After Four months in Bangkok, Farewell

And so, after almost four months in Bangkok and Thailand, it is time for me to move on. I do so with a great sadness mixed with my usual restlessness. For Thailand is a wonderful, interesting and, yes, often infuriating and confounding place. But as most people say, there’s no place on earth like it.

I’m writing this from a train en route to Butterworth in Malaysia, the little town that seems mainly to exist as a train terminus and a port for the ferry to Penang. From Butterworth, I’ll head down to Kuala Lumpur, and thence on to Singapore. On Dec 10 or 11, I’ll board the White Star freighter ship and start the 10-day journey to Perth. In all likelihood, I will miss the Dec 21 end of the world as predicted by the Mayans and I will definitely miss the premier of “The Hobbit.” Which is worse will be left for historians and film critics.

But back to Thailand. I’d like to list a few impressions that I’ve had of the place and its people. It will likely piss some (many?) people off, but bear in mind these are my impressions only. I’m not writing an anthropological dissertation on Thai society. I’m not necessarily even criticizing the place. Thailand belongs to the Thais and they can do what they want. At most, my observations and impressions might contain some cautions for Thais based on what I’ve seen in other parts of the world. Take ’em or leave ’em.

  • Of all the countries I’ve visited over the last 10 years or so, Thailand is one of the most hospitable, friendly and yet most difficult in which to be an outsider. Most of this stems from the language barrier, which is quite high in Thailand. The level of english instruction here is pretty poor, and the locals’ ability to speak it reflects that. I met very few Thais who could have even a basic conversation with me. They tried, and I tried and we often worked it out with the help of Google translate on my phone and a lot of arm waving, but it was exhausting. I imagine if you come for a couple of weeks and stay in the major tourist areas or resorts, this would be less of a problem, but if you plan to spend any significant amount of time here, you must be prepared to learn at least some Thai and the script. Not being able to read road names on Google Maps (They’re mostly in Thai!) is frustrating beyond measure. This was, by far, the greatest challenge for me in Thailand.
  • Related to the language issue is Thai national pride. Thais have never been colonized, and they take great pride in this. It can sometimes lead to people who can speak english declining to do so.
  • This well-deserved pride means Thais are very comfortable being Thai. This will seem self-evident to Americans or other colonizing cultures, but it’s pretty extraordinary in a part of the world that has been savaged by colonization, war, revolution, etc. There is no cultural schizophrenia as in, say, Pakistan or India. These two countries are still trying to figure out what it means to be Indian and Pakistani, while the Thais have no such internal conflict. (Well…. more on that below).
  • Speaking of conflict, Thais are notably conflict-averse. Losing one’s temper in public, fighting, disagreeing, etc. are all seen as deeply embarrassing and are to be defused or avoided at all costs if possible. This can lead to a lot of repressed anger and passive-aggressive behavior. But for Thais, order and harmony must be maintained. Given the strong traditions of Theravada Buddhism, this makes sense. But it can also mean disagreements and dislike can fester under a seemingly calm and happy surface… until it becomes too much and then a Thai can snap. Crimes of passion—usually ending in someone’s death—are pretty common here.
  • As such, it’s a welcoming culture on the surface, but don’t expect to get to far inside, and don’t expect to ever be fully accepted. Of course, that’s true for most cultures. But there are degrees of non-acceptance. In Pakistan, for instance, if you’re not Muslim and Pakistani, you will always be marked as an outsider. That said, many Pakistanis went out of their way to make me feel as welcome as possible and after three years in Islamabad, I didn’t feel quite the alien. The years of British rule probably also allowed for a shrinking of the cultural divide. There is little such effort from most Thais. You are a foreigner (farang), and you always will be. Speaking Thai and liking the food is appreciated, but don’t kid yourself. The Thais are an intensely structured society, and if you don’t fit into the overall hierarchy, which Buddhist cosmology says starts with the King and descends to the lowest peasant in the field, you will be a tolerated alien (most of the time benignly). And so, despite the best efforts of my Thai friends—who I must stress went out of their way to make me feel welcome and include me in outings—I was often intensely aware of not belonging. After a while, it got depressing.
  • This brings us to the Thai monarchy, which I simply do not understand no matter how much I’ve read on the subject. I realize I’m treading in dangerous waters. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is, by all accounts, a generally decent and good man. (He’s also the longest reigning monarch in the world and the only one to have been born in the United States.) The love he holds from the average Thai is heartfelt. His development projects have helped millions. But as an American, monarchies of any kind are still a bit weird to me. And the very public reverence—enforced by the oft-abused and draconian Section 112 of the Thai constitution (lèse majesté), which states, “Whoever defames, insults or threatens the King, Queen, the Heir-apparent or the Regent, shall be punished (with) imprisonment of three to fifteen years”—comes off as a bit, well, there’s no good way to say this. It comes off as a bit cultish. Criticizing the monarchy is seen as a threat to “national security” and the justice minister once said protecting the monarchy is the “top priority”. Really? More important than rooting out corruption and providing free and fair trials?
  • Yes, there are also massive class divisions in Thailand that have remained mostly unaddressed. While Bhumibol is a towering moral authority, he will one day (perhaps soon) die. And his son and apparent heir, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, is not well-liked, based on my conversations. There is a great deal of anxiety in Thailand over what happens with the king dies. Many people expect violence and mayhem. Again, I simply don’t understand why the death of the king and the succession provokes apocalyptic scenarios of Thai killing Thai. Yes, there are fissures and tensions in Thai society—and if they would be open about this, they might be able to solve them peacefully—but how does the death of a monarch, beloved or no, automatically lead to chaos?
  • And so, Bhumibol’s pictures are ubiquitous. They are on almost every street corner, they are displayed to a standing audience before every film showing, and his world-weary visage adorns most Thai homes. Since 1932, the monarchy has been recast as utterly vital to the existence of Thailand and “Thainess”. But if the monarchy is so beloved and an integral part of “Thainess”, why does it need such a draconian law to “protect” from threats that never seem to really materialize? Is Thailand really so fragile and divided, and thus so dependent on the king’s rule, that voicing concerns over possible constitutional overreaches by some members of the royal family is an existential threat to the nation? Again, I simply don’t understand that mindset.

UPDATE: Read this from pro-monarchist journalist Thanong Khanthong, for a sense of what I’m talking about. “All human beings have flaws. But His Majesty the King is the most perfect human being of all – both in the way of the world and in the way of the Dhamma. It is because of these attributes that Thais feel immense joy in their hearts upon seeing him – an emotion that foreigners find hard to fathom.” (Emphasis added.) Boy, is that true. This article paints Bhumibol as more of a priest-king than a constitutional monarch. Here’s some more from Khanthong, reinforcing the idea of the king as a literal embodiment of the divine. Again, I really have a hard time grasping this concept, but I don’t get the infallibility of the Pope, either.

So I found Thailand a magical but confounding place. I loved the people and the culture, but I worry about it. I can only hope that the Thailand I return to when I’m done with the round-the-world journey is stronger, more stable and more fair to its citizens. And that the King (or Queen?), whoever they may be when I return, reign well. Farewell, for now, Thailand, and all my dear, dear friends. You have touched me in the best ways possible.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

5 Comments on “After Four months in Bangkok, Farewell

  1. The blog lumps Facebook comments, likes and twitter stuff as well as plain old comments. The two comment you saw we’re a couple of “likes”. Your Facebook comments are now here too.