Comparisons of Lifestyles – Thai v West – Part 1
There seems to be a general opinion in the West that the lifestyle that we take for granted is of a higher quality than that experienced by those living in an Asian country – and we seem to qualify that opinion by the affluence enjoyed by so many of us living in a country like Australia, America or Britain. I name these three because they are the only Western societies in which I have experienced life personally – Australia being the best known to me as it is the place where I was born and lived for a good many years. What I will try to do here is to compare certain aspects of life in Thailand to what we are accustomed to in Australia. Personally, I believe that life in Thailand is of a far better quality than that which I know in Australia – and I will try to justify that statement.
There is an inclusive feeling of peace emanating from the Thai personality that makes one feel similarly peaceful – and this probably has its roots in the Buddhist faith, of which approximately 95% of the population observe the Theravada stream. Unquestionable love of His Majesty The King and The Royal Family is another factor that provides a buttress to this feeling of peace – and of course there is the basic peaceful nature of acceptance and tolerance of Asian races in general which is part of the Thai psyche. Living in Western society I can say that I rarely experience this feeling of peace that I find so generally in Thai people within their society. I believe this attitude starts very young in the child's life and I will give one illustration of how this is so.
Recently, I had the good fortune to see a Thai movie on one of the flights between Australia and Bangkok while travelling on Thai Airways. I rarely watch movies in flight but, scanning through the Thai menus, I found this film listed and decided to give it a try. The name of the movie is “The Happiness of Kati” (“Kwarmsuk Khong-Kati” – ความสุขของกะทิ) and it is one of the most enjoyable films I have had the pleasure of viewing in a long time. I enjoyed it so much that I bought the DVD and the book and have read it several times since then. It tells the story of a nine-year-old Thai girl, growing up in the care of her grandparents in Ayuthaya – a child who was very much loved by both her grandparents and her Uncle Dong, Uncle Kunn and Aunt Da. The story was written by Thai woman Jane Vejjajiva and it shows the simple forces that moulded the young girl into the person she was to become. What struck me was the simple, gentle environment that nurtured Kati at home, at school and in her everyday contact with the people and children that surrounded her life – so very different to the life that we know here in the West.
There has been criticism of the movie by people who say that Kati's life is not representative of the average Thai because she was privileged in that her grandfather was a retired lawyer and the family had money – but I don't think that is fair criticism. I have seen the same circumstances moulding similar Thai children in families that would not be in the same financial category as Kati's family – and they also have turned out to be exceptionally well-mannered and behaved children. One rarely sees the same product coming out of our families and schools here in Australia. The word I will use very often from now on is “respect” – something that is conspicuously absent in all facets of Western society – a quality that I believe makes us inferior (in many respects) to all S.E. Asian people. Rarely, will you see a Thai child in a shopping centre creating a display of temper tantrums the way we see it on a daily basis in our Western shopping centres – and the reason is because they are taught restraint by example, reserved behaviour and discipline from a very early age. This, coupled with respect for King and country and a good foundation in Buddhist precepts, provides a solid base upon which character can be gently moulded. A society without respect and fear of consequences is bound, without question, to failure and collapse.
Today I was working on a song – Chun-Ja-Jum-Teur-Bap-Nee (I remember you like this). Heard it this morning as the second song on the sound-track for a tribute video called “Memories of Computer Science number 16 – Faculty of Science, Prince of Songkla University, Had Yai Campus”. I was searching for some Thai listings of available discs for Beau Sunita and this posting was on the page so I clicked on the video link to YouTube out of curiosity and watched the video, then saved it. Then I realised that I have this song clip as karaoke and mp3. I have no connection whatever with this campus but I found myself quite moved by the sensitive manner in which the video was compiled – pictorial individual representation of all the class members as they were at that time and as some of them were after graduation and finding employment. I found the song – Chun-Ja-Mai-Luem (I Never Forget) – on the first part of the clip's sound-track (sung by Tor Saksit) and became amazed to find the number of schools from all over Thailand who had adopted the songs by these two artists in creating tribute videos of their graduation and separation from former class-mates. The expression of emotion and love by these students for each other is something that I have never seen in Western settings. What a wonderful time in life, was the thought that hit me – fresh, young faces filled with hope and promise, starting out on life's journey where anything is possible. Then I thought what is so sadly missing here in the West – where all we hear of is bullying and stabbings in our schools. What a stark comparison and indictment of what we have become.
Thai people will avoid confrontation wherever possible and will not challenge authority or speak harshly of others where their actions can cause another person to lose face. In the West, most people just do not care and have the attitude that “I will say what I want and do what I want because it is my right in a democracy to express myself”. We have never learned that rights come packaged with responsibility and civil rights or lack of respect does not entitle one to assault, insult or belittle others. So much is written about corruption in Thailand – almost as if Thailand has a mortgage on that negative. We should look around us in our Western “wonderland” and open our eyes to what is happening every day in this society that we consider so superior. We are being cheated – right, left and centre – every day of our lives due to our own apathetic indifference, couched in a cosy world of half-truths spun by advertising magnates and two-faced politicians with hidden agendas. We are worse off here than Thailand, by a long shot.
Thais can, justifiably, be proud of their country and the achievements made in the relatively-short-time since the days of old Siam. It has been called a “Great” nation in the past not because of its size but because of the spirit of determination of the people to survive and grow without compromising their identity. The one quality that has always stood by them is their ability to “bend” with the wind rather than to try and resist directly against a stronger force – enabling them to come back again with renewed strength and prevail against adversity. Possibly, the turning point that set Thais onto becoming a great nation was the opinion held by Wichit Wathakan, Luang (Thai Foreign Minister during WW II) – he stated “When the war is over, there would be no small nations in the world – all would be merged into big ones. So there are only two ways left for us to choose – either become a Power or be swallowed up by some other Power.” Phibunsongkhram, Prime Minister from 1938 to 1944, agreed by saying “If you don't want to be scum you have to be a Great Power.” It was in June, 1939, during Phibun's first term of Office, that Siam was renamed Thailand. Phibun had been Army Chief and Defence minister in 1934 and was elected Prime Minister a second time and held Office from 1948 to 1957.
It is interesting to see that Phibun cultivated close links with Japan during his Office in the 30's and sent Thai troops to take parts of French Cambodia. The strategy resulted in a stalemate with the French but the Japanese brokered an agreement in favour of the Thais, resulting in some territory being ceded. Phibun was quite a clever military officer and strategist, being able to see that he was now indebted to the Japanese – and in view of the Japanese expansion into Burma and Malaya, he advised Cabinet of the possibility of Thais obtaining still more territory from the Japanese movements into Burma. He would have been smart enough to realise that Japan would occupy Thailand in the process in any case, so he convinced Cabinet that it was in their best interests to offer access through Thailand to the Japanese. However, the reality was that Japan still regarded Thailand as an occupied territory in spite of the offer. This exercise does, however, illustrate the pragmatic approach that Thais often use – bend rather than resist and use it to full advantage. The advantage came in the form of post-war financial reparations.
Thailand has had a very turbulent history both militarily and politically – probably more turbulent than many countries on Earth. But Thais have always prevailed and have never been colonised or conquered. Yes, their land has been occupied by invaders from Myanmar (parts of Lanna and Ayuthaya) and occupied by Khmer raiders in the past (most of the Khorat Plateau) but Thais always prevailed in battle. Although apparently gentle by nature, they can be brave, fierce fighters until death. Since 1629 there have been 20 Kings on the throne, including His Royal Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the present and much loved King of Thailand. There have been 35 changes in Prime Ministers and numerous military coups – but throughout all this change the people of Thailand have taken things in their stride and carried on their lives with pride and dignity.
The transformation of the Thai Nation from Siam to Thailand and into the twenty-first century is truly astounding and praise should be given to the vision of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his social and welfare reforms for the poorer sectors of Thai society – and for the hard work by the Thai people in general to enable their country to take a place as one of the most important modern agricultural, industrial and commercial hubs of Asia. Some people sneer at the lack of achievement by Thais in literature, the arts and music – or the absence of initiative in the fields of commerce and industry. When I see what has happened in Australia in comparison for all of the above-mentioned fields, I am truly amazed at what Thais have achieved when one compares the resources that they have had to work with to what is available in Western society.
When we talk about literature and film, the reason that not many in the West are aware of Thai achievements is because very few of these works are translated into other languages and there are not that many people in the West who have taken the interest to learn to read what is available in Thai script. Thais have produced a creditable variety of good quality films and literature. Chiranan Pitpreecha, a graduate of Cornell University with an M.A in History is one of Thailand's best loved poets and she was awarded Poet Laureate along with numerous other literary awards. Many of her works have been translated into a number of languages. On 26 June, 1786, a married woman from Rayong, then living in Bangkok, gave birth to a boy child. He was given the name Phu and, in adult life, attained the distinction of Poet Laureate and was created Phra Sunthorn Voharn. Today, Sunthorn Phu is accepted as one of the greatest poets Thailand ever produced, and holds his place among the leading poets of the world. Some of his writings have been translated into English.
In the field of music there are many musicians and songwriters contributing in all genres, and the quality produced would be equal to, and in many cases surpassing, the standard produced in the West. I could rattle off names and compositions to fit this criteria that would fill a complete page – but it is all there for the looking and listening by those interested to go to the trouble to do so. My personal choice would always be Thai singers and musicians over their Western counterparts – because I feel there is a genuine warmth and honesty in the music and lyrics they produce when compared to the shallow efforts so often turned out for cheap profit in the Western marketing machine. I have never seen a Western live concert that has anywhere near the love and goodwill generated from an audience toward the performers that one can experience and be part of in a Thai live concert setting. It is really an experience to behold – quite magical.
Reference should be made and recognition given to Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Vadhana – the deceased elder and much-loved sister of His Majesty, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Princess was an extremely talented academic who devoted much of her time and energy to charity, rural development and education. The Princess held a Bachelor of Science Degree in Chemistry from Lausanne University as well as many Honorary Doctorates from major universities in recognition of her contribution to Science and The Arts. Princess Galyani taught French language and literature for most of her life in universities and was awarded the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, France's highest civilian distinction, in late December 2007. She began her academic career as a professor of French at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, the Kingdom's most prestigious academic institution. The Princess passed away on Wednesday 02 January 2008 at age 84. She is fondly remembered and sadly missed by all Thais.
For the average Thai person, life seems to be happy and there is a spirit of optimism and belief in the future – yes, there are some inequalities in social levels and incomes but these same factors are present in Western society as well but seem to be escalating in severity much more rapidly in the West than in Thailand. On the surface there appears to be some affluence even in the lower socio-economic levels of Thai society with less-affluent families from Isaan and from the outer provinces in Lanna still able to afford to buy new or almost-new SUV's or pickups. I know this is happening from the Thai people that I personally know and mix with. In Australia I do not see this same spirit of optimism and hope for the future – it is as if the West is waiting for some undefined catastrophe. Perhaps it is that we, in the West, are conscious of a runaway economy that we know is being fuelled by our own addiction to credit and are unwilling or unable to address the problem. Of course, the Thais are just as addicted to consumerism but they seem to be much better managers of money then we in the West – and they have one big advantage that we in the West do not have – “mai bpen-rai”.
To be continued.
The more time you spend in Thailand, the better a feel you get for everything, including the people. Thais often come across as happy, contented etc – and many truly are – but there are just as many for whom life is *very* tough and for who the happy go lucky impression you see is nothing more than a facade to maintain face. Beneath the facade things often aren't nearly as rosy red as they seem!