Five Things Westerners Don’t Understand About Thailand


Most westerners will never understand Thais or Thailand. Even some of those, like me, who have lived here for years and speak reasonable Thai still misunderstand much about Thailand and Thais. Thailand has a complicated culture and an often unusual way (to Westerners!) of dealing with things. Living in Thailand, I hear westerners every day spouting off about “Thais think this” and “Thailand does this” and, secretly I think, “No they don’t” and “No, it doesn’t”.

To truly understand Thailand and Thais you must speak Thai. You must also immerse yourself in Thai culture so you learn not to misunderstand why Thais do what they do. For westerners who have visited Thailand and those who live here, these are the five main things westerners misunderstand about Thais and Thailand.

The Thai Smile Means Thais Are Happy
– Nope, it really doesn’t. Common folk lore says there are more than 40 different types of Thai smile and they all mean different things. Sure, Thais smile when they’re happy, just like any of us. But, Thais also smile when they’re confused, embarrassed, angry and even when they’re sad.

If you spend any time in Thailand, you should learn to differentiate what each individual smile means so there’s less room for misunderstandings. Thais don’t like confrontation and smiling is a way of trying to avoid it, but it doesn’t mean they’re happy when they’re doing it.

Thais Never Get Angry – I hear so many westerners saying “Thais never get angry”, “My Thai girlfriend is always so relaxed. She never gets angry” and it always makes me smile. What many westerners who don’t learn about Thai culture don’t realize is this. Thais don’t like to lose their tempers, as it means they have ‘lost face’. So they will hold it inside and not express what they’re really feeling. However, when a Thai has held their negative emotions inside long enough, something eventually has to blow. And it does.

When a Thai does get angry, they can be the scariest, most out of control human being you will ever meet as many western men have learned to their detriment with their Thai girlfriends or wives.

Be wary of making a Thai angry. Every year there are instances of westerners in Thailand killed by Thais, often because they got into a fight in a bar over something stupid, or because they made their Thai girlfriend so angry she killed them or had them killed. Thais overall are just about the nicest people in the world but, when pushed, they will lose it and you don’t want to be around when they do.

All Thai Girls Want To Marry Western Men – Errrr, nope, most of them don’t. You hear this a lot from old, fat western men perched on bar stools in seedy areas of Bangkok. Having lived here a few years and come across a few Thai girls who make them feel like they’re God’s Gift, these men automatically think every Thai woman wants them. Really. They don’t.

I have well over 100  female Thai friends and, out of all of them, only one has ever had a western boyfriend and that was purely chance. The other 99-plus have either Thai boyfriends or husbands, or are looking for a Thai guy to date or marry. They have no interest in dating western men, particularly most of the lovely specimens that often come to Thailand in search of a woman.

So, the next time you hear “All Thai girls want to marry western men”, just laugh. There’s nothing wrong with Thai guys, so why would they want one they may have problems communicating with or is 40 years older than them. Married life is difficult enough as it is.

All Thai Girls Are For Sale – Many westerners come to Thailand with the idea the country is full of prostitutes and everything revolves around buying and selling Thai women. Nothing is more offensive to Thais. I’ve seen western men embarrass themselves by propositioning well-educated, professional Thai women on the street and asking them “How much?” for their ‘services’. These guys are lucky most Thai women are incredibly polite and well-mannered as most western women would have smacked them by now.

The level of prostitution in Thailand is actually much lower than it appears. Westerners who don’t live here, or who spend half their lives in the prostitute areas, think all of Thailand is like that. It’s not. In fact, studies show, overall Thailand has a lower level of prostitution than the US – it’s just out in the open more so westerners think it’s everywhere.

99% of Thai women are not prostitutes and they’re not for sale. Propositioning a woman you’ve never met on the street is not only rude, it could get you in serious trouble if she’s with a boyfriend, father
or husband. Don’t misunderstand Thai culture and Thais. Thai women are no more of a prostitute than any American woman you’d see on the street.

What You See Is What You Get – The most important thing most westerners misunderstand about Thailand and Thais is they believe, like the west, what is upfront is what’s actually happening. Nine times out of ten, it’s not. After spending enough time in Thailand, hopefully, you’ll realize 90% of what’s really happening is behind the scenes or behind the eyes, and not upfront for you to figure out.

Spend some time trying to understand what’s really happening, what’s actually being said and what that smile probably means, and you’ll misunderstand Thailand and Thais a lot less.

Thailand has one of the most complicated and confusing cultures in the world and Thais are some of the most complicated people. On the surface, because of the lovely smiles and graceful wais, many westerners misunderstand the motives of Thais (both good and bad) and misunderstand Thai culture. Don’t keep blundering around in Thailand like a bull in a china shop, imposing western values and the way you think Thailand should be run and Thais should (and do!) behave. You’ll be in for one heck of a nasty shock when you realize how wrong you actually are.


Photo – Thai girl riding motorbike in the rain – copyright zoutedrop – Creative Commons License