The Three Phases of Thai Experience
Phase 1: Discovery
I will never forget the first day I visited Thailand. It was a business trip to Bangkok and I would be the one of the keynote speakers at a conference of our SE Asian business partners. The golf course between the runways at the airport, the limo driver waiting for me in the arrival hall, and all the beautiful smiles I received at the conference. That night, my Thai hosts took me to an elegant dinner of spicy food my taste buds had never experienced, and later I went to a fishbowl whore house where I picked out a beautiful Thai girl who washed me tenderly and made love to me with enthusiasm. Each successive day was better than the previous so by the time I found my seat in business class to return home, I was already thinking of ways to get my company to transfer me to what was without doubt, the most perfect place on earth.
In fact, I did find a job in Singapore and I started to travel frequently to Thailand for both business and pleasure. I started to visit the more popular places first; Phuket, Samui, Pattaya, Chang Mai, but then I found a beautiful girl of Issan who started to take me places far off the tourist paths. Everywhere I went, I was the special “farang” guest always greeted by big smiles and open arms. Sure, I paid for everything but it was all cheap with my ex-pat salary. I met friends as well as family, and soon I was engaged to this wonderful woman. We made big plans together; life in Singapore, traveling the world, and of course, helping her poor family out. It was a bargain I readily agreed to; a small price to pay to live in paradise as the anointed white savior of a humble family of Issan. I started to read about the Buddha and my fiancé started to take me to temples, where monks singled me out for special attention. It was a path to happiness I was sure no one but me had traveled before.
Phase 2: Disillusionment
After a year of becoming more familiar with Thailand and my new family, I noticed the requests for money and services started to be made with more frequency. Friends visiting us from Thailand would drop by and stay for days; requests for money to buy an odd assortment of items started to become more frequent, and my fiancé started to spend more time away from me. One time in an appliance store, my fiancé asked me to buy a large TV for her mother. I countered that she already had a decent TV so for the rest of the evening my sweetie didn’t talk to me. I lay in bed bewildered by what had happened. I would soon find myself in the same position many more nights the following year.
Then I started to notice the little things as I travelled to Thailand; faces that weren’t always smiling, some scowled when they saw me while others looked at me with suspicion. I became aware that for even the simplest transactions, buying a beer in 7-11 or lunch in the food court, the vendors were short-changing me. At first, I tried to remember that it was just 10 or 20 baht, but then I decided I had had enough and started to protest. Most of the time they corrected the amount but sometimes I pitched a fit until they did. This always made me feel silly and petty. During this time, I had my first run-in with a couple of katoeys who tried to lift my wallet. That turned into a big scene and afterwards I realized I had put myself in real danger.
Even reading books and newspapers started to change the way I perceived Thailand. The scams, the violence, and the corruption at almost every level of society; it had been there all the time but I had refused to see it. Now I saw it everywhere and it became almost unbearable. Once, while driving a car with my sweetie back to Bangkok, I was pulled over by the police for “speeding”. As the cop had no radar gun I knew it was my white face that I was guilty of. I also knew the routine, only this time as he walked to my car I pulled a beer from the back seat and opened it. As my sweetie translated, he said I was speeding and as I took a sip of beer, I said “so what”. Looking horrified, my sweetie started talking very quickly to the cop. I continued drinking away and saying I wasn’t paying anything. Halfway through my beer, I came to my senses and paid him his 200 baht and we drove off in peace, my fiancé sulking for the next 2 hours.
When we returned to Singapore, my sweetie was making requests for larger amounts of money for various projects; a new motorcycle for the brother, stove for the mother, a tract of land adjacent to the family house. With each refusal, my fiancé became more aloof and spent more time away from me. Although she was a working girl when I met her, I thought those days were well over. Then one day she asked if she could go back to work as I was not providing enough money for her family. As I knew I was already paying them a doctor’s salary every month, I thought this was more extortion than reality. I said go ahead; so she left me three nights a week to earn extra money. Now when I traveled, I visited my old places of pleasure but I was no longer the happy farang as I became short-tempered and demanded proper service for my money. Soon, my fiancé and I were no longer a couple and all of dreams for a life together were gone. Afterwards, I would lie in bed alone, waiting to sleep, and wondering how it had become so bizarre.
Phase 3: Acceptance
Fast forward a few years. Now I am married to wonderful Thai woman who was never in the bar industry. She is sweet, soft-spoken, and almost never moody. She is also smart, hard working, and always trying to make me smile. Her friends and family are the same way. Yet, when we started to travel to Thailand again, I still harbored the old, bad feelings from before. Her friends, nice at first, seemed to manipulate us and try to control our movements. The bad feelings started to well-up as I started to feel neglected and marginalized. But then something wonderful happened: my foot became infected. Now, all the friends I thought were trying to control us, rallied around my wife and I and became our servants. They drove us to the hospital a couple of times, they brought us food, and one friend made sure I never had to get up for a beer in the fridge. Too bad she couldn’t have gone to the loo for me as well.
Afterwards, I noticed this phenomenon of coming together during crisis a couple of more times. I became confused again about my vision of Thailand and Thai people. These were not the self-absorbed, corrupt people of my earlier experiences. I asked my wife if this happened a lot with her friends. She smiled slightly and let go of a long sigh, like a mother asked about sex from her six year old child, and patiently explained it to me. Everyone is very aware of the problems Thailand has, and as most of them cannot be controlled, people find ways around them so they can be happy. When a big problem occurs, friends and family come together to help; this is expected of everyone and it is how they cope. She then pointed out, rightly so, that the west had just as many problems as Thailand. In her opinion, though, western people did not help each other very much. Why was that, she asked?
For the next few weeks I pondered what my wife had told me. Look objectively at Thailand and my own country, I considered all the good and bad aspects of living in each one. I concluded that my wife, as usual, was right. For example: you can make more money in the west but you don’t need much in Thailand; there is lot of corruption in Thailand that stifles business but the west has a myriad of confusing laws and regulations. On and on I went until I concluded it was a toss-up. In the end, it comes down to what you really want in life. If tropical weather, Cheshire cat-smiling people, exotic places to visit, and an always crazy, mixed up lifestyle really turns you on, then Thailand is the place for you. It’s as simple as that.
Now when I am in Thailand visiting family and friends, I try not to get too involved in the details of where we go and who I see. Pulling myself away a little to what is happening around me, I look for the pleasurable things; a warm smile, a cute girl, a cold beer, and let everything else flow by me. The cold beer especially helps in achieving this detachment. But I believe this is how the Thais cope with their own lives in their own country, and if farangs want to be happy here, it’s what they must do as well. My wife says it’s the way of the Buddha, but I remember a better phrase from my days in sports – do your best, forget the rest.
I like the three stages you mention.
Acceptance is the hardest part and I reckon it took me 9 years to get to that stage, a hellishly long time – but at east I got there. Some never accept – and as such I reckon they might never be that happy here.