It is a perennial question often asked by Western expats used to keeping appointments and arriving on time.
The simple answer is probably that the westerners arrive too early – that is to say “on time” according to their perspective.
Because Thais are much more general in their perception of time and you only need to look at their language to get some angle on that.
Notions of time are dealt with by many rather vague notions such as “naan” (long time) that could mean anything from hours to centuries to “torn yen” (evening or ‘time of cool’) that could be anything from about four to seven pm. “Duk” is late at night but could be anything according to the speaker’s preference while “saay” kind of means late in the morning or just plain late depending on when the appointment was.
There is even debate about when something has actually happened – for example the Thais will say the bus is “here” when it is but a speck on the horizon for it can be seen. Ok, there might me some difference between “maa laew” (come) and “theung laew” (arrived) but that is really semantics.
It all leads some cheeky westerners used to propping up bar stools perhaps to joke that the only reasonably accurate analysis of time is available in the expressions “chua khaaw” or “khang kheun” (short time or all night)…..even then it can be debatable!
So even for Thai speakers and, frankly, the Thais themselves it can be tricky to pin down what is meant by being on time. I tried Steven Hawking’s “Brief History” thereof but found it even more complex than I thought.
Though it is fair to say that westerners probably get more concerned about the issue of lateness as most Thais in most situations will have little concept of why such a fuss is being made!
For me, with a few examples of being made to wait in the kingdom after 35 years residence, and even possessing a fair ability at the Thai language, it can still be very hard to predict when people are likely to turn up.
Experience is a good thing – if you know the person who you are planning to meet you can usually gauge when they are likely to show give or take the influence of imponderables like the traffic or how long it takes for a woman to wash her hair or do her nails….
But it really gets tricky when meeting someone new.
I would say in most cases arrive thirty minutes after the stated time. If the Thai person has, unusually, been actually waiting for thirty minutes you can show your admirable knowledge of the culture by offering no apology whatsoever. Who on earth comes on time, duh!!
If the person strolls up an hour after the scheduled time you can do one of several things. Take it on the chin, you have only wasted 30 minutes after all. Or if it is a date for lunch or dinner you can apologize and say you ate already – ok it is just a joke but a great ice-breaker and gets the message across to be quicker in future without actually saying you are cross which is very bad form especially as a first thing to say.
Next time arrive one hour late for that person.
When people are consistently very late just work out the average and be done with it. These days you can always put in an hour of Facebook while you wait so chillax!
But how can you get Thais to come on time? Especially if it bugs you or is actually important.
It’s tricky. As mentioned above making a joke may be good as this can indicate the seriousness of things. You can always say that the person who arrives late has to pay for the lunch or drinks though if anyone takes that seriously you could be labelled as “farang mai ruu rooang” (a westerner unfamiliar with Thai social mores) and lose Brownie
If this happens and the situation needs rectifying quickly try and distract their attention with a standard “time” joke: I say I say I say, what is the average “wait” for a Thai babe? Arai na kha – 3 kilos? Nine months, same anywhere, bu-bum. If they laugh, bingo, if stare blankly at you, at least you tried…
Western style jokes do usually fall flat so at the risk of getting a timely slap you could always try one with a bit of Thai-ness. Saying “too late” with the falling intonation on the late means “disgusting or disgraceful” in Thai. If you pronounce it correctly and their their eyebrows are raised you can correct yourself with a cheeky grin or bewildered expression of innocence saying it in the correct English way: “You have come too late…darling. I missed you.”
Pathetic attempts at jokes aside, you could always use the Thai term for “on time” and, yes, contrary to some commentators, they do have such a word or words. You can say “maa trong welaa” (come precise time). Or at least you can try…..because in my experience even saying that is a complete waste of breath.
What is needed is an inducement to arrive on time that really means something to the locals. But what?
Quite a good way is to lie. Not just a small lie but a completely barefaced and blatant lie but one that will appeal.
For example Thais are usually very respectful of the feelings of the elderly so something along the lines of “you must arrive on time as afterwards I need to take my aged and frail grandmother for her kidney dialysis at 4pm”. That should do the trick.
But as I already intimated, even though I have been here for more years than Thais have even been on time for meetings with me, I rarely get it right.
I play in Scrabble tournaments where, abroad at least, the need to be at the table to begin games on time is quite strict.
In Thailand when the organizers say “we will start at 10” I figure 11.30. But I usually turn up at 10.30 worried they will start my clock timing the game and I might lose points. I always seem to wait at least an hour, sometimes more.
But when the organizers really want people to be on time they will say, in Thai, “it is important that you arrive at ten because we have a tight schedule tomorrow so please don’t be late”. In this case I arrive at ten, and they start at 10.30.
I must say I admire the players who always seem to stroll in nonchalantly at just the right time. I have often wondered what their secret is.
If I could bottle it and sell it, I would.
I doubt that it is too late.