The subtle differences between the workings of Thai society and that of my own country become not-so-subtle after a while.
What motivates the speech and actions of Thai people is a mystery not soon to be solved. Live here a while and you’ll soon learn; the smile is a mask, the genuflecting “wai” their shield and no deal is ever really “done”. When attempting to unravel it all, one should always remember, Thais are only motivated by things they think have a direct impact on them personally.
As the world watched the monster tsunami devour chunks of Southeast Asia, it witnessed the alleged caring and selfless nature of Thai people on CNN every night.
During a news interview with a nearly drowned Aussie, the tourist gushed about the fearless Thai hotel manager that risked his own life to pull him out of the churning abyss. As a long time resident of Phuket, I remember thinking “The guy probably hadn’t paid his bill yet.”
While driving to the market I witnessed an unfortunate dog that had lost his life attempting to cross 3 lanes of morning traffic. All week I passed this site, wincing a little more every day as the dog’s body succumbed to the elements.
“Why doesn’t someone take that dog away?” I asked my wife.
Incredulous, she answered, “Why I’m gonna get that dog? Not my dog”.
I had just assumed that in a Buddhist country with all that compassion and temples and monks and such, someone would take it upon themselves to take care of the poor creature. Ask ten Thai people the same question that I asked my wife and 8 of them will answer the same way; “not my dog”. The other two would say, “How much you pay me?”
While visiting a friend who runs a property development firm here in Pattaya, he closed a huge deal for 63 units in his off-plan condo project. With that deal he had the funding to break ground with confidence immediately. He danced around the office in his bare feet and sent one of the staff out for champagne.
The remaining staff members observed his antics like cows watching a train pass. None of them cared but the sales people; and they were unhappy. That would make 63 units they couldn’t sell and collect commission on. They could care less about the success of the company or financial health of the project. For them it was money out of their pocket.
The self-centered pathology of Thai people is more than just individual selfishness, it’s a nationwide epidemic. Last year, a gang of royalists clad in yellow shirts stormed the huge international airport, gumming up regional transport for days and costing the tourism, shipping and export industries dearly. The economic damage to all sectors of Thai business suffers to this day. Nobody is sure what they wanted.
For the past two years other inhabitants of the “Land of Smiles” have donned red uniforms and taken to the streets in an attempt to reinstall the leader that paid them to vote for him years ago. They impede the process of governance by blocking access to Government House, stop up major thoroughfares and most recently poured blood on the doorstep of the current Prime Minister.
Dozens of countries have put out travel advisories due to the ongoing disruptions in Bangkok. Empty airplane seats, empty hotel rooms, empty taxi cabs, empty pockets … high season just didn’t come this year.
This week, yet another gang of travel and tourism representatives are going to Bangkok to protest the protesters. Everyone will talk and no one will listen. I do not know the word for “compromise” in Thai; perhaps because I’ve never heard it.
The root of this mindset lies with the individual. Walk around in Bangkok long enough and you will be rammed, full-stride and headlong, buy a Thai that apparently could not see you. Invariably they will dust themselves off and look at you as if to say, “What the hell are you doing on my planet?”
You are not invisible, you have entered Thai World. I live in Thailand … Thais live in “Thai World”. And, apparently, Thai World ends about three inches from the surface of a Thai person’s skin. The phrase “self-absorbed” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Perhaps the best example of this compassion vacuum was an experience I had a few years ago. I was standing on my eighth floor balcony in downtown Bangkok, drinking wine with my best friend and his Thai wife.
It was rush hour on busy Soi 16 and we could see the traffic building up to a jam. As the sun went down and the brake lights came on, we noticed a commotion several blocks away. A fire had started beyond some low-rise condos and the flames were soon licking into the air more than 7 stories high.
Within minutes we could hear the howl of fire trucks and police sirens. As the blaze built to three-alarm status, we could see all the rescue vehicles stuck in traffic. No one pulled over to make way for the emergency team. Vehicles crept forward, nose-to-tail, as if the blaring siren and flashing lights did not exist. It took 20 minutes for them to move 100 meters.
When the fire truck and support team arrived at the fire, I used my binoculars to see what was happening. Under the billowing black smoke I could see fire suits being donned, and hoses being reeled out … but none of it in a hurry. One fireman, whose job it was to connect a big hose to the hydrant was standing there smoking a cigarette and talking to another fireman … right over the top of the hydrant … someone had to remind him to hook up the hose to the water source.
I handed my binoculars to my friend’s wife and exclaimed, “Those guys don’t seem to be in a big hurry to put out that fire”.
She looked for a moment, made a facial shrug and said, “Not their house”. It was just that simple.
The next day I went to the site of the fire. I could see that it had been what we in Thailand call a construction camp. I walked by it almost every day. When high rises and other buildings are being erected, huge teams of nomadic construction workers set up what looks like a shanty town to house themselves and their family. This particular construction camp had stood for over two years and serviced three building sites nearby.
A fire in such a ram shackled cluster of half-assed sheds and tents, complete with propane tanks, gasoline and other flammables, must have been devastating. I couldn’t help wondering if anyone died.
Stopping at a papaya salad vendor on my way home I asked the owner what happened. She explained that all three construction projects were finished. The lease the developer held on the land had expired. To evacuate the site of the construction camp more expediently the owner had torched it. They gave no warning. I still don’t know if anyone died.
When you’re a tourist, the butt-kissing reflexive smile is included in the VAT. But, when you live here, you’re just another dog in the dog-eat-dog equation. And, if you aren’t careful you’ll be perceived as the big slow dog with no teeth and a fat wallet. Even with all the smiling and bowing … it’s hardly a kinder/gentler place. Welcome to Asia.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I still choose to live here above any other spot on the planet. But, those considering a long stay in Siam should not expect to be bathed in the light of neighbor-loving Buddhism. You should expect Thais to be Thai.
Most importantly, don’t be fooled by the show. In Bangkok the Skytrain makes a slow curve right over the shrine of the four-faced Buddha in front of the Erawan Hotel. Any day of the week one can witness throngs of faithful burning joss sticks and kneeling before the giant totem. At first glance one could easily be moved by their devotion.
Most of them are asking for good luck in the lottery.
[ Editor’s note: I have corresponded with many fantastic people during my time with Escape Artist but Bart Walters is by far one of the most entertaining and genuine people I have had the pleasure to be in contact with. Bart writes about life in Thailand and permits me to use his work in exchange for a link back to the charity website that raises money for an orphanage in Thailand. Please take a moment to visit the site, donate if you can and help support a good cause. Please go to www.care4kids.info Thank you ]