One thing that confuses a lot of westerners in Thailand is, if they go out for dinner with a Thai or a group of Thais, who’s expected to pay? Do they pay? Does the Thai pay? Does the richest person pay? It all depends. Eating with different people has different sets of rules and most Thais will adhere to them. As a westerner, you’re not always expected to know or to adhere to the rules, plus the rules of etiquette here may not apply to you. However, if you can figure it out, why not?
Dinner With a Thai Girlfriend or Boyfriend – This one is an easy one. Like many countries in the world, in Thailand if you invite a Thai girl for a meal, you are always expected to pay. If you’re a western woman and a Thai guy invites you to dinner, he will always pay. And if he doesn’t, he’s what the Thais call “kee neow” – cheap – and no self-respecting woman would go out with him again. And you shouldn’t either.
A Thai Girlfriend and Her Friend, Sister or Cousin – When you first begin dating a Thai woman, in some cases on the first few dates, she will bring along her friend, sister, cousin, uncle or in some cases even her mother. In Thai culture, a Thai ‘good girl’ often has a chaperone the first few times she goes out with a guy, so the family can be sure he’s a good man. If this does happen to you, payment etiquette dictates you are expected to pay for her and anyone else she brings.
Eating Dinner With a Close Friend – If you go out with a Thai friend or friends around your age, older, or much of the time nowadays, younger, in modern Thai culture just like the west, everyone pays for themselves. The bill will arrive, it will be equally divided into a part for each person present and everyone hands over their portion.
Unlike the west though, where there’s often arguments about “I didn’t eat that” and “I’m not paying for this”, Thais think that’s low-class behavior, so the bill is split equally. Besides, at most restaurants in Thailand, a meal will be less than 200 baht each ($6.75) so 20 cents isn’t worth quibbling over.
Eating Dinner With Someone Older – If you go out with a group of Thais and one person is markedly older, often that person will pay for everyone. It’s looked at as an insult to the older person in Thailand if younger people try to pay; sort of saying they must not be very successful.
So, if you’re out with a group and the oldest person starts to pay. Just politely say “thank you” and accept it. However, if you are the oldest person in the group, it may happen you are expected to pay. Again, do it politely with grace. It really will come back to you tenfold.
Eating Dinner With Someone Wealthy – Simple. The rich person always pays. It’s a sign they are successful and therefore can help everyone else and Thais, of any age, are happy to accept the honor. If you’re the wealthy one though, again, you may be expected to pay. Smile and pull out your wallet.
Dinner for Special Occasions – Weirdly to many westerners, if it’s your birthday or another special occasion and you invite people out for dinner, you are expected to pay. The birthday girl or boy always pays for dinner and, in return, gets gifts from the people who come.
The same goes for if you leave a job and you go out for lunch or dinner – even though you are the one leaving, you are also the one paying. (However, when I recently left my job, my co-workers paid for my meal as, working in an international company, they’re used to western ways of doing things).
Paying for Dinner as a Westerner – As a westerner in Thailand, whether or not you are expected to pay for a meal depends on the group you go out with. Some will absolutely refuse to allow you to pay as, even if you’ve lived here for years, you’re a ‘guest in their country’ and they want to make sure you are honored.
Others, particularly those who don’t have much money, will follow traditional Thai cultural rules and you will be expected to pay – every time. But, as food is cheap in many places and as long as you are prepared for the eventuality, try not to feel too much taken advantage of. You’re really not being. It’s more of a sign of utmost respect, as they are acknowledging you have been successful in your life and, for that, you are looked up to.
I’ve lived in Thailand for years and, honestly, other than eating meals with my Thai best friend where we just pay for ourselves, almost every time I eat with Thais, no one will let me pay. Whether I’m younger, older, richer, poorer, the teacher, the student, the employee, the girlfriend – in almost a decade in Thailand, I can count the number of times I’ve actually paid for a meal on one hand. And it’s not that I don’t try.
So, read up on the rules. Know what to expect. But don’t be surprised if, because you’re a westerner, you’re money isn’t good enough here.