The Social Status of Foreigners in Thailand
The views expressed on the social status of foreigners in Thailand in this article are my own, based on
living in Thailand for eight years. I am white, from Wales and have lived in cities and a village since I moved
here. I don't know how Thais treat other Asians, blacks or Arabs, although I have an inkling.
I am what most Thais would call a 'falang' (correctly: farang), which refers to a white Caucasian. It is part of
the word the locals called the first European foreigners n Thailand, the French (falangset or farangset).
Social status in Thailand is a very important concept. Much more so than I ever noticed in Europe; more even
than in Britain with its class society, where high status people walk all over us, although we try to pretend that
they do not exist.
In Thailand, the highest social status goes either to the royal family or the Buddhist monkhood. I have been
told, but there isn't much in it and it might be a personal decision. The king is almost universally liked - even
loved - and monks are universally respected too.
In fact, it is against the law to insult either the king or the monkhood
Next comes a very complicated combination of factors, which are basically: job, age and wealth. You probably
have to be born here to fully understand it instinctively, but experience helps too.
Age definitely confers respect. Technically, if you walk past someone who is much older than you, you should
reduce your height to below theirs, but they don't expect foreigners to do this.
Jobs convey respectability. A teacher does not earn much, but carries the title 'Ajan' (teacher) all his or her
life, even in retirement. It is a huge mark of respect. Only people of impeccable character are allowed to teach
Thai children, or so the theory goes.
Wealth counts for a lot and much more than it probably used to but I am not 100% sure of that.
So where do foreigners who come to Thailand fit into all this?
Well, most foreigners who come to Thailand are getting on, so they score on the age scale. Furthermore, most
Thais have never been abroad on holiday, so if you can afford to come here and not work, you must be well-off.
Therefore, foreigners in Thailand score well on the wealth scale too, although if the truth be known, many
foreigners in Thailand have far less than the richest 10% of villagers.
Most ex-pats are retired from good jobs or at least they say they are. I know only one man, who admits
to having been a hod-carrier. Many claim to have been in the CIA, the SAS or the SEALS, but if you really want to
boost your status here, just say you were a university lecturer.
So, all in all, we foreigners in Thailand come pretty high up the social scale. However, that is how you
rise in society, but you can also do things to subtract from your social status.
This is where some foreigners shoot themselves in the foot. This list of faux-pas is not really in any
order and is probably incomplete. Some are more obnoxious to some people than to other as they might be
The first no-no is being loud and obnoxious; complaining and criticising all the time.
The second is being arrogant and flashy.
Third is being mean (tight-fisted). Being a 'cheap Charlie' is pretty bad, similar to being 'trailer trash' in
Fourth is arguing with people, especially your wife, in public.
On the whole, if you are a typical, decent, quiet old man, you will be well though of.
By the way, drinking too much and too often is quite acceptable, so long as it does not lead to any of the above
bad behaviour. Most Thais drink like fish anyway, although in villages they tend to drink at home or in a friend's
by Owen Jones