Some years ago I had heard about the special cultural traditions of Thailand from friends who had traveled or lived in the kingdom. I decided to experience it for myself. I visited many temples in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and saw a performance of Thai classical dance. This is one aspect of appreciating Thai culture. It’s open to all tourists. The most famous temples are run as tourist attractions.
Another aspect of Thai culture is the Thai people themselves. It is the special nature of Thai people, not the temples or the classical arts, which induce some Westerners to spend longer periods of time in this country. Even people who come to Thailand with organized tour groups notice this from the limited contact with Thai staff at the hotels, shops, and restaurants they visit.
The smiles get them every time.
Some people come to experience the lives of Thai people more directly and the everyday reality of Thai culture. Most such cultural visits are made in the north, to the ethnic groups, and in the northeast, the most ‘down home’ traditional agrarian area. Some visitors to the south seek out village life of Muslim communities.
There are people everywhere in the country leading traditional lives. Visits with them, however brief, give the clearest insight into the culture of a country that has never been colonized. These people, however, are generally not found around tourist centers.
It is the areas that depend on tourism, that have had years of Western (and Asian) tourists spending their abundant money, where Thai culture will not be found as easily. Most of the Thais in these areas earn income by doing their jobs and wearing the smile despite behavior and habits they may find offensive or at least strange.
Some of the people who work in or around the tourist industry become fascinated by the easy flow of money and, at times, take various shortcuts to increase their share.
Generally it is the less educated people, those without the skills or talents to succeed legitimately, who give tourists experiences they’d rather not have. Highly educated people sometimes do the same.
To avoid this type cultural interaction, minimize contact with areas or attractions most heavily promoted and visited by tourists. Be comfortable with paying higher prices and admission fees in tourist areas, see what there is to see, and avoid new ‘friends’ who want to take you to jewellery stores.
To maximize opportunities for meeting ‘real’ people, go to where they are. A few minutes buying shrimp or crabs from the people who have spent all day in the sun to get that subsistence catch, or buying a Coke at a little upcountry shop never before visited by Westerners will open one’s heart to the true value of Thai culture.
Here’s an account a cultural experience with local people, none of whom spoke English, in the deep South of Thailand.
A colleague and I were on a paddling trip in Trang Province a few months ago. We needed to transport our boats from the mainland to an island. The commercial pier quoted an entirely unacceptable price, twice what it was a year earlier.
We don’t like to encourage that type exploitation of tourists, so we left. Dave and I didn’t have to talk about it; it’s part of our shared perspective on doing business. As the discussions had been in Thai, our guests didn’t entirely understand why we were leaving.
But we still needed to reach the island, and we still had our kayaks. Generally, there are different ways to move from point A to point B that are easy, convenient, and fast. These methods are often unnecessarily expensive.
A tour group interested only in reaching the next bungalow before the next scheduled meal would pay the premium and not think much about it. Backpackers specialize in finding the cheapest way to reach point B, no matter how time consuming or uncomfortable.
We don’t conduct backpacker tours. So we chose the middle path. We just move along slowly and see what looks interesting.
I went to a small settlement that usually has a few boats for hire. The engine was not working, and the man gestured in a general way that indicated we could probably find a boat ‘down the road somewhere’. That’s okay. Had he shrugged and said ‘mai dai, mai dai’ (cannot, cannot), we could have faced a problem.
We reached a little collection of small subsistence dwellings on stilts with some old people sitting out front. A few minutes of gestures and simple verbal communication and they understood what we wanted. It was a matter of finding one man who wasn’t there, and determining whether his boat would run. I relaxed, told them we had plenty of time, had a seat, and waited.
Our guests now understood why we didn’t want to pay the high price at the commercial pier. At the same time, they had paid for a trip and we did have an itinerary and it was getting time for the scheduled meal at the bungalow on the island.
They looked at the houses, and the pure, aged simplicity of the old people, and the shy curiosity of the children. And then they understood what was happening. This was a precious meeting of people from wildly different backgrounds, a moment that could not have been arranged on any itinerary. Our guests were entirely present in the moment. They were captured by the sweetness of the people and the increasing friendliness of the children.
The man with the boat came, a fair price was easily agreed upon, and we loaded up and went to the island. Our guests were radiantly happy with what had unfolded.
It had been a simple transaction that took a little while to complete. It was an event off the itinerary. Cultural exchanges take place when they do. With the possible exception of arranged home stays, they can’t be put in the schedule. Normal friendliness is all that’s required.