Freitag, 22. April 2011

The Travelogue, Part XII - Thailand: Sanuk, Songkran, Spirithouses

When in my last post I said there is little that people wouldn't know about this lovely country, I now stand corrected. If you don't hang out with Thai people or read up on Thai culture and mindset, it is easy to miss many of the cultural quirks and differences that make Thailand the amazing place that it is. These are some impressions I had, some of which you might also find in guidebooks, should you ever go. Some pictures needed to be taken off the internet, as my camera has given up the ghost.


Probably one of the most essential words when talking about Thai culture is Sanuk, roughly meaning "fun". Very sociable people as the Thai are, Sanuk can never be experienced just by yourself, and always requires the company of others. Eating, drinking and going out together are all very Sanuk activities and seem to occupy the vast majority of Thai free (and often work) time. One of the most vivid examples of Sanuk are the weeklong waterfights around Songkran, which sees whole families drive around on pickup trucks and shower pedestrians with water guns. Part of Sanuk seems to be that you are expected to play along, no matter your condition or age, so consequently one finds that even respected and elderly Thai take part in all kinds of good old childish fun. If you want to escape from any Sanuk experience, however, social etiquette leaves you little room. The laws of harmony apply for Sanuk as well, and not taking part when it's in order is definitely a social faux pas, earning you a reputation as a spoilsport, which in the fun loving world of Thailand is a more severe title then it may sound at first.

Pace of Life

"Mai pen rai" - "Doesn't really matter", is a term I got to hear a lot. The desire for social harmony and keeping calm in the face of annoyance is one of the key habits that make Thais so enjoyable to be around. Bus not coming on time - mai pen rai. Spill a drink - mai pen rai. Be an hour late - mai pen rai. Contrary to certain tourists' perception, making fun of Thai people is not mai pen rai at all, even if it may appear so, and when talking with Thai friends they made it quite clear that they often understand much more than most farang think they do, but will not let it show. Owed to this habit of suppressing personal feelings, when Thai people snap, they do so with scary intensity. The few public displays of anger I have encountered where of such unrestrained violence that it again makes me wonder if Asian social culture breeds healthy personalities. Use of weaponry, even against women, is common in such disputes, and outcomes are often fatal. Authorities are by definition entitled to give free reign to these violent tendencies while in office, a privilege they seem to use extensively, and one shouldn't count on being treated any different as a foreigner.
These occasional incidents aside, I find Thais to be extraordinarily pleasant people. Partially this is because they are generally more content with their lives than we are in Europe, having less ambition to achieve grander things when food, family and sanuk are provided for. Mind you that by lack of ambition I don't mean laziness, rather a certain wisdom in knowing when to stop. Quoting a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai when asked if he earned enough money: "I drive you around two times, have enough money to get good food for one day. I drive around two of you, and I have place to sleep. Rest of the day: have chat, sleep, meet wife." Students I meet seem all equally refreshingly modest in their goals, carrying none of the rabid desire to smother their life in extravagant experiences and personality enhancements that have become so ubiquitous in the industrialized nations.


Although typical farang behavior might suggest otherwise, Thailand is a very conservative country. Family values, chaste conduct for girls and the institution of marriage are important even for the more rock'n'rolly types. When speaking with Thais about those topics, it shines through that they are not very happy with how many tourists behave in their country, and complying with some of the basic rules will earn you not only respect, but also lower prices and friendlier faces. Running about without a shirt is considered pretty tasteless by most Thais, who will even go for a swim fully clothed. Same goes for showing (opposite sex) affection in public, so smooching (not to speak of shagging) when other people can see you can anger some Thais, even if they might seem unperturbed. Employees in tourist resorts are obviously more understanding of the cultural differences, but from what I gather they still consider you to be a pretty lose person, especially if you are a woman. Hollywood hasn't helped that issue, giving many Thais the impression that all western girls are pretty much all hookers and nutcases.
Thai girls who get physically friendly in public, especially with farang, are looked down upon, even if they are not prostitutes, and for many Thai men intact virginity is still an important asset when choosing a partner. Just like in Iran, men are expected to enter marriage with some sexual experience despite universal chastity of girls, so the inevitable result is flourishing, if illegal, prostitution (see below).


A common mistake made by many Westerners is falling victim to the incorrect assumption that Asians can't hold their liquor. While they usually cannot compete with regular imbibers of large alcohol quantities, such as students or after-workers, the drinking habits and social pressure to drink in most Asian countries gives them enough practice to be able to overcome the alcohol sensitivity that about 50 % of the Asian population are affected by.
Thais (just like the Japanese and Chinese) love to drink. Most of the type they drink beer and whiskey along with food, but since drinking out with friends is very Sanuk  (see above), Thai parties can be very inebriated affairs. Most of the time though, instead of individual drinks, a large bottle of Whiskey (or two to three) is bought among a group of friends and then shared with soda or coke. This practice is so common that in some Thai clubs I couldn't even buy individual drinks apart from beer. Who'd blame them, considering you can get a bottle from around 250 Baht (~ 5 Pounds). The communal bottle is then positioned at the table or even the bar, and can be left entirely unattended in even a crammed club. Try that in England.
It's considered polite to watch people's glass contents and pour new whiskey and ice if it's nearing empty, which means that you should drink steadily and slowly, as helpful friends will refill your glass every time you run out. While this can work as a subtle way to control your friends' intoxication level, be aware that, since you are farang, you are considered to always needing way more then your new-found friends, who'll do their best to get you as drunk as possible.
By far the most common drink is beer and whiskey (also for girls), but all my Thai friends heavily discouraged me from drinking the cheap issue Samsong that is found in most cocktail buckets. I mean, if someone offered you a bottle of Whiskey for 2 Pounds in Europe, would you drink it? Exactly.

The King

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been ruling the country since 1946, making him the longest ruling current head of state on the planet. The Thai people are extremely fond of their king, and his image can be found on every public building and many private homes. Unlike many other more well-known monarchs, King Bhumipol is actually a talented and politically savvy individual. Apart from having contributed to the nation's wellbeing with large-scale local development (some from his own personal funds) and his very own patents, he is also an accomplished author, painter, photographer and jazz musician, and has managed to keep the country together despite a staggering 15 coups de etat during his lifetime.
His son, however, is an entirely different character, and street hawkers and stock traders alike fear the day he will come to power. Despite censorship and extremely harsh lese majeste laws, Thai people are well aware of the crown prince's dubious private life: in all appearances Vajiralongkorn is a decadent slacker of little to no interest in politics apart from his personal enrichment, and the celebration of his poodle's birthday has become legendary among Thai gossipers. Some people (both Thai and expats) consider the issue pressing enough to make their stay in Thailand dependent on what will happen once Bhumipol passes away, and not few predict chaos, disorder and even the collapse of the entire Thai state.


Traditionally a well respected part of Thai society, the sangha has lost a lot of its reputable status in the recent years. Just like in medieval Europe, donning the robes has been a convenient way for criminal offenders to hide or escape prosecution, and several monasteries where found to be havens for prostitution, smuggling and drug dealing. Learning that monks are not saints has been a painful process for many Thais, and criticism of Buddhism and monks in particular is still falling victim to censorship. One notable exception is the movie "Mindfulness and Murder", which has gathered both international and Thai renown, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a different side of Thailand.
Even without any scandals, interest and belief in Buddhist doctrines is on the decline. Fewer and fewer Thai boys undergo the traditional period of being a novice and many smaller monasteries have funding problems. If you join one of the monk chats offered in bigger cities, you'll find that the majority of young monks is more interested in haircuts, punk music and the girl next door than their spiritual advancement.

Sex Trade

Many foreign tourists come to Thailand each year, not to see any of its jungles and beaches, but to take advantage of its infrastructure for buyable love. It is estimated that prostitution generates as much as 40% of Thailand's total GDP, in some regions, like the poor north east, it's as high as 80%. Having had a chat with a prostitute in Bangkok, she told me her life story, which is almost exemplary: born in the northeastern provinces, drought had forced her parents to find ways to sustain themselves and their children. While her brothers became monks, she ran away to longer be a burden on her parents and made it to Bangkok, where she started working as a prostitute as she couldn't find any other job. All her money goes back home to support her family, whom she tells she is a waitress in an expat bar. Thais seem to be well aware of this system, which might be one of the reasons why prostitution does not carry such a heavy social stigma as it does in many western countries (her friends all knew). In fact, while many foreigners would believe otherwise, prostitution in Thailand is not a product of farang tourism; the vast majority of Thai (or Burmese) prostitutes cater to the Thai market, and having extra- or premarital sex with prostitutes is a generally accepted (and even encouraged) practice dating back centuries.

Homosexuality and Gender Issues

One thing I found quite refreshing is that gender identities in Thailand can be picked relatively freely. So if, for example you see a girl with a boy haircut in skate shorts playing football, she must by no means be a lesbian. The same goes for boys: if you want to be effeminate, no one will think you any different, and I met many Thai boys who went for "the gay style" all the way, but claimed they were straight as a log. Now you might argue that this is somewhat the case in Europe, even if less frequent. Then how about the ladyboys?
Much more frequent then most foreigners assume, gatoey work in many different levels of society, and many of them eschew the drag queen style so often associated with transsexuals. As an example of the fluid gender identities in Thailand might serve Nong Tum, gatoey actor, model and Thai boxing champion. Working in my acommodation at the reception, a gatoey named May explained elaborately to me how much she hated ladyboy prostitutes, who would give all people the impressions that gatoey are hookers. While we're at that topic, a word of caution: ladyboy prostitutes are often heavily drugged and prone to violence, and incidents of stabbing are common. Besides that, ladyboys are quite well accepted in Thai culture and even have their own language particles ('ha' instead of krap/kha). Tolerance is not as prevalent (unsurprisingly) in Christian and Muslim communities, where they are presecuted or outcast.


The Thai New Year (this being my third new year in , well, a year), unlike the Gregorian celebration lasts somewhere between three and six days, during which the various rites are performed. These rites, consisting of ritual washings and family visits are, while still performed by many, mostly a backdrop for relentless drinking and nation-wide water fights. The best (some would say the worst) Songkran is allegedly to be had in Chiang Mai, where the celebrations start about two days early and finish several days after the official ending (15th April). During this time, the city fills up with revelers, Farang and Thai alike, turning the inner town into a minefield of garden hoses, super soakers and buckets full of chalk water. No one is spared, whether it be monks or businessmen with their laptops; if you're out during Songkran, you are a viable target. DO NOT count on being exempted because of any condition (toddlers, disability, expensive equipment), so if you have to avoid the water, don't go out.
What sounds fun for one day (and hell, it is), I found quickly becomes boring, as you cannot do anything else during those five days, as even closed taxi doors don't keep you from getting soaked (they get opened, so lock them). Additionally, about 700 people die on Songkran every year, most of them in traffic accidents, but suffocation and drunk street fights are also common causes.

Spirit Houses

A remnant of pre-Buddhist belief, spirit houses are found around almost every Thai house. Placed in an auspicious location where a building is being constructed, it is believed to pacify the spirit of the land the house is built upon. Quality of the spirit house is to mirror the importance and size of the actual building, and spirit houses for giant skyscrapers and palaces can easily cost a few thousand pounds and can even have elaborate sculptured gardens surrounding them. Regular offering are made to the spirit, so it does not bring bad luck upon the house. While stating they don't actually believe in it, even more modern-minded Thais keep this practice alive, as it is seen as a endearing and aesthetically pleasing tradition. You will also find that drivers often honk when passing spirit houses of mountain and forest gods along the roadside, to avoid accident.


I was under the silent and often propagated assumption that Western popular culture is dominating most developing countries, and that American movies, English pop and Italian fashion would be setting the standards also for Thailand. I had totally underestimated the cultural gravity of Asia's very own pop culture, which has its home in Japan, and more importantly, South Korea. When Thai teens look for style and music, they look north, to the outrageously styled penisular pop idols and glamour models. With the excessive hairspray and crazy couloring comes revealing clothing and cutesy accessories. While this provokes only some public concern (such as higher chance of mosquito bites from wearing hot pants), the desire to have alabaster skin has a much more profound effect on youth culture: bleaching treatments, often of dubious chemical nature are highly sought after, and contact with the sun is avoided as much as possible, creating a serious body identity problem in young Thai girls (and boys), big enough for a Thai psychologist I met to write his master thesis about it.

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