Defining "Thainess"

*This blog is written by Rolf von Bueren

After living for 57 years in Thailand, with the privilege of having close Thai friends who are partly walking dictionaries on Thai culture, I am trying to write, at the age of nearly 80, about what has fascinated me about this country. I also believe that the world can learn something from Thailand, which is one of the most sophisticated societies, shaped mainly by its geography but also by its history.

Left: Rolf and Helen von Bueren's wedding; right: Helen Smith (von Bueren) in a Thai dress

Thailand is one of ten countries which produces more food than it can eat, in other words, hunger has never been a serious problem and food is treated with a nonchalance, kind of taken for granted. This has created a rather non-aggressive Thai attitude. On the other hand, I come from Germany where food was a permanent problem over thousands of years, and that lack shaped the etiquette and outlook on food. In Germany, agriculture was marginal, and too much or too little rain, just to give one important example, could derail the food balance for the next 6 months. In any case, the food supply was scarce, as the planting season was so short, and only one third of the harvest could be consumed by humans, while one third went to the animals and the other third was seed for the next season.

One can imagine how the waste of food in Thailand astonished me, after all the strict food rules of my household where I was brought up, which included, for example, to finish what is on the plate, while in Thailand one is always allowed, even urged, to not finish the food if one does not like it. If ones lives without food long enough, one could kill one’s own neighbor! .....Food is a great catalyst for many behavior patterns.

Food at the von Bueren Family Residence

But more of the good news - all or most natural disasters seem to bypass Thailand, while the Philippines, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma are often devastated by hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. While Thailand sits in the middle of South East Asia, it only gets the tail end of many of the disasters – maybe too much rain at times with floods, but that is all. What a blessed country!

On top of that, one sticks a branch into the ground and it grows, and the fruits and other agricultural products are top ranking! Their ginger is the best because it has a fragrant scent, their durian smells less foul and taste superb, and their fruits are beyond doubt the best in South East Asia.

Thailand is also the home of Theravada Buddhism, a gentle religion with flexible rules as to monkhood – one can retire after one day and become civilian again. I was educated as a Catholic and I was impressed, when I eventually learnt the principles of Buddhism, the way I see them:

> Do not harm others
> Do not harm yourself
> Do not take the teachings at face value, but accept them through your practice and questioning

All other rules are similar with the religions of this world, but these 3 rules above make Buddhism a very intelligent religion, maybe the most intelligent that I know.

Then there is the royal court, which has been instrumental in modernizing Thailand and has produced several GREAT kings during this dynasty. The court has a very deep impact on the Thai society and the etiquette – Thais are considered one of the most polite societies in the world; it is a non-touch society which starts with the elegant wai, the folding of the both hands together combined with a bow of the head. No handshaking, which has become unfashionable in the time of the coronavirus.

Rolf von Bueren with HRH Queen Sirikit The Queen Mother

There are endless social refinements and skills which even we in Europe don’t have, which even the polite British and French are missing, which I believe arose from the overall easy life without worries and hunger in Thailand. It seems that, like in most countries around the world where monarchs were the centre of society, this civility and social skills come from the court, which is the epitome and the master of refinement and civil behavior.

Civility is when behavior disguises all adverse feelings which one may have when meeting another. Civility is when respect rules and little jealousy exists; jealousy being a poison for the people who harbor it, and the Thais are the least jealous people I know. If one sees an expensive watch and asks how much it is, the etiquette is to give the full price upon which admiration is rendered. To hold back or give a lower price would mean that the owner has something to hide.

There are many more serious social skills that could be recounted, and the total package is what makes the Thais so charming, so polite and so happy-go-lucky. Fun is an important ingredient of the Thai character, and they have problems imagining life without it.

Prince Sanit with Rolf von Bueren

Rolf von Bueren with art legend Thawan Duchanee

Dinner at home with friends

What is wrong with having respect towards older people, towards teachers, towards achievement?

Civility is when a German visiting friends in Thailand brings, unintentionally, a prostitute to our dinner. The Thai ladies, instead of punishing her by their body language and looks, bring out their maximum politeness to make her feel comfortable.

German newspapers have negatively interpreted the act of crawling on the floor in the presence of the king as being servile as it might be in other countries, other customs. However, in Thailand it’s not a slave-like behavior, but the Thai way of showing respect. One can recognize a Thai when he slightly stoops his head to stay lower than an older or superior person. This is based on a complicated social contract which can be traced back to Hindu and Thai history.

Of course, the Thais are changing by osmosis through dealing with foreigners (nearly 40 million tourists in 2019) who raise their voices easily and are so outspoken when they talk. Many other influences including foreign education and the impact of globalization have contributed, but the court is trying to preserve historical Thainess. 

Buckminister Fuller with Rolf and Dr. Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya

One of the attractions for foreigners to live or retire in Thailand is the service-minded character of the Thais which is unparalleled in this world. This is reflected by the many tourists and retirees who settle in Thailand. When asked why they chose to settle here, they say: “I simply feel good in this country and relaxed”, relaxed being very important as the social norms fortify this feeling.

When I visited Hong Kong with a Thai friend of mine in the 70s, and we had tea in the famous Peninsula Hotel lobby which was crowded with a long queue waiting to be seated, the waiters ran around serving tables. My Thai friend observed this and commented: “In Thailand we cannot run like that. People who serve are instructed not to do that as it may make people nervous.” We call this running, “Chinese on fire”!

Like in most countries, women are the real asset of the country, and being originally a matriarchal society, the man used to move to the women’s house after marriage. This is the only country in Asia with this custom. In all other countries like China or India, the man would be considered a wimp if he had to move to his wife’s house. The women had to move to the groom’s house.

Helen with Khunying Boolvipha Sonakul and friends

Arparpan Spencer, Songkran Grachangnetara

This custom gives tremendous power to the women, but on the surface the men still rule as in the saying “Women are the elephant’s hind legs”. The women will do the wai first, just to give one example of women’s outward submission, but the women’s power is acknowledged by most men – they often control the finances in the household! A foreign lady I know is involved in women’s lib and complains about sexual harassment in Thailand. Yes, there is an incredible amount of harassment in Thailand, but it is called “banter”. The women are very prepared to counter the men; they are not scared and always know how to defend their position!

Peter Bunnag, Carbo Bunnag, Samaritana Contessina di Serego della Scala

Suthinee Jumsai na Ayudhya

Nick Spencer and Beatrice Smith

The western mindset is black and white and implores judgement. I read in a western book recently that one has to judge to determine where one stands.

Thailand is the opposite – no judgement and no black and white. Everything is a compromise, and the judge in court, at every court session, calls in both parties and asks them to compromise, and a large number of cases are settled this way. This gentleness of the Thai mind and the Buddhist concept of “Live and let live” allow them to lead a life without deep feelings of guilt, making everything easy and less complicated, and allow the freedom of decision without guilt.

Rolf and Helen with Friends

Rolf with Thawan Duchanee, Surin Limpanonda, Alessandro Kokocinski, Silvia Wiegand

We in the West are very much burdened by the Christian concept of original sin, and are constantly reminded of our Sin Burden.

I am not saying that the Thais have no conscience but it is different from ours and interferes less with daily life.

A non-judgemental attitude is very Thai: one knows everything but does not take a position. This sense of detachment is a very Asian property and stands directly opposite the western attitude which is one of attachment. We in the west are deeply attached to political parties, soccer clubs and social groups, while the Thais are sitting on the fence watching a dog fight, enjoying it and then going home, knowing that they had fun. We westerners would take sides and would get emotionally involved.

Many western books have been written on the topic, saying that the western women have lost their ability to give themselves sexually and some of the books are ending up in Thailand, probably because of Thai women. Thai women have a great capacity to love and are less burdened by guilt feelings, but that does not mean that they are easy. On the contrary, they are very much aware of their position of strength.

Many western men come to marry a Thai woman, and there are towns in the northeast that consist nearly entirely of mixed marriages.

One of the most important conditions is to support the wife’s family. There is one well-known quality of the Thai wives which is that most of them will remain loyal to the husband even if he should have a stroke or is otherwise incapacitated. She will stay with him and push his wheelchair, since caring for family is part of the Thai female character.

I truly believe that the world can learn something from the Thais, to live more in harmony with others and with less stress. Having written about so many positive aspects of the Thai character does not make me forget the negative sides - where there is a lot of sun, there is also a lot of shadow. But why deal with shadows when the sun is so attractive?

Left: Nuchanart Sophonpanich, Malinee Sarasin, H.E. Pote Sarasin;

Right: Staporn Phettongkam, M.R. Chatu Mongol Sonakul, Santi Grachangnetara, Krisada Chinavicharana

Vipavadee ‘Pao’ Patpongpibul, Suthinee Jumsai na Ayudhya, Dr. Sumet Jumsai na Ayudhya

M.R. Chatu Mongol Sonakul, Vipavadee ‘Pao’ Patpongpibul, Khunying Boolvipha Sonakul


Thank you very much for sharing your personal knowledge and rich memories of the Thai culture! The passages that you shared, your understanding and experience with the country and people, are seemingly broad and in depth; your style of writing is to the point and with sentiment. I enjoyed reading it. I am an old-fashioned book person, when looking at the photos and reading your stories/comments in the blog, just can’t help thinking that it would be wonderful to have them published in book(s) — the treasure of your memories, the extensive experience of the world that you have been and are living in.

Li Suk Woon

From a Frankfurt boy to a Frankfurt boy: what a well done text and what a well done life !

Andreas Mann

Dear Rolf , only an attentive, kind and sophisticated soul like yours can transmit to us such a deeply felt vision of the Thai world, which is your world.
A vision that only a select few have, thank you for sharing it.
Your extraordinary energy has allowed you to live life in all its splendour and this energy radiates to those around you.
I really enjoyed seeing the photo with my father. Thanks to you we have known a wonderful world, which I keep among the most precious memories of my life.

Maya Kokocinski

Thank you, dear Rolf, for including me on your blog list. It is such a treat to hear from you.
Herb and I have such wonderful memories of our time in Bali, with you and Helen and your family being our neighbors. We always enjoyed your company!
We returned to Bali a few years s ago and saw that your property had become a public place. All the changes in our old neighborhood made us sad.
We live full time now in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It is a beautiful colonial city, founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500’s. If you and Helen are ever in our part of the world, please let us know.
I hope you will keep me on your “Blog List”. I look forward to the next installment.
XX Sally

Sally Dorsey Miller

A beautiful insight into Thai culture. I have such fond memories from Thailand Korean Eye time and hope to be able to be back in Bangkok soon enough!

Serenella Ciclitira

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