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Gratuity Guidelines and A History of Tipping Etiquette in Southeast Asia

April 6, 2018

The United States is perhaps the country with the largest practice of tipping service industry personnel. Restaurant staff particularly require it. When dining out, as almost 60% of families in the States do every month, it's the expected 15-25% of the bill on average. When service really sucks, people can get ugly with that percentage. But otherwise, it might as well be a requirement dictated not by law, but social norms. As consumers, we accept these norms, thought to vary only with the value that we place on the consequences of not doing so.


And then elsewhere, tipping as a custom is an insult. Everywhere in between, views on tipping run the spectrum. So how much should you tip when traveling?

 

In Southeast Asia, views on tipping in cities are often similar and applicable across  Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. 
It’s important to keep in the mind that the tipping culture that now exists in these countries, particularly touristed centers, is not traditional, but what has become accepted as the norm due to influxes of tourists and visiting consumers. So let’s take a quick look at how Southeast Asia historically viewed tipping.

History of Tipping in Southeast Asia

Traditionally, there wasn’t a lot of it. As least as we understand what a “tip” means today. I like the way Jason Wordie puts it in an article on the topic of tipping in The South China Post: 
 

“Some old stagers aver that restaurant tipping in Asia is an American disease that spread, like many other consumerist habits, as part of the post-war world’s cultural cocacola-isation. But as with most generalisations, this explanation only gives part of the picture.”

 

He argues that a fine line existed between what was considered a tip and a bribe, and they were used to accomplish different things. Traditionally in Asia, a tip was given in advance of a service, given in order to get something done (and done well and promptly.) Things were arranged “on commission,” Wordie writes, and a tip worked like a guarantee.


“Procurement, delivery and shipment of goods being traded, the engagement (and dismissal) of staff, guarantees of their conduct and reliability – everything that took place on or passed through the premises was subject to tips, of which the [Chinese mercantile] comprador took his cut.”


But poorly paid officials and businessmen who made a promise to deliver were one thing. Restaurant waiters, tour guides, beauty stylists and your Thai masseuse today are another.

Southeast Asia Tipping Guidelines

Today, most service industry professionals in Southeast Asia cities that see tourists accept and expect tips. Does that mean you should tip? Perhaps. Service industry staff -- waiters and waitresses, salon technicians and stylists, spa and massage staff, and hotel personnel  -- do work for it. Because you can’t always guarantee whether the employee that served you will actually get to keep the tip (vs. going into a supervisor's fund that the employee will never see)  you should always tip those staff a small amount -- if the service was average or above. If the service wasn’t good, reduce your tip based on how poor it was. You do want to be conscientious of the effects of accepting, rewarding and propagating poor service.
 

What about the moral dilemma of the continued Coca-Colalization described by Wordie? Should we bring the tipping culture from our home country with us as we travel to foreign places, and tarnish them with our obligations to cultural norms to tip service personnel? Or do we follow the native customs as they had been traditionally, before travellers arrived? Maybe we meet somewhere in the middle? 

 

Because it is a norm (and nowhere, a legal requirement), spend as much time as you'd like postulating the cultural conundrum, but here's a quick rundown IMO.

 

On my tours, I ultimately tell passengers to do what they feel is right. 

​Basic Gratuity Etiquette for Tipping In Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia

Leave 10-15% across the board for service industry professionals who are waiting on you, grooming you, giving you a massage, or otherwise giving you their time. It’s nice to tip hotel staff if they’ve provided above average service $1 or $2 per task. Tip your guides. As a tour leader in the region, I know our local guides require the tips to supplement their lower wages. Often, local guides’ wages come with their employer's expectation that they’re getting extra cash from the beloved but overzealous tipping Canadians (and often with the addition of annual fees required by some countries' tourism associations). Given that, guides deserve $1-2/hour, $5 for a half-day and $10-$15/day for a full day tour or more. Give their accompanying drivers half that. And at mid- to higher-end establishments, check the bill first as 10% gratuity may already be added.

And Don’t Forget To Say Thank You

Because you’re polite and should have learned a bit of the language. Phonetically: 

 

In Thai: Khob-khun-kap (male) + Khob-khun-ka (female)

In Khmer: Or-khun

In Vietnamese: Gahm-un

In Bahasa Indonesia: Terima kasih

 

Lastly, never, ever, be a dick. 
 

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