Phil Roeland

A bit of culture part one

Loud music and slouching

Thailand is very different from Western countries. If you are here for the first time, you’ll notice the obvious differences. It’s bloody hot compared to just about any Western country, apart from Northern Australia, which also has a tropical climate. Thai people smile a lot. A lot more than their Western counterparts do anyway. Everything is cheap. Dirt-cheap compared to prices in farangland. These differences are the usual suspects.

If you live here though, you’ll experience a few more subtle differences. You’ll get to know Thai culture and Thai attitudes better and you’ll understand that Thais sometimes have a completely different view and way of doing things. The way they act and think is often beyond Western comprehension.

Now let me first get one thing straight. I like Thailand and I like Thai people. They are very friendly and I usually don’t mind their strange behaviour and views. They say it’s culture. It’s not a problem for me, but the question is: can you handle it? With ‘you’, I mean the newly arrived farangs who are still in the so-called honeymoon period and think Thailand is heaven on earth. They’ll soon find out that not all is what it seems in paradise. Can they handle it? I can. For now.

To clarify things, here’s a selection of differences I’ve discovered so far.

Air is the Thai word for air-conditioning. Thais love their air-conditioning. I agree that it can be pleasant to be able to get away from the sweltering heat from time to time, and relax in a nice, cool place. The problem is that more often than not, the air-conditioning is on full blast, making the environment you’re in not just cool but cold. If the outside temperature is 37 degrees Celsius and the air-conditioning is turned to 20, the sudden transition can give you quite a shock. Although 20 is relatively warm in absolute terms, it feels arctic when you just came in from the heat.

Have you ever been to a Thai cinema? If you have, you’ll know that it’s always freezing in there. During my first visit, I was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I had to keep rubbing my arms and legs to prevent frostbite. A friend of mine brought his leather jacket to Thailand just for one reason: being able to go to the cinema.

Other extreme examples include forms of public transport. Although the Skytrain is very fast and convenient, it should be called Skyfridge. The same goes for the recently opened subway and most air-conditioned buses. Taxi drivers are usually dangerous individuals too. Whenever they get the chance, they’ll try to freeze you to death. If someone ever expires in a metered taxi, rest assured that his corpse will be delivered fresher than ever to the nearest hospital.

What can I say? It’s a way of life. Just ask a few of your students what they do when they have a day off. They’ll tell you they go to the shopping mall. They’re not really going shopping. The main reason for going there is window-shopping and hanging out with their friends in the chilly confines of the local mall.

Loud, louder, loudest
This is not a grammar lesson to remind you of the comparative and superlative forms. It’s about the way Thais like music. Wherever you go, the volume of the music that is being played will be set to high, higher or highest. Sitting in a bar doesn’t involve lots of meaningful conversation. Not just because Thais are incapable of it, but also because it is physically impossible to make yourself heard and understood while spending time in these venues.

In many bars, there is often a live band performing, and they always produce more than the legally allowed 90 decibels. Don’t think you’ll be able to get your say during breaks, because a CD will then take over and make even more unwanted noise.

The same is often true for shopping malls. The music played in many of the small shops, such as the ubiquitous clothes shops or video stores, isn’t the soft background music one would expect; it’s earsplitting noise that has only one effect on me: run an never come back.

Thais aren’t particularly good at walking. By walking, I mean just walking around in the shopping mall, on the pavement, anywhere really. I don’t refer to hiking or trekking; those are activities are entirely foreign to most Thais. People who do that are completely out of their mind, if you’d ask Somchai Samsong (the average Thai, in analogy with Joe Sixpack). No, I’m talking about using your feet to get from one place to another in daily situations.

What’s wrong with the way Thai people walk? Objectively speaking, probably nothing. As always, experiencing another culture involves comparison with your native culture, however objective you try to be. I’d say that my normal walking pace is about twice that of the locals. This means that, according to my view of the world, Thais walk incredibly slowly.

I do like a leisurely stroll in the park myself occasionally, but I’d never dream of obstructing pedestrian traffic wherever I go the way Thais do. I realise it’s no big deal, but their perambulations sometimes get on my nerves. I guess they are so slow because they don’t like to walk and they are hardly ever in a hurry. The tropical heat, the culture at work or the lack of a job are probable causes.

Fortunately, there is an economic advantage to this aversion to walk. The fact that Thais are completely unwilling to do the tiniest bit of walking makes the day for all kinds of taxi services. Especially motorbike taxis benefit from the Thai reluctance to walk even 200 metres (I am not exaggerating).

There are many more differences, but for now, my column ends here. See you next month.


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