Monday, January 10, 2011

What Did 3 Months in Thailand Teach Me?

My readers will know that over the last 14 months I have made three separate trips to the Thai kingdom. (In Nov-Dec 2009 I visited Bangkok, Lopburi and Nong Khai, in March-April 2010 I visited Bangkok, Kamphaeng Phet, Suphanburi, Kanchanaburi and Phuket Town, and in Dec 2010 - Jan 2011 I visited Chiang Mai, Pai, Lampang and Bangkok.) So what have I learnt from my in-depth investigation into Thai culture?

a) Although it's a developing country, you can still live as if you were in a developed nation, if you have the means and imagination. While squat toilets are popular in Thailand, so are Western-style flush ones, and finding one of the latter is quite easy - if you are pursuing the typical tourist experience you will be plied by this upgrade from the traditional Thai norm anyway. Scrumptious Thai food, prepared under a level of hygiene that resembles that of the developed world, can be found in classy restaurants all over. Staying at the coastline will give you plenty of fresh, unpolluted air, and it's not hard to nab a lovely view while you're at it (not usually at budget level, of course). 

b) Thai people grow up with beautiful, flowing, Buddhist-themed art all around them. As I was waiting in Chiang Mai's Airport, I noticed that the self-check in machines placed nearby had these beautiful curves to their design - from tip to toe, the machines looked like they had been modeled on a piece of ribbon descending towards the ground at leisure. This level of artistry is not usually found in the West. While design culture varies, usually we are treated to rather straight-forward technological bodies. Meanwhile, Thailand embraces what I see as innovative art and design, managing to infuse any and every environment with a special ambiance.

c) Thai people are very good at business. They greet you with a casual openness and amiable manner, but are very firm in directing you towards the price they think you should be paying, even if that price is rather inflated due to your tourist status. Bargaining gives you the illusion of control, but the businessperson sets the pace, integrity and spectrum for the transaction every time. The best you can do is to go with the flow and be as firm as possible, by retaining your own sense of firmness, and keeping bamboo stick metaphors in mind (bamboo bends to the wind, but never breaks).

d) Wherever you go, life is best by the water. I love the temples of Chiang Mai and Lampang, and admire the laid-back hippie sensibility of Pai in the valley, but Thailand thrives economically and socially even more where the land kisses vast bodies of water i.e. the sea. Phuket, Hua Hin and Pattaya were some of my favourite places in Thailand.

e) The Thais who are trying to learn English are just as confused by its lack of tonal aspects as English-speakers are confused by the tonality of Thai. "How do I say it?" exclaimed a student of English to me as she looked at her English book in bewilderment. "There are no tones." I tried to read the text to her as naturally as possible, and, just as I eventually 'got' how to say 'thank you' and other little bits of Thai, she let herself be guided by a logic which must seem hard to place, especially at first.

f) All of East Asia seems to have some kind of Chinese influence. "We are all originally Chinese," mused my friend Giorgi, who has some Portuguese blood. You can see the influence of the giant nation in the religious architecture, the food, the abundance of Chinese traditional medicine, and random signs all over the place.

g) Thailand has a long history of monarchy and civilisation, but not of pretentiousness. In fact, Thais are disarmingly open and companionable. They offer themselves, open, and in doing so invite you to be similarly charitable with your spirit. It's a gorgeous gift which endears me to the people muchly.

There are many other lessons I learnt, of course, but I'll have to stop here for now. 

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