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Impressions While Traveling in Thailand (2003)

by Michael Babcock

You might also enjoy Michael's Thoughts on Thai Food & Culture.

Introduction

Each year I come away from my annual trip to Thailand with new images and reflections. These notes are from traveling in Thailand in January and February, 2003. They are nothing too organized, more a group of impressions than a finished work. What I really noticed this year are the cultural contrasts.

Maybe the best part of traveling in Thailand is the chance to view America and daily life here through a different set of eyes. That's a "maybe" because arguably the best part of traveling in Thailand is the food. It's good to get a yearly opportunity to experience a different view of "what's obvious" because what can be so obvious to us is clearly not always obvious to the Thai people!

Thai Differences

Here are a few of the things that made the biggest impression on me this year.

  • Food & Waste. Kasma's trips focus on food: often at meals she'll order 6 or 7 different dishes, a veritable feast. This year Kasma had a couple new drivers, Thais, who were raised in families that were not very wealthy and where you simply did not waste food. Meal after meal they would eat huge amounts of food because they hated to see it go to waste. This was particularly true of fish: there were very few meals where every last scrap of a fish dish wasn't devoured completely. One of the drivers must have put on 20 pounds over 3 tours: by the end of the last tour he had a real pot belly! It's such a different attitude of respect for food and not wasting it.
  • Feeling of Security. We traveled down to Nakhon Si Tammarat on the Southern trip. We have a favorite breakfast place that serves Southern-style breakfast and lunch daily and is decorated with a collection of antique coconut graters. When we walked past the place at night, it was closed but was left completely open to the world: anyone who wanted could have walked in and walked out with one of those graters. In America, you could count on someone walking in and writing graffiti or stealing something. What a different sense of safety! I walk the streets of that city at night without any fear whatsoever: here in my home town of Oakland, CA I'm always looking around at night to be sure I'm safe, even in a so-called "good" area.
  • Visiting an Elementary School. The Manora dance is performed in Southern Thailand but only at festivals, usually late at night. One of the Thais we talked to suggested we go to an elementary school where it was taught as an elective. We got directions and showed up unexpectedly at the elementary school: we were welcomed with open arms. How amazing to simply walk up to a school and be invited in: no security badges, no suspicion. When they found out we were interested in Manora dancing they had us sit and wait for a time while they organized the young women dancers (and their costumes) and the young men who provided the music; they then put on a performance for us. The thought of doing something similar in the U.S. just staggers the imagination. While we waited we were the focus of much interest from the various kids not in classes we got up an informal sing-a-long to amuse them. Our reception remains a treasured memory.
  • Personal Safety. In one of the ruins of Ayuddhea there was a Prang (a sort of tower) with extremely steep, stone steps going up. No warning sign, no guard rails, nothing: just a chance to climb the steps if you wanted. There are probably not many personal injury lawyers in Thailand. It could also be they take more responsibility for their own actions rather than always seeking someone to blame.
  • Motor scooters. As usual I collected a list of different motorcycle riding configurations. The most people I saw this year on a scooter was five. Four on a scooter is not at all uncommon, usually without helmets. On one motorcycle a man was driving with one hand and holding a child in the other. (I think this was stupid: no way to navigate or stop quickly, if needed.) Another motorcycle held a driver and a young man behind with a bird cage (containing birds) in each hand. A woman in Bangkok, riding as a passenger, carried a funeral wreath. Motorcycle as pick-up truck? This one had a man with a flat of beer in front of him while his woman passenger was carrying three piled up boxes.
  • Driving. As always, I was struck by the Thai way of driving. When there are only two lanes, one in each direction, there is inevitably a great deal of passing: the roads include everything from motor scooters to packed pick-up trucks to huge busses to Mercedes. What is noticeable is how the Thais accommodate each other. When a vehicle passes it isn't uncommon to see an oncoming vehicle go over on the shoulder to make a third lane for safe passing. I've seen drivers able to get across grid-locked streets where it looked impossible. People pay more attention and look out for one another.
  • Washroom towels. A reflection on ways we Westerners can cause waste comes in the typical Thai restroom or washroom, which has no paper towels: you just shake your hands off and let them dry. And although this extends even into some 5-star resorts (like the one we stay at in Krabi), places that cater to westerners often do have the paper towels. How many paper towels do we waste drying our hands each year instead of shaking them dry and waiting a couple minutes?
  • Cleaning the Bathrooms. In the men's room there are often female attendants cleaning up. Usually you just walk in and pee at the urinal as they go about their cleaning. It is hard to even imagine this in the United States.
  • Removing Shoes. The Asian custom is to remove shoes in the house. This mostly make common sense: why bring the dirt of the outside onto your floor, especially if you have nice carpets. In fact, I am so much in the habit now at home that it seems strange when people DON'T take off their shoes – don't they know it's cleaner to take those suckers off?!?!!! Even in Hill Tribe or more modern homes that have concrete floors, the shoes are removed when you go in the house.

So what does the modern world have to offer Thailand?

From what I could see, mostly what the modern world is bringing into Thailand is distraction, less friendliness, waste, decreasing choice, and worse health.

  • Distraction. Thais don't normally read very much. It is interesting how tour members, visiting this exotic foreign country and traveling through interesting countryside in vans, often have their noses stuck in a book. Televisions have proliferated in Thailand in the 11 years I've been traveling there: often now you see them in restaurants turned up quite loud, sometimes so the staff at the front making noodles can follow a program in the back. There's the internet – I preferred it when I couldn't get my email in Thailand! Now, several times a trip, I go check email instead of wandering around the markets or temples.
  • Unfriendliness. As always I note that at the more upscale places catering to westerners, there seems to be less open-hearted friendliness from the staff. From the patrons, often, too.
  • Waste. What else are we seeing with modernization? A BIG increase in SUV's. Like a worker in Bangkok REALLY needs 4-wheel drive. (Or 90% of the Americans who have them.)
  • Decreasing Choice. There's also a proliferation of superstores (such as Costco or Target here). And as in the U.S., they are putting small businesses out of business and slowly, but inevitably decreasing the amount of choice Thai's have about what they buy.
  • Modernization and Health And again I contrast the relative way in which the less modern life-style in Thailand supports health.
    • Junk Food. Each year there's an increasing proliferation of Western food emporiums, from MacDonald's to the Dunkin' Donuts. Seven-Eleven convenience stores are very, very common: and although they still do sell some traditional snacks, much of the counter space is taken up with soft drinks and packaged fast-food such as potato chips.
    • Exercise. Take squat toilets. Well, never mind that they are probably cleaner: you don't have to set your butt down on god knows what. The health consequences come because at least once (for men, hopefully) or several times (for women) a day you exercise your leg muscles to do your business. Somebody should market the squat toilet here as an anti-osteoporosis device: weight-bearing exercise is well-known to help prevent osteoporosis. Also in the old days people would walk to markets and carry everything to and from. The modern way is to drive to a supermarket, push a shopping cart around, and to drive home. Modern life takes movement out of our life. We don't even want to get out of the car and open the garage door (which would help us to keep flexible) so we get garage door openers so we get even less movement in our lives.
    • Diet. Modernization in Thailand is beginning to create a less healthy diet. The traditional diet is nearly all fresh food, often bought daily. More and more as Thais start working longer hours and have less time to cook, they begin to depend on processed foods with their increased amounts of sugar, processed fats with trans fatty acids, white flour and preservatives. Each year it seems as if there are more and more western-style desserts, nearly 100% sugar and white flour, which not only have virtually no nutrients, they require vitamins and minerals to process so can be said to have a negative nutritional value. (See Thailand – Land of the Coconut for an article on traditional northeastern Thai diets.)

Cleanliness & Sanitation & Street Food

On another note, one of the great delights in Thailand is the street food. We are not worried by eating street food because we choose clean vendors with clean stalls where the food is cooked, piping hot, right in front of us.

But cleanliness in Thailand isn't sterile. I was fascinated to come across an article last year about germs that posed the question: Is there such a thing as being too clean? (See Why We Need Germs) by Garry Hamilton.) Apparently so. It has been found that children who grow up in sterile environments are much more prone to allergies than children growing up on a farm or in the households with pets. If mice are raised in a completely sterile environment their immune system will not develop. It appears that our health and immunity develops in a partnership with bacteria.

No, I won't eat food off a filthy surface. But if the surface has been wiped clean and still looks a little dingy rather than pristine and sterilized, that is fine with me.

I love the street food in Thailand. Contrast the lively scenes there with the street food on my block at home – rather the complete lack of street food at home – it simply doesn't exist. In Thailand if you want to set up a grill stand there's no problem. Buy a grill or, what the heck, get an enamel pot and put a grill on top of it and just start grilling and selling. Probably 90 to 95% of the street food in Thailand simply could not be done here: health laws and the like would close vendors down.

I would much rather get grilled chicken from a street vendor where I can see the entire operation in front of me than go into a fast food chain (even in this country) where they start with something frozen and prepare it all behind closed doors. In this country most of the outbreaks of food-borne illnesses have come from food that is packaged and "manufactured" in huge facilities. (See Is Raw Milk Safe for Babies – scroll down to the heading "Reported Outbreaks of Food Borne Illness.") I think street food is safer: I can see every step of the process.

We stay in Bangkok out on Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo, in the official spelling, but pronounced Tawng Law) right at the intersection of Sukhumvit and Soi 55. In a two block area there are probably 30 places to eat. And often even more street-food stalls. And nearly all of these places sell food that is delicious to eat. Amazing.

When you walk through markets in Thailand or street food scenes you often see "Rice Shops" that have huge pots of curry. One stall can have what appears to be a massive amount of food. And it must get sold. The amount of food you see on the streets is staggering – and it gets eaten! Amazing. (See One Soi's Street Food Scene.)

Relative Wealth

A couple incidents brought me up short and made me realize what a privileged person I am. Kasma has a friend who owns a stall in the Chiang Mai night bazaar whose husband drives a truck for a security company. He works a 10 hour day and makes 13 baht (about 30 cents) an hour. I spend on airfare to get to Thailand about what this guy makes in a year

Kasma is sometimes asked why Thais don't drink a lot of beer. Well, a large bottle of beer can cost 50 or 60 baht in Thailand. This guy would have to work 4 or 5 hours just for one beer.

I also meet a Thai masseuse (Traditional Thai Massage) in Mae Hong Son who talked about how her child lived with the grandparents because she worked 7 days week. Oh yes, the driver above worked 7 days a week as well.

Amazing to me how readily these two people accepted their hard-working lot. It was a contrast with how many of us fahrangs" (the Thai word for Caucasian) expect things to be the way we think they should be and get upset over little things that aren't "just right." One of Kasma's driver's commented that he doesn't enjoy driving fahrangs because they are more demanding and he has more problems with them. We seem less flexible. One example: if two people are traveling just as roommates and end up in a room with a double bed, it's a crisis. All too often something relatively minor (one example that has caused problems: small napkins) ends up a problem and causes unhappiness.

(Interestingly enough, the driver doesn't like driving Thais either because they cram so many people in the van. They also like to go, go, go and he simply doesn't get enough sleep. His preference is Koreans or Japanese.)

Let's it Flow

I'm going to end with my visit on my first night in Thailand to a restaurant called "Let's it Flow." Under the sign was the words "Afarica" (for Africa) – the theme of the restaurant. Sort of. The waiters and waitresses had faux-leopard skin attire. There were plastic palm trees and fake torches with fake flames. In the midst of this rather stylized atmosphere strolled: a mariachi band, a group of Thai's dressed in Mexican attire and singing in (sort of) Spanish. After awhile, they went up to a bandstand and started singing American Oldies, the Eagles, that sort of thing (in English).

When I went to the rest room I was innocently peeing at a urinal when something hot and wet fell on my neck: I jumped. The attendant had put a hot towel on my neck. Well, ok. Continue peeing. And then the attendant gave me a neck massage. I was glad that I had finished peeing by the time he started the thigh massage. It was a bit much for me and time to get out of there!

We were there on Christmas day. At one point waiters and waitresses came around and gave each table two Santa Claus masks with noisemakers to help celebrate.

And, by the way, the food at this place was absolutely great: the sort of Thai food that gives Thai food a good name.

See also: Kasma's article on Street Food in Thailand.

Copyright © 2003 Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

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