Second postcard from the Kingdom of Thailand
This author has now been in Thailand for a period of almost two months, and he has decided to write some more about the country and her unique qualities as he has come to discover ever more intricate details about the Kingdom of Smiles.
We begin with an article in the Bangkok Post, a serious broadsheet English language newspaper with a distinctive history (it was originally founded by a US intelligence officer serving in Thailand in World War II), on Friday 23 June 2023. It is entitled "Thailand's Policy on Myanmar stinks". The mere fact that such an article can be published open demonstrates that there is substantial freedom of the media in Thailand. It was not always so, in particular during the period of the National Council of Peace and Order, a military junta that ruled Thailand between 2014 and 2019; but since then freedom of speech has been gradually restored and now open criticism of the government is accepted although criticism of the Royal Family is not - and neither is criticism of the Lord Grand Buddha. Essentially any other subject, even if critical of the government in the most swingeing terms, is permissible. Open criticism of the government is not common; but it does exist, particularly amongst the educated classes.
Thailand has a long and complex history as a country mostly uncolonised but with various foreign power interests in the country at various times. Throughout her history, there has been a constant tension between the Monarchy, the military and civilian themes in political leadership and this has resulted in a series of civil disputes or coups of which the National Council for Peace and Order was just the latest. This author had cause to travel to Thailand just after the military coup installed the National Council for Peace and Order in 2014, after populist democratic agitation had been threatening the status of the monarchy. What had previously been a vibrant civil society was suddenly closed for business. Every international television channel was replaced with the emblem of the National Council for Peace and Order, and sombre military music. Tourists were guarded from visiting, and nightlife establishments were curtailed as a military curfew was enforced. However these restrictions did not last long, and the National Council for Peace and Order gradually relaxed its grip upon a crisis situation that had threatened to undermine ... well, peace and order. Full democratic rule was reinstated in 2019, but the military remain an important political force in the country as overseers of stability. Democracy thrives once again, but democratic politicians are well aware that they must act within moderate parameters so as not to threaten to undermine the fabric of Thai society.
Thai people are both extremely tolerant and at the same time conservative and they like to work by consensus. We have already observed the welcome and extremely tolerant attitudes towards sexuality prevalent in Thailand, but we have also noticed that there is a large prostitution industry, particularly in the bigger cities, and this is a problem that the authorities appear unwilling or unable to challenge for whatever reason. The conservatism in Thai society emerges when one watches Thais do things in groups - which is their usual modus operandi. They prefer to engage in both work and play in larger groups of people, and they like not to stand out so much from the crowd. This is not a universal rule (such cultural generalisations never are); but it is undoubtedly a fact that Thailand is a relatively collectivist society and that might explain why much media criticism of the government is muted. It is voluntary self-censorship, because Thais do not naturally like to criticise one-another or for that matter foreigners. That may be one of the reasons they are so friendly to foreigners.
You can wear absolutely anything you want in Thailand, and that is one of the reasons that foreign tourists love it so much (that and the copious quantities of cheap alcohol). The Thais will not look down upon people who are casually dressed, although as when travelling anywhere it is advisable to dress above the mean. Thailand is a warm country and a lot of foreign tourists wear little more than t-shirts and shorts even to upscale hospitality venues. The Thais smilingly tolerate this, although you must dress conservatively whenever entering any Buddhist temple. The rules on this are strict, and you will be berated by local people if you do not observe the appropriate standards. The Thais also tend to wear virtually anything they want; many of them dress in absurdly flirtatious ways and they are an openly sexual people who find it riotously enjoyable to flirt with one-another and with foreigners alike. However virtually nobody except visiting foreign dignitaries wear suits. It is not just that it is far too hot in the majority of the country; Thailand, having little tradition of foreign colonial domination, has developed her own standards of culture and dress and has not adopted the sartorial habits of dominating foreign powers.
Thais are very philosophical people, in the sense of the word meaning that they remain calm and patient in the face of adversity. When things go wrong (and they often do; Thailand can be quite a chaotic place, particularly when you are walking around an unknown suburb of the sprawling capital and megalopolis Bangkok in 35 degree heat and 100 per cent humidity), you must learn to remain calm and to understand that tomorrow is another day. The Thais do not react well to displays of aggression or violence, even (or especially) when drunk, so you must remember to act politely and respectfully at all times. Unfortunately some of the principal nightlife regions of Bangkok and other major tourist resorts in the country have recently become inhabited by foreign tourists of a less desirable, violent kind. Whereas Thailand was once the tourism destination of choice principally for backpackers, a mostly harmless group of foreign visitors, cheap flights, package tours and an abundance of cheap hotel rooms have now attracted a wider and potentially less desirable array of foreign visitors some of whom are transparently coming here for all the wrong reasons. When faced with violence on the part of foreigners, the Thais can be ruthless and disciplined in their collective reactions. This author has witnessed this on several occasions, and it is an impressive sight to behold ten security guards each from different venues coordinate to encircle a group of violent drunk foreign tourists.
Thailand has become increasingly unequal and with greater social divisions, as the country has prospered. Bangkok is now awash with glitzy shopping malls selling all the latest brands, and large swathes of the city feel like Hong Kong. However those areas sit cheek by jowl with areas of great poverty, and although it is less common than it once was it is typical to see people sleeping rough in the streets on a very hot night. A consumer revolution has overtaken the upper classes, and everyone wants to be seen in the latest brands. Prices have shot up as a result; but most Thais still eat in traditional manners, families being seen sitting on wooden benches together outside after dark and eating stir-fried food in the street. This tradition exemplifies both the open casual atmosphere in Thai society and the uniformity of practice of Thai people: everybody does this, and many streets are lined with Thai families each evening eating out. As long as you can tolerate the hot, humid Thai environment without the benefit of air conditioning, joining Thai families and friends in their evening excursions for street food can be a great pleasure.
Relations between the Thais and Burmese are vexed. The two nations, although adjacent, have very different languages, cultures and histories. The Siamese and the Burmese have been at war more than once.
The Burmese are altogether more sober, intensely polite, scrupulously honest and meticulously honourable. They would never take one Kyat more from a foreigner than they would from a fellow Burmese. The Burmese are arguably uncompromising to the point of obtuseness. Due to the civil conflict in neighbouring Myanmar, vast numbers of Burmese and Rakhine refugees (the Islamic minority in norther Myanmar) have fled to Thailand as refugees, almost all of them illegally, where they patiently endure their lot working as casual labourers in Thai tourist and secondary industry sectors. That the Thai government tolerates so many people on its territory living in legal limbo is the central thrust of the Bangkok Post's criticism of Thai policy towards Myanmar with which this article commenced.
There are a few other cultural peculiarities to Thailand that it takes a while spending time in the country to learn. One thing this author learned after only several weeks in Thailand is that smoking is deeply frowned upon in the Kingdom of Thailand (although certain varieties of cannabis have been legal since 2022) and it is a crime to smoke in public, including in the street or in a hospitality venue.
Although nitrous oxide (laughing gas) is widely available for sale in Thailand, it is strictly speaking illegal other than for medicinal purposes. The Thai authorities seem to have relaxed their view of what a medicinal purpose is over the last decade; we are not aware of any arrests or prosecutions of foreign tourists for consumption of nitrous oxide in Thailand in the last decade. Hence for all practical purposes it is now a legitimate recreational narcotic in Thailand. Contrary to some alarmist assertions amongst amateur observers about matters of recreational narcotics, nitrous oxide, in small and diluted quantities typical of the way it is served in Thailand (in plastic balloons), appears entirely harmless. However inhaling directly from a nitrous oxide pressurised canister (something we have never seen in Thailand) does have the potential to cause shortage of oxygen in the lungs and death. We are not aware of any case where this has actually happened. Nevertheless decriminalisation of the use of nitrous oxide is rare worldwide. Indeed the only other place where this author has seen wanton consumption of nitrous oxide in plain view of the Police is in central Moscow. We draw no inferences from this; it simply seems to us that substantial further scientific research is required into the effects of recreational consumption of nitrous oxide before a coherent drugs policy can be formed in respect of an obscure recreational narcotic that it seems few people know anything about with significant certainty.
The laws on what you may export from Thailand are rather obscure. Every Thai town and city is awash with shops selling all manner of antiques from across East Asia. You are allowed to export these without controls. But there are two exceptions, both of which are sold everywhere so be careful. One is body parts of rare animals, including ivory. The other is images of the Lord Grand Buddha. The law on this latter subject is very unclear in practice. In theory, all exports of images of the Lord Grand Buddha are prohibited without a licence which in practice is impossible to obtain. If you try to export such images (by which we mean figurines) by international parcel delivery services, then the images will be removed from your luggage after X-ray and politely returned to you.If you export them in your aircraft luggage, then it seems that the rule is much more laxly enforced but you would still be advised to (a) attach receipts; and (b) enclose the figurines in a hard case or box. Apparently placing them in a soft case is considered disrespectful to the Lord Grand Buddha, and some airlines have formal requirements about the sorts of packaging that they will accept for statutes of the Lord Grand Buddha.
It seems that more than one international consular authority does not understand these rules; indeed very few people do. Our experience is that inadvertent errors are not punished using the criminal law; but you do need to watch out.
Finally, there is no doubt that Her Majesty the Queen has become immensely important in Thai political life. Her image is ubiquitous across Thailand. She wields enormous power and she is backed by the the Military - in other words, the organisational structure formerly known as the National Council for Peace and Order. It is in her hands, as a young lady of 45 at the time of writing (early July 2023), that Thailand's future lies.