Behind The Thai Smile

My walking takes place with the help of a wood foot.

That’s the word for a cane in the Thai language – mai taow.

I was taking a long walk, for me, on Sukhumvit Road early one evening – on that stretch between Soi 11, headed toward Soi 5 and Checkinn99, where the sidewalk starts to coagulate.

An older American friend of mine once told me, “I can only walk about 100 yards before I get tired. But it’s okay, because on Sukhumvit there is a bar at least every 100 yards.”

I was tired so I stopped in at the Coffee World / Subway Sandwich place on Soi 7/1. The soi where they filmed scenes from Hangover II. The same soi Bill Clinton started to take a walk down after the movie had been filmed before his aides pulled him back. Those aides earned their money that day.

That soi.

I got a sandwich – Italian 6 inch – and decided to sit outside. In the background I could hear a song playing that I recalled from my high school days – The Back Stabbers by The O’Jays. One repetitive lyric goes, “They smile in your face … all the time they want to take your place … the back stabbers.”

That got me thinking about the famous Thai smile.

The Thai word for smile is yim.

To the visiting foreigner it takes a while to understand what the Thai smile really means. A case could be made that we will never fully understand the many meanings of the Thai smile.

My wife has an upside down smile that she can make when she is perfectly happy. I’ve tried it – I cannot do it despite feeling the same way she feels.

I once went to a live Muay Thai boxing match at the Channel 7 Arena in Bangkok – it’s a good alternative to Lumpini Stadium for viewing quality Thai boxing. Every time one boxer, in blue shorts, struck his opponent, in red shorts, the Muay Thai in red, smiled. Every single time. The harder he got hit, the bigger the smile.

Well known books have been written about the Thai smile. Among them, the Land of Smiles trilogy by Bangkok author Christopher G. Moore. Note the comment by American author Gore Vidal on the cover jacket of A Killing Smile below:
behind the thai smile

Another famous book on that infamous smile is Working with the Thais by Henry Holmes and Suchada Tangtongtavy. It’s been out a long time although is still stocked at Asia Books in Bangkok.

Holmes and Tantongtavy identify a host of different smiles in the book and the meanings behind them. Here are the ones that I like the most:

  • Yim thak than – The “I disagree with you” smile, also known as the “You can go ahead and propose it, but your idea is no good” smile.
  • Yim yae yae – The “I know things look pretty bad, but there is no point in crying over spilled milk” smile.
  • Yim cheua cheuan – The “I am the winner” smile. The smile given to a losing competitor.

I’m not sure what you would term the “You’ve just hit me in the face as hard as you can, so I am going to keep smiling back at you” smile…

It’s a well known cultural observation that most Thai people like to avoid confrontation as much as they possibly can.

After 15 years of living in Thailand for at least 6 months of every year, I can say while walking with a cane down rocky Sukhumvit Road, that that is not a bad lifestyle to strive for.

As an American, I have to admit that it took me a fair while to reach that conclusion.

For the Thai people the smile is just one of many ways of accomplishing a life free of stormy confrontation.

Don’t misinterpret it.

What the O’Jays sang about in 1972 can serve as good advice in Thailand today.

They may smile to your face but what they really plan to do is take your place, steal your girlfriend and any money you may have or, worse yet, stick a long, sharp knife in your back and finish you off.

It happens. More often than you can imagine.

The best defense? Keep smiling.

bangkok noir chris coles

Portrait of Kevin Cummings by Bangkok Noir artist, Chris Coles


Artwork by Bangkok Noir artist, Chris Coles



About Author

Kevin ​Cummings is the author of Bangkok Beat, which includes a chapter on the historic nightclub, Checkinn99. Kevin blogs about the people, things, literature, and music of Thailand and the region. Follow his blog and his Twitter @ThailandFP.

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