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4 Bewildering #Thailand concepts and a thank-you to the Thais.

06/12/2014

The smiling faces of the Thais can be misleading. Although noted for their friendliness and caring nature, the people of the Land of Smiles are quite shy and unassuming (greng jai). Together with the language barrier – the Thai language is notoriously difficult to learn – this makes it challenging for any writer of Thai lifestyle and culture to obtain accurate anthropological data on this amazing country’s people.

I am therefore extremely appreciative of the opportunity that a number of Thais have given me to discuss with them, so freely and frankly, countless aspects of Thainess and Thai culture.

I thank all those who have consented to be interviewed and assisted with my research. I owe them all a tremendous debt of gratitude. I acknowledge particularly:

Dear

Ning

Neenee

Kat

Bill

Introduction

How can we appreciate, understand, and enjoy the real Thailand?

The country is not like China, where it is difficult to venture off the guided tourist trails and where your movements are discreetly watched. Thailand welcomes you in discovering the ways of life and customs of the ordinary Thai. But generally Thais can be reticent and, as a proud race – patriotic to the core – a little shy of foreigners. You will often have to make the first move if you really want to understand what makes this country and its people tick.

Travel guidebooks are useful introductions to the country and provide many useful tips and ideas but they don’t show you how to experience the neighbourhoods where the ordinary Thai lives.

A Thailand Diary takes you into that world. A virtual journey into an authentic Thailand from the comfort of your own armchair. In its pages, you will meet Khun Fon, Ratchanee, Noi, Bancha, and many others. You may be surprised as you learn about aspects of Thai life that remain undetected by the average tourist. I am sure you will find new experiences of your own, whether described here or not. Thailand will never fail to surprise.

In her well-written and researched book “Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind”, Carol Hollinger captured the spirit of the Thai and Thailand: the smiling, lay-back, and carefree lifestyle and the lack of stress and seriousness in day to day living. She mentioned the wide gap between the classes, the robust concept of never losing face, the dislike of direct confrontation, and the firm self-belief that is linked to a xenophobic patriotism and is an integral part of Thai culture.

Little has changed since the book was written in the1960s: that in itself is testimony to the irrepressible attitudes and lifestyles of the Thai.

The Land of Smiles can also be an enigmatic Land of Surprises. Not everything is what it seems. Hollinger, Welty, and a few others understood and described the differences between eastern and western cultures but it is still not easy for a foreigner, with his or her own worldview, to fully comprehend and accept that Thai thinking can sometimes confirm Rudyard Kipling’s famous comment: East is East and West is West and Never the Twain Shall Meet.

Let us briefly look at the essence of Thainess: the basic ethos that underpins Thai culture, and which is covered in depth in Thailand Take Two and in a more light hearted approach, with many examples, in A Thailand Diary.

I cannot do justice in a few paragraphs but the following gives a quick overview of the concepts which may appear bewildering from a western standpoint.

MAI BHEN RAI

Literally mai bhen rai means “never mind, it doesn’t matter”. A lay-back non-serious view of life. Thais work to live and not live to work. Although they prefer to smile and avoid stressful situations and conflict, that does not always mean they are being subservient or backing-down. They have a hedonistic, pleasure seeking, outlook on life and are conciliatory in resolving arguments or problems.

FAMILY AND COMMUNITY

Thais are more family oriented than those in the West. Communities are more closely knit. Social integration is often centred on the temple or local food market – places where people can congregate and socialise.

THE FEUDAL HIERARCHY

Almost all Thais believe that past karma pre-determines one’s position in society. The rigid class structure is respected and not questioned; not through fear but from an acceptance that everyone “knows their place”. The monarchy is a force which binds the nation together: from the hi-society amart families with their inherited wealth at the top to the ordinary working Thai. There is no powerful or assertive middle class and political parties are effectively right-wing and not liberal in the western sense. No Thai believes he is equal to the next man.

That’s a tall order for Westerners to come to grips with.

FACE

This eastern concept of not losing one’s reputation or good name is one of the more frustrating aspects of Thainess to understand. We don’t like being humiliated or proved wrong in the West. In Thailand, it is simply not accepted that anyone should publicly lose face, even for the slightest of reasons. It is the thinking that lies behind Thais walking away from a problem and making up “white” lies.

A Thailand Diary and its sister volume, Thailand Take Two, explain these cultural differences by “telling it as it really is.” A no holds barred set of accounts of Thai life and customs often told through the words and actions of the ordinary Thais you meet in the diary’s pages.

Thailand Take Two describes aspects of Thai life such as the class structure, the laid-back lifestyle, and the attitude towards saving face. While it deals with each of the ten main topics in chapter order, it gradually introduces readers to many ordinary Thais who tell their stories in their own words.

A Thailand Diary is a lighter read, in diary format, where you will meet some of those characters again. You may find it helpful to read the two books in parallel as the diary brings out the major differences between Thailand and the West in a rather unusual way.

For perspective and to show that nothing is ever only black or white, comparisons are shown with western scenarios in order to illustrate some of the cultural differences. In most cases, the word farang is used instead of foreigner to stress that Thais differentiate between white-skinned Westerners (farang) and other nationalities. Expats in Thailand are compared to expats in other countries: surprisingly, you will see that those living here are unlike those who have made their homes in other parts of the world.

A typical Thai comment when referring to foreigners in this country is that they don’t understand Thai traditions. These books will help explain the reasons behind the cultural differences and be a useful guide to enjoying new experiences and appreciating a life style so different from that of the West.

I hope you enjoy flicking through the pages of A Thailand Diary at random and meeting your new Thai friends. Remember that it’s a diary. As in all diaries, some days are more eventful than others are. Sometimes an entry may shock you. Sometimes it may be flippant and short. Sometimes more serious and detailed. It may introduce you to a Thai character or it may be an observation on life in Thailand. But it will always be a true account of what happened. Only names have been changed.

Matt Owens Rees was asked to write a short volume of 7000 words on Ajarn Ubolwan’s doctoral thesis: The Way of Meekness – Being Christian and Thai in the Thai Way. Ubolwan is a distinguished Thai academic and her dissertation is worthy of a read in its own right.

University submissions can be heavy reading but Ubolwan highlighted characteristics of the Thai people that are quite similar to those we see in Thailand Take Two and A Thailand Diary. It therefore made sense to draw attention to those similarities. The book now appears in its entirety as a free bonus chapter just before the Glossary of Thai words.

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One Comment
  1. Matt Owens Rees permalink

    Reblogged this on Matt.Owens.Rees; Thailand Writer.

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