The famous “Thai Smile” is a mysterious phenomenon.
It can mean five different things: a genuine smile of sympathy, a gesture of contempt, a cover of anger, mockery, or simply not knowing the answer to your question.
For us, as foreigners, it’s almost impossible to know what a given smile beholds. But often we will find out afterwards anyway—due to what happens, or not-happens for that matter.
If you’ve insulted a Thai, or if you have him or her “lose face,” or if you yourself “have lost face,” it will be extremely hard to get some goodwill back. Sure, you will still get “the smile,” but from this person you won’t get anything done any longer.
Thailand is without any doubt an amazing holiday destination, with beautiful islands, great snorkeling, magnificent forests, waterfalls, and mountains. With splendid food, and with an incredibly effective healing tradition.
But Thailand is very hard to adapt to—it’s tough to settle into Thai society and culture. For many Westerners it will prove to be almost certainly a nightmare.
It’s a complete paradox: the Thai hate authority, but bow for it very deeply at the same time. They hate quarrels and go for harmony, but hit the streets with violent protests, and they boast amazingly aggressive television shows, movies, and sitcoms.
They are as undisciplined as can be, but when it comes to food, transport, and trade—well—there ain’t more dedication to find. An infamously disorderly people, but nevertheless, they adore, thrive on unnecessary paperwork in five-fold, unbridled bureaucracy, and official stamps of all and everyone in the hierarchy.
Motorcycle accidents are very, very frequent, with disastrous consequences, but still they go without helmet, with three or four people on a bike, including the little newborn baby, and speeding like the devil is hunting them.
In Thailand everything needs to be “harmonious,” which means there’s no real place for individuality. It’s not appreciated, because it “breaks” the one-big-happy-family group-spirit. For Westerners, this is most of the times an untakeable barrier for real integration in Thai society.
It’s an extremely devout, Buddhist country, but at the same time they eat meat as no other country eats meat (maybe except for the Germans), firmly stepping on the Buddha’s precepts without a blink of the eyes.
The restaurants, the offices, and homes often look clean, on first sight, but don’t look up to the ceiling, and don’t visit the toilets. It’s often all about the surface, a show for the eyes, and it’s not that Thai don’t see it—no, they just don’t care.
Thailand is a paradoxicracy. Sometimes I think it’s plain schizophrenia that rules. A madhouse not recognizing itself as a madhouse.
And when it comes to us Westerners, the Farangs, well, they have this ambiguous love-hate relationship with us, just exactly as I do treasure Thailand yet at times do loathe the country. And in fact—that makes up for an exquisite equilibrium.
As the Buddha said: “The Perfect One is the one who has realized The Middle Way.”
This post was preceded by Paradoxicracy: An Essay on Thailand – Part 1.