Thai Hospitality: A Fine Specimen

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Until recently, travelers from all over have hailed Thailand as one of the friendliest places in the world. However I have received increasing reports that Thailand’s tourism industry is eating away at Thai hospitality and the friendly nature of the people and the land. And our first few days in Thailand (sadly in Bangkok) did nothing but perpetuate the sense that Thailand has fallen way off the friendly-scale.

Once in Chiang Mai, though, we saw another side to the story.

And now – I get it.

This post was originally published in 2008. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

sitting and chatting with a Thai man

When we decided to do whatever we could to help the victims in Burma, we approached the owner of the internet café we had already spent some time at. We asked him if he knew where we could rent a truck. Immediately, we were introduced to a friend who has a truck, and would be willing to drive with us to the Thai/Burma border to drop off the supplies. He would not charge us for gas or usage…instead his biggest expense is time. So we would pay him by the day, which was sure to be a fraction of the cost to rent.

Thai woman cradling her sleeping son

But the café owner (who told us to call him TJ, but whose Thai nickname is actually Taey – pronounced something like “doy”) didn’t stop there. When he discovered we are Rotarians, he exclaimed “My father used to be a Rotarian! I can call the president of the Chiang Mai Rotary club. He is a very powerful man, and he can help you,” and off to the races we went.

Again, the generosity didn’t stop even there. TJ granted us unmitigated access to his café to use his computers and the internet whenever we wished. He apologized for having to charge us for phone calls though – it is a direct expense he cannot bear. (The fact he felt he had to apologize for this was unbelievable; his generosity was already reaching unprecedented levels in our books).

But hold your applause – there’s more. He then proceeded to chauffer us all over the city of Chiang Mai; to Rotary meetings, to the mall for supplies, and on various errands. If we ever suggested that we would take a taxi and spare him (or god forbid actually take the taxi in question), he became angry with us. And on the few occasions when he couldn’t drop everything to drive us somewhere, he got one of his employees (and good friends from college, whose name is “Ou” – don’t even try to pronounce it because this seemingly simple name will somehow end up coming out all wrong) to take on the task.

And so a relationship developed over the following two weeks of our fundraising and aid relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. TJ spoke very good English and served as a translator for us more than once. We met his beautiful wife and daughter, and visited the gift shop that his wife owns and operates. We cracked jokes with Ou, who is a self-proclaimed expert on Chiang Mai cuisine, “with a belly to prove it,” he would say proudly, rubbing his tummy. Ou even makes a cameo appearance in the CBC National news story on our efforts – right at the end he is the one to walk into the café.

Thai people sitting on the grass in straw hats

Now, both TJ and Ou visit Kelly & I daily at the hospital. They bring us fruit, good company, and just today they gave us a bag full of gifts that they were going to give us when we left (which was supposed to be last week). TJ continues to drive me anywhere I need to go, and scolded Kelly yesterday for letting me go to the train station by myself to cancel our tickets instead of calling him to pick me up and take me.

TJ (like many Thai people we met) is a very modest and humble person. Before taking us to some of the Rotary meetings knowing he would be in the company of big business owners, he told us that he doesn’t belong. “I’ll just wait in the car,” he said.

Chiang Mai Thailand, where we found so much Thai Hospitality

“No you absolutely won’t!” we said. “We need you in there to help us communicate, and besides – you are embracing the meaning of Rotary with your generosity and dedication to a good cause! You do belong.”

Once in the meetings, he was astonished to discover that these people enjoyed talking to him, gave him their business cards, and even asked him to join the Rotary club.

“That man,” he said one day, pointing with a shaking finger to a fellow who had made efforts to chat with TJ, “is the CEO for one of the biggest computer companies in the city. He is a famous man. A powerful man. And he wanted to speak to me! And he is so nice! Look – the hairs are standing up on my arm from being in his presence!” he exclaimed, flush in the face and clutching the man’s business card.

Is it this unassuming and modest nature (even in the big business people) that gives the Thai people such charm. There is true respect in their greetings (prayer hands, held under the chin accompanying a slight bow). Never a desire to step on anybody’s toes. Generosity extended in whatever way possible. And always, even if a stranger passing on the street – a big smile in return if you have one on your own face.

Quite frankly, the expats we have met stand out garishly in comparison, despite how nice or genuine they try to be. Try as these expats may, the gentle nature of the Thai people we have met is as yet unmatched.

We believe that had we not embraced the Burma relief efforts in the way we did, we would not have experienced this level of Thai hospitality – the kind that people say is dead.

And the Thai friendliness we saw extends way beyond the efforts of TJ and Ou. Members of the various Chiang Mai rotary clubs offered their individual help to us in a variety of ways, from establishing contacts, to donating money, to the efforts of Thitiphan – the Rotary president TJ spoke of, who was a real leader for us in helping broadcast our call for help throughout the Chiang Mai business community.

golden Thai temple

The woman who has washed our laundry a few times gives me a big hug whenever I come by. For no reason at all, she hugs me and giggles. She is hands down one of the sweetest people I have ever met, and we can hardly even have a conversation with the language barriers.

Here in Chiang Mai, if somebody stops you on the street and asks you where you are going, they aren’t always trying to get you into their taxi. Sometimes, they are simply interested in what you are doing, and they enjoy giving you advice on good places to see in their beautiful city. How refreshing.

TJ & Ou have been our Thai family, supporting us through some very tough times in every way possible, in the absence of our own families who are so far away. And of course when we told them this, they simply blushed, laughed, looked away coyly, and tried to find yet another way to help us. As only a modest and generous Thai person would do.

Who says Thai hospitality is dead? Somebody who either never left Bangkok, or who didn’t stop long enough to see what the place is all about, I think. Take a side step off the tourist bandwagon in Thailand, and you may find something you never anticipated. True friendships and genuine hospitality.

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