Daily Archives: July 11, 2005

Understanding Thai Generosity

A market in Thailand

Today I want to explain to you an important Thai concept which is crucial if you are planning on staying in Thailand longer than the average tourist. Actually, there are quite a few things which often lead to a misunderstanding between Thais and foreigners. However, today I want to focus on nam jai which is Thai generosity and sam-neuk boon koon which is honoring debts, Thai style.

Within the first few years I was in Thailand, I learned about nam-jai. It is an easy to understand concept. However, it wasn’t until a particularly unpleasant incident happened that I found out about the repayment system called sam-neuk-boon-koon. There is a Thai person who suddenly one day became upset with me. They felt that I wasn’t paying enough deference towards them and that I hadn’t been one hundred per cent loyal to them. That person went on to remind me that it was them that had shown me around when I first came to Thailand.

At the time I couldn’t understand why they would suddenly be angry. As far as I was concerned, I had said “thank you” to them at the time and the subject should have been closed. After all, many years had passed since. Anyway, I thought I had paid back my “debt” many times by helping them with their business – often in my freetime. I didn’t really understand what this person’s problem was or why they would be dragging up past history in this manner.

There is a recently published book called “Thailand Fever” that explains these concepts remarkably well. What is unique about this book is that it is aimed at both partners in a Thai-Western relationship. The book is written in both English and Thai so that both people involved can fully understand each other. We often talk about “do’s and don’ts” for foreigners visiting Thailand. However, what is also needed is a list for Thai people who come in contact with foreigners. Maybe if there was one in existence before, then the above problem I experience wouldn’t have arisen. This book helps explain this problem for both sides.

I will paraphrase the book here but I would recommend buying the book to read more. We will be giving this book away to one lucky reader later this week!

Thai Chili at the market

Nam Jai – น้ำใจ

You could say everything starts with nam-jai, literally “juice of the heart” or “flow of the heart”. While independence is at the core of a Westerner’s self-esteem and image, Thai judge themselves and others in Thai society primarily based on the degree to which they show nam-jai. Nam-jai is “generosity”, a desire to give one’s time, resources, and attention to others just for the good feeling it generates in both. A person who shows nam-jai will not ask for money or any kind of payment in exchange for her generosity. The Thais will even feel uneasy accepting a payment that is offered for her generosity, because this suggests that she did it for the payment instead of the good will.

Unless they are particularly cosmopolitan, the Thais you meet will assume that you are like them, and that you too must derive most of your self-esteem from your show of nam-jai. For example, your girlfriend is proud of you and wants to show you off as a generous person. Without asking you directly, she may give you opportunities to be generous. She may take you out to dinner with friends. She won’t say “P’ Bob, do you mind paying for my friends’ meals?” Instead, she’ll assume that you, as a person who has more money than her friends, will want to show your generosity by paying for all her friends.

We Westerners hate this type of behaviour. We see it as a shameless manipulation. Does she see you as her sugar daddy or what? Remember, from a Thai perspective, it gives people self-esteem to be generous. Your partner and her family are not trying to take advantage of you. They are doing the same thing they would do with a Thai man who they think might be able and willing to help the family.

In the common case where her family is poorer than you, you know that they will never be able to pay you back anywhere near the amount you’ve been shelling out to them. But the fact is that they will always remember your generosity. Many Westerners who struggle day-by-day over whether or not they are a “sugar daddy” suddenly let go when, one day, they are surprised to find themselves at the receiving end of nam-jai.

Thai fish at the market

Sam-neuk-boon-koon – สำนึกบุญคุณ

What makes a nam-jai based society able to survive is the boon-koon system, specifically the value of sam-neuk-boon-koon. Sam-neuk-boon-koon is the balancing element that makes the system work. To the same intensity Westerners are brought up to be independent, Thais are raised from childhood to Sam-neuk-boon-koon.

Roughly speaking, Sam-neuk-boon-koon means to repay favours that people do for you (to “honour your debts” in Western terms). But there’s more to it than that. Suppose Lek, a manager at ABC Company, does a favour for his old friend Gung by finding him a job at the company. Gung was raised to Sam-neuk-boon-koon and so he:

1. makes a commitment and makes himself available to repay Lek’s favour when Lek needs something.
2. appreciates Lel’s generosity by showing Lek respect, deference, and consideration in manner and speech.
3. frequently reminds himself of Lek’s generous act and his own commitment to return the favour to Lek.

Thai society is a cycle of nam-jai and Sam-neuk-boon-koon supporting each other. People do favours out of nam-jai and so they do not ask for anything in return. But then people who receive favours Sam-neuk-boon-koon and voluntarily make themselves available to help the giver in return. The system works, and society is stable, simply because the vast majority of people in Thai society do honour the system and return their debts.

One final example to illustrate this concept: Suppose Gung puts in one or two weekends of overtime work – roughly the same amount of time that Lek spent to write a recommendation for Gung and get him a job. Now, suppose that Lek needs Gung to come in on many, many more weekends. If Gung was like a typical Westerner, he might get annoyed. He might think, “Wait a minute! I’ve paid my debt – enough is enough. It’s Lek’s problem, not mine. Now Lek is taking advantage of me.” But Gung is Thai. He would come in on as many weekends as he possible can, because he wants to show his nam-jai to Lek.

Source: “Thailand Fever” by Chris Pirazzi and Vitida Vasant

A Malaysian living in Mae Salong

I did not expect to find any Malaysian tourist in Mae Salong. So, can you imagine my disbelieve in finding a fellow Malaysian from Kuala Lumpur staying in Mae Salong.

One morning, I took a Toyota pickup from Mae Salong to Mae Sai market just to walk around. By the time the pickup reached my pickup point, it was already full of people, and vegetables and goods. Being the only guy (where have all the men gone to, I wonder?), I had to take up the worst possible position. The road down from the mountain has countless bends and you can imaging what would happen to me if an accident were to occur.

Toyota pickup: I was sitting like this man in Checker Shirt

On arrival at Mae Sai town, I found out there is a Chinese-looking lady with a small boy in her arm. She was doing a Visa-run at Mae Sai, like many Farangs do. She asked me in English where I was from. I told her of my country of origin, my trip, and she related her story. Below is Madam X’s story.

“X and her husband used to live and work in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A few years ago her husband had nose cancer. After a few treatments, the growth was contained. But his condition did not improve. A friend told them about a paradise known as Mae Salong where the air are fresh and water is clean. It will be ideal place for him to recupurate. As the cost of living is low here, he can afford to stop work temporarily and live on their savings. They took up the offer, packed and came to Mae Salong with little knowledge of what to expect. They rented a small house for 1500 Bahts per month. They could even afford a domestic helper.

They have lived there for 2 years. During this time, the husband’s health improved. She later gave birth to a baby girl (wonder if they named her after MaeSalong), their second child. She later told me that her husband has fully recovered and is now working in Hong Kong. She was planning to pack up and go back to Kuala Lumpur soon so that the kids can go to a Malaysian kindergarten.

I am sure Madam X will be missed by their neighbors, and similarly she will miss Mae Salong which is now part of her life.”

Who knows, I may be the next Malaysian sojourning or retiring in this lovely place.

Thailand and Malaysia: A Shared History

Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong

In the 19th century, King Rama V Chulalongkorn appointed a Penang Chinese, Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong as the Governor of Phuket.

Sharing King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s birth-date on Dec 5 is only one of the small factors that brought me closer to Thailand. Then, as a five-year old kid, it was a total surprise when I found out that my birthday is a red-letter-day in Thailand.

Much later, it was affinity that connected me with Thailand and her people. Although I have been to Thailand numerous times, on each visit, I am still able to have new adventures and make new discoveries.

But, it is Thai History that is my strongest affinity. As a quassi economic-historian, I find Thai history unique to Southeast Asia. It was the only nation to survive the onslaught of western colonialism.

Historically, Malaysia and Thailand have a very long traditional relationship. In the early 15th century, prior to Melaka ascendancy, much of the Malay Peninsula accepted Ayutthaya’s overlordship. In fact, until 1909, the Northern Malay States of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis sent the triennial Bunga Emas (Golden Flower Tree) as a tribute to Bangkok.

This legacy is still visible in modern Malaysia. For example, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman has Siamese (but not Thai) ancestors — so too can most of the Northern Malay royalty.

Today, there are at least 100,000 Thai-Buddhists in Malaysia, mainly, concentrated in states of Perlis, Kedah and Kelantan. Here, in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia’s capital), there are fewer than 1,000 Thais. Even with such a small community, there are three Thai-Buddhist temples, with Wat Chetawan as one of the few royal-sponsored temples outside Thailand.

What drives my research into Thai history is the people-to-people relationship between Thailand and Malaysia. For instance, do you know that Phuket’s early development was largely dependent on Penang? In fact, until 1945, Phuket’s elite families sent their best daughters to be married-off in Penang. It was people-to-people’s relationship at its best!

The Phuket-Penang connection is among the least-explored themes of Thai-Malaysian history. You would be surprised to note that in the 19th century, King Rama V Chulalongkorn appointed a Penang Chinese, Khaw Sim Bee Na Ranong (Phraya Ratsadanupradit) as the Monton (Governor) of Phuket.

It was in Thailand that Sim Bee made history. He was a bureaucratic tycoon and an appointed Thai Governor of Kraburi, Trang and later the Monthon of Phuket. His commercial and business skills in Penang were put to good use in Southern Thailand especially in tin-mining and shipping.

In the 1890s, King Rama V Chulalongkorn of Thailand named Sim Bee as Thailand’s most successful provincial governor. Even King Rama VI Vajiravudh counted Sim Bee as a close family friend. Vajiravudh conferred Sim Bee with Thailand’s highest honour, the title Phraya Ratsadanupradit Mahisornpakdi or The Grand Cross of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant.

In Penang, Sim Bee founded the Koe Guan Company Ltd, then one of the biggest shipping companies in British Malaya. He also pioneered the insurance business in Malaya with his Khean Guan Insurance Company. Sim Bee also had business interests in Tongkah Harbour Tin Dredging Co Ltd and Eastern Shipping Co Ltd.

However, Sim Bee’s illustrious political and business career was cut short when he was assassinated in 1913. Known as the Trang Outrage, the tragedy marked the slow decline of the Khaw business empire. In 1922, the Khaws sold their interests in Eastern Shipping Co to the British.

Today, the vestiges of Sim Bee’s legacy remain largely in Penang and Southern Thailand. The busy Jalan (Thanon/Road) Khaw Sim Bee in Penang was named in his honour, while in Trang, there is the Phraya Ratsadanupradit Monument – the only public monument in Thailand to be dedicated to a Chinese businessman.

In retrospect, Malaysians and Thais have a long shared history. Today, if you are in Phuket Town, you would be surprised to find how many Penang elements there are in the island. Similarly in Penang, in Wat Chaiyamangklaram, there among the largest reclining Buddhas in the world. Whether it is food, culture and language, it is hard to deny the Phuket-Penang heritage. Perhaps, Thais and Malaysian are alike in more ways than one!

thailand calling

hello all you fellow travellers and bloggers, allthough i have never been to thailand i wish to travel there in this august on a do it your self trip not hiring any personnel or a travel agent, well by the time i reach there its going to be rainy season and whoa i love rain one of my fantasies is to live the rest of my life in a rain forest any way thailand as i have seen and read is much more than an amazing land, and one of my best favoured are koh samui, phi phi, krabi and the inner part jungles and yes i would stay for some 3-4 days in bangkok but more for its floating market and not for the city life which is what i want to escape from here in new delhi where i live and work allthough i love going places mountains and beaches are closer to my heart ,,,,coming back to thailand i will have to be kicked out of phi phi or i might just stay there forever, my dear girlfriend who is in miami and working with the royal carribean cruise is most of the time sailins so she would rather not be on the beach all the time so will go further to the tiger park which i think is near to burma where tigers are raised by some monks i saw that documentary and was really surprised by the way all their lifes are led and the way the tiger is taken care of and how they are short of funds to manage all that,oh man i can go on and onand stop only when i reach thailand,,,,,,,,counting and waiting for the magic month of august to turn up.

Dwarf cows exchange vows

A pair of rare dwarf Brahman cattle, Thong Khaow, left, and Thong Kham, right, are married in a traditional Thai ceremony featuring processions and a banquet for more than 2,000 human guests at a cattle market in central Sa Kaew province on Sunday, July 10, 2005. The owner of the bull, Thong Kham, offered a dowry of fresh grass, hay, maize and 100,000 baht (US$2,400, euro2,000) at the promotional event for the two rare animals.(AP Photo)