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The Thai Concept of ‘Saving Face’ Has Worsened Bangkok Floods

Travel by boat, one block north of Mo Chit BTS early this afternoon
Travel by boat, one block north of Mo Chit BTS early this afternoon


When I moved to Bangkok, Thailand nine years ago, one thing I learned quickly was, even though Thais appear to be listening to a foreigner’s advice, when it comes to implementing that advice, it’s never going to happen. Why? Simple. The Thai concept of “saving face”, or showing your best self in public, means any Thai government will never accept that a foreigner knows more than them. It makes their “best image” look bad. During Bangkok’s floods, the exact same thing has happened.

To save face, Thailand’s government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and other Thai officials have invited foreign experts to Thailand to give advice about stopping Bangkok flooding. They’ve also listened to foreign experts currently living in Thailand.

But, when it came time to actually implementing the advice these experts had given, most of which was to do the opposite of what the Thai government was already doing, all of it was ignored and the same-old-same-old response to Bangkok’s floods went ahead. Outer Bangkok flooded, and foreign experts must have wondered why they’d even wasted their time.

Today, the Bangkok Post is reporting another water expert, this time a Dutch guy, toured northern Bangkok yesterday. The government is trying to figure out how to drain Don Mueang Airport, the city’s second airport, which is in an area that’s been under three-plus feet of water for more than a month. So, as any western government would do, they called in the Dutch – the world’s foremost experts on water.

The Dutch man, (who you will notice, in the article, is never named as, well…… he’s just not that important in Thai eyes), said the gap in the “Big Bag Project” (a six kilometer stretch of enormous sandbags that’s blocking off water coming into Bangkok from the north), should be immediately widened. It’s the only way to effectively drain Don Mueang Airport within the next three weeks.

This is all happily reported in The Bangkok Post, the Dutch man will have gone away feeling he gave much-needed help to Thai authorities and, then…………….the gap will not be widened, the Big Bag Project will remain just the way it is, and Don Mueang Airport will take another two months to drain.

Like a western-educated Thai friend of mine is constantly saying, “Why don’t most Thais realize, they’d save more face if they’d actually listen to people who know more than they do, rather than continuing to believe they know better and ending up looking stupid?”

Nobody seems to know. But, as we expats who live in Thailand often say, “TIT” (“This is Thailand”)…..and it’s never going to change.