Waiter, I'd Like Some Toilet Paper!
Given toilet paper to wipe his mouth, one writer finds his cultural preconceptions challenged by Thai dining etiquette.
One of the things I love about travelling outside of my own country is the chance to see a different culture; not just in the sense of museums and that sort of thing, more in seeing the day-to-day activities of people. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have my own notions of “the way things are” and of “common sense” to be gently (sometimes not so gently!) challenged.
On Kasma’s trips to Thailand, one of the smaller and more challenging opportunities to examine one’s preconceptions comes from Thai napkins.
In the United States, napkins are often large, sturdy affairs; typically placed on the lap and able to handle just about anything from wiping a glob of gravy from your mouth to protecting your lap from spills.
The Thai idea is that each napkin is used once and discarded. I imagine Thais regard our huge, multi-use napkins as rather disgusting.
In Thailand, napkins tend to be very small and very flimsy. Often trip members look at them with disbelief: “I’m supposed to use THAT as a napkin!!!???” Often, laughter ensues. Only very occasionally will you get a napkin closer to the U.S. ideal, typically in more expensive restaurants that cater to Westerners. The Thai idea is that each napkin is used once and discarded. I imagine Thais regard our huge, multi-use napkins as rather disgusting. Why on earth would you want to re-use a napkin that was dirty from a prior use? Yuck.
Westerners invariably end up using multiple napkins at a meal, as the small papers are exhausted one after the other. You can tell if a meal has been particularly spicy-hot, because the sides of plates are littered with all the napkins used to wipe faces, sweaty from the chillies!
On the other hand, the Thais I come in contact with use very few napkins at a meal. Our driver, Sun, even at the spiciest-hot meal, may use only one: and that is to wipe his plate and silverware before the meal. My own impression is that Thais are simply neater than fahrangs (their name for westerners). If used correctly, their way saves a lot of paper waste.
As a side note, you seldom find paper, and even less often cloth, towels (for wiping your hands after washing) in bathrooms. One just washes the hands and shakes them dry. Only within the past very few years have I started to see hand-drying towels in some bathrooms. One quickly finds that the hands dry very quickly. Not having them saves a lot of trees!
Last year in Thailand I took a number of pictures of typical Thai napkins and their dispensers. The quintessential napkin dispenser will also have a place for toothpicks.
One of the more common Thai napkins is a flimsy, pink sheet. The one I measured was 14 cm (or 5-1/2 inches) square and about the consistency of flimsy, 1-ply toilet paper. I often wondered about these and was able to find out a bit about them in one of my favorite books about Thailand: Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith, with photographs by John Goss. The pink napkins are made from recycled paper and are less expensive; they are dyed pink to cover up blemishes from recycling. The dye is made from extracts of tomato and cinnabar.
Another option for napkins is a roll of toilet paper, such as the second picture at the top of the page. One simply pulls out tissue as needed. Toilet paper dispensers for the table are often decorated and elaborate: I’m sorry the only one I can offer is a bit plain.
You’ll find such napkins and related dispensers as described at street stalls as well as many storefront and even somewhat more upscale restaurants. I’ve included above left a picture of a somewhat fancier (although still remarkably flimsy, by U.S. standards) napkin with the name of the restaurant imprinted: it’s from one of our very favorite Thai restaurants anywhere, My Choice in Bangkok.
This post was originally published in Thai Food and Travel in June 2010.