Those who've been to the US know tipping is commonplace, an expected practice, whereas in the UK it's entirely up to the individual.
When it comes to tipping in Thailand, it's not so straight-forward.
Now, even though I've been in Thailand a fair old while, and do enjoy studying Thai culture and tradition, whenever I do a post like this, I reach out to my Thai peers and ask for their opinions and experiences; simply because it's easy to misinterpret things as a foreigner.
My Thai friends span a cross-section of the provinces, from Central Bangkok to Surrathani in the South, Nan in the North and Kalasin in the North-East, so between us I like to think we've got it covered.
So let's get into this tipping thang. Starting with how the Thais do it.
How & When to Thais Tip?
Tipping in Thailand tends to follow an unwritten three-tier hierarchy, in that the further up the scale you go (the better the establishment) the more common tipping tends to be. And this makes sense, because those eating at more expensive places are obviously more likely to be able to afford to tip.
But as with all Thai social interactions, there's some unique ‘Thainess' thrown into the mix. So let's explore this three-tiered approach:
1. Street Stall Restaurants
Thais generally don't tip at street food stools. It's simply not the nature of such places. The bill isn't left on the table in a Mastercard branded wallet, as it would be at a mall restaurant; the deal is usually done verbally and any due change summoned from the cook's apron.
Of course, occasionally someone might tell the owner to keep the couple of leftover Baht, but with a mixture of clientele, ranging from the Burmese construction working right up to the Lambo-driving hi-so entrepreneur, it tends to be a sit-eat-go free for all that doesn't lend itself to the etiquette of tipping.
2. High-Street Eats
For high street restaurants, chains like Black Canyon and MK, for example, where average middle-earners might eat, a 10 or 20 Baht tip would be the norm, on say a 300-600 Baht meal.
But then not everyone would tip, and most wouldn't necessarily have the intent to do so. It would more so be a case of receiving the change from the waitress and deciding to just leave it, not least because it looks pretty stingy not too – and in Thailand we love to save a bit of face.
3. Posh Nosh Joints
Posh restaurants are a different kettle of fish. There's a point to prove here; “I'm rich enough to eat here, and of course rich enough to leave a tip”.
So in this instance, most hi-so Thais would tip, though not usually excessively. We're talking 100 Baht on a 4,000 Baht meal; though the big players with a big face to upkeep might go in bigger.
But Most Thais I Know Don't Tip!
I know, I know. It's not uncommon to see Thais scooping up every last Baht, as if giving that little offering might enable that waitress from Lampang to start a new business, conquer the Thai economy and rise to the top of the Forbes rich list – Buddha forbid!
But let's keep this balanced, because I know just as many foreigners who don't tip either. I must admit, I do feel a tad embarrassed when I see a fellow UK citizen snatch that 5 Baht from the tray.
It's easy to assume Thais don't tip based on having seen a few that don't, and while I would argue there isn't a tipping culture per se, people do tip, but it's more a culture of leaving a tip to keep face if you need to, which also reflects the notion that the posher the nosh, the more likely a Thai is to tip.
I don't think this approach is that different to London, to be fair.
What there has been historically, however, is a culture of “giving extra” in Thailand. For example, in a market-style setting, a vendor might choose to give extra fruit to a regular or particularly friendly customer, and conversely a customer might choose not to bater and knowingly pay a bit more because they like the interaction they've had with the vendor.
This is still very common. in fact, my fruit lady is forever trying to sneak more fruit in my bag, and I'm forever trying to get her to keep the change.
So, to Tip or Not to Tip?
So what does a foreigner do? Well, let's start by taking a look at the three general lines of thinking foreigners usually follow when they're in Thailand, and probably in many other countries too, and my own personal approach:
1. Why should I pay extra for someone to do their job.
2. I only pay a tip if I think the service was exceptional.
3. I always tip in restaurants and bars because the staff earn low wages on the basis that this will be compensated for by tips.
All of these approaches make a fair point, but personally I adopt the third. I have a good knowledge of what people are paid for different jobs in Thailand, and I know what a massive difference tips can make to restaurant workers.
I tip even when the service is bad. Why? Because in life I try to always consider what it's like to be in someone else's shoes. I doubt I'd be smiling if I was on my feet 10 hours a day serving meals and drinks in Black Canyon for 160 quid a month.
In fact, I wouldn't get out of bed for that a day, so why would I begrudge giving someone a bit extra to help them pay their rent, take the kids out, send a bit of money to their aging parents, buy some new shoes to replace the ones they've had for three years. You get the picture.
I don't consider myself rich, spiritually rich, perhaps, but not financially. But I can afford to tip, in Thailand anyway, so I do. I enjoy giving people a tip. I also enjoy helping others where I can in daily life. It's rewarding.
I always leave a tip for the maid when I checkout of a hotel too. The way I see it, if every guest leaves 100 Baht for the maid (that's less than 2 GBP, come on people!), and she collects from 5 guests checking out each day, she could make a solid 15k on top of her salary. This would put her salary at say 22k a month; which would mean she'd at least be able to say a little each month and treat the kids now and again.
But I also understand that some people can't afford to tip. So I understand that some people have to take the non-tip approach (2), and only tip in exceptional circumstances . Some people are living on a shoe string budget themselves, struggling to make ends meet, so tipping isn't always an option, even if they want to.
Those who take approach 1 also make a good point; because if we always tip the waiter regardless of the service, it creates a precedent and becomes an expectation. This will serve (pardon the pun) to keep wages low, as employers will stipulate in job descriptions that employees can expect “generous tips”.
In truth it isn't up to us to tip. It is up to employers to properly compensate their workers for the job they are doing, and up to the government that people vote in to set wages at a sustainable level for living a healthy, prosperous existence.
So it really comes down to your personal stance on the culture of tipping, and of course whether you can afford to so.
But if I Do, How Much Should I Tip?
I've read a few threads on the web over the years where some foreigners curse others for tipping too much. They say it reinforces this whole “farangs are rich and have bottomless pockets” idea that many Thais have.
And there is some truth in this “farang ATM” theory.
Uneducated Thais, who haven't been outside of Asia, tend to have this idea that all whites from Europe and America are wealthy. This perhaps comes from watching American films and soap operas, and of course is compounded by those retired expats with big pensions who buy the proverbial “farang castle” in Nakhon nowhere for their Thai wife.
I mean, it makes sense, right? If foreigners are tipping 20% on top of every meal they eat at a street stall and a restaurant, and the average Thais tip nothing, the general perception is that foreigners have money to burn and can afford to do so.
This perception then turns into staff being judgmental of those foreigners who don't tip; “farang keenieow” (stingy foreigner) is the term.
But this is of course unfair, as the show string budget backpacker is less likely to be able to afford to tip on each meal than the stacked 60+ retiree who has a pension and a nice family inheritance to live off.
That said, most people can afford to at least leave a 10-20 Baht tip. So, if you're stuck for knowing what to tip,
Follow the Thai culture for tipping as set out above. Don't tip at street stalls unless you really want to show your appreciation, do leave a tip at high-street eats: I suggest say 10 Baht in every 100 Baht, so 40 Baht on a 400 Baht meal.
And, if you like a posh nosh, well, you've got the dosh to flash, so you might as well show some love to the staff, who, by the way, probably earn less than a glass of the fine wine you are drinking for a night's work!