Joining the exodus from Thailand - reluctantly

Two more days and I’ll be joining the check-in queues at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, heading back to Europe. Despite all the recent political turmoil and social unrest, despite the continuing uncertainties facing Thailand, there is no place I would rather be. Will I be back? Certainly. As soon as possible. No hesitation!

Walk through the streets of Chiang Mai, at any time of day or night, and you would be unlucky indeed to be the victim of a mugging. In all the time I have been here the only person to threaten me was a Scotsman – little more than a kid really - from Glasgow. The stereotype drunk who would switch from camaraderie to aggression and back again in a split second, who had trouble walking, standing, even sitting in a straight line... and managed to set his only item of clothing – a pair of shorts – on fire, in the short time he parked himself next to me at the bar.

Such behaviour is alien to the majority of Thais. As is binge drinking among young people, lack of respect for older generations, educators. Family values, local community cohesion, remain strong. It is an honour to look after one’s parents into their old age. Tell that to the average Brit youngster, and more than a few would laugh in your face. Some might follow up with a kick to the shins to press their point home.

Earlier this year the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research found that British teenagers topped the European league for excessive drinking and drug-taking, gang memberships and fighting, underage sex. That’s in 2008, the best part of a decade after I last visited the country, and it was bad enough back then.

Then there are the reports of increasing emotional dysfunction, rising suicide rates, depression, anxiety, panic attacks.

What’s it all about? Everyone has their pet theory – but a couple of key differences between East and West stand out for me. In the West we have been increasingly spoilt by seemingly unstoppable economic growth, our kids brought up in a want-now get-now, throwaway, consumerist society, taught to value individual success and by implication, to despise those who fall short of such high ideals. In so-called ‘developing’ nations such as Thailand, the alleged advantages of such a lifestyle have barely begun to filter through to a small minority. Most Thais still have to work diligently to ensure that they have a minimum of necessities for themselves and their families, and these values are instilled in them from a very early age. Not much time or money for self-indulgence. Success is admirable, but its achievement imposes certain responsibilities – looking after those in the family and community that are less fortunate. Go for a meal with people clearly worse off than you, and you will be expected to pay. Find yourself at the same table as Kuhn Thaksin, and he will foot the bill.

Plus the Thais have a way of life, instilled through the practice of Buddhism over the centuries, which stresses the importance of the ‘Middle Way’. In a previous blog (first reference to the legless Scotsman) I mentioned some important aspects of the Thai psyche: “Consideration, self-restraint, tolerance and flexibility are key to dealing with others. Respect, face and harmony are far more important in the general scheme of things, so balance needs to be found in the moment, taking all of these factors into account.” Living for now, they yearn less for what they might otherwise wish to have tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come. A general contentedness with one’s lot is the result. Even if that lot appears extremely inadequate, to Western eyes.

Who knows, maybe the current economic crisis will provide the reality check we all need in the West. Rather doubt it though, somehow.

So those of you hesitating about making that first trip to the Land of Smiles in the light of recent events – don’t. Most expats here would suggest you had far more chance of being the victim of violence walking down an English high street, than in downtown Bangkok in the midst of the political chaos of recent weeks. Book that flight, do the touristy things while you’re here by all means… but keep an inner eye open for those less obvious attractions of Thailand – its people, and their general philosophy of life. Maybe, just maybe, Western civilisation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If a few of us return home slightly less assured of the superiority of the Western way, that can’t be a bad thing.

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hoo Don said...

Quality writing, from the heart, a bucketful of emotion with no hole in the bottom. When your flight leaves on the 18th, your body will fly but your soul will remain. Just hope there's not a thirsty young Scotsman onboard and he's parked next to you....oh flower of take the high road and I'll......Have a good flight and I look forward to your blogs from looking at me Jimmy...

Alice said...

Hi Pete

Have a great time back in France! Looking forward to reading your blog from there. : )