Readers' Submissions

Thailand Is At A Crossroad

  • Written by B Glikman
  • February 9th, 2007
  • 6 min read


One does not need to be smart to see that Thailand or to be more accurate, Bangkok, is changing. The change is gradual and certainly not well planned. The driving force is being that many Thais have a strong feeling that there must be a drastic change in their lives.

On one hand, most Thai people miss old times and therefore they would like to see Thai society return to traditions. On the other side of the fence, the lucrative process of rapid modernization and huge local market demand for westernization are hard to sacrifice.

I would like to draw parallels. A similar process took part in my sister’s life. Our family had immigrated to Israel from Russia when my sister was three years old. She eventually became bi-lingual, speaking Russian at home and Hebrew outside our family circle. However, up until her junior high school years her proficiency in both languages was below what you would expect from a native speaker. Eventually, the local Israeli cultural demands had prevailed so my sister adopted Hebrew as her first language. It is important to note that in the meantime, my sister was experiencing a serious cultural conflict. On numerous occasions she was forced to choose between the two cultures, which are very different in many life aspects. Nevertheless, she made it and learned to use her knowledge to her advantage.

Likewise, Thais are being pushed to make choices about how to live. As with anyone in the world, Thai folks aim to achieve happiness in life. According to most people from the big cities, being happy means being wealthy. With wealth, one can make his or her dreams come true. Life in a megalopolis, such as Bangkok consists of many consumer choices, to the extent that people there have difficult time to make decisions on what is better to buy. Availability of more and more diverse choices and aggressive ways that companies use to persuade customers results in a considerably negative impact on the society in Bangkok. People continually contribute more time and put an unbelievable amount of effort updating modern products even when the reason behind the purchase is inconsistent with traditional ways. It is well known that Bangkokians’ way to satisfaction can be classified as pure addiction. Addiction in turn will cause social problems as are seen these days.

A good example is the popular hysteria of buying a newer model of a mobile phone to keep up with fashion. Some people buy expensive mobile phones to… elevate their social status?! Instead of using the money on pursuing educational goals, they think that a luxury mobile phone will earn them respect. Unbelievably, in some cases it does. Nowadays, a mobile phone is a present that a guy gives to his girl to have her agree to become his girlfriend…

In contrast, there is always an option to abandon western materialism for Thai traditional lifestyle. Buddhism is the reference to what this way means. In an effort to preserve Thainess, Thais will have to prefer Buddhist spiritual values to the modern world of endless competition and materialistic achievements. To cut it short, this will be like going down a step in development. Are Thais ready to do the big switch? Obviously, middle class and high-class citizens, who have become used to the western lifestyle, refrain from taking that path. People with high income and high education benefit the most from what materialism has to offer. They have the ability to enrich themselves. They are privileged to have many options.

On the other hand, most people in Thailand are poor. The poor rather suffer than enjoy materialism. Although the poor are not in position to decide, they cannot be avoided. If the problems of the poor continue to be neglected, they will ask questions about why they have been treated unfairly. The poor will use the fact they have numbers and through violence they will demand justice. The ruling class, which resides in Bangkok, is fully aware of the great danger of the social unrest. Therefore, they try to divert the social displeasure from real causes to false but popular causes.

This is where westerners (in Thai – farangs) come in the picture. It is not a secret that there are scores of westerners living in the kingdom. They fall in love with Thailand and make this wonderful country their permanent home. Westerners are merely guests in Thailand. We cannot vote and have no rights in the Thais’ land. In short, unfortunately long-term westerners are a soft target for politicians, be the reason right or wrong. In fact, the recent questionable restrictions related to foreigners teaching or doing business in Thailand show that any act that is not in favor of foreigners is a sure way to boost politicians’ rating.

So what can we do to overcome the gloomy reality? Each of us should adopt a role to represent western values. It is worth mentioning that a significant number of foreign teachers that besides teaching English, try to contribute to Thai learners the knowledge of the western culture. We are in position to improve our damaged image by exposing Thais to the positive aspects of the western culture. A good representative is a person who is familiar with both cultures.

First and foremost, a foreigner has to be aware that Thais may do things differently and the we should understand their culture to be aware of their preferred values and behaviour, so we will earn respect by acting accordingly. We westerners believe in globalization and the world becoming more tolerant and multicultural (the global village). We have been brainwashed by our society back home that we are all the same and that people all over the world all want the same things. However, soon after coming to this part of the world we realize how far apart we really are.

If a foreigner wants to live and work in Thailand, he or she should be aware of Thai ways. For instance, a foreigner should know that Thais are extremely patriotic. Thais love their country. Although there are many problems in various facets of life in the kingdom, Thais are intolerant when others (especially farangs) are critical of Thailand or Thai people. Therefore, in order to build goodwill, we must know about what is acceptable to say and what is not.

While knowing the local resentment of criticism, westerners should come out only with positive commentary about Thailand and avoid any kind of negative language. Remember that in Asian cultures you give respect and earn respect when you yield to another person with an act of courtesy. In Thailand, most things can be worked out with a little act of courtesy. This statement appears to be more than true, so play the game and you will manage to increase your chances to sustain goodwill.

Thailand is now at a crossroad. Which way will it go? Will it be a pleasant place for foreigners? What is your opinion?

Your serious thoughts will be greatly appreciated.

Stickman's thoughts:

You are so right about the differences between many Asians and Westerners, and the need to be gentle about the way criticisms are made – that is if they are made at all. The difficulty that many Westerners have is that to improve things, we believe that you have to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, things could be done better. And when there is a refusal to acknowledge such, it makes things frustrating for the Westerner.

I do very much agree though that for Westerners who reside in Thailand for a long time or indefinitely, every effort should be made to understand the locals and go about our lives in such a way that is palatable to them.