I was home only four weeks when I went back to Thailand, that wonderful country, in September for the third time for one last three week trip and a tour of the provinces. In my two prior trips I had spent most of my time in giant, sprawling, polluted, captivating Bangkok and then delivered training is a resort city such as Pattaya or Phuket. (Thais are quite clever: I was told that Thai officials will not come to a training event unless it is held at a resort. This is a philosophy we should adopt.)
The purpose of this trip was on-site consulting so we spent almost all of our time in four small cities 100 or more miles from Bangkok. (Nakorn Sawan, Korat, Khon Khen, and Udorn Thani, for the cartographically compulsive.) It was a more genuine Thai experience but a somewhat less comfortable one.
My knowledge of Thai culture is based on what I was told by Ken who has lived in Thailand for the last five years and made a study of the people. When I got a chance to experience an aspect of Thai culture that he described, my observations confirmed what he told me. And he told me many interesting things.
Ken told me that Thais don't like to be alone and they are so polite they assume that you don't want to be alone either. The result is some very aggressive hospitality. In one city we visited, the Deputy Mayor showed up every day at 8 AM and stayed with us through three meals until he dropped us at the hotel at 9 PM. After four days, I was desperate to alone for a while.
Thais believe it is impolite to show one's mouth (the inside, that is). Thus after dinner you see Thai men sitting at the dinner table with two hands covering their mouths and moving in strange ways and looking for all the world as if they were extracting their dentures with great difficulty. They are merely using a toothpick and trying to be inconspicuous about it. This aspect of their sense of politeness explains why Thais got such a kick of my roaring laughs when I open my mouth wide and put my head back and bellow. All of this I learned indirectly, through Ken, because the Thais are far to polite to impose their sensibility on an outsider, a farang.
There remains a strong animist tradition in Thailand. Ken said not to whistle, especially at night as the Thais believe it summons the spirits. I never realized how much I whistled until I started trying not to. Travel is an educational experience.
Pointing at something -- or heaven forbid, someone-- with your foot is the height of rudeness. Buddhists -- ninety percent of Thais are Buddhists -- believe the feet are the least spiritual, meanest, lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Correspondingly, the head is the most spiritual, the holiest, the most sacred, so you would never touch someone on the head. That's easy enough, right? You never point with your feet do you? I thought I didn't until that trip to Thailand. I point with my feet a lot -- every time my hands are full and I want to point something -- or someone -- out. How rude we ignorant farangs can be.
I couldn't test this but Ken reports that almost anything in Thai becomes sexual with just a slight change in word order or intonation. "They are teaching me dirty things," he said in the elevator after a particularly incomprehensible exchange with two Thai women. "It means this if you say it this way, but if you change these words around it means something entirely different." Later Ken told me that they had just told him that he had been saying a very rude thing for three years and never knew it. "How rude?" I asked. "Very rude," he responded. Drat, the language barrier is so high!
It is not Thai to wait for everyone's food to be served, you dig right in as soon as your preferred platter arrives. It IS Thai to stick your spoon or chop sticks into every dish on the table whenever you want something. Family-style dining is fun.
This is a society of uniforms - and a uniform society. On Mondays public servants must wear a military uniform, Wednesdays are Scout days and everyone who is a boy scout or girl scout wears their uniform. Some Provinces have a required day for traditional dress. On the days when a uniform isn't called for, business dress for men is an open necked dress shirt with sleeves rolled (assuming you have long sleeves) or perhaps a safari suit. "Thais like everything to be the same," Ken said, "It brings uniformity into their life. Americans like everything to be different; it brings excitement into there life."
Thais take their shoes off when entering a temple or a home and, in villages, even when entering a store. It's a real pain to tie and untie your shoes. Since the Thais generally wear flip-flops, it is easy for them. When you visit the Orient, bring your loafers!
Oh, yea, the environment. Mustn't forget to mention that big downer. The rapid development Thailand is undergoing (more than eight percent annual growth for more than ten years) has all been at the expense of the natural environment. There appears to be a slowly growing sense of the depredation that has and is happening but it is similar to where America was around 1950. I sure hope they wake up before all their habitat has been damaged beyond hope.
Being away from Bangkok was informative but frustrating at times. Thai cities, Bangkok included, are unbelievably safe by American standards. There is little or no street crime and you can wander around at all hours alone. There is a friendliness here that makes America seem far away and not really a very nice place.
On the other hand, in one city we had regular power failures and a hotel with no face cloths (the one personal item I do not carry). Only in Bangkok did the rooms have a clock. Boy, I really had to rough it this time!!
Thai food is wonderful and plentiful. But the Thais eat and eat and eat. How do they stay so thin? They put the food and company together for us and we had dinner for 15 at least three times. The smallest sitting for lunch was 7 or 8 people. And we never saw the check--not once!!
Of course my eating habits were a problem. Our Thai guests wondered that I ate so little and conjectured that I was not having a good time or was ill or whatever. Sometimes they ordered extra dishes just for me.
A measure of the cost of labor in a country is the number of buttons that they button on your shirt when they launder it. In the States my laundry buttons one button but in one city in Thailand, the laundry buttoned every button on my shirts -- the collars and cuffs included. They also re-sewed all the loose stitches, everywhere they existed--and at no extra cost.
I learned to love wondering around Thai cities. There are always intriguing shops and a night market with fascinating goods for sale and strange delicacies to eat. I particularly enjoyed the fried grasshoppers (videoing them, that is). One shop I ran across sold saffron-colored monk's robes which, though they came in two sizes, did not fit me. I guess God never designed me for a priestly life.
The open air night markets particularly fascinated me: the colors, the textures, the bare bulbs glinting light on every imaginable surface. I used video to capture the sense of motion, the crowd movements, the sounds. What video does not capture are the aromas, the fantastic exotic smells that roar into the sanitized noses of westerners; potent, pungent scents that seem to defy the Listerine-like sensibilities we associate with health (but isn't it really about death? The death of any and all competing organisms?); acrid, biting, salty, rotting smells.
Rich, organic, vibrant and not to be ignored, these smells force their way into your lungs and head and do unexpected and novel things to the untrained and susceptible mind. Not for the tepid temperament of Western sanities--and sanitation sensitivities. Not that all these smells were bad or offensive, rather that they have an insistence that is missing in our society--corned beef and cabbage perhaps excepted.
Our visit to each city had much the same format. On the first day we would be ushered into the Council chambers along with thirty to fifty key employees and listen to the inevitable explanatory speeches from the local mayor. Then we would be shown to a vacant room or office and served the inevitable coffee and water, the inevitable 8 course lunch for 15, the inevitable tea with lime, and the inevitable inevitable. Everything except the opening ceremony was repeated each day and on the last day we would have a parting ceremony much like the first one. We were uniformly treated as Very Important People.
The first city we visited was Nakorn Sawan, formerly a commercial and marketing center based on the transport of teak logs downstream to Bangkok. But that ended with the over cutting of the forests to the north. It now wants to reinvent itself as a transportation and industrial center because it is situated at the confluence of four rivers which form the Chyo Prya River, the main river of Thailand.
The excessive logging has resulted in a major increase in siltation of the river bottom and boats can no longer reach Nakorn Sawan from Bangkok. The World Bank invested $100,000,000 in a port across the river from Nakorn Sawan but it cannot be used because of the shallow draft required by the current state of the river. The excess silt also destroyed over half of the fish species by burying their eggs far deeper than ever planned by nature. Environmental degradation, thy name is Thailand.
Called "Gateway to Isan," (the poorest part of Thailand and a major rice growing and silk production) Korat has a population of around 200,000 and was the largest of the four cities we visited. At the opening ceremony on our first day the city manager made two key observations: 1) citizens are accustomed to getting everything for free and want things to continue that way, and 2) the city has many problems and the central government just doesn't understand. Ah, the universalities of local government experience!
That night several of us were sitting in front of an ice cream store across the street from the night market. A fascinating lady of legendary age and wizened face ("Grandma") came by and tried to get us to buy a bag of very large bugs. Since she thought we didn't know how to eat them, she took out a bug (I think it was giant a cicada) and tore it apart, discarding the legs and wings wherever they fell and offered the body to us. All you had to do was squeeze the carcass and the guts slid out for your enjoyment. I truly regretted not having my video camera with me and although I went back with it the next night, Grandma did not show up.. Mypen Ri.
On our arrival at the hotel, we were met by Amnat, a city employee. I have trouble remembering even American names , so I thought up a mnemonic to help me out: "You are and Ahm not." His foot was bandaged because he needed an operation on a damaged tendon but was waiting until our visit was over.
Joni, my associate, later related that Ken spent a part of the afternoon explaining my word plays on names to the Thais. This must have taken some explaining but the Thai's really like word play games and seemed to enjoy it immensely.
Around this part of the trip I was getting crazy because of the difficulty of getting a good American breakfast in Thailand. Thai food is fabulous but I was like a smoker without a butt for two weeks. It was tough; pity me.
In Udorn Thani, our guests really knew how to have fun. We were met at the hotel by about ten people, four or five of whom remembered me from my Pattaya and Phuket presentations. Their genial friendliness was as enticing as always.
Dinner for 19 that night consisted of 8 courses not counting the various appetizers. The bill was invisible, the conversation animated. Afterwards, they wanted us to go out for country music. And so it was. Straw cowboy hats and the greatest hits of country music ("I Got The Hongries For Your Love And I'm Waitin' In The Welfare Line"), plus some Simon and Garfunkle ("Sounds of Silence") and other tunes. Ken says its a hangover from the days when large numbers of GIs were here.
At this late stage, Ken began to teach me Thai numbers: One: Neung (rising tone, questioningly); Two: Song (rising tone); Three: Sam(rising tone); Four: See (falling tone like hearing bad news: "I see"); Five: Ha (a tone like aha!); Six: Hoke (sounds like yoke), etc. I would bore you with more numbers but this was as far as I got. I guess I am more of a tourist than a traveler.
One evening we went to the lake in the center of town and walked around the park that the city has built around it. It is incredibly beautiful. Lovely plants and flowers, bushes, palm trees of all types. Two real life suspension bridges and a meandering path that connected everything. There is a large bandstand where they do aerobics every night and small groups of young men plan a soccer-like game with willow spheres. Joni and Surin jogged around the lake and Joni told me: "Surin and I are just alike: we both meditate, eat vegetables, and practice yoga. We are just alike! I knew I would find a soul mate in Thailand."
Udorn Thani was enough to restore my faith in Thai democracy. It seems to be a city that really works. The roads aren't bumpy, the streets are clean, the lake park is exquisite, the rotary centers and other small public areas are perfectly maintained. It is a beautiful city that is visually and physically pleasant to be in. Why cannot all Thai cities approximate this level of excellence? I remember "Your are, Ahm not" saying of the park surrounding the lake in Khon Kaen that it was a cost that could be better spent elsewhere. But in Udorn Thani, a lot of money is spent on the park (clearly) and there are no complaints only happy park users. The difference is in public attitude.
Yes, this is the end of my quick note. I am sure you won't mind. But it is also the end of my trips to Thailand -- at least for now. I really liked the Thais. They are unfailing friendly and so polite to strangers that they would never let a farang know the rules he was violating. They cut Americans a lot of slack and it makes for a very enjoyable environment. Every time I think of Thailand and the Thais, I want to go back.
Have a fabulous 1995!!
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