Visions of the Land of Smiles – 1989 to present
1988 was a year that I, like countless mates of mine, went out on the Asian Highway which took me as far as the Indian – Pak border as well as Nepal, Goa and all the other usual suspects. The cold stopped me in its tracks, along with the Iran – Iraq war as well as a total lack of interest in the European continent, boring bar work in London and so forth.
Part of the cheap airfare was a condition which stated I had to stop off in Bangkok for a minimum of three days and two nights. As I had intended to do a fair bit of travelling, Thailand was just another mark on the wall.
All I ever had heard about the place was hookers, heroin and handguns, as well as that great food. In recent years one would add the word “honeymooners” to that equation. Other than that there still seems to be a misperception by a surprising number of those in the west.
Between that day (about January 16th 1989) and present I’ve lived there for nearly two years, married there and re-visited numerous times. In years past we’d go up as a family but nowadays I travel alone. My better half, whilst being a Khorat native, has cut all her ties with the place since her parents have passed on.
I spent this past August 2009 there. 19 days on the eastern seaboard and ten days in Krung Thep. Did nothing productive except just chill and relax. In any given day I spoke English for an hour or two; the remainder chatting with the locals. Didn’t spend that much money, about $60 per day doing all those things I wanted to do.
Prior to this most recent trip I spent hours poring over all manner of chat logs, as well as the numerous sites devoted to life in Thailand and also media / news websites. Stories of doom and gloom from all manner of gripes right through to airport closures, H1N1, crime, all the usual rip-offs, exchange rates and nearly everything else had me downright worried on one hand and sceptical on the other. Almost to the point where I was asking myself has everything gone so bad this may be my last ever visit to the Land-of-Smiles??
The sceptic in me was correct – since arriving back in the Land-of-Shonk (the west) I really only have one thing on my mind and that’s how soon and for how long I may be able to return to Thailand. I am subjective and have had my share of good and bad experiences over the years. I can only touch on some points of discussion…
Are Thais xenophobic? Probably, but I’ve never been referred to as Falang, being derogatory. Over in Australia you see somebody, call ‘em Asian and they may get offended if they’re seventh generation but otherwise no problem. Thais may badmouth Africans, Arabs and Indians but they do make distinctions – as is the case with African-Americans or a Singaporean. Nigerians literally fill some of the Thai detention centres but have you ever heard a bad word about Tiger Woods <Yes, many Thais hate him and are quite open about it because they perceive he turned his back on his Thai roots – Stick> or the US Navy? Thailand is not alone in being xenophobic, especially in Asia. Check out the Japanese at home or away; go as a young westerner and hitch-hike through central Java.
Are Thais logical; what is “logic” anyhow? Do we all remember McCarthyism of the 1950s and have we forgotten how all the suckers fell for Saddam’s weapons-of-mass-destruction? Still goes on today and not confined to Thailand.
Is Thailand single-minded – certainly. They figure they live in the best country on earth and none of them would question this, unless they are amongst the few who have moved away (such as my wife). Bear in mind many Australians figure they live in the best country in the world, which in 1966 was possibly the case (unless you happened to be an Aboriginal). Pity – that’s not so any more (unless you happen to be a politician).
Westerners bemoan the fact they are not “accepted” as Thais. Many become aggravated at being called “Falang”. My wife has been here for nearly 20 years and fully realises she will never be accepted into mainstream society. Go to a social gathering and you feel the contempt from others, both male as well as female. Piercing – cuts right through you. Is it any wonder her friends are exclusively other Thai, Isarn and Filipina ladies whom are hitched to Australians living here? From a westerner’s standpoint why wish for acceptance, whatever that may be. I scratch my head when I see foreigners who give themselves Thai names and strut around town with four-baht necklaces. The best secret to long term survival is to keep a low profile and stay under the radar.
Many may have an issue with border-security in Thailand, and I realise the changes may cause inconvenience. Gone are the days of hopping the Inter-Express to Penang and returning three days later with a 90-day “O” visa. Every country in the ASEAN region has done exactly the same thing, with the exception of Malaysia. Sure this has become a lot tougher, but consider the minefield of red-tape, months of waiting if anyone wishes to get your Thai partner into the west. This becomes much worse if she has a child she wishes to take with her. Then look at the reception she receives at the airport.
Many bemoan Thai cops. I personally avoid them and on the rare occasions I have dealt with the authorities in the Land-of-Smiles, found them to be courteous and efficient. Corruption anybody? Surely no western government can be corrupt, just go look at the scandals which have rocked countries such as the UK, USA and Australia in recent years. The difference is we in the west put a price and a rubber-stamp upon a massive bribe, pay it in the form of a political donation then demand a tax-deduction for it along with the favours we are seeking.
Since the early 1990s prices have rocketed throughout the Kingdom and those who would really feel this are the Thais themselves. For any Falang the place is still a bargain. <I completely disagree with this statement. Unless you are willing to live like a Thai – and few Westerners do unless they are forced to – many things in Thailand are more expensive than the West these days – Stick> At least Thailand is not being literally strangled to death by income taxes which plague my own country of residence and what do you get in return for these taxes – more politicians?
If somebody asks would you invest in Thailand – you’d need your head-read. That three-million-plus-baht for the beer-bar could be safely deposited in Singapore and you can trade on-line to your heart’s content. Give yourself a modest weekly stipend, don’t hit the booze too hard and enrol in a Thai language course to get around the visa issues. Rent a condo for a monthly lease, why risk a dodgy purchase on a place which could be demolished. The Thais have the right idea on foreign land ownership, otherwise everybody would snap every rai of land up and nobody could afford it, least of all the locals.
Thailand appears to have had an upswing in crime, especially of a violent nature, since 1997. Sure, handguns are everywhere, trigger-men may lurk the streets but most of this will only affect the locals themselves. For law-abiding expats and visitors sheer odds will result in sporadic (and well publicised) attacks; more so the long term residents. I still feel much safer in Krung Thep than I would in a dump like Sydney at night.
Some ugly attacks have occurred in Thailand against respectable tourists and any unsuspecting victim must have full sympathy and support from all and sundry. With this in mind one must consider in our own countries – we all have heard of Ivan Milat and Belanglo State Forest, the horror-stretch disappearances of the 1970s and the Truro killers. Milat instigated crimes on a magnitude no Thai felon would be capable of; he even horrified the Yanks as well as the international community.
Also consider this – Thai prisons are overflowing with idiots who are incarcerated for everything from drug-trafficking through to immigration issues. Our own gaols may have the odd Thai national but I would speculate there are many more of us in their prisons than vice-versa. It would be pointless to speculate or address the quality of foreign visitors to Thailand. Many of them are creeps; same case 20 years ago and before that. However I’ve met plenty of nice foreigners in Thailand and I’ve met many more really nice Thais, both as a single guy and also with my missus and kids. I’ve bumped into some pretty dodgy locals but I’ve met more than a few foreigners you would not want anywhere near you… Consider, how would any Thai person feel when they observe some of these performances which have been captured and published on the web. Martians anyone??
Thais say that we, as Falangs, don’t understand. I’ve been going up there for 20 years and do not kid myself that I really understand Thai ways, nor do I intend to. Do you think they understand us – certainly not. Thais appear to the outsider to feel they are “superior” to others at times but if you grasp this concept it is more a case of “…nobody upon this earth is better than we are…” Look at the boxers in the ring; their intention is not so much as to defeat the opponent, rather it is not to be defeated. The vast majority of times the boxers win on points. Do they tell lies and trash us? Of course but they don’t trust any of us either. Don’t take this personally as any Thai speaker will hardly fail to miss how they trash each other. Spend a month with the in-laws and watch the pecking-order in the village.
One thing to compare is the nightlife and the ladies. Sure – they are the subject of all our discussion which I won’t enter into at this point. But bear in mind should you visit any bar or nightclub in the west – females are outnumbered two-to-one by guys. The females that are there won’t have anything to do with you. What you waste on cover charge and your first drink (if allowed in) would pay for a solid two nights’ total debauchery in Pattaya should any visitor be inclined to do so. Add a third night if you take a taxi home, which will certainly be alone from any night spot in Australia.
The other side of the coin is all of us out there who did get hitched to good Thai girls who had nothing to do with the “scene”. Personally I would never have married a western woman; I find them two-faced, greedy and remarkably shallow. The only difference between an uneducated bar-girl and a western woman is the latter waits 10 years then they really clean you out. You lose your house and the kids which is a lot more than a few thousand baht.
To conclude Thailand is by no means perfect, there is plenty wrong with it and this is a world-wide trend. Everything has turned to shit now and it is a matter of how deep one becomes buried in it. Indonesia may be cheaper, the food better and the ladies raunchier but be prepared for true culture shock and a degree of isolation. Be sure to brush up on your Bahasa (you’ll really need it outside Bali and Yogya) and the poverty in Indonesia is grinding and shocking. Rep. Philippines has better exchange rates, friendlier people, widespread English, cheaper beer, better immigration and much nicer islands but the food is absolutely inedible and the place suffers from incurable and total chaos, brown-outs and typhoons which shut the place down every year. Plus – the Filipinas irritate me to hell, that accent…
There are still some things in my own place which are OK but they’re fading fast. We’ve seen the best of our own countries in days gone by… If somebody has a young family with school age kids the west has the advantages and the stability which is why we returned here but now the kids have grown up there is absolutely nothing in Australia which appeals to me anymore.
To compare Thailand with any other country it becomes like the boxers. They all have their pros and cons but Thailand wins on points, hands-down.
When I think of the Land-of-Smiles I believe it is more of an experience as opposed to a holiday / just another cheap place of residence / whatever. I am drawn to the night markets, wafting smells, mountains of strange and exotic fruit. I remember the motosai-taxis on every corner, crowds milling around. I love it when the national anthem plays at eight every morning. I love Jintara and Bird blaring through the loudspeakers upcountry and I watch the Muay-Thai with the local guys over some beers down the corner every Saturday afternoon. I listen out for the ice-cream-man sounding his horn, I await my buddy with the bicycle and strings of plaa-meuk pegged up behind him (those things are so good with a beer). I just love seeing the bank-tellers and pharmacy-ladies strutting around in their business suits; they look so sexy in those! The bar-workers flirting and calling out to you, the vendors trying to sell you shit. I love the massage shops with all the ladies slumped over each other like teddy-bears and barber shops and the river taxi. Endless rice paddies under water in July and sitting by the Maekhong at sunset. The International Express rattling through the limestone of the Deep South. I experience the beautiful weather in Thailand and make the most of it because in Australia I have never ending hay fever. The madness of Songkraan and the traffic or the serenity of the wats and the rural villages. I haven’t even touched upon a fraction of it; I guess that’s why we all come here and we’ll miss it like hell when we leave.
Thailand sure is an experience. We have to keep it in perspective though because so much of what happens in Thailand, and what is considered quite acceptable in Thailand, are sometimes the sorts of things that you'd get locked up for in our own countries. When such great differences exist between what we are used to at home and what we experience abroad, it's inevitable that there will be "issues".