By Stephen Rowe
After a holiday you come home remembering many things — the hotels you stayed in, the food, the shopping, the amazing scenery … but for me the people you meet create the lasting memories.
You may have heard Thailand referred to as the Land of Smiles. If you’ve been there you will have seen the smiling faces at the airport when you arrive, the hotel when you check in, the shops, the restaurants. You receive a wai — a prayer-type action with head bowed.
As a Westerner in Thailand — a ‘farang’ — you may wonder why there are so many smiles. You need to get to know Thai people to understand how the kingdom works.
The King and the royal family are loved by Thais. It is a crime to write anything critical of the family. There is a daily TV program with details of what they have done that day.
The national anthem is still played before a movie and everyone will stand up in the cinema. If a member of the royal family goes past in a car, you cannot look at them and wave — you stop walking, bow your head and wai.
The wai is the greeting between all Thais. It is a mark of respect. There is a whole social structure about who wais to whom first and how high the hands are to be raised. If someone wais to you, try to reciprocate — it will be appreciated. Ask for a lesson from a friendly local — they love to show you what to do.
Thais have a very relaxed attitude to life. There is an expression used which means never mind, don’t worry, it’s not important. The phrase is ‘mai pen rai’.
This, to me, is the essence of the place. It explains so much of how and why things do or don’t happen. There is an acceptance of good with bad, of happiness and sadness, of wealth and having very little, of things that work and don’t work.
This is a Buddhist way of looking at life and Thais take their Buddhism very seriously. Acceptance of this life while making merit for your next life is part of the Buddhist philosophy.
This attitude of acceptance makes for a very relaxed holiday. As a gay visitor, you won’t be asked to explain yourself. You won’t be asked where your wife is. There should be no reason for you to feel uncomfortable asking for a double bed. You will simply be accepted for who you are.
If you can keep hold of this idea of ‘mai pen rai’, your time in Thailand will be far more relaxed. When you are shopping, keep it fun. Thais love a joke. If you can, joke with the vendors. They appreciate a laugh and it ends up a far better way to get a special price than threatening to go elsewhere and steaming off in a huff over a few baht.
When you are in a restaurant and the wrong food comes out, as it will now and then, try it anyway. One of the best meals I have had in Thailand was a mistake.
Ask the waiter for a special recommendation, something Thai-style. You don’t have to order from the menu. Thais don’t. Let them know if you like your chili. The words ‘ped’ (hot) or ‘mai ped’ (not hot) are worth remembering.
Be careful with ‘ped’ — hot food in Thailand will take your breath away, literally. Most places will adjust the chili content for visitors.
The boys and girls who work in bars are there to sell drinks and food and sometimes sex. It’s just a job. Relax and talk to them.
Half the boys working in gay bars are straight. They need a job and gay bars are the best place for tips and take away… if you know what I mean.
Their pay is usually sent to family in the countryside who may be living on almost nothing. Just watch out for falling in love with a bar boy. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are littered with the casualties of these doomed romances.
There may be times when things go wrong. Your flight is late, the bus doesn’t turn up, you are charged too much, your room isn’t ready — the usual dramas of travelling. These things can be annoying and this is when the Thai smiles may seem to be all wrong.
The Thai way is that things must always appear to be right even though they are not. Smiling makes things seem right. It doesn’t mean they don’t care or don’t understand. They don’t want to lose face.
If you can smile back and be polite — even make a joke — see how fast things will improve.