else's (which you frequently do)

By Philip, Samut Prakarn (26th May 2016)

After all this time in Thailand, a rant about how Brits are "good" and Thais are "bad" is the most sophisticated topic you can come up with?

It is boring, and this type of silliness just reinforces simplistic stereotypes and does nothing to help people understand or adjust to the cultural difference one encounters when living and working abroad.

Just more typical Thai bashing from the grumpy middle aged TEFL lifer set,

By Jack, In front of my computer (26th May 2016)

Pleasant read and very true. Not sure how specifically British it necessarily is, but certainly not Thai.

By Mike , BKK (26th May 2016)

Yes, a good reminder in English manners never loses it’s appeal here in Thailand. It costs so little and can pay off so well as has been illustrated above.

I’ll add a couple of examples that have made my life easier here in Thailand…

The biggest one for me is probably the parking at school. Every morning the crossing guard policeman saves me a spot just across from the school gates and guides me back into it when I drive up to work. Twice a year (at Christmas and in March) I slip him a bottle of whisky and poke it into the side-carrier of his police motorbike.

He’d probably save me the spot if I didn’t do this, but we both feel better about doing it. But when one of the school administrators found out, he was a bit concerned. He wanted to know if the policemen had asked for a backhander and made sure to tell me that it wasn’t necessary to do this.

I assured him that it was entirely a voluntary gesture and that it was just something that us weird farangs did. He seemed happy with that, though somewhat bemused as to why I would want to do it.

Another one is my air-con guy. He’s notoriously hard to get a hold of but when I send out the call he shows up, cranky old truck loaded with the wife and kids! Hot dogs for the kids and a tray of iced soft drinks plus an extra 100 baht on the bill. (I don’t get many visitors, so I have to make do with who I can get!)

There are a few other examples of bung behaviour that I could add, (oo er, missus) but the article sums up the attitude best...

It costs next to nothing to do, has a high ‘feel good’ factor and usually pays off in practical terms, too.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (26th May 2016)

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