Maids, Chauffeurs & The Big Move

03 April 1998

I guess it is again time for one of my rambling tales of living in the Far East. It has been a hectic past two weeks. Not only were there many important work related activities, but I also moved into our planned living quarters for the next two years, received the container with the contents from our home in Holland, and changed car & drivers.

The House

During the first two months of our two year planned stay in Thailand, I lodged in a serviced one bedroom apartment located on Sukomvit Road. Sukomvit is in the center of Bangkok, if one can say that Bangkok has a center. This bustling area was exciting to live in, although not all that pleasant due to the pollution, crowds of tourists, and additional heat generated by the mass of cars, air conditioners, and overall congestion.

These reasons contributed to our decision to take a home further from the center, as well as my desire to come home to a more serene environment after my hectic work day. The home, which we chose to rent, is located in a small suburb of Muang Ake, located northwest of Bangkok near Rangsit University. It is now around a 45-minute commute, given current traffic conditions. This is a little longer than the 30-minute commute from my previous location on Sukomvit Road. Curiously enough, the previous occupant of the house was my predecessor at work, Tim Cremer. So I have had the pleasure in relating the story of how I not only arrived in Bangkok to take over Tim’s job, but also managed in the process to also gain his home, car, driver, maid, and mobile phone.

The house is located in a pleasant and relaxing setting. While it is true that the street we live on is still cluttered with litter and other refuse – found almost everywhere in the Bangkok area – the view from the back of the house is very pleasant. We have a small backyard that has a 4-meter (12-foot) wide canal running its length. Beyond the canal is one of two local golf courses. The course behind the home, Muang Ake Vista, is unique, as it has full lighting, allowing play until around 10pm. This provides an ever-entertaining panorama with golfers and their caddy’s strolling by in the evening. Mornings are also pleasant as songbirds now awaken us, from outside our bedroom window. Opening the curtains reveals the green fairways with water sprinklers dousing the course. Also, I am convinced that the temperature in this setting is at least 5 degrees cooler than in the center of Bangkok. This may be overstated although I still believe it to be true.

The Big Move

I arrived at the house on the morning of Tuesday March 31st. I had been there previously for the house inspection with the Thai owners. Assisting me in the ‘unloading’ were my previous driver, Jack, my current driver Su (Pronounced Sue) and our maid Pah. We had borrowed one of the company vans in the morning, which was needed to move my belongings from the apartment in Bangkok. I had expected the container to arrive around 10am. However, at ten past 10 I received a disturbing call from the moving company’s representative stating that there had been an accident involving the container truck, and as such, there would be a delay of several hours. Impatient as I am and having no place to sit, I decided to go with Jack to the closest supermarket and stock up on essentials for the kitchen.

Jack and I arrived back at the house around 12:30pm and the 40 foot container arrived shortly thereafter. The crew foreman presented me with the bill of lading, which I was to inspect and check off during unloading. I then proceeded to look inside the steel container, as I wanted to inspect it’s capacity. Aside from curiosity, my primary intention was to envisage how much room we would have for acquisitions for the return trip. I was greeted by the disturbing scene of seeing all of one’s possessions reduced to an abstract art form composed of a mixture of white cardboard encased furniture surrounded by white and brown boxes. The 220 plus items were each numbered and further marked with some vague description of either the contents or the source, such as; ‘kitchen’, ‘bathroom’, ‘bedroom’, etc. Adding to the confusion was the fact that the labeling was in a hybrid text of Dutch-lish.

Accompanying the container was a team of around 15 young Thais wearing their moving company’s T-shirts. One part of the team removed their shoes and entered the house while the remaining group proceeded to the empty the container. Each numbered item was brought first to the door where the foreman and my self would check the box number. This was followed by indicating to which room each box should go. We designated one room as ‘storage’. The intention of which was to send the boxes that I did not want to have unpacked. Being outnumbered 15-to-1, I did my best in deciphering the script on each item and directing it to a general location. This process lasted around an hour and a half. There was included (of course!) a 20 minute break for a late lunch. At this juncture, all of the cardboard enclosed items were somewhere inside the house. We were now ready to proceed with a chaotic phase II of the operation. Now all 15 of the barefooted Thais were inside unpacking boxes, identifying furniture parts and attempting assemblage. This all occurring in about 10 different locations spread around the two-story home. I hurried from one location to another to instruct and assist in the process. After several hours the operation was complete, or at least as complete as it was going to be for a few weeks.

All in all, it went quite well with only a few miscues. For one, I managed somehow to have instructed that our heaviest piece of furniture, the dining room sideboard, was sent upstairs, thinking that it was part of a bedroom suite. I didn’t have the heart to have it brought back downstairs, and in any event it also was well suited as a linen cabinet in the upstairs foyer. Breakage was limited to a few glasses and the CD player portion of the stereo that didn’t seem to want to work anymore.* More disturbing was the leftover quantity of screws and other hardware. I hope all the furniture stays together.

(*Footnote: several weeks later I disassembled the CD player together with one of the visiting plant engineers, one Jochim Schober from Graz, Austria, and the player has worked ever since!).

Car & Driver(s)

Many expatriates in Bangkok are provided with a car and driver. This is largely due not to prestige but to the practicality of negotiating the Bangkok traffic and Thai style of driving. Initially, around a week after my arrival, I was provided with a Toyota Corolla 4-door sedan and a driver named Jakkowan. Jakkowan was immediately shortened to “Jack”, nicknaming is the normal procedure in Thai culture. Nicknames or abbreviated names are given to virtually all Thais, as their full names can be long and difficult to pronounce. The use of nicknames is not just for use by the farang (foreigner), but is along used between Thais.

The primary job of the driver is to pick you up in the morning, take you home at night and provide transportation for your wife during the day. However, he is also always available to provide for other services. It is common practice to have drivers run errands for their ‘boss’ during the day. This may include anything from grocery shopping and having clothes repaired to paying bills and making other household arrangements. In this sense the driver provides the much greater role of mediator when dealing with many local Thai affairs. It is therefore important that you have someone that you can both trust and rely upon.

One example of the driver’s behavior was when I needed to have some photos from the Netherlands framed. I dropped them off at Robinson’s department store with instructions for matting and framing. Jack assisted me in my communications to the sales clerk. Jack then returned a week or so later to pick up the pictures. When delivering the pictures to me at the office, he insisted that I would not be pleased with the result. While the matting was not perfect, I would have found it acceptable. However, at urging of Jack, I was convinced that the work could be improved. So, Jack packed up the pictures and returned to the store to register my dissatisfaction. When he returned again a few days later to deliver the modified framed photos, all was indeed improved to my complete satisfaction. By using my driver to the fullest I was able to increase my state of contentment while having to expend very little personal effort.

For this extra service, it is the boss’s responsibility to look after and provide for the driver. The norm for a driver’s salary is in the area of 6000 baht per month or around 150 US dollars. This income is supplemented with a weekly tip (if earned) of a few dollars.

At around the same time as moving into the house, I was also able to take over Tim’s car and driver. It was not that I was dissatisfied with Jack, however there were other considerations that led me to the decision to change drivers. Fortunately, I was able to place Jack with a colleague of mine such that he would not have to be terminated and forced to seek new employment in the currently meager Thai economy.

My new (other) car was a Honda accord, which provided a little more interior room. Surasak, my new driver, had worked for Tim for the past four years. Surasak has the reputation of being a very good and reliable driver. The overriding factors in deciding to change drivers was Su’s familiarity with the environs around the new home, his strong recommendation of loyalty and trustworthiness from Tim, and his good relationship with the maid. Su speaks very good English (unusual for a Thai driver), as well as a smattering of Dutch, which I expect he also understands reasonable well.

Our maid or domestic is Soapah, whom we call “Pah”. Pah is a full-time live-in maid. She is provided with her own quarters and a separate entrance to the house. She is in her early forties, which is older than many of the other domestics employed by expatriates. Unlike Su, Pah speaks and understands very little English. Despite this communications hurdle we manage quite well with non-verbal communications. Also this is an area where Su is able to make a significant contribution.

Soapah is responsible for cleaning the house, doing laundry, tidying the yard and looking after the dog (which also came with the house). She is very quiet and it seems that she appears only when we are in need of her. Most maids in Thailand also do all the cooking for the house. In the case of Soapah, we have been led to believe that her cooking skills or of a lower quality. This does not present a difficulty for us as we usually enjoy preparing our meals. I am sure however, that we will verify her qualities as a cook as we get to know her better.

The situation of having a full-time driver and maid is one with which we were initially uncomfortable. The idea of having servants is completely foreign to our upbringing and is not common in the cultures we have experienced up until now. However, we are making adjustments and now feel comfortable. The real challenge may come when it is time to leave Thailand and the extra benefits of living in this part of Asia. – Allan