Is Thailand Really Changing?
I’ve read lots of articles recently about how Thailand has changed, mostly not for the better. Surely this has been spurred on by Stick’s recent departure from Thailand back to his native shores of New Zealand. I have mostly stayed out of this discussion as I only visit Thailand with my wife for two weeks every year. When I do visit, I see a different side of Thailand that is far away from the bar areas, which most writers seem to be referring to. I have no idea if they are right or wrong, but I am still concerned, as I plan to make the jump to Thailand in 3 or 4 years to enjoy a well-earned retirement. I wonder if Thailand will change so much by retirement I will no longer want to live there. This got me thinking about change itself and the question: is Thailand really changing or are we?
Of course, every place and every person is changing all the time, so the question of whether Thailand is changing is moot. Some of this change is easily documented – bar fines are higher and exchange rates are lower. But some writers comment about less objective items of change – GFE’s, smiling, and the attitudes Thais have with farangs. How can you measure this type of change objectively, especially when everything else is changing? For example, the speed of a car is measured at 60 mph against a stationary point. But if we are traveling at 30 mph in the same direction, then it would seem like 30 mph. And if we were going 30 mph in the opposite direction it would seem like 90 mph. This has been written about in science using many expressions, like “relative theory” and so forth. Yes, I know these types of observations about Thailand are not physics. But consider this: before we can objectively “measure” a changing Thailand, shouldn’t we first determine how much we ourselves are changing?
I wonder how much different am I now from the person I was 15 years ago when I first visited Thailand? I clearly remember my first visit to the kingdom and the impressions I had about the country and its people. I even wrote them down in a short story. But would they be the same impressions if I visited for the first time now? I feel like I am very similar to that person long ago so my answer is “yes”. But what if I’m wrong? What if I have changed much more than I think? Before we can comment on how much Thailand is changing, we have to know how much we are changing as well. And it turns out we are changing much more than we think.
These were my thoughts after I listened to a TED Talk by Dan Gilbert, “When Do We Become the Final Version of Ourselves” which tries to understand personal change and our perception of it. By studying actual personal changes in his subjects vs. what they perceived, he was able to conclude that our brains are playing tricks on us. Our brain not only fools us into believing our changes are less than they really are, the brain also deludes us into thinking “the person we are right now is the person we'll be for the rest of time. Hint: that's not the case.” It’s an interesting thought-game to speculate why this is so. Did early humans who thought they would remain forever the same person have an advantage over those who didn’t? Or is actual time very much different than how the brain measures it, thus making it very hard for us to truly understand time? In this regard, maybe the Thais know more than they let on when using the phrase mai bpen rai.
So let’s be honest, when we consider Thailand using facts and metrics we are on pretty firm ground. But other observations are really opinions which are subjective, aren’t they? A quick look at the dictionary shows the word subjective as “placing excessive emphasis on one's own moods and attitudes”. I think most of us know what our mood or attitude at any given moment, but what about over time? Science tells us we don’t know because we are always underestimating our own changes. Maybe we ourselves are changing faster than Thailand. Indeed, I could make a pretty good case that Thailand has changed very little in the last 20 years: another recent army-led coup d'état for a government and a Thai society still socially conservative with corruption at its center. What about the declining Thai attitudes towards foreigners? Maybe they reflect your own declining attitudes. If over the years you have become disgusted or mistrusting of Thai people and your place in Thailand, I’m sure it shows in your words, face and body language. Maybe the perceptive Thais are merely reflecting your own poor attitude back to you.
If science is right and our brains won’t allow us to understand our own personal changes, what does it mean? Probably not a hell of a lot. Whether we correctly notice changes in ourselves or changes in Thailand, we still have to be true to ourselves and decide if we are happy or not with our current reality. For me, I will just have to wait and see if living in Thailand suits me when I retire. So when someone declares definitively that Thailand has changed for the better or the worst, I say one person’s impression of a changing Thailand is just as valid as another’s because in the end, nobody really knows what they’re talking about. Your Thai experience is not mine, but that’s what makes it fun. Right?
For sure, we change just as Thailand changes.
I think Thailand is a much more liveable country for expats these days with a much, much larger expat presence, more shops, more restaurants, better infrastructure (it's not that long ago the internet was terrible in Thailand whereas now it's excellent), more accommodation options and I could go on and on and on!
For those in to the bar scene I think most now accept that it's more expensive and less fun.
It all comes back to the type of lifestyle one wants and certainly if you're looking for female company or a lower cost of living, Thailand beats most Western countries hands down.