Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thai Contexts

I realize that I have written virtually nothing regarding Thai culture, politics and the like, which I regard as a bit of failure on my part (after all, travel is about deconstructing the mythologies and ideologies we create about exotic foreign lands into tangible human experiences). To that end, some broad impressions, based anecdotally and on reading (subject to extreme bias ;), follow:

Thai People:
I thought the tag-line "Land of a thousands smiles" was some hoaky selling point, but it isn't. Wherever you go in Thailand, you're greeted by broad, warm smiles. Thai people are particularly interesting for an Asian race. They're fun-loving and relatively lazy, so forget the stereotype of the driven Asian doctor/engineer/i-banker etc. These people like to party and have a good time.

Some interesting snippets: Racism is well and alive in Thailand. Although I can't make a blanket statement, the Chinese minority, 15% of the population, in Thailand isn't loved all round. A big part of the reason might be their rampant financial success. Many businessess are owned by ethnic Chinese, and Bangkok features its own Chinatown. Thais tried to block Chinese dominance politically, by passing laws that required Thai heritage for property ownership in certain instances, but the Chinese bypassed the law quite simply; they intermarried with Thais, giving rise to a significant number of Chinese-Thais.

On a separate note, Thais have a very apparent color-caste system, in which lighter is better, and European features attractive (many of the pop stars and entertainers are of mixed Euro/American-Thai heritage). Skin whitening products are advertised even more visibly than in India!

Thai Politics:
Incredibly curious to say the least. I had no idea before I visited, but Thailand is something of a constitutional monarchy. While the king isn't the designated leader of Thailand, he wields ENORMOUS influence; he is incredibly popular, enjoying broad support, in good part because he seems to be a leader with needs of the people at heart (he sponsors numerous development projects around the country, and exerts considerable sway on the country's political course; he's had prime ministers dismissed after disapproving speeches). However, somewhat ominously, public criticism of the king is not tolerated, and can be punishable by law. To add to the mix, while the king is massively popular, his son is regarded as a complete wanker (it doesn't help that he's featured in his own sex tape).

Even more colorfully, this country doesn't seem to have elections; instead, they have coups, if I'm correct, more than ten in the 20th century. However, they have been largely peaceful, perhaps in good part thanks to the stabilizing force of the monarchy (an expat living here told me he thought there would be civil war when the king dies).

The economy:
Don't know much about this yet, but I can comment that tourism is the biggest industry and you can tell by the sheer number of people visiting even in the low season.

Sex Industry:
Yes, it's as visible as you might be led to believe. Hardly a day has passed in which I haven't been offered a chance to roll in the hay with a Thai girl, and you constantly see white men with Thai women (interestingly, not all are old and fat; many are young and attractive white men, which is a bit puzzling). What's really interesting about the sex industry is its cultural origins. Contrary to popular belief, 95% of the industry is devoted to Thai men. Polygamy was an accepted part of Thai society till the 1930s when it was outlawed. However, the practice was simply diverted, with "minor" wives being replaced by visits to brothels (estimates are that 2/5ths of the male population visits sex workers at least twice a month). It amounts to a staggering 3% of the national economy, with most of the sex workers being sourced from the poor, rural northeastern region of Isaan. On the note of Thai sexuality, even more interesting is the presence of katoeys, or lady-boys. Very visible, and often gorgeous, lady-boys are not exclusively sex workers, and some anthropoligists have postulated that they fit the criteria of a third gender within Thai society. Refreshingly, homosexuality is widely tolerated tolerated in Thailand, and while flamboyancey is not encouraged, most Thais would think it low to reject a relative or friend based on their sexual orientation.

Rural-Urban divide:
46% of the population still lives in rural settings, and rural/urban Thais are almost like two different races. My rural host, Buen-Choi, would find Bangkok as alien as any foreign country.

It would seem that Thais love keeping pets. Dogs are the most obvious, and seem to be very pampered (the strays are well-nourished, and actual pets are morbidly obese). Cats and fish are popular as well, with the occasional rabbit, hamsters, and even sugar-glider thrown in for good measure. I still haven't figured out what thin line demarcates pets from food, apart from ornamental value.

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