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Business in Asia –
"Sawadee" from Thailand

by Sue Dockstader

This is part four of our ongoing series on doing business in Asia.

Some years back I attended the prize giving ceremony for a sailing regatta in Phuket (an island off the west coast of Thailand) which was presided over by a representative of His Majesty, the King. The recipients of the prizes had to perform a complicated sequence of bowing upon receipt of their prizes while the "helpers," who were all dressed in beautiful full length traditional Thai costume, handed the prizes to the representative and scurried around the stage on their hands and knees ensuring that their heads were never higher than the head of the seated royal delegate.

This seemingly bizarre behavior is easily interpreted. The Royal Family of Thailand is greatly revered and loved by all Thais and any sign of disrespect is severely punishable by fines and imprisonment. A leading Thai intellectual, Sulak Sivarak, was arrested in the 1980s for calling the King "the Skipper," a passing reference to his love of sailing. The antics of the regatta helpers can also be explained by the fact that Thais consider the head to be the most sacred part of the body. One must never touch or pat a Thai on the head and, where possible, people will go to considerable lengths to keep their head lower than that of an elder or superior. Clearly even the representative of the King demands highly deferential behavior.

Conversely the feet are considered the lowliest part of the anatomy and it is impolite to sprawl in a chair or to cross one's legs pointing a foot at someone. This is also applicable if sitting on the floor in a temple. Do not point your feet at the statue of Buddha. Ninety-five percent of Thailand's 58.3 million people are Theravada Buddhists which is evidenced by the beautiful temples which are found everywhere throughout the kingdom. Even in the poorest country areas the gilded rooftops of the ornately decorated temples dominate the skyline in stark contrast to surrounding humble dwellings. Many young Thai men become monks for some period of their lives, shaving their heads and donning the traditional saffron robes. Monks may not touch or be touched by women. Thus a female wishes to give something to a monk it must be done through a man or placed on the ground at the monk's feet.

Buddha statues are sacred in Thailand and their mishandling amounts to desecration which carries severe penalties. No Buddha image may be taken out of the country without special licenses. The reverence given to images of Buddha carried over even into matters of business. For example, a prosperous international advertising agency was warned that its new venture would fail because it had put itself "higher than Buddha" by taking office space above a prominent statue of the god. Sure enough, despite success in other Asian cities, the Bangkok office failed until the office manager succumbed to the suggestions from his local staff and relocated the office to a more favorable site, whereupon the venture flourished.

Although in business situations the handshake is an acceptable greeting to both men and women, the traditional gesture of welcome in Thailand is the wai. This is executed by placing both hands together in a praying position in front of the face. The higher the hands the more respect you are showing, although the hands should never be higher than the eyes. A simple bow of the head and a soft-spoken "Sawadee" is also an acceptable salutation and should always be accompanied by the polite word "Kha" if you are a woman or "Khrap" if you are a man.

Thais are very polite people, who smile a lot and always try to avoid conflict or any kind of confrontation. Do not slap a Thai on the back, even in the friendliest manner, as physical contact is not welcomed. Never raise your voice, thump the table or express anger in other ways during a meeting, no matter how extreme the provocation. Such behavior will be met with contempt. In Thailand it is impossible to be too polite. However, the ubiquitous smile may not always carry the message expected by a Westerner. The smile may often mask embarrassment, unease, or even lack of comprehension, so a smiling counterpart in Thailand is not necessarily a happy one.

The Thai language may seem difficult to learn, but any attempt to speak even a few words will be much appreciated and will help to foster the strong relationships so important in business dealings. Learning the written script may prove more difficult, but meticulous attention to its correct use in advertising and product labeling is essential. A recent traveler came across little packets of a white substance apparently labeled "LSD." He was immediately anxious as the Thai courts impose harsh sentences for drug-related offenses including the death penalty. It turned out that the script had been printed upside down and the worrisome little packages contained harmless non-dairy coffee creamer!

Thailand has many public holidays, mostly determined by the lunar calendar, so careful checking is advisable before planning a trip. One of the more unusual celebrations is the Songkran Festival which marks the traditional Thai New Year in April. Buddha images are "bathed," monks and elders have their hands sprinkled with water as a sign of respect from the young, and a great deal of water is tossed about in the streets. As Westerners are often favored targets for the water throwers, hide out in your room or expect to be soaked!

Bangkok is the overcrowded capital city of about 7 million people whose average annual wage is about $5000 U.S., which is more than double that of their rural neighbors. However there is a rapidly increasing middle class in this country of quiet smiles which has triggered a splurge of conspicuous consumerism. There are now 35 BMW dealerships and more than 50 Mercedes showrooms in the country. The Asian Wall Street Journal claimed recently that there are 500 new cars sold every day in Bangkok, with the cheapest new model going for $10,000 U.S.

A recent survey by the International Telecommunications Union reported that the average wait for a new telephone line in Thailand is over 8 years which has caused a black market for phone lines to develop. However, mobile phones, another major status symbol for the expanding middle class, have become such a bargain that they cost no more than a regular telephone on the black market. Telemarketing in Bangkok would not be a very rewarding occupation. Plan to make all your important phone calls before you leave home, or do as many of my clients did wait until you make a trip to Hong Kong.

The biggest nightmare for the businessman in Bangkok is the traffic gridlock. The Asian Wall Street Journal estimates that despite the country's efforts to improve its telecommunications and transportation infrastructure, traffic tie-ups continue to cost Thailand an estimated $16 million a day in lost productivity, revenues, and fuel. One way to beat the crowds is to travel by tuk tuk, a motorized three-wheeled taxi (named after the noise it makes) which is small enough to weave its way through the traffic jams and down the narrow alleys linking the main streets. Be warned that this mode of transportation is not for the fainthearted and is guaranteed to be an "E ticket" ride.

Despite the trappings of a modern city, some of the old traditions and superstitions still exist in Bangkok. Thai government and military leaders still consult astrologers before making important decisions. On election day politicians routinely make offerings of a pig's head at the popular Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. Buddhist shrines provide good luck numbers for buyers of lottery tickets and monks anoint the noses of new airplanes before they make their first flight.

Unlike many other Asian countries, Thailand (literally translated as "land of the free") has never been colonized by a foreign power. In general it is friendly to foreign visitors both for business and pleasure. Tourism brings in about 5 million visitors each year and more foreign exchange (about $4 billion U.S.) than rice or any other export. The Alien Business laws contain special rules for foreign businesses operating in Thailand and the ownership of real estate by foreigners, although recently relaxed to some extent, still is strictly regulated. American citizens enjoy a privileged position as they are accorded special treatment under the Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations. This treaty permits U.S. citizens to receive almost the same treatment as Thai nationals in most businesses.

Thailand has a tropical climate, with three more or less distinct seasons: hot (March to June); rainy (July to October); cool and dry (November to February). Most of the country is humid all year round which can make the summer heat difficult to tolerate, especially when formal business attire is required. Because of the traffic problems in Bangkok you should always allow plenty of travel time between appointments. Punctuality is not a Thai trait, so late arrival will be forgiven, but if you arrive on time you are likely to earn respect. Do not be surprised to be called by your first name - for instance Mr. Bob or Miss Mary; this informality is usual. When you see how long and seemingly unpronounceable many Thai family names are, you will also be glad for the opportunity to address your Thai counterparts by their first name only.

Bangkok's notorious night life is as male-oriented as ever and there are hundreds of bars, nightclubs, and "massage parlors" open until the early hours of the morning. There are two major things to be wary of when visiting bars staging dancing and other spectacles. Exorbitant prices are frequently charged for the "entertainment." Also, male visitors should remember that some of the most attractive women may not be what they seem, as transvestites are numerous and very convincing in many of the nightclub areas.

If you are planning a trip to Thailand for business or pleasure, make sure you sample the delicious local food. An interesting mix of delicate flavors and strong spices, the fiery heat of some Thai curries can surprise even the most hardened of chili lovers! Another essential ingredient to a trip to Bangkok is a visit to the legendary Jim Thompson's Thai Silk Company. Even if you decide not to buy, the multicolored bolts of material stacked to the ceiling are spectacular. If you consider buying silk from a less reputable vendor, make sure you are purchasing the real thing. Testing the frayed end of a bolt of cloth with a lighter will soon reveal if you are looking at pure silk or not. (Real silk burns; manmade materials melt.) The lighter test also is the accepted way of checking the accuracy of "real leather" labels on the designer handbags found in all the street markets.

Whether you are considering Thailand as a destination for marketing your products or for your next vacation, from the glittering rooftops of the temples to the flashing neon of the bars in Patpong, Bangkok, you will always find a warm welcome in the land of smiles.

Sue Dockstader is an English and Hong Kong lawyer who spent six years in Hong Kong. This is part four in a series of articles on the issue of cultural diversity and its impact on businesses new to Asia. In future articles Sue will share advice and observations about doing business in Asia, providing a variety of facts, figures, and anecdotes to offer a taste of the Asian business environment. She will highlight some of the cultural nuances to be observed when doing business with specific Asian countries, offer practical hints and travel tips, and mention some of the obstacles (and pleasures) of being a gweilo/gei jin/farang, that is, a foreigner in Asia.

Part one in our continuing series:   Business in Asia -- A User's Guide   (February 1998)
Part two in our continuing series:   Singapore: The Next Hong Kong?   (March 1998)
Part three in our continuing series:   Komodo Dragons, Bali, and Batik   (April 1998)

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