Readers' Submissions

The Truth About Thailand And Her Citizens Part 5

  • Written by Lookpapa
  • April 13th, 2006
  • 6 min read


By Lookpapa (the Sage)

Those of you who read these series of submissions may be wondering why I’m writing them, why I dedicate my precious time to you, the reader, all of whom are complete strangers to me.

Well, believe it or not I am making merit, in Thai they call it “Tham Boon”.

I think I’m actually contributing to those of you who are thinking of or already living in Thailand, helping you to a better understanding of Thai characteristics.

Strictly speaking, making merit is a Buddhist custom of selfless giving to maintain temples, monks and giving prayers to advance the ideals of Theravada Buddhism.

It takes the form of giving alms to monks, either in the temples or their morning walkabouts plus on special religious occasions in the Buddhist Calendar.

However, making merit has become a much more widespread activity far beyond the religious and far removed from a selfless act.

Early on when I first came to Thailand, I was enthralled with the country, its culture, its people and their customs and in particular with Buddhism. I went about doing a lot of research to immerse myself and to understand how the place “operates”.

Around 1982, I decided to spend some time in a monastery overlooking Burma; the Abbot was famous as a teacher of meditation. So I spent nearly 2 weeks sleeping with monks on hard floors of huts, having one meal a day, learning meditation and partaking in a simple life. There were two monks over there who could speak some English, so I monopolized their time, and being the inquisitive fellow I was then, asking them questions endlessly about Buddhism. They tried to enlighten me to the best of their ability, not always succeeding. At the end of my stay there I made a sizable contribution to the temple funds to be used for developing the facility. By then I understood that it was expected of me to “make merit” and I did not mind it at the time.

Incidentally, a year later I returned to renew my acquaintance with the Abbot, who informed me that one of the English speaking monks I used to bombard with questions, had run away to a remote forest monastery, as he did not know all the answers and decided to become a recluse, hoping for enlightenment. Many years later I returned once again to visit the Abbot, and to my shock I did not recognize the temple, it had now become a marble monstrosity, lorded by the same Abbot who was twice his previous size too. He was beaming with a big smile seeing me, showing off the result of merit making donations as a testament to his popularity. The cult of self engrandisment (you can correct me on the spelling, but you know what I mean), at its ugliest. My disillusionment began then with some of the clergy, later on reinforced with many scandals involving monks. But I digress….

Back to making merit as it’s practiced now by the majority of Thais. Far from being a selfless act, it is now practiced with a vengeance to make gains, like good luck, wealth, health, etc, building up brownie points for material advancement. The ultimate accumulation of merit points supposedly ensures that on reincarnation you’ll come back at a higher social status to your previous life. (Or lower status, if you had not built up enough merit points or committed sins).

Actually not much different to our own beliefs, whereby if you were a righteous man and lived without sin, you’ll end up in heaven or conversely in hell. In our religions, you can atone for your sins, get absolution and still be at the pearly gates, a few Hail Maries will probably give you a second chance. The only problem is that we can never get an eye witness report of the heavenly place.

In Thailand, the merit making usually involves a monetary expenditure, obviously the richer you are the easier you accumulate merits, thereby ensuring your good karma. In other words, in Thailand you can buy everything with money, including the afterlife. One should be able to actually check out all these reborn individuals, to see if the merit makings paid off… I’ve come across some Thai people who can tell me what their previous life form was. Then you look at the countless unfortunates who live in poverty or just over the breadline and wonder what sins they might have committed in their previous lives to deserve their fate. Perhaps they were policemen, politicians, mafia, media tycoons, pimps and mamasans, etc…. Fat chance, hey? But I digress….

If you had read through this series from part 1 to part 5, you could not help getting a feeling that I’m a cynic and I am, but I was not one 25 years ago. My adventure with Thailand started with the best of intentions of embracing the country and its people. The longer I was involved, the deeper I looked beyond the façade, the more experiences I lived through, the more I got to know how it operates, the lesser I liked it. I’m not totally disillusioned, as I recognize that all folks where ever they come from are imperfect. I don’t think the Thais are worse than any other people of the world, but a lot of them pretend to be something they’re not.

I like to call a spade a spade, no beating around the bush, most people who come in contact with me know that whatever they see is what they get. I’m not saying this is a general trait of all farangs, best example is President Bush invading Iraq under false pretences. Now, I think if he’d been honest enough to explain that he needs to get his hands on the oil, as it’s a lifeline of our western economy and vital to the lifestyles we’re used to, he would have had more support. Instead he decided to lie and spin to fool us, did not work in the long run, did it? But I digress….

Come to think of it, I’m not digressing, there is a parallel here. The Thai always present themselves in a light which is very flattering and seemingly impressing to casual observers, but it’s a bit of a mirage, like the smile I discussed in the earliest piece.

They act convivial, espouse moral principals, seem to be considerate and they do not like confrontations.

On the face of it great, when you look at the motivations behind all these things, you realize that they’re just like the rest of us, fallible humans, but pretending to be better than that.

They’re not going to change, that’s why I bothered to write, in case some of you can’t see behind the pretense. Once you realize where they’re coming from, you can deal with it better on a day to day basis while you’re living there.

I think I’ve given you enough food for thought by now and writing a series puts too much pressure on me to keep coming up with the next installment, so I beg of you to let me off the hook. One day I might go the full hog and write a book on my 25 years of Thai experience, but for now, I’ll end this series and maybe just make occasional submissions when the muse kisses me.

Until then, take it easy or any other way you can get it!

Stickman's thoughts:

"I don’t think the Thais are worse than any other people of the world, but a lot of them pretend to be something they’re not." I loved this quote. Spot on!

A great way to end this series.