The Thai Behind the Smile
"A good holiday is one that is spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours" - J.B. Priestley
If the Thais are not number one on the list of the world's happiest peoples, then they are at least very close to the top, in part due to their attitude to adversity, which is stoic in the extreme. Hardly anybody in Thailand will off-load their problems and miseries on you, as this is seen as an imposition; they will smile and joke at their misfortunes instead. In a memorable interview of a tsunami survivor who had lost almost her entire family in the tragedy, she amazed Western audiences by saying that she didn't want to ruin the viewers' day, that she was grateful that one of her children had been spared and that she hoped the viewers had a Happy New Year.
This attitude makes a refreshing change for Westerners who are used to their countrymen complaining about just about everything - the weather and government are the favourites in the UK, but we Brits feel by no means obliged to stick to these staple themes and are also adept at moaning about everything under the sun, such as a perfectly good pair of shoes, which whilst seemingly sound may be described as "I've only had them two weeks and the laces are going already".
It may be a cliche, but it's true: the glass is always half empty in the West, but it is still half full in Thailand. Actually glasses in Thailand are not allowed to become empty, as they are almost always refilled by smiling people before they reach that state. If you ever start to feel that Thai people think of you as just a walking ATM, try hitch-hiking somewhere: you don't even need to bother putting a thumb out and within minutes or even seconds someone will stop and smilingly offer you a free ride to wherever you are going, often going out of their way for you. Whilst this is unremarkable behaviour in the West when the hitchhiker is beautiful and female, this writer would expect to have to walk all the way from Britain's Land's End to John'o'Groats without anybody even smiling at him, much less offering him a lift. Yes, in a country whose top industry is tourism, you are a walking ATM, but you are not 'just' a walking ATM.
Thailand is a country of contradictions. The country's vice industry is infamous, but what is not so well known is that the vast majority of Thai women are extremely respectable people, with morals closer to those of Victorian rather than modern-day England and many of whom do not drink, smoke or even drink tea or coffee. Another contradiction is that, in a country mostly dedicated to a pacifistic religion, the national sport is boxing. Many Thai men are extremely skilled at beating people up, but only rude Westerners will find this out the hard way. This isn't the UK, where mindless thugs will batter someone to a pulp for the fun of it: in Thailand, if a Westerner gets assaulted, he almost always provoked it. Thailand has its fair share of economic crime, but largely lacks the savagery to which the discontent of so many people in the West impels them.
In this most complex of nations even the genders are confused. The Kingdom has the highest proportion of transsexuals in the world, a whole million of them. It is much to the Thais' credit that these people are fully accepted members of a society in which the only noticeable discrimination is the bizarre preference for TV actors who have a single Caucasian parent, and so white skin: the soap operas here look like Dallas, but with almond-eyed actors.
Another contradiction is the contrast between the extremely good manners everyone exhibits and their often merciless mockery of peoples' physical appearance. If you are of a certain age and girth, expect to be called old and fat by everyone with whom you make friends. It's really most disconcerting: I remember introducing a new Swedish girlfriend to a Thai friend of mine, who immediately said, right in front of her "oh, very pretty, big bum though".
In Thailand, good manners are expected at all times. For example, if you are having a problem with a builder who has erected a wall in the wrong place, it is entirely pointless to get angry. What you can do is to mock the man for incompetence, but in a jokey form and, most importantly, with a smile on your face. Offer to pay for his mental hospital fees, suggest he tries your glasses on, offer to translate a building manual for him, be as sarcastic as you want, but keep smiling.
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