Thailand can be a highly rewarding, as well as a highly frustrating place to do business. Most Thais are keen to have their nation join the ranks of fully developed countries. They love to learn about the practices and technology of the West, yet they can stubbornly refuse to believe ideas that work effectively all over the world will work in Thailand. "This is Thailand" is the often-used excuse when people ask why things are done differently here. To help you get by if you're visiting Thailand on business, here are some of the things we've learned from working in Bangkok for more than a dozen years:
Time & Working Hours
Normal business hours are the same in Thailand as in most other countries. It's still common for many companies to work a half day on Saturdays. However, it is highly unusual for Thais to request a business meeting on Saturdays. In general, Thais do not worry as much about being on time as Americans or most other westerners.
Class & Respect
Although there has been a backlash of sorts in recent years to some of the abuses engaged in by the rich and powerful, Thais in general are still very class conscious. Age and appearance are still used by people from almost every walk of life to determine how they will react to strangers. A light-skinned Westerner in a business suit almost automatically commands a great deal of respect. If they're gray-haired as well, they might well think they've been mistaken for Bill Gates.
Such respect means you'll be listened to and treated well, but this form of respect is a double-edged sword: You may not be given information or told things that disagree with what you have suggested. Many a foreign manager has been tripped up by the Thai practice of avoiding telling the boss bad news.
Most businesses observe somewhat formal Western style dress codes. Dress shirts and ties are standard for almost all male employees. Full suits (with jackets) are common for business meetings with upper management.
Negotiations, Contracts & Payments
Contacting and negotiating with Thai companies can be one of the biggest challenges in doing business in Thailand. The primary issue is usually lack of English skills. Many companies may not have anyone with the skills to communicate in English. If they do, you may end up talking to someone without any knowledge of the person or group you're actually trying to contact, and of course no ability to take decisions for them.
Getting Help Doing Business in Thailand
Now that we've gotten the bad news out of the way, we do want you to know there is some good news: There are people and places where you can get help doing business in Thailand. Most people are unaware that their tax dollars fund trade representatives at foreign embassies, whose job it is to help their companies export goods and services. These people can prove valuable first contacts in any new country, as can local chambers of commerce:
Business Hotels & Meetings
Getting around Bangkok is difficult enough that choosing the right location to stay is very important. We've drawn up a list of Bangkok business hotels to give you some ideas. However, before making any decision, be sure to check whether or not your preferred hotel is near where you have business. Otherwise, you may find yourself commuting several hours to and from your meetings.
Bangkok can be a highly attractive venue for regional business meetings. The city is a major air transport hub, easily reachable from other Asian business centers as well as major cities all over the world. Add the competitive hotel rates in with the many entertainment options the city affords, and it's quite easy to convince people to meet in Bangkok.
If you're planning on being in Bangkok for more than a few days, or if you're a family of more than three people, you may want to consider a serviced apartment. Serviced apartments offer a wider range of room types than hotels, but often have most of the other services you expect from a hotel. While there are many to chose from around town, the Centre Point chain has some of the best locations, and the most satisfied customers that I've heard from.
One might say, with a bit of tongue in cheek, that one of the best places to do business in Bangkok is the airport. There are a large number of very nice business lounges available at Suvarnabhumi International Airport with meeting rooms, good food and they are the few places in all of Bangkok where you'll find free Internet.
Books on Doing Business in Thailand
There are a number of handy books that can give you some more advice on both the legal and cultural aspects of doing business in Thailand.