On a beach in the Gulf of Thailand, a jarring encounter illustrates cultural difference in the extreme. Even a gesture, a smile, an interjection is dangerous when left untranslated.

It’s an age ago. I’m on a beach called Haad Rin Nok, on an island called Kho Pha Ngan in the Gulf of Thailand. The beach is deep, pale sand bounded by green steep headlands to the north and south, the sea in front, and wooden bars and bungalows behind.

There’s a Full Moon Party tonight.

It’s almost dark. Music is everywhere. The beaches and bars are scattered with backpackers. To the south is a small bar with a sand floor, tables running down the right, the bar to the left. It’s almost empty. That’s why I walked in.

Except it’s not quite empty. Four Thai men sit around a table. They’re slender and trim, slightly smaller than Europeans the way most Thai people are. Sweating bottles of Chang beer sit in front of them. One man has a long ponytail tied neatly back. His elbows rest on the table as he softly spits quick-fire whispers across it, punctuated with small emphatic gestures as tightly contained as the volume of his tirade. As he speaks he stares intently at the man opposite him, who hunches forward into this storm, arms tucked between his legs, leaving the table to the speaker in an unconscious act of submission. I notice all this in a glance and raise an eyebrow at the barman who returns the smallest of shrugs.

Thai people are renowned for their friendliness. Travel companies describe Thailand as a happy place, “the land of smiles.” That trite message completely misses the array of emotions a smile in Thailand can convey other than happiness. The barman doesn’t smile. Suddenly I’m very wary.

Into the bar bounds a Western guy just getting started on his backpacking adventure, to judge by his pasty skin. He’s leaking exuberance in anticipation of the night ahead. He’s massive. Six-and-a-half feet tall with shoulders like beer kegs, and full of friendly energy. He orders a handful of beers and with a broad grin notices the guys around the table as the barman reaches back for them. Just at that moment the speaker pokes a finger in the air as he snaps angrily at his counterpart. The backpacker’s grin doesn’t falter. “Hey guys, c’mon, don’t argue!” he shouts in response.

The guys at the table ignore him without a glance or breaking their conversation.

I try to catch his eye, but he’s already moving over to them. Not used to being ignored, and with an absolute confidence in his presence and the certainty that his good humor is infectious, he feels a sense of righteousness that carries him on in his intervention.

“Hey! C’mon, man” he scolds with a grin. “Quit arguing, dude. It’s the Full Moon Party!”

The table goes silent. The speaker looks up.

The backpacker pauses. Emboldened by finally managing to attract their attention, he throws his huge arms wide in a gesture of invitation. “Hey! C’mon, man, have a dr…”

In a flash, the speaker lunges out of his seat, smashes a bottle of Chang in hand, and pursues the backpacker onto the beach at top speed. The table empties as the other three guys and I follow.

The backpacker tears up the beach at breakneck speed, terror on his face as he casts frantic glances over his shoulder at the speaker flying a few strides behind, broken bottle pumping in his fist. Violent intent rolls off him in waves. The two disappear into the distance. The only indication of where they are is the herd of people craning their necks then stepping back as they run by. People are shouting now. The runners are heading back toward us. Some people laugh. There’s dark humor in the laughter. A tiny, murderous-looking Thai man is chasing one of the largest backpackers they’ve ever seen. The backpacker isn’t laughing. He’s running for his life, and on his face is the absolute certainty of knowing that the guy behind him isn’t laughing either.

They draw level with the bar; the backpacker is fading fast, and the speaker is closer. In a spray of sand, the backpacker sprawls to his knees, turns, and faces his pursuer. His mouth is open, chest sucking air, massive arms held in front of him, palms up. Eyes wide with fear.

“Sorry, man. Sorry! Please, I didn’t mean anything. Nothing. Sorry. Please!”

The speaker halts in front of him. He’s looking down, face twisted with rage, bottle loose in his fist, the jagged edges raw and dark. He glances at the group standing in front of the bar. Then he smiles.

The backpacker’s face rises from fear to relief.

But then the bottle is pressing against his neck. The speaker’s smile has gone. The backpacker freezes. People including me shout, “No!”

The speaker smiles again. He steps back, clips the backpacker around the ear and, still smiling, drops the bottle and walks back into the bar. His friends follow. I’m watching the backpacker, slumped on the sand, tears in his eyes. We help him up. He’s in shock, too ashamed to speak or look anyone in the eye, and mutters he’s fine as he stumbles away. I am shaking, too.

The sun went down fast. In the dark that night, as the music thumped and the SangSom flowed on the beach, my friends and I relived this most savage lesson. I couldn’t condone what the speaker did, but I understood him. He could not lose face in front of his peers. He wasn’t looking for trouble; it just walked up to his table. I also understood how a Westerner might expect a positive response to a friendly, good-humored scolding. The backpacker learned that in Thai society, some people will go to extraordinary lengths to save face. I learned that the world may seem small, but our cultural differences can be vast. Try to understand people, lest they surprise you with their smiles.

Jon tan

Jon Tan is a designer and typographer. He cofounded Fontdeck and works from Mild Bunch HQ, the co-working studio he founded in Bristol, UK. Jon speaks internationally about design and typography at conferences such as An Event Apart, and has written for publications such as Typographica and 8Faces.

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Portrait by Ping Zhu