The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part X)

Gymnasiums

Sweet Jesus, can Thailand just build a nice, normal gym where the equipment is maintained and the Thai swoll patrol don’t freak me out? In this country, you have three options for fitness. You can go to an open-air gym, where the sauna and the weight room are conveniently one in the same and traffic pollution bolsters your heavy breathing. Or you could go to an indoor gym, where half the fans and/or air conditioning are broken, the ceiling barely clears the plate weight rigs, and there lingers this musty body odor smell with a hint of mildew in the air.

In either option, you get the bonus of 50% of the equipment being permanently and stubbornly nonfunctional, free weights scattered all over in a convenient system of leave-it-where-you-dropped-it, Thai jocks screaming in testosterone-induced pain with every dead lift, and locker rooms specially smeared from floor to ceiling with hepatitis, and possibly typhoid.

And in both types of gym, the other patrons are among the most pleasant and considerate of clientele:

The bench too dry? Not a problem—the bloke before you left his back sweat all over it.

Your toes in too good of shape and need a bit of shattering? Just stand near one of the jacked Thai jocks as he rapidly thrusts the dumbbells up and down with the ever helpful grunts that sound something like, “Guh guh guh guh guh guh guh.” When he’s finished his machine gun reps he’ll kindly drop the weight like a microphone as if he’s just owned a rap battle.

And trust me, that one dude really does plan on using all three machines he’s “reserved” with his mobile, towel, and water bottle.

 

If you’re not too shy, your third option is to go to one of the many free outdoor fitness parks. They’re in the most random locations, so they can be tricky to find. I’ve seen them under highways, sandwiched between hotels, shimmering conspicuously in coastal parks, and even spread across a 1.5-km circular track beneath a hilltop temple. These fitness parks always offer the same trade-off: free workout, but a free show for all passersby, which is probably why the swoll patrol never hangs out there. I have not once seen someone utilizing the various bolted down, weather-resistant machines. The only exception is the 1.5-km track, where everyone is hustling at dusk’s coolest hour to finish their last lap before the dark brings gangs of rapists to the park.

So Thailand doesn’t exactly have a culture of fitness, but at least it isn’t an industry of fitness, either. I can’t say the same for my own country: a growing industry of fitness while still boasting the highest obesity rate in the world. ‘Merica!

 

Wanna Get Away?

As you’ve probably noticed over the last 10 posts in this series, I often find myself absolutely disgusted with living in Pattaya. It’s hard to imagine that I would actually get bored with going out to bars on the weekends, hanging out at a sub-par beach, wandering a six-story shopping center, or visiting one of the few inauthentic cultural attractions or daytime activities, it’s only a matter of time before I want to proverbially blow my brains out from boredom. Thankfully, there are plenty of cost-effective options for getting away.

Even though I just smack-talked the beach in Pattaya—because, to be honest, it’s quite far from the best that Thailand has to offer—on a quiet Saturday or Sunday, it’s a convenient escape. I enjoy lounging in the shade of the thousands of umbrellas watching tourists splash in the water. The travelling vendors can get obnoxious after a time, but it’s also nice to know that if I get hungry I can wait 10 minutes before another array of fruit or ice cream or whatever else is presented to me. Plus, I know I’m the envy of teachers every where when I say that it’s the best place to lay back and grade papers.

Besides, if I want to seek out picturesque beaches, they’re an easy day trip away. I’ve already written about Ko Samed, but it’s worth another mention here. Turquois waters, white sands, tranquility, and a mild night life (if that interests you) all make it a nice weekend getaway. Approximately $500 can pay for travel fees, cozy resort accommodation, and food and beverage for a 3-night stay.

Moreover, if I’m tired of the beach, the Thai countryside is stunning. There’s an unparalleled calm and simplicity, where elevated huts lay claim to acres of rice, rubber, and banana farmland. The stifling pollution of a typical Southeast-Asian city has dissipated by the time I reach these remote areas. The poverty is overt in such a rustic environment, but the people are the most hospitable. And while the temples of Bangkok boast the glamour of royal patronage with astonishing architecture and detailed aesthetic, the rural temples must be the inspiration for the many images we Westerners see of the solitary repose of a meditative mysticism.

So just like in San Francisco, where urbanites and gentrifiers can escape to the many redwood forests and lush vineyards, Thailand has its share of easy escapes, which is a big reason why I’m able to tolerate its many annoyances.

 

Summary

So now that I’ve reached the end of my 10-post rant and rave, what’s the take-away or the verdict? Honestly, all the annoying stuff that irritates the crap out of me is also at times good for a laugh. My colleagues and I are always bitching in the staff room about these and other grievances, but it’s often with levity and laughter. On top of that, the positives are just too good to pass up. I won’t be here forever, but while I’m here I plan to soak up as much as I can and relish the experience. And you’ll be at my side, vicariously speaking…

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 9)

Alcohol

My move to Thailand involved many changes, to say the least. One of those changes, though trivial, has been mildly difficult to cope with. I went from living in the land of IPA and microbrews, a state renown for its wines, and a city that quaffs itself with a certain elitist gusto, to a place where the best brews give Budweiser its imagined crown, wine selections award Yellow Tail an envied notoriety, and whiskeys elevate Jack Daniels to the top shelf.

Thailand has some tight restrictions on alcohol imports. The domestic beers are all terrible and terribly similar. To me, Leo, Tiger, Chang, and Singha could have come from the same vat, with Singha being only marginally better than the rest. San Miguel and Heineken stand out as the higher-end, imported prizes. With an alcohol content of around 5%, my IPA palette took some time to be convinced I wasn’t drinking sparkling water. And yet, despite the low alcohol levels, I manage to get a sober headache within two 40-ouncers, indicating to me that there are some additives that are quite undesirable.

The wine selection is no better. Given that Thailand has a very low production of domestic wines (hello, tropical climate), all wines are imported and taxed heavily, yielding some staggering prices for sub-par wines. I’m usually excited to pay the equivalent of $10 for a bottle of Australian Shiraz that would go for $5 in the United States, and could hardly compete with a Napa production.

Then there’s whiskey. Thai whiskey is hardly whiskey. I think it’s actually technically rum, as it’s made not with barley but sugar cane. The best American whiskey I can find is Jack Daniels or Wild Turkey. The best Scotch I can find is 100 Pipers. My whiskey consumption has reached devastatingly low levels.

It’s not that the finer alcoholic products are unavailable. I’ve purchased English ales, Irish stouts, and even IPA. I’ve also seen Glenfiddich and Glenlevit behind cages in the farang supermarkets. French, Italian, Californian, and Chilean wines decorate the shelves of many grocery stores. But the price for these large production gems is often too high for my humble teacher’s salary to accommodate. I guess I know what I’ll be lining my suitcase with during my next visit stateside.

 

Tropical Rains

Living in a tropical part of the world comes with a double-edged sword: warm weather year-round and a lengthy monsoon season. Many people, Thais and foreigners alike, find the rainy season to be a drawn-out nuisance. The constant flooding is enough to keep one from carrying out daily routines. And if your only mode of transportation is a motorbike, it can be tricky—and even dangerous—getting anywhere in the heavy rains. However, these inconveniences have yet to diminish my complete awe at nature’s power.

During the rainy season, nearly every day brings the most tumultuous tempest. Rain comes down in sheets, sometimes nearly horizontal from the blasting winds. Lightning rips through the black clouds overhead—clouds so dark that afternoons resemble dusk. Thunder cracks so loudly you can feel it shake the building and rattle your ribs. But despite the routineness of the rain, I always feel the urge to stand at the window or in the doorway and gaze with wonder at the spectacle.

I love watching the gargantuan drops of rain bomb the earth so rapidly that water seems to seep up from beneath the pavement. I love the symphony of cackling pitter-patter on the tin roofs all around. And as much as I loathe the inconvenience of ankle-deep floodwaters gathering around clogged drains, I am amazed by how efficiently nature’s meteorological messages hiss at us, saying, “You think you’ve conquered this planet? You think your combustion engines, perfectly perpendicular construction, and lightyears of electrical lines have me subdued? Think again! I’ll devolve your existence to the primitive stupor of your forebears. Leave you in the dark, soaking wet and treading water.”

This awesome display all at the price of a poncho, browned out electricity, and a delay of plans. It’s amazing to me that we’ve harnessed the powers of lightening, wind, and water, and yet these same elements render our innovations obsolete, even for an hour. It’s poetry in the making, if only I were a poet.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 8)

Trash

Until I moved to Thailand, I didn’t fully appreciate how well ingrained into my values and habits environmental conscientiousness has become. Even those in the U.S. who scoff at environmentalism have a built-in sense of good stewardship when it comes to their personal trash. In the West, we’ve trained ourselves to keep our homes, neighborhoods, and parks beautiful by keeping them green. “Don’t litter! Put that trash in the refuse bin!”

Not so much in Thailand. So many times I’ve passed by an empty lot of land overgrown with brush, only to gaze in disgust at the tainted overlay of scattered plastic bags, straws, wrappers, bottles, cans, and papers. You cannot walk anywhere in the populated regions of this country without running across bits of litter sprinkled alongside the road or sidewalk.

You know that Texas-sized island of trash in the ocean? Thailand his it’s own county, to be sure. I often go to the seafood market to enjoy fresh barbecued shrimp and sit on the pier watching the sunset. But I have to will myself never to look down into the water for fear of being angered by the sullying scraps of Styrofoam and floating plastic.

I can think of two reasons for this. First, Thai businesses are obsessed with excess waste in packaging. The dauntingly proliferate 7-Elevens alone could lay claim to Thailand County, Trash Island. Every time I buy a bottled beverage—Coke, iced tea, water, even beer—they stick a few straws in the plastic bag. I always have to gesture and use rudimentary Thai to kindly reject both the straws and the bag. I want to have that recent video of marine biologists yanking a straw out of a turtle’s nostril on standby whenever I go into a 7-Eleven, just to shame them into ceasing the superfluity of straws.

But another reason for all the litter is a lack of waste management. Unlike in most American cities, there are no refuse bins dotted on every street corner. My best guess is that sizable portions of waste management budgets go into the pockets of key stakeholders and ministers overseeing the cleanliness of their country. It’s tempting to blame the litter on laziness. But I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that much of our awareness in the West is only activated by the hundreds of public trashcans regularly emptied by city personnel.

So while this can certainly be a beautiful country, its trash is a sad and disgusting, if not also embarrassing, problem.

 

Hygiene

On the other hand, it would be entirely unfair to accuse the Thais of being dirty people. Quite contrary. One of the things I really admire about the Thais is their hygiene. In part, it goes along with this general prioritization of appearances over everything else, but who can complain that no one smells bad?

I remember when I worked at Trader Joe’s how many times I would get choked by the stench of some weirdo who’s apparently never heard of soap…or deodorant. That foul, musty body odor—we all know it. I was tempted to cower behind the register or hurl insults at the person who had defiled my personal space with their toxic smell.

Here in Thailand, that odor is so rare. And when you do come across it, it’s always a foreigner, such as British dudes who haven’t figured out they’re no longer living in a cold climate. And climate is a big reason for this obsession with cleanliness; it’s hot as balls in Thailand. By the evening, even the lightest activity leaves you feeling all swarmy and sticky, so if you’re a decent person you shower for the second time that day.

The bathrooms seem particularly equipped for the twice-a-day cleansing ritual. Most Thai bathrooms are tiled from the floor to the tops of the walls. The floors are slightly sloped downwards towards a drain in the corner. There is rarely a partition between the toilet and the shower “stall.” In fact, there’s rarely ever a stall. The only time I see this segregation of bathroom functions is in hotels that cater to Westerners. The lack of partition makes cleaning the bathroom delightfully easily.

Rarely do I come across a toilet in Thailand that doesn’t have a sanitary hose—or “bum gun,” as one of my colleagues calls it. These are necessary because the sewage systems in Thailand are usually incapable of handling too much paper waste. Anyone who’s been to a developing country knows the system of tossing used toilet paper in a small waste can next to the toilet. So the sanitary hose adds a bit of cleanliness to the process, and cuts down on the amount of feces-smeared waste sitting in the trash stinking up the bathroom. Plus, in keeping with the general principle of easy cleaning, the sanitary hose provides a good rinse when sterilizing the toilet.

While Thailand may feature a sordidly prolific littering of trash, while street vendors pour cooking fat down the street into the drainage systems, while flooding may bring up mud, sand, and all the ickies seeping into the pavement, at least the people smell nice, at least my bathroom is sterilized, and at least my ass is perfectly clean.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 7)

Saving Face

When I planned my first trip to Thailand, I came across Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet articles explaining an aspect of Thai culture that I found both intriguing and seemingly nonexistent once I came here. They talked about how Thais are often embarrassed to admit they don’t know something. So when you ask for directions, they’ll give you wrong directions instead of telling you they don’t know. And if you ask for mustard at a restaurant, they’ll say, “Yes, but ketchup.”

What these anecdotes are demonstrating is what we foreigners have termed “Saving Face.” It’s the idea that Thai people don’t want to “Lose Face” by demonstrating ignorance or incompetence (oh, the irony!). While I’ve rarely run into saving face in the minor, inconvenient ways described in tourist guides, I’ve seen it take most egregious turns.

Example 1. I had this student last year who, despite painstaking efforts on his part, just could not learn English. He wasn’t one of the slackers in class that just goofed off. For every task, activity, or assignment, he applied himself to the point of breaking a proverbial sweat. But he just couldn’t seem to advance. Since we were an English-programme school, and are now an international school, I began to realize that his inability to learn English could really hinder his academic progress; all his classes were in English, so he was failing all of them. What was worse, the school provided us teachers few resources to address students like him. I concluded that he’d be better off in a Thai school, where he could stick to mastering subjects in his own language and have a better shot at scoring well on the O-Net (Thailand’s SAT, if you will).

So I called his parents. This initial attempt to reach out was unsuccessful, as his parents were hopelessly incapable of understanding English—they couldn’t even understand the name of the school. So I involved the school principal, a well-educated Thai woman who is nearly fluent in English. She called the parents and explained the problem I had raised.

Concerned, they had their older son who was studying at a university in America call me directly. I explained to him the problem. He asked what I advised them to do about it. I told him that unless they could foot the bill for him to get an English tutor, they might want to consider transferring him to a Thai school. He scoffed, and that was the end of the conversation. As it turned out, the boy’s parents were completely satisfied with their son’s lack of progress. What mattered more to them was that the neighbors saw him coming home in the British-style uniform—plaid shorts and a necktie. For the neighbors to see him suddenly wearing the standard Thai uniform would be losing face. Outsiders’ opinion of their boy was more important than his actual academic success.

Example 2. A young girl moved away from her mother living abroad to live with her grandmother in rural Thailand. We’ll call her Dina. She’s 17 years old. Recently Dina has been skiving off from school and coming home well into the evenings. She claimed it was because her teachers were keeping her at school late.

But upon investigation, her grandmother learned that she was actually hanging out with some 22-year-old guy. And by hanging out, I mean sleeping with him.

Dina’s grandmother chastised her to no avail. Then she decided to have a sit-down with the young man’s family, and plead that they either talk some sense into their son or financially provide for her granddaughter, since she was skipping out on a basic high school education for this “love affair.” They essentially told her off and said their son was a grown man and was responsible for his own actions, and anyway her granddaughter was the one coming to him.

Others in the family urged Dina’s grandmother to call the police, as statutory rape laws are about the same in Thailand as they are in the U.S. But Dina’s grandmother refused. Why? Because then the whole village would know her granddaughter was sleeping around. The family would lose face. So in interest of saving face, she has kept quiet about it.

Example 3. Some students at my school wanted to put on a Christmas fair. They petitioned the school owner for funds and were flatly denied. So they got creative. They sought sponsorship from local business on the stipulation that they would allow these businesses to advertise at their fair. When they approached the finance office to ask permission to put up banners around school property with the logos of their sponsors, they were expressly prohibited from doing so. The school manager stated that doing so would belie the owner’s lack of support. In essence, she’d lose face.

Luckily, the students eventually won this game of financial chicken. Since contracts were involved, the school is obligated by law to fulfill its end of the bargain and allow sponsor advertising. But this certainly isn’t the first time resources have been denied to enhance the education of tuition-paying students at a for-profit school. Much like this most recent event, those that have sought to solve such deficiencies using their own funds have been accused of theft and/or undermining the owner.

If these examples seem like isolated anecdotes, they’re not. Saving face is a destructive obsession that courses its way even into governance and administration. People refuse to admit errors, take advice, or learn something new. Anyone that would have the audacity to “defy” authority by suggesting a different course of action is castigated from that circle. It’s one of the many reasons for the inefficacy of government in this country.

To sum it up, it’s fucking stupid, and it perpetuates the ignorance and arrogance that wracks this country and keeps it from progressing out of the developing world.

 

Buddhism

One the other hand, Thai culture upholds some essential charms inspired by religious belief. It isn’t wholly consistent, but where it shows it shines.

For most of my adult life, I haven’t been much of a respecter of religion. But I find something completely charming and uplifting about Buddhism. In part, I think my fascination with the religion stems from an intellectual curiosity. However, I think there are aspects of the dogma that I find totally resonate with my worldview.

At its core, Buddhism provides a model for explaining and overcoming suffering. It emphasizes an upright lifestyle that seeks to transcend the trappings and foils of human experience. Buddhism holds that suffering is a part of life, and often comes from clinging to that which changes. Life is impermanent, so attaching oneself to anything is a guaranteed way to cause oneself, and others, mental and physical anguish. Craving and clinging to what is temporarily pleasurable and aversion to that which isn’t pleasurable leads to ugly results. By ceasing the craving and the clinging, one can free oneself from the ugliness—that is, the suffering.

In a way this explains why restaurants open and close freely, leaving foreigners accustomed to consistency and predictability frustrated. Buddhism would point out that I shouldn’t focus on the craving, that the inability to satisfy that craving allows me to transcend the craving altogether. It’s a nice thought, philosophically speaking.

So how does one put an end to the craving and the clinging? There’s an eightfold path, which includes developing wisdom through the right view and right intention, adjusting behavior in speech, action, and livelihood, and meditating to improve mental effort, mindfulness, and concentration.

There are other fascinating elements, too, such as karmic law and making merit. Merit making is inseparable from Buddhist society—especially Thai society. It’s literally the economy of the religion. Temples are built, alms given, monks’ bellies filled, royal projects funded, and more, thanks to the system of making merit. It has hypocritical expressions, such as wealthy elites trampling the lower class, only to “make up” for it by buying a large golden image of the Buddha or funding a temple upgrade. But overall, Thais are a generous people, often focusing more on altruism than selfishness.

Thai Buddhism in particular has other interesting elements. For one, Hinduism is inextricably part of the Thai cosmic model. Hindu and Buddhist symbolism take a particularly unique shape and role in the art, architecture, culture, and social hierarchy. For example, the king is both the devaraja and dhamaraja to his people. He’s a second Buddha, and a Hindu god. Merely being in his presence elevates one’s dharmic status, and he’s buried in a structure that symbolizes Mount Meru.

I am constantly exploring Thai Buddhism, trying to understand its idiosyncrasies and apparent contradictions. My discoveries continue as I read translated texts, visit temples, and partake in rituals, all with the sweet aroma of incense entering my nostrils. I don’t buy it 100%—there are certain eschatological elements that I find completely unfounded, even if they sound nice. But even where it’s wrong it’s still pleasant and nonjudgmental. Better than I can say of the religion I was raised in.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 6)

Xenophobia/Nationalism

On Independence Day, I wrote a fairly detailed and impassioned opinion piece comparing American Patriotism to Thai Patriotism. But I didn’t talk about two facets of Thai patriotism that I find particularly annoying, if not infuriating.

One symptom of patriotism in this country yields such a scripted prostration to the national motto “nation, religion, king” that few Thais ever dare to ask questions. And who can blame them, with lèse-majesté laws so harsh that even foreigners living outside the country can be prosecuted if they break them? Liking or sharing quotes on social media deemed inappropriate by the government can be considered breaking the law. And the sentencing is nothing to take lightly: Thai nationals often see 20 years in prison. Already, I’m edging dangerously close to breaking the law myself, so I’ll stop there, so as not to incriminate any of my readers who wish to visit the Land of Smiles.

My point is that Thais seem to have bought the official story of Thailand with all its add-ons. They truly believe Thailand is the best country in the region—some may think it’s the best country in the world. They defend the exportation of Uighurs and the neglect of the Rohingya. It doesn’t seem to bother them that the Bangkok bomb investigation was “completed” with many lingering questions. It’s one thing to publicly worship your government for fear of lengthy imprisonment. It’s another thing entirely to espouse wholeheartedly the cockiness of Thai superiority.

Thai superiority doesn’t simply lead Thais to kowtow to authority. And to be fair, that isn’t really my main criticism; it’s a pragmatic choice to toe the line in such a rigid society where free thinking is discouraged. Instead, what frustrates me is their xenophobia. It makes the nickname “Land of Smiles” seem like a copout, as if the smiles are plastic. “Welcome to Thailand,” they say, while thinking, “Spend your farang money and get out.” Foreigners often pay twice to thrice the prices of Thai people for things like entry into tourist attractions and transportation fare, and there’s usually a farang markup for things like gym membership and buying a condo.

The Thai xenophobia is codified into law as well. I could live here for 30 years and never become a citizen. There are perhaps three industries in which a foreigner can live here without the protective umbrella of a multinational corporation: education, tourism, and real estate. Businesses have to staff 4 Thai nationals for every foreign employee, and all businesses must be at least 51% Thai-owned (same goes for the ownership of property and the quotas for condo building ownership).

On some level, I can appreciate the protectionism behind some of these laws (certainly the U.S. could take a page from the Thai books in light of the recent spike of land values thanks to Chinese foreign “investment”). However, if you tighten the restrictions as much as Thailand has, you make foreign investiture less savory. Moreover, you send a message to immigrants that they’re not welcome here. While I despise the American insistence that immigrants assimilate to American culture, I also detest the fact that I’ll never belong to Thai society. No matter how well I learn the language, copy the customs, and mimic the mores, I’ll always be an outsider.

In some ways, I have to check my complaint there, because the next statement would be, “All because I look different!” Hmmm….what does that remind me of in America? And unlike the American equivalent, my ancestors were never enslaved here, nor ever systematically expunged from our homeland. I’m here of my own volition, not dragged here on overcrowded ships in chains surrounded by death. So in order to avoid sounding like a whiny white man, I’ll stop here.

But seriously, Thailand, can’t you be a little more open-minded to foreign people and ideas?

Stronger Together

If outsiders are suspect, at least the Thais are good at circling the wagons to protect their own. One key aspect of Thai culture that can be a bit of a double-edged sword is this Buddhism-influenced concept of leaving no one behind. Buddhism seeks to comfort all people, to make sure no one is left out, to give everyone an equal opportunity to find spiritual serenity and enlightenment. Kindness is a currency in the religion, expressed commonly as charitable giving, quantifiable by the amount of money one spends, but also more discretely in the good deeds of selflessness. In fact, the whole religion revolves around emptying yourself of, well, yourself. So this often plays out in Thai society as an all-inclusive, equal treatment. If this sounds beautiful, it often is. If it sounds too good to be true, it also is.

But there are subtle and marvelous ways this concept plays out in every day life, such as in the classroom. That one kid who struggles, the others swoop in to help him without even being asked to. The class is quick to tell me if a student is shy or nervous about an assignment or activity. “Mr. Brandon, she doesn’t understand what we’re doing.” And it’s not remotely in a mean way, as if some effort to embarrass their peer. They truly don’t want to see their classmate left in the dark.

The motto of Thailand for 2015 is “Stronger Together.” Anyone with a skeptical brain knows the irony of the slogan, given its originators. But I’d say it truly reflects the spirit of the Thai plebeians. What’s marvelous about the Thai mentality is a common eagerness to help where possible. For all their lack of English or education, they are some of the most obliging people when you need a hand or need information, and instinctively laugh off uncomfortable or awkward situations. If you ever watch Thais interact with each other in customer service situations, you rarely ever see them lose their cool.

This isn’t to say that Thais gather over the top of rainbows and hold hands. There’s Thai-on-Thai crime here. Thais cheat each other, cheat on each other, rob each other, kill each other, rape each other—all the stuff you’d expect in any society.

Plus, this mentality can play out negatively, such as in education when it hides behind the mask of social promotion. Instead of pushing the struggling students a little harder, or taking extra time to help them keep up with the class, the usual protocol for most schools in Thailand is to simply give them an automatic pass. Fudge the numbers. This extends to the general society. Thailand is anything but a meritocracy (as if any place truly is!). These negative consequences aside, though, it’s a sweet mentality that makes one feel warm and fluffy in certain situations.

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 5)

The Internet

It sucks. That’s really all I should have to say, except that it angers me so much that I want to rant about it for a few hundred more words.

Part of the issue is that I left Silicon Valley, a region that would decline into a self-entitled meltdown if the connection speeds diminished to anything lower than seven megabits per second. Interestingly enough, I read this article about how Silicon Valley Internet speeds are too slow. The article talked about how fed up companies like Google and Netflix are over their measly average of 9.8 megabits per second. I laughed, thinking, Wow, theirs comes in MEGAbits?

It’s not just land Internet service either. Whereas in the Bay Area I was shocked when I didn’t get LTE, here in Thailand 4G is merely a privilege of the Bangkok elite. Everywhere else we’re barely in 3G land, but judging the connection speeds, I doubt the ITU-R’s standards for 3G get taken seriously. For example, around the school where I work, I get five bars of 3G service, but I can’t load my Facebook news feed to save my life. And it isn’t too cheap: unlimited 3G connection for 30 days costs a 400 baht ($12).

What is cheap is my apartment building’s Wi-Fi service. That’s right. I don’t pay an ISP directly. I pay 150 baht ($5) per device to connect to one of the building’s four Wi-Fi networks. Then I pray that the connection stays stable and adequately fast for more than a couple hours at a time. If it rains, forget about it. No Internet unless it’s a sunny day.

In part I think the slow connectivity of this country is a bandwidth issue. There are definitely peak hours when everyone’s 3G slows down and our home Wi-Fi lags.

ict2
If you attempt to browse to a forbidden URL, this image pops up. The main design of Internet censorship in Thailand is to protect citizens from inadvertently reading criticism of the royal family and government–a crime punishable by imprisonment. But it also serves other convenient censorship purposes.

Then, there’s licensing restrictions and Thailand’s Internet censorship at play. In order to avoid the dreaded green cock blocker (in some cases, literally, as porn is forbidden here), as well as bypass copyright protection measures by the likes of Netflix and Spotify, I’ve got to use a VPN. So not only is my connection slow to begin with, but by the time it’s bounced off a U.S.-based server, loaded content from the source server, and pinged back to me, it’s a miracle I can stream or download any content. So if you think you’re a bigger “Game of Thrones” fan than me, try outlasting my patience while streaming season 6 next year.

Note: for a really interesting and accurate read about how the Thais have taken to social media, check this out.

Cost of Living

I have this colleague who at every turn seems unable to talk about Thailand in anything other than the most sardonic terms. He is in no way charmed by the culture, food, architecture, or anything else that makes this country uniquely Thailand. When I asked him why he lives in such a “ridiculous” country, he answered that he’s here for the climate and the cost of living. And really, those are the main reasons any Westerner lives here.

It’s not really why I moved here, but I do enjoy the cost of living. For example, I like that the rent and utilities for my apartment average about $200 per month. I like that my mobile phone costs me no more than $30 a month—that includes data usage. My motorbike needs a refill every 10 days at the staggering price of $2.50. Newer and better furnished than in America, cinemas cost half what I’m used to paying: a movie date with popcorn and a soda costs me around $12. The average meal in an air-conditioned, farang-friendly restaurant runs about $5, with Thai-centric restaurants running more like $3 a plate, and street vendors charging around $1.

An income of around $1,000 per month covers the modest living expenses of two people, plus platinum-level group health insurance premiums, all with enough headroom to hit up the bar or club every other weekend. Beer: $2.50 for a tall one. Jack and Coke: $6. Bottle service: $65 for a bottle of Smirnoff Vodka and 1 set of mixers.

There are consequences for this kind of easy living. Or more accurately, there are questionable causes. One side effect of a low cost of living is that sex is cheap (if your standards are low enough, you can get laid for as little as $25). That draws all kinds of weirdos looking to objectify the already downtrodden women of Thailand. Moreover, much of the cheapness of living stems from an overly subsidized economy and an undereducated middle class. But of course, those are topics best saved for other rants…

The Best of Thai and the Worst of Thai (Part 4)

Two unrelated topics.

Language

Obviously language barriers would be a given while living in a foreign country that doesn’t speak English. But Thailand has fortified that barrier to dimension that I think might be somewhat unique.

The height of the barrier comes a horrendous lack of English proficiency across the board. I don’t mean to sound like an arrogant American here; I would never expect people whose native language isn’t English to accommodate me. However, English, it must be said, is the lingua franca of our time. It’s the language of ASEAN, the language of tourism, and the language of business. And it’s not as though I live in some Podunk village far away from any city; I live in Thailand’s fifth most popular city for tourism. Businesses that advertise in English hardly employ English-speaking workers. Among the few that can string together a few words of English, seldom can they do so in a comprehensible and sensible fashion.

Keep in mind that in order to work in the tourism industry—namely hotels—a Thai person needs to hold a bachelor’s degree in Hotel Management, Tourism Management, Hospitality Management, or something along those lines. One would think that such a program would include classes in the international language. But the inadequacy of most hotel employees to resolve simple matters of dispute, due completely to a lack of proficiency in English, belies the lack of such crucial training in Thailand’s tourism-focused university programs.

As a result, Thai English is laden with a myriad of laughable mispronunciations that oftentimes confuse the native speaker. And when the native speaker pronounces these words naturally, it confounds most Thais. An acquaintance and colleague of mine told a fun anecdote that I think epitomizes what I’m talking about. In Bangkok, one of the train lines is called BTS Skytrain, known as BTS by most residents and visitors. Most taxi drivers know where the nearest BTS station is. So you’d think that when my friend climbed into a taxi one day and said, “B.T.S.” (each letter equally pronounced in tone and volume), that would be sufficient to communicate where he wanted to go. But no. He had to adjust his speech to give the final S an elongated, falling tone: “B.T.eeeeeeeeeess!” Then the driver nodded.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect the average street stall owner to speak even rudimentary English. But when I walk into a KFC—an American fast food company—I would expect to be able to order in English without causing mass confusion. But such is often not the case.

As an educator, the frustration isn’t simply one of inconvenience, either. I’m concerned that, among Asian countries, Thailand ranks at the bottom, despite the fact that it spends 20% of its national budget on education, with heavy measures bolstering ESL programs. But that’s another article entirely.

The width of the language barrier is the Thai language. I’ve made slow but gradual efforts toward learning the language here. My girlfriend has been a good instructor when she can be. But when I try out my Thai in practical situations, often Thais don’t understand me, or even worse, pretend not to understand me. It’s a strategy of avoiding dealing with the minute requests of foreigners by acting as though we can’t speak their magical language.

It’s hard enough making sense of the various tones that can change the meaning of an utterance. Supposedly there are 5 tones, and when I know which tone to use, I can pronounce an exaggerated version and impress my girlfriend and her friends. But hearing them is a different story. Once you string words next to each other, the tones aren’t so easy to recognize, as dipthongs between words alter them slightly.

And forget about reading any of it: the Thai alphabet is its own hieroglyphics—44 letters divided into different classes of consonants and different lengths of vowels, the mixture of which determines the tone. For example, if you find a long vowel with a middle consonant, you end up with a middle tone. But if you find a low consonant with a short vowel, you get a falling tone. Confused? Me too.

Art & Architecture

Despite all my frustrations with language, I must admit that the Thais have developed and guarded something sacredly unique to their culture. There is nothing on earth quite like Thai culture. It’s a little bit Indian, a little bit Chinese, and a little bit wacky. It feels almost banal to say that the art and architecture in Thailand are absolutely stunning. I’m almost waiting for someone to go, “duh!”

But honestly, it doesn’t matter how frustrated I get with the idiosyncratic annoyances of Thai people, or how depressed I get watching retiree expats drink themselves into oblivion. A simple journey to a Thai temple, a night out at a culture show, or an afternoon at the floating market or some other “touristy” but “Thailandy” attraction can redeem it all.

I love the way that temple roofs glisten in the sun. I love the contrasts of deep blues, heavy reds, profound purples, tranquil greens, and shimmering gold. I love the mysterious sculptures of naga or demons or bodhisattvas or Hindu deities, the ornateness of bargeboards and gables, the undulating, serpentine lamyong, and the conspicuously towering chedi and prang. I experience a borrowed nostalgia when I see old, teak-wooden houses, with their intricate carvings and elegantly sloped angles.

Many buildings in Thailand are both structurally provocative, and decoratively alluring. From far away, traditional Thai architecture imposes itself beautifully on the passerby, and mesmerizes the viewer with its strong angles, sharp edges, and sparkling aesthetic. But it also entices a closer look, which reveals immaculate detail of the most remarkable craftsmanship. Gold-plated and jewel-encrusted elaborate sculptures; mirror, polished stone, or porcelain mosaic work; dazzlingly complicated wooden carving; the art of the facade is always stunning.

I honestly can’t get enough of it.

But talking about architecture really doesn’t do it justice. Here’s what I can’t put adequately into words:

Grand Palace:

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A chedi or, more commonly, stupa. Probably the most famous in Thailand, as it’s situated in the Grand Palace compound in Bangkok
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Notice the intricacy of the gold sculpting, interspersed with colored glass tiles.
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A close-up of some more detailing.
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In this picture, you can see the lamyung protruding from the corners of the gables.
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A side shot of Wat Phra Kaew, the most significant temple in Thailand, as it’s the royal temple. Here you can see the lamyung on the corners of the steeply sloped tiered rooftop. The whole building is bathed in gold and porcelain.

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Wat Arun:

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This central prang represents Mount Meru, belying Thai Buddhism’s strong appropriation of Hindu mythology. Aesthetically, it owes its iridescence to it’s intricate porcelain work, which reflects off the morning sun.
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A corner prang at Wat Arun.

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And more…

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Another chedi, at Wat Pho
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Sculptures depicting yoga positions at Wat Pho
Sanctuary of Truth
The Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, made entirely of wood, even its fasteners.
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A closeup of the woodwork at the Sanctuary of Truth

Even simple, traditional wooden houses have elegant slopes, detailed paneling, and a rustic intrigue:

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