A Frustrating Day in Thailand

A wasted day visiting 2 banks and a car repair shop.

Having spent 6 hours today sorting out what could and should have been resolved by three simple telephone calls, as one would expect to be able to do in the West, I have at least crystallised my thoughts about WHY these frustrations happen regularly in Thailand. So, although, at first thought, I had WASTED six hours of my time and several litres of car fuel, I may have gained some important insights, from my observations at the two banks and the car repair centre, of Thai culture and the everyday lifestyle of the Thai.

Before we look at the 3 specific events that caused the frustrations, let’s consider the cultural reasons. To do so, we will consider Larry King’s approach to understanding a situation.

(photo credit Davegranlund)

The late Larry King, when interviewing his talk show guests, including politicians and the movers and shakers of this world, was always more interested in getting people to explain WHY they did what they did. Other talk show hosts would ask soft questions and allow the interviewees to promote their own agendas. Awkward questions were never asked. You don’t learn anything or advance a conversation by letting guests off the hook. Larry’s objective was to give his listeners and readers a full account of what was taking place and to explain the logic and reasoning behind the guests’ actions.

Michael Caine has a similar attitude. He always wanted to get to the bottom of a problem. He said that you can’t get to a solution until you have identified the real problem. Michael tried, in his own words, to “seize the opportunity” of turning a problem into a solution. This article, A Frustrating Day in Thailand, will seize the opportunity of finding out more about Thai culture and how Thai live their lives, finding out WHY they act and speak as they do in the face of everyday events.

Visiting the first bank.

Mai Pen Rai is the most characteristic feature of Thai culture which foreigners observe. Its literally meaning is, “it doesn’t matter”. It’s the strongest of all Thai cultural traits. It has the connotation that nothing is that serious, let things be, don’t ruffle feathers, walk away from any perceived problem. Thais feel that that makes for far less stressful living and avoids conflict. On the flip side, it means that problems don’t get solved, and stress is merely bottled up.

We can see this cultural feature on observing what happened at both this bank, the second bank, and the car repair shop.

Firstly, I needed to withdraw some cash, and, second, I needed the bank to send my monthly statement to my email address. I had requested this two months ago, but nothing ever arrived in my email. The branch staff couldn’t sort it out. They rang head office in Bangkok. Head Office could not assist because the staff at the branch had not sent the copy of my new passport, which I had given them in May of last year, to their head office.

They suggested I send them my old passport. Even though I pointed out that my old passport was no longer valid, they persisted in saying this would solve the difficulty. This is another aspect of Thai social culture, not “thinking out of the box”, not thinking about how that would cause a further problem. Most Thais think one step at a time. It’s one reason they do not make good Chess players. They do not think ahead. In fact, they take to heart what the late King Rama IX, King Bhumibol, said, that he did not want his subjects to think, that he would do their thinking for them.

Westerners would have taken his comment as being condescending, and insulting of their own intelligence. Most Thais understand his wise words as meaning that he is being fatherly, in not letting them have the trouble of thinking for themselves.

A full half-hour was wasted because they would not accept that sending the old passport to Bangkok would not solve the problem. This illustrates another cultural feature of Thai social culture, not wanting to lose Face. You will find they may just walk away, or change the subject. They won’t try to solve the problem head on. Linked to that, the rigid rules of Hierarchy in Thailand ensures that junior staff members don’t argue, or even constructively suggest, solutions to a problem. They accept their place in society. The guys in Bangkok head office are “higher” in the hierarchy than they are.

Before I continue the story, here are some illustrative quotes and a video.

Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die. (Alfred Lord Tennyson).

Cecil Alexander explained class distinction in society this way. This third verse of the hymn “All Creatures Great and Small” has been removed from most hymnals.

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

This UK sketch, made in 1966, makes the same point, except that in Thailand the “upper” class certainly do not lack money and power.

To continue, I told the branch officer to send a faxed copy of my current passport to head office, again having to repeat that sending my old passport would be futile. “It will take them about one hour to update their systems. Come back to the branch in one hour.”, I was told.

The Second Bank.

I had noticed that, for two months running, they had included a 5350 baht annual fee on my statements. Although that charge was certainly not due, it took a visit to the branch to get it removed. The staff rang Bangkok, and head office eventually said they would remove the charge in two days’ time. No apology or explanation why they had “tried this on” every month. The conversation had taken over an hour, including the time I was on the branch phone waiting for Bangkok to respond. I was treated to some music and a song while I waited. I now know the words by heart.

Back to the First Bank.

Although it was more than one hour later, there had been no response from head office. The branch staff rang them again on their direct line. Several minutes waiting on their phone, but, at least, some different music.

My own phone rang. A staffer from the head office of the second bank told me that the girl in the branch had given him wrong information. She had, he said, told him I had changed my address and wanted to inform head office. She had said nothing of the kind. I listened to enough of her conversation to be sure that she spoke only of the annual charge. He was just “blaming someone else” instead of taking personal responsibility. Yet again, an example of not wanting to lose Face.

I put my phone down. Less than one minute later, it rang again. The same guy on the phone, “I’m refunding the 5350 baht.”

The staff at this first bank didn’t seem perturbed about my taking calls from bank number 2. And they informed me that, in the meantime, their own head office had confirmed to them that they had processed my new passport and that I would get email statements in future. Let’s see. I don’t want to spend a day every month visiting bank branches to get things done.

Fifteen minutes later at the Car Repairer

The repair shop don’t allow photographs to be taken. But this photo is similar to the early stages of my car repair.

A motor bike had run into the back of my wife’s car when it was stationary. She was signaling and waiting to make a right-hand turn. The wire basket on the bike had penetrated the lid of the boot (trunk). The biker’s friend, following too closely, then rode into the back of the first bike, pushing the basket further into the boot lid.

The repairer had said the repair would take 2 weeks. That’s standard practice with most repairers in Thailand. Although they had to fix the rear camera which had been broken in the accident, the only painting job they had to do was on the newly purchased boot lid.

The job should have taken only two days, three at the most. In the West, a repairer would book the car in when they are ready to start the repair. In Thailand, they only rarely do that. You leave the car with them, even when they are not working on it.

On the day that we were due to pick up the car, they rang to remind us to come at 5pm that day. My wife had taken a day off work. One hour later, they rang again to say the car would not be ready until five days later.

The garage has a good reputation for the quality of its repairs. I had been impressed that, despite this repairer being an independent, there were top of the range BMWs and Mercedes being repaired there, and not at the main dealers. It was a good sign, I thought. What I expect happened was that one of these customers had offered some cash to get his car completed before our own. A further example of the “upper class” using the cultural concept of hierarchy to his advantage.


There are other aspects of Thai culture and lifestyle that influence how most Thais think and act. They “reason” with their hearts and emotions and not their heads. They are also influenced by what family, teachers, their peers, and their “betters” tell them. They are guided by government propaganda.

I hope the three examples I have given, all happening on the same day, have been informative and a useful understanding of Thai social culture.

For a more detailed discussion, I hope you will take a look at some of the books I have written on Thai cultural anthropology. They are light reads, not over academic in style. You can browse them at Books2Read.com/MattOwensRees

If you want to learn about Thai culture from photos, I recommend Lode Engelen’s work on https://www.flickr.com/LodeEngelen/

Comments can be translated into any language.

Both Lode and I encourage constructive comments on our respective sites. They are helpful to all readers and viewers who are genuinely interested in Thailand and its people. Everyone benefits when you comment.

2 thoughts on “A Frustrating Day in Thailand

  1. It is a very familiar story, at least for me because I have also been living in Thailand for ten years.
    I myself have also experienced that one bank branch forwards you to another and then back to the first, simply because there is no structure in their actions. I’ve had better luck with repairing cars, that went much faster for me.

  2. I was surprised when the staff at the first bank, who were listening to the conversation I was having with the second bank, were not critical of the errors made by that second bank. I would have thought it was a golden opportunity to show they were better than their competitor.

    But no, they just shrugged their shoulders. Mai pen rai, I guess.

    When I went back to the second bank to tell the girl she was being wrongly blamed by her own head office, I observed the same attitude. Mai pen rai?

    Or was it not being able to comment or get angry with her “betters” in head office.

    I think it was mai pen rai, not wanting to have a conflict, and the influence of hierarchy.

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