So here’s an Only in Thailand story. Busy buying everything from kitchen supplies to bedding while we anxiously await the arrival of our stuff that we shipped form Malaysia, we found ourselves in the one of the city’s excellent shopping malls the other day. Did I mention that malls in Chiang Mai aren’t like Penang? There’s actually people in them all day. And not just one group of people like the Hokkien Chinese of Penang that own all the luxury cars, live in the million dollar condos and have all the money. Despite being statistically lower on the development scale, Thailand somehow manages to act more like California. Consumerism is plainly visible and my favorite local food court at Central Airport Mall teems with Thai people eating deliciously local dishes from duck noodle soup to Khao Soy (spicy Northern Thai soup) pretty much as soon as they open the doors. Unlike Penang, there’s a cornucopia of western stores with brand names all westerners know and sizes that fit. Granted I had to buy an extra-large pair of running shorts which initially made me feel very out of shape but at least the Nike store carries dozens of styles at very affordable prices.
Anyway, as we strolled through the floors we came across a book store called B2S. Looking more like Chapters or Barnes & Noble than a Southeast Asian chain, they also have a separate chain called Asiabooks that’s prominently located near the entrance. Ironically, that store features all English language books while they relegate Thai books to the back of the store somewhere. Practicing my Thai numbers with the young English-speaking cashier that firmly understood the need for multi language skills in today’s globalized world, we noticed some computer chairs displayed in the middle of the store that looked comfortable. Having searched already at Baan and Beyond, Home Pro, and a few of the other mega superstores that make life in Thailand often feel like suburban North America with Thai signage, we’d tabled the idea because there were more choices than my brain was ready for at prices from dirt cheap to unreasonable. But the large sale sign read “Ha Ha Ha Ha” (Ha is the number 5 in Thai and the expression “5555” is one of the most common responses on social media from westerners that think it’s hipper than saying “lol”). Doing quick mental math, it seemed like we’d found yet another amazing consumer steal. (On our exploratory trip we scored a brand new 47 inch Samsung HDTV for on sale for about $325 USD). Coming in at $165 based on the rate we bought our Thai Baht for, Serta (the mattress company) manufactured the leather swivel chair and it felt as nice as a quality mattress.
Like everywhere we’ve been so far, the staff gets very excited when they see middle age Farangs looking at what’s probably considered a big-ticket item by Thai retail standards. So even in a book store, a friendly Thai clerk approached Diane and muttered something in Thai. Recalling my post titled The Ethic Advantage I discussed how it’s great being married to a Canadian of Chinese descent that apparently looks Malay to the Malay people, Burmese to the locals in Myanmar, Khmer to the Cambodians and sure enough, Thai to the Thai people. Everywhere we go, the locals assume I’m just another white guy that found a nice Thai girl so they always approach Diane, give her the change and carry on conversations in their soft-spoken way even if I hand them the cash or she fails to respond. Interestingly, it’s always followed by an instant red face of embarrassment when Diane tells them “Sorry, I only speak English.” Sensing a feeling of white guilt I then ponder why they’re so appalled because they only speak their native tongue. Unlike multi cultural Malaysia where the mix of Indians, Malays, Chinese and foreigners forces everyone to speak English, one of Thailand’s charms is the homogeneous nature of its people and I always feel I’m the idiot that can’t communicate to them in their language.
After realizing they’ll need help making a sale, most stores gather extra employees and begin a process whereby each one of them speaks certain English words and usually somebody figures out what we want eventually. Ascertaining which blanket was the coolest when they print the labels only in Thai seemed taxing but required only three store employees until the one of them uttered the word “cotton” . Signing up for phone service was fun because despite the AIS store in the mall staffing at levels that would make North American boardrooms shudder, only one person spoke enough English to properly answer the questions we deemed necessary. After determining what we needed, however, they always go the extra mile to help. Having visited that store many times for bill payments, questions about e-statements and their sister company that provides internet service, we found a trainee that somehow speaks the best English and unlike in America, Thai people always remember you when you return. While I’ve always posted how the Malays are very polite, I get a different feeling of genuineness with the Thai people. Sometimes seeming more like the Malays are routinely polite because that’s what citizens of almost all Muslim nations do (contrary to idiot American beliefs based on GOP brainwashing and racism), the way Thai people smile and offer a Wei (greeting) makes us feel welcome every day we’re here.
As expected, about three or four store employees gathered around us as we tried to figure out if they had more chairs in the back that weren’t floor models. Finally finding a guy that spoke some English, we learned the sale was only good until the end of the month and they had none in stock but expected a new order later that week. Since the chair was too large for our newly acquired 2011 Nissan Tiida, we asked about delivery. Always using the handy-dandy Google translator, let me share a few tips about Google’s knowledge (or lack thereof) when it comes to Thai. First, (and probably most important), somebody forgot to tell Google that Thailand might have more foreigners living on non-immigrant visa at any given time than any nation on earth. As such, the most relevant functionality of the translator app is using the camera to translate Thai script into English.
Unfortunately, toggling from “English to Thai” to “Thai to English” is useless because the field goes to gray. Searching the entire internet turns up a grand total of three Thai to English translator apps and they’re all horrible failures. Typing in English words usually works and most Thai people understand what you’re saying if you show them the translated script but trying to repeat phrases of more than one word from listening to the app speak makes you sound like an idiot. With an influx of millions of Chinese tourists, you’d think they’d at least figure out Thai to Chinese. So if you’re a developer looking for a niche that nobody’s done, all of us newbie expats want to hear from you right away.
Thankfully, the male employee understood we wanted delivery and after translating a few words, we determined they offer a service if you live within 10 kilometers of the store. Unlike Google translator, Google Maps does work although many moo-baans prohibit Google from mapping individual streets so for us, there’s one street name for our entire gated community. Luckily, the GPS allows you to set a “home” location when you’re physically at the house so we pulled up directions from the store to our awesome three bedroom house in the super quiet community that I won’t reveal the name of. (so as not to upset the Thai people at Google Maps). Seeing our house was within the delivery range, he told us “no problem” (in English) and then looked up the inventory and told us they’d be getting more chairs in a few days and that he’d call when they came in. Asking if we needed to pay, he said we could pay when we come back so we thanked everyone and went to Promenada Mall where they have outdoor food stalls Thursday through Sunday. Panned as the most useless mall in the city and the place where Chiang Mai’s only immigration office is, all the Facebook groups would call us crazy for going there but there’s a bar-b-q rib stand that’s to die for and since food vendors come and go like flies on a cow, we took advantage while it was still there.
Sure enough we got a phone call a few days later telling us the new chairs arrived so we hopped in the car and went back to the book store. Unfortunately, the staff was completely different but one of them still remembered us. With the English-speaking guy nowhere to be found, we tried to convey and explain the chair was too big for the car and we wanted delivery. This time, nobody ever heard of delivery service and the employee trying to talk to us about how we’d get the chair back was a ladyboy. (An Asian transgender woman). Relatively as common as gays or lesbians in the western world, the stereotype is that they all work on stage or in bars. But with 70 million Thai citizens, there couldn’t possibly be enough entertainment jobs for all of them even if they all wanted them and many work in average jobs like store clerks. After some awkward back and forth conversation among each other we figured out that “delivery” meant the ladyboy would haul the chair into her own car and drive one of us back home with the chair.
Deciding I’d be the one taking advantage of Thailand’s interesting solution to our small car problem, they asked us if we we’d finished shopping and since they caught us off guard like Thailand usually does, we figured we better say yes but eventually changed our minds and went to finish some other errands. Returning shortly they brought out the chair, unwrapped it and ensured it met our approval (customary for every product we’ve bought). Motioning for me to follow, the ladyboy grabbed another employee to help carry the chair and we all went to elevator. Saying goodbye to Diane (who rove our car home), I exited and sure enough the car was in the “Ladies Parking” section.
Initially thinking a special section for women to park is blatantly sexist, I learned that the idea started as a one month tourism industry incentive introduced by the government in 2016 called Women’s Journey Thailand and they promoted it as a special campaign recognizing the financial clout and family decision-making powers that many women today enjoy. Apparently, the idea stuck and many department stores and malls kept it although many argue it’s degrading and takes us all backwards. Although I lean towards the latter, it’s only a matter of time until someone tells Trump and to me, it seems to fit his misogynist version of backwards progress more than here in Asia where modern infrastructure, progress and tolerance “trumps” exclusion. But I’m not judging and Diane’s given me legitimate reasons whys she thinks it’s OK.
So the 15 minute drive went well and the friendly ladyboy asked in her limited English where I was from and how long I’d been in Chiang Mai. Wondering what the security guards would think when we pulled into the visitor’s lane of the moo baan, they gave me an uninterested look, exchanged some Thai words with my delivery person and simply handed us a visitor pass. Pulling into the driveway, she helped us unload the chair, paused for a picture and went on her way. Unclear if she was the low person on the store totem pole or if we just encountered a day like any other in Thailand, I’d consider this above and beyond and I’d gladly nominate her for Employee of the Month. As for the chair, it’s comfy but leather in the tropics isn’t very practical and my advice to new Chiang Mai expats would be hold out for a sale with another material. But then you’d risk missing out on the fun.
One last comment:
As I stated in my last few posts, we now live in Thailand so the focus of the blog has shifted to expat life for two North American early retirees in a place where the demographics favor digital nomads, those who dropout of life to avoid work and older retired people forced to move from their homeland due to financial difficulties. Please STOP sending us emails asking about the MM2H Program, expat life in Malaysia and questions asking for endorsements of agents or advice on life in Penang. Clearly stating we didn’t enjoy much about living in Penang, I have very little to say that’s positive about expat life in Malaysia and as the title of the blog implies, we are experimenting to see what works and Penang obviously didn’t. While we don’t regret our time there or the valuable life experience we gained, our focus is now on Thailand. Thanks for understanding.
Cheers from Chiang Mai, Thailand. Comments always welcome.