Readers' Submissions

The Truth About Thailand And Her Citizens Part 1

  • Written by Lookpapa
  • March 17th, 2006
  • 7 min read

I guess, if I’m going to present myself as some kind of expert, I should state my credentials.

I visited Thailand in 1978 as member of a tour group, the trip including Singapore and Hong Kong as well. Previous to then, I’d never been to SE Asia, although I’d traveled extensively in Europe, North America, Oceania and The Pacific.

I was immediately fascinated by the “Orient”, and was regretting not having gone there earlier, but I figured, better late than never. Following this trip, I made a point of seeing more of the East, such as Macau, Nepal, India, Philippines, just to name a few. From 1980 on I started visiting Thailand and Hong Kong regularly on business, which meant at least 2 trips to HK and 4 trips to Thailand per annum.

The Hong Kong trips were essential to my business and I was only there long enough each time to do what had to be done and get out, as soon as possible, I think you can guess it’s not my favourite place.

However, Thailand was completely different, it was also essential for my business, but I also had to tear myself away from the place each time when it was time to leave. I think you can guess it became my favourite place.

And I must admit that I can thank Thailand to a large extent for my success in business and its financial rewards. So when I retired in 2000, I decided to live in Thailand with my Thai wife and our child. However, mostly out of consideration to our child’s future (although there were other contributing factors too), we decided to move to my country a few months ago. Now that I’m a “Time Millionaire”, in other words can devote time to whatever pleases me, I’m tempted to write a book on my take on the Thailand that I used to love and still have fond memories of.

Don’t think of me being a hypocrite if in the writings to come I may say negative things about the place, I’ll try to be even handed and fair, but with age and experience comes wisdom and reflection, something that some of the other correspondents seem to lack.

First of all, to start with, the Thailand that tourists come to know and love is not the real Thailand, it is a product of a marketing effort to sell the country to short term visitors who want instant gratification and get it by design. The catch phrases, like The Land of Smiles or Amazing Thailand are manufactured in public relations boardrooms to appeal to the tourists and how effective they are! The tourist boom of the last 20 years in Thailand is nothing short of amazing, this is in spite of military coups, economic meltdowns, tsunami, plane, boat and bus accidents, sleaze (actually that is an attraction to many), child abuse, pornography, yet they still keep coming!

Admittedly, there is a lot to see and do here, but it is not so unique that it could not be found elsewhere. It is also reasonable and good value for money, especially if you come from the West. But so are other counties in the region.

One of the important things people love about the country is its cuisine which is universally mentioned by everyone when they return home. In fact Thai food has become so popular in the world that there are thousands of Thai expatriates living abroad, running Thai restaurants. In a usually high risk business, such as catering, Thai restaurants have a negligible failure rate.

Shopping is also great with a good selection of goods at a fraction of the prices at home. Hotel and resort accommodation and choice is diverse and caters for all budgets.

Service is good, the number of people waiting on you is unheard of in the west, and their pleasant manner can make you forget their lack of English and efficiency. And they always SMILE.

So you think how nice and polite these people are, working for a small daily wage that would not even equal the hourly rate at home. And if you are a tourist, you start to believe that the PR spin of The Land of Smiles is a genuine article.

Here is where I have to inject a bit of reality into the subject.

Where you and I come from, we normally smile for a reason, unless you’re an imbecile living in an institution for the insane.

We smile when we’re happy: happy to see people we like, enjoy lighthearted conversation, smile at a joke, smile at babies, smile to welcome someone into our house, etc, etc. On the other hand our facial expression changes when we’re unhappy, angry, annoyed, worried, stressed etc. Lets say, mostly we wear our hearts on our sleeves. So in our interactions with each other we can more or less tell what the other person’s reaction is to ourselves and vice versa.

Don’t make that mistake with the Thais!

From the time a child is born in Thailand and can comprehend instructions, they’re brainwashed into Smiling (Yim). That is smile on demand! From an early age, Thai children are taught to smile regardless of any appropriate reason.

Later on it becomes an acquired reaction to a number of different situations, not necessarily anything to do with amusement. Thai people smile when they’re involved in an accident, when they commit an infringement, when they attempt to cheat you, when they serve you with a subpoena, when a policeman arrest you, at funerals, so on and so forth.

Nothing could be more irritating to a westerner than insincere smiles in situations that call for different sort of emotions.

I never got used to this in all the times I spent there, trying to figure out what kind of smile is it I’m getting now? But what really got me was that they expected me to smile also at the most inappropriate times, and if I did not, they thought I was uncivilized and a moody person. Well, I might be moody at times, especially when I’m expected to have a silly grin on my face for no reason at all!

It is very important that you understand that some Thai people smile at you even when they dislike you. It is a mask, the emotions behind it could be exactly the opposite. We used to live in a moobahn, where a particular woman had a falling out with my wife due to me warning her to be careful about this woman’s motives. Nevertheless, any time I passed her in the street, she’d give me a smile of recognition, whereas I knew for a fact that she disliked me intensely (actually, hated my guts).

Now, if you’re a tourist and you see a lot of smiling faces, it puts you in a good frame of mind for your holiday, so that’s all you care about, but if you’re a resident in the country and you come into contact with a variety of local people in different circumstances, you’ll come to learn to look behind the Mask! Makes you a bit of a cynic, unfortunately.

Well, I guess that was enough of a lesson for one day, but there are many other Thai traits, which we need to explore for a reality check, such as:
Raksaa cheu siang ton eng (saving face)
Kreng jai (considering others)
Tham boon (making merit)
rahk khun (love you) & kitung khun (miss you)
Etc, … and that’s just on a personal level

Then, when you have learnt all about the above, you can graduate to the next class of heavier subjects, like exploitation of the rural people, corruption, mafia, influential people, Thai style democracy, politics the Thai way, business ethics, social interactions between Thais and westerners and between Thai and Thai of different economic strata, the role of the clergy and Buddhism and more!

Well, you know that you never stop learning, most things are not what they seem to be, so listen up, there is more to come…

Stickman's thoughts:

This could be the start of an interesting series.