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Thailand: Land of Smiles or Land of Scams?

19/02/2015

Thailand: Land of Smiles or Land of Scams?

Everyone’s first impression of Thailand is of a country of smiling happy people displaying a caring and helpful nature. Talking among themselves, they will not raise their voices or argue. Thais will smile even if they disagree with you and hate what you are doing or saying. Avoiding any display of anger, emotion, or conflict is second nature to a Thai. They will walk away from a problem rather than face it directly – as we may tend to do in the West. Smiling and avoiding conflict are techniques they have been taught from the cradle and reinforced in schools and temples throughout their developing years. It’s not difficult for the casual observer or first time tourist to observe this phenomenon and Thais will not dispute or correct this view you have of their lay-back lifestyle and culture.

But is there another side to what is seen as the warm welcoming attitude of all Thais?

The most frustrating difficulty in writing about Thailand and the Thais is that, because they dislike any perceived criticism of the country and its people, it is not easy to gain their confidence and discuss issues which they believe should be ignored. As with all peoples of the Far East, no Thai wants to lose face. Comments must never appear as criticism. I have got round the problem by deliberately not directly discussing an issue but patiently building up a reasoned “argument” in rational (perhaps long-winded) steps. It works with Thais. I bounce ideas I have for my books on Thailand by discussing with my “focus group” – five individuals of varying ages and backgrounds but who have a common inquisitive interest in how foreigners see Thailand and the Thais. If you are fortunate to meet Thais with that approach you will learn much about their lifestyle and culture and why they act and think the way they do. For example, Thais don’t want to give offense so they may walk away or engage in white lies. They will say yes when they mean no. Rarely will they be direct and give a straight answer. The onus is always on the Westerner to build up a level of confidence that will result in more informed and accurate discussion.

Cheating and corruption is another example. And we should look at this before we talk about the Scams of Thailand. There is a wide gap between the rich and poor of this country

The minimum wage is 300 baht a day (some Thais get less), a police officer has to provide his own pistol and motor cycle and is paid around 9000 baht a month. The majority of Thais today have grand parents and great grand parents who worked the rice paddies or earned low wages in other menial occupations. It is no surprise then that, coming from this background of poverty, they will resiliently look after their best interests. If that means telling an untruth which is not particularly harmful or taking advantage of someone with more wealth than they have, then so be it. The Thais have a strong weapon in their armory called Mai Bhen Rai.. It really means more than “never mind, it doesn’t matter”; it has the connotation of life not being serious, that it is better to avoid problems and conflicts and to concentrate on surviving within the family and the local community. Self sufficiency can imply looking after “number one” first and that can mean taking advantage of others in a way that can and does lead to cheating and corruption – though only rarely within the family or community.

At the other end of the scale are the elite rich – the amart. Few in number but powerful in politics and the community. Unlike in the West, the largest businesses are concentrated in the hands of just a few families. With almost monopolistic power they can be subject to few regulations or controls. In Thai culture, people are not seen as having been created equal. A Thai may believe that living an honest life today will gain him wealth, status, and power in the next life; but he certainly does not believe he is equal to his lord and master. “The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate” applies to today’s Thailand as much as it did in 18th century England when the lines were first penned. The largest Thai company, founded by two Chinese immigrants in 1921, now has assets well in excess of $50 billion (equivalent to 13% of the country’s GDP) and the family is the second wealthiest in Thailand.

That is a very brief background to Thai culture and attitudes but is essential in understanding why corruption and scams are more prevalent in Thailand than many other countries.

Dual Pricing

Although technically illegal as it is a form of discrimination, western tourists (and even expats) are routinely charged more than Thai nationals. State owned national parks may charge four to ten times the admission price paid by Thais. Buddhist temples are free to enter for Thais but foreigners are usually charged, particularly in the larger Bangkok temples. Sometimes expats can show a Thai driving licence in order to get a reduced price at some tourist attractions, particularly if they smile and speak a little Thai. The going rate for legal services for foreigners is six times that for the country’s own citizens.

Ordinary Thais, especially the younger generation, are quite embarrassed by dual pricing but are not always able to do much about it. If you see a pricing board with both Arabic and Thai numerals you can be sure that the venue is using dual pricing. The Arabic price may be shown as 200 baht for foreigners; the Thai numerals, which a tourist would not comprehend, may be just 20 baht. The Thai prices being in Thai numerals to avoid tourists realising they are paying an excessive price.

The prices in menus written in English are often different from those written in Thai. Sometimes you can ask for the Thai menu, sometimes the restaurant will insist you order from the English menu even if you are with a Thai. Embarrassing for everyone.

House rentals and the asking prices for condominiums and houses (which have to be listed in a Thai national’s name with very few exceptions) can be as much as twice the normal price. In selling later, you would need to find a Thai to purchase and even then don’t expect the capital gains that we have come to expect in the West. Land but not houses appreciate in Thailand because Thais like to build new houses instead of buying an existing structure. If someone has died in the house the value will drop appreciably. Thais are superstitious of ghosts. You can only own a condominium if there is a 51% or higher ownership by Thais of the remaining units. This may mean you can only sell to a Thai (at a much reduced price) when you want to sell your own apartment. To sell to a fellow foreigner would be against the strictly enforced rules.

On the islands the biggest scam occurs when renting jet skis. On return to the shore you are presented with a bill for damage, tens of thousands of baht. Unless you have photographic proof that the damage was present before you rented the ski, you will have to pay. The police will side with the jet ski owner because you will not be able to present any evidence to establish that you were not to blame. There is more than a suggestion that the local police are party to the scam. Consular officials will not get involved. There is no presumption of innocence in Thai law or legal proceedings. Not all fraudsters are Thai, there are many examples on http://www.andrew-drummond.com of foreigners living in Thailand being involved in share dealing, housing, and other scams. Drummond was an ex UK tabloid reporter who is fearless in exposing western fraudsters. As it is illegal to name and shame in Thailand and as stating the truth from accurate sources is not a defense against an accusation of libel in Thailand, Andrew Drummond faced many frivolous cases in the Thai courts. Although he won the cases, he was responsible for costs under the Thai system. A fact his opponents were fully aware of. Following threats to his safety and that of his young family he left Thailand earlier this year but still reports on the criminal activities of the foreign population here.

Because of internet downtime this blog is not finished. It will be published in full with some photos on Friday 20 February as the latest in my weekly Friday blogs. It appears both on http://www.mattoensrees.wordpress.com and http://www.matt-owens-rees.com (which is a more robust site)

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