When one withdraws money from an ATM in Thailand, the machine dispenses 1000 baht bills. ฿1000 is equivalent to about US$30 and in a country where the daily (not hourly) minimum wage is ฿300, about US$9, it is often difficult to use big bills for small purchases with local businesses, street vendors, taxis, etc. They simply don’t have that kind of money around and, when they do, are understandably reluctant to relinquish their smaller bills.
Due to this awkward difficulty, I try to make change for some of my bigger bills. One morning, I went to the front desk of my hotel in the amazing Old City of Chiang Mai, where I was greeted by Mai, which means New, who is helpful, friendly, and invariably polite, as so many Thai people are. Holding out my ฿1000 bill, I asked her in my broken Thai if she could please “do small”. Without hesitation, she reached into her drawer and held up another ฿1000 note, with a somewhat cuter smile than before.
Confused, I said her bill was nice, but that I’d like ten ฿100 bills please. She very politely said “no thank you”, likely thinking she had appropriately settled the matter. I thought for a moment, as these situations are not always clear across cultures and languages, but what is clear is that hotter emotions, quicker frustrations, and louder voices are never helpful in Thailand and typically counterproductive.
In any event, I always try to find the amusement in these encounters and therefore enjoy rather than being rattled by them. As I laughed at the absurdity of the situation — and so much of life can be absurd — Mai of course continued to smile. Asking her why she couldn’t make change, Mai said with her biggest smile yet, not quite giddy but clearly excited, “our money is lost!” Well, that explains it, I guess.
Of course, money, smiles, journeys, and even lives come and go. Perhaps Mai was a bodhisattva — or just a typical Thai Buddhist — reminding me not to get too attached to anything because everything is impermanent. So I smiled, thanked her, and went on my way.