Your Thai Smiles and Wai’s might very well be Burmese

The Thai Smile and the Thai wai is iconic for Thailand. This girl is giving a Thai wai, a welcome greeting by putting her palms together in front of her chest.
How often do you hear friends and acquaintances come back from a Thai holiday praising the iconic Thai Smile?

It is quite common for tourists to praise Thai hospitality, the Thai smile, and the polite greeting gesture called the wai. Well, actually the welcoming wai and the Thai smile could very likely be a Burmese version!  Over some years of visiting beaches in Thailand and talking to tourism staff and local residents, I started to realize that increasingly, a lot of these people at the southern Thai beach destinations don’t speak Thai. They are in fact from Myanmar. Once I realized this, I started to dig into the subject a little more.

There are 2-3 million Burmese living in Thailand, maybe more since far from all are officially registered. Many of them are employed by the hotel industry. I asked a few tourism industry representatives, hotel managers, expats in Thailand, and local residents about the reason for this apparent rise in hotel workers from Myanmar. Here are some of the reasons I was given.

Reasons given for using Burmese hotel staff in Thailand

Burmese people speak better English

Thai staff is simply too lazy

The demand for hotel staff has risen so fast that foreign staff has to be used

Young Thais from rural areas have for years migrated to the bigger cities, leaving a gap in available local staff

Burmese staff accept lower wages (far below the already low minimum wage of 300 Thai Baht per day or roughly 10 US Dollars) and do not have the same worker’s rights as Thai citizens

Burmese staff often come from hopeless situations of poverty, unemployment, and political turmoil in Myanmar. To escape these conditions they are willing to work harder, longer, and at lower wages without complaints

Of course there will be other reasons not stated here. Each Burmese immigrant worker will have his or her own reasons, and hotel employers will likewise have their own reasons for hiring Burmese staff. One thing is certain though, the issue of immigrant workers from Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia is attached with controversies and pointed opinions as you might expect from the above reasons given.

Most tourists enjoying Thailand would never know that behind that lovely Thai smile could be a Burmese person.

Photo credit: Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)

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