Spotlighting Culture in Thailand From a Buffer Teammate
Learning about experiences and perspectives that are different from our own supports our journey of inclusion by reducing bias, building respect and increasing empathy, while providing an opportunity to celebrate our differences and similarities.
At Buffer, we regularly share cultural spotlights from colleagues to connect our global team, and help us understand one another at a deeper level.
Here’s a slightly edited version of a cultural spotlight we recently highlighted from Ben, a Customer Advocate at Buffer.
I was born in Phuket, a small island in southern Thailand. Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, is the second smallest province in the country, and has a population of 443,000. The island is a popular tourist destination well known for its beaches.
Although I was born in Thailand, I didn’t actually grow up here. My step dad worked for an oil company and because of his job, we had the opportunity to travel and live in several countries. We left Thailand when I was four years old and moved back when I was 18. We lived in:
Shekou, China (for two years)
Lagos, Nigeria (for nine years)
Leysin, Switzerland (for one year)
Cape Town, South Africa (for one year)
Education and work
I studied hospitality and tourism management at university in Bangkok but only managed to complete one year before having to put my studies on hold. I did have an opportunity a few years later to continue my studies but, at that point, I already had several years of work experience and I decided I wanted to continue on my career path in hospitality.
I worked in hospitality for around 10 years before transitioning to remote work for SaaS platforms (best decision ever).
Growing up, my family consisted of me, my mother, my stepdad and my two younger half-siblings (a sister and a brother). My stepdad passed away while we were living in Nigeria. My mother and brother live in Phuket and my sister lives in Winnipeg, Canada.
Today, my family is made up of me and my partner and our three dogs. We live in Nakhon Ratchasima which is in northeastern Thailand (about four hours away from Bangkok).
In 1939, after several years of civil unrest, the government abolished the absolute monarchy system and we adopted a new constitutional monarchy. With this new change, the country changed its name from Siam to Thailand. Thailand means land of the free (Tai or ไทย, is the Thai word for free). Thai people are very proud of their history and the fact that we are one of the few countries in the region that wasn’t subjected to colonization (European rule).
Today, Thailand is made of 77 provinces and has a population of 69.95 million. Around 95% of the population are Theravada Buddhists and the remaining 5% are Muslim, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Taoists. It’s very common to find Buddhist temples, mosques, churches, and Sikh temples built next to each other (and there usually isn’t any conflict from this).
The official language of Thailand is Thai. There are four dialects of Thai (Central, Northern, Southern, and Northeastern or Isan). Each dialect sounds very different and because each is difficult to understand, most Thai people will speak the central dialect (the most common dialect) just to make things easier. Thai people love it when foreigners try to learn our language and are happy to take some time to teach you a few words. English is not an official language, but most people you come across will be able to speak some English.
The Thai alphabet evolved from the Khmer (Cambodian) alphabet and has 72 characters (this includes 44 consonants and 28 vowels). I had moved overseas when I was very young so I didn’t get a chance to learn how to read and write Thai while growing up. I started learning how to read and write when I was 18 and it took nearly two years for me to learn it. I think I only committed to learning it because I didn’t want to have to bring my mom with me everywhere to translate stuff.
Thailand’s youth literacy rate is around 98 percent. In recent years, the government has worked hard to ensure that all children in all parts of the country are able to go to school (or that there is a school near them). Education is compulsory up to the age of 14 and the government provides free education (in public schools) through grade 12. Although the public school system provides quality education, most parents will work very hard to get their children into private schools and universities.
Holidays, Festivals, and Events
An average Thai person works six days a week for nine hours a day (that’s a 54 hour work week). A person who has been in their job for three years or less would have between six to eight days of paid vacation time. The government has tried to balance this out by giving people more public holidays. In recent years, we’ve had 17 to 22 public holidays per year but employers are only legally required to provide their employees with 15 public holidays per year.
Most of our holidays are related to Buddhist holidays/celebrations or are important days related to the monarchy. A very popular holiday (for Thai people and tourists) is our Songkran Water Festival. Traditionally, we would sprinkle water on Buddhist statues and pour water over our parents’ hands, But this has evolved into a full-blown water fight in the streets. We’d normally celebrate Songkran for three to five days, but some places in Thailand celebrate for a whole month (pre-covid).
Another popular festival is Loy Krathong (it means floating basket in Thai). We celebrate Loy Krathong on the night of the full moon in November. We pay our respects to the water goddess by floating lotus-shaped baskets and releasing them into lakes, rivers, and the ocean. The baskets are made from banana tree trunks and banana leaves and are filled with flowers, incense, candles, coins, a bit of your hair, and your hopes and dreams for the future.
People have been encouraged to buy eco-friendly baskets made from bread. And for anyone wondering, the baskets are usually collected at the end of the night by children in the community. They help get rid of the waste and get to keep the coins from the baskets.
When you’re invited to a wedding, funeral, or ordination ceremony in Thailand, you’d normally show up at the event with an envelope of money for the host. This confused me at first (when I went to my first wedding) but then I realized that this was our way of helping each other out with costs and expenses for the event. If you showed up to support someone, you can be sure that they’ll show up to your event to support you.
Thai food is very flavorful and is usually made with many different spices and herbs. Our food is usually cooked in a pan, or a wok on high heat, and most of our dishes can be made very quickly (within 20-30 minutes or less). The amount of time it takes to cook something like a turkey would surprise us.
Rice is a staple food and is normally present at every meal. A typical meal would include 2-3 main dishes shared family style and eaten with rice. We like to say that you won’t really be full unless you eat your food with rice.
Some popular dishes include:
Pad thai – a stir fried noodle dish with tamarind sauce, bean sprouts, tofu, egg, peanuts, and shrimps.
Green chicken curry – a coconut curry made with green chilies, galangal, lemon grass, kafir lime leaves, and coriander.
Tom yum goong – a hot and sour shrimp soup made with chilies, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and lemongrass.
Som tum – spicy green papaya salad.
Mango with sticky rice – ripe mangoes over sticky rice covered with coconut milk.
Cost of Living
The minimum wage in Thailand is 353 Baht per day or 10,590 Baht per month (around $9.30 per day or $278.94 per month). An average person in Bangkok working an entry-level position will make around 25,000 Baht per month (around $658). If you’re a Thai person earning this amount, this is barely enough. Over 85% of people in Thailand have less than 50,000 Baht (around $1,300) in their bank accounts and most people are struggling to make ends meet.
A lot of Thai people will end up taking out illegal or sketchy loans with exorbitant interest rates. The interest rates for these loans can range from 30-50 percent per day. This means that if you borrow $1,000, you’re forced to pay $300-$500 per day as interest (until the principal amount is paid off). The debt is crippling and it’s very hard to get out from under it. Thailand is a very affordable country and the cost of living is not high – if you’re earning a high salary or are visiting from another country. But for most people here, if they want to have a good quality of life, the cost of living can be very high.
People in Thailand are warm and welcoming and like to resolve conflicts without confrontation. This can lead to many interesting conversations – imagine two people trying to resolve an issue without directly addressing the issue and continuously skirting around the root cause.
The most important values that Thai people hold are respect, self-control, and a non-confrontational attitude. Losing face by showing anger or by telling a lie is a source of great shame for Thai people. Social interactions are also less formal and Thai people like to approach everything with a “sabai sabai” mentality.
Sabai sabai is a way of thinking that generally means everything happens for a reason and that everything will work out in the end. It’s also like a reminder to not worry or stress too much and to let go of things we have no control over. It can be difficult for us to communicate how we really feel about something, and I believe this comes from our desire to ensure that everyone saves face and that no one is offended. We’re also a very open and accepting culture and we celebrate being different.
The Thai Calendar is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. It’s the year 2565 here in Thailand.
We celebrate New Year’s in April (during Songkran).
The sale of alcohol is prohibited on public holidays (which makes some people wonder why we even bother to call it a holiday).
Bangkok’s real name is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit (pretty sure we hold the world record for longest name of a place).
Stepping on money and driving without a shirt is illegal. But, driving without pants is legal.
Thank you for reading! I hope this gives you an idea of what Thailand and Thai people are like.