One of the weird things about living in Thailand is getting into the groove of how it can be so advanced and yet so backwards at the same time. Bangkok is a city of close to 12 million people from all over the world. A truly international city. Yet, up until a year or two ago when strict laws were brought into effect to prevent it, you could still watch guys walking around the city with elephants.
But it’s not just in the glaringly obvious that one can see the contrast. For instance, in Thailand the whole banking system is not just up to date with US and European standards but far more advanced. I can transfer you money online or even at an ATM and it’s in your account immediately. Not only that but the recipient will get an SMS telling them that they’ve just received funds in their account. With my US and European bank accounts I can’t even move money between two accounts I own at the same bank and not have to wait for the overnight transfer.
And when you do make an online transaction, at least at Kasikorn Bank, you can’t complete the transaction until you type in a unique code that is SMS’d to you.
Another example is that I can pay my electric, phone, and internet bill all at my local 7-11. Many merchants (especially utility companies) have signed deals with convenience stores like 7-11 so you can take your bill in, they scan the bar code, and you pay it right there. There’s a small fee for it but much better than having to rely on the postal service or taking your bill and paying in person (which is quite common in Spain and many other countries).
But in other ways it is almost primitive compared to Western standards. In most cases the village, local, provincial, and federal government offices aren’t connected in any way. If something is handled on the local level you have to go to that office and do your business face to face. That would be like needing to get a birth certificate and needing to go to the hospital the person was born in and ask for it face to face. In some cases even businesses can be like that. In order to make any changes to your bank account you often need to go to the same branch that you opened the account at. Even the main office can’t make the changes.
Many rather modern buildings feature squat toilets. For those of you not familiar with the concept think of a retched smelling hole in the ground. You squat and do your business. Even if you get over the smell factor it’s nowhere as easy as it sounds. It requires gymnast like balance and precision. If you come from the countryside there’s a good chance you’ve never even seen another type of toilet. That’s why in many hotels and office buildings they have a sign in the toilet that shows someone standing on the rim of the toilet squatting with a big red X-mark over it.
Some people can’t even use an ATM. I’m not talking the elderly here. I’m talking people in their 40’s (the younger generations all get it just fine). The whole remembering a PIN code and following instructions in their native language is way too space-age for them.
One person I know who comes from a small village town told me about their first trip to Bangkok and they had to go see someone who was in an high rise office building. They had never been in an elevator before and their description of amazement when the doors opened is true rolling on the floor laughing material.
Embracing the mixture of cutting edge and primitive is the only way Thailand makes any sense. People who only focus on what Thailand lacks or who long for the good ole days are bound to be driven crazy. Everything here is a contradiction. Much like poker, once you think you’ve got it wired, you learn just how much you don’t know.