Nation, religion, kingdom
September 08, 2019
From a simplified traveler’s viewpoint, Thailand can be separated into three distinct parts: The North with its mountains, remote hill tribes, historical kingdoms and lots of nature. The center with the mega city of Bangkok as the cultural and economic powerhouse of the country. And the South with its islands and beaches which are what Thailand is all about for many tourists.
The North – Temples, elephants, hill tribes
Our first station in Thailand was Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand. Historically, northern Thailand formed the Lanna kingdom, one of three large kingdoms on the territory of present-day Thailand. Chiang Mai as the capital of the Lanna kingdom is an excellent place to learn about the culture, traditions and habits of the North, which are quite different from the rest of the country. As Chiang Mai is surrounded by superb nature, it has developed into one of the tourist hotspots in northern Thailand. Still, it sees much less tourists than Bangkok or the South, and we really enjoyed our time there as the city still feels down-to-earth and also has lots of “alternative” places like music bars or small organic cafés tucked away into narrow side roads.
With over 90% of the Thai population self-identified as Buddhists, active participation in Buddhism is among the highest in the world. In important cities like Chiang Mai, this means that you cannot walk more than a few hundred meters without stumbling into a Buddhist temple. Several temples offer “monk chats” – places where tourists can talk to monks. While tourists can learn about Buddhism and the life of a monk, it is also a valuable opportunity for monks to improve their English skills. In one of the temples, we spoke to Palin, a young monk in his early 20s. Originally from a village in Laos, already as a young boy he felt that he wanted to become a monk. Although his friends and family somewhat discouraged him, he indeed became a novice with around 14 years.
A few years ago, he came to Thailand to complete his Buddhist studies there. In total, the study program lasts for four years and teaches the novices about important Buddhist texts and the ancient Indian languages Sanskrit and Pali. In parallel, they have “normal” subjects such as math and English. This education is not completely free, but largely subsidized by the tuition fees of the regular students. Palin also told us that most monks don’t go to the monastery for their entire life, but usually for one or several periods in their life, each lasting between a few weeks and several years. He himself wants to return to a secular life back in Laos after finishing his studies. Overall, it was great getting an insight into his life and also inspiring to hear how he himself felt that he wanted to become a monk and then went for it although his surroundings were not really supportive of it.
An interesting aspect about Thai Buddhism is its mixture with other beliefs originating from Hinduism, animism as well as ancestor worship. Almost every household and many public buildings have a small shrine close to the entrance which serves worshipping protective spirits. Every morning, people place small offerings in the shrine, like incense, flowers or food. For drinks, they even open the bottles and put straws inside, so that the spirits can directly drink from it.
Besides culture, northern Thailand is (in)famous for its many elephant camps. Traditionally used for logging, most elephants became unemployed when logging was banned in 1989. As elephants have a very long lifespan and are costly to maintain, many elephant owners turned to tourism as a new source of income. Over time, many elephant camps evolved where elephants had to perform shows and tourists could ride them. The domestication that was necessary for this meant great suffering for the animals who had to be “educated” to accept people on their backs. While the shows and elephant riding continue today, there is rising awareness about animal rights among tourists and the local population. We visited a small camp that had elephant shows until a few years ago, but now turned into an elephant sanctuary where four elephants are kept in decent conditions until they die (hopefully) peacefully.
This is a costly undertaking: Elephants eat around 10% of their body weight each day, which is substantial given their final weight of around 4 to 5 tons. Further, each elephant has a personal mahout – a sort guide who looks after the elephant when they walk around etc. All in all, keeping an elephant decently costs around 1000 $ per month, which is equivalent to the salary of the Thai middle class. These high costs are covered by donations and fees of visitors like us. In the sanctuary, we could feed the elephants and walk and bathe with them. It was a fascinating encounter to spend some time so closely with these giant animals. Despite their sheer size, they were super careful when we stood next to them and always seemed to know exactly where we were and how far they could move without hurting us. After experiencing the sheer presence of wild elephants at arm’s length in Malawi last year, this was another amazing interaction with their slightly smaller Asian siblings!
Like in Malaysia and Myanmar, we also did an overnight trek through the hill-tribe terrain close to the border with Myanmar. “Hill tribes” is the name given to more than ten ethnic minorities living in the mountainous regions of northern Thailand. Most of them have migrated into Thailand from neighboring countries in the past 200 years. Often, they are not granted Thai citizenship and are marginalized socially and economically, keeping them in a development status somewhere between the 6th and 21st century. Nevertheless, Thai mainstream culture is reaching out especially to those tribes that live less remotely. The worlds of the hill tribes are mostly outlined by language, culture and customs, with especially older people speaking neither Thai nor English. During our trek, we passed through villages from three different tribes, where people speak three entirely different languages, wear different clothes and have different traditions. And all of this within a few hours walking distance!
Bangkok – Long live the king
From the tranquility of the north, we had a rough transition to the mega city of Bangkok. With 8 million inhabitants, it is about the same size as Switzerland. Furthermore, it is visited by more than 20 million tourists each year, making it one of the most visited cities worldwide. With these numbers in mind, we were surprised that except for the main tourist attractions, the city didn’t feel too crowded, but that it was pretty enjoyable to wander around. The city center is crisscrossed by canals which are also used for public transport, creating a Venice-like flair. Further, there are many hidden cafés, underground clubs and street night markets, rewarding aimless wandering.
In Bangkok, we visited an exhibition about Thai identity in the Siam museum. Siam was the country’s official English name until 1939, before it was changed to Thailand. The exhibition covered various aspects of Thai traditions and everyday life, but there was one phrase that was repeated like a mantra throughout the entire exhibition: “Thai identity is formed by nation, religion, kingdom.” Nation, religion, kingdom. Three elements that are indeed central to Thailand.
One of the first things that attracted our attention after entering Thailand coming from Malaysia was the omnipresence of the king’s image surrounded by yellow ribbons and flowers. Every major street, every train station, every public building and many private houses have an image of the king. In cinemas, the royal anthem is played before every movie, complementing the national anthem which is played every day at 6 pm in train stations and other public places. During the anthems, most people stop whatever they had just been doing, stand up and pay respect.
Thailand was an absolute monarchy until 1932, when a group of young military officers launched a bloodless coup and introduced a constitutional monarchy. Since then, the country is in fact ruled by military dictatorships, with only short glimpses of real democracy after WW II. Every few years, a new constitution is drafted, shifting the balance of power between the three groups military, monarchy and civilians. In total, Thailand has had 20 constitutions since 1932, the current one being from 2017. In recent years, the military made regular use of one of the strictest “lèse-majesté” laws in the world to suppress their opposition. “Lèse-majesté” allows to jail critics of the monarch for three to fifteen years. In 2017, for example, a man was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the lèse-majesté-laws. The last king, who ruled from 1946 until his death in 2016, was highly respected among the population. His son and current king, by contrast, is far less popular, one reason being his Don Juan-like lifestyle, resulting in seven children from three wives.
Through a mix of diplomatic skills and somewhat opportunistic behavior, Thailand managed to be the only country in South-East Asia which has never been colonized. To remain independent, Thailand committed to hand over territories to the British (controlling neighboring Malaysia and Burma) and to the French (controlling neighboring Indochina – today’s Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). In WW II, Thailand granted free passage to invading Japan, not stopping them on their way to Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Likewise, Thailand allowed the US to use their country as a base during the Vietnam war in exchange for economic incentives. This strategic behavior allowed Thailand to grow their economy uninterruptedly for almost 40 years, until the Asian economic crisis in 1997. Today, Thailand is the fourth-richest country in South-East Asia in terms of GDP per capita, after Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia.
In Bangkok, we also experienced another aspect that Thailand is (in)famous for: Sex tourism. The street in which our accommodation was seemed like an ordinary residential street at daytime, but changed its character in the late afternoon. All bars had a line of chairs along the street which got filled with lightly dressed women around dawn. As goes the cliché, the bars were visited almost exclusively by elderly white men. This was, however, still the “light” version. One evening, we were on our way to a club when we had to pass through a street that was even more dedicated to the business. Entirely lit by red lights, the street was filled with half-naked women who tried to literally drag every man who passed by into one of the go-go bars or hotels that charge by the hour.
Although technically illegal, there are an estimated 2 million sex workers in Thailand, which is a considerable number given the total population of 70 million. The vast majority of these sex workers cater to Thai men and not primarily to tourists. Thais view sex through a less moralistic lens than Westerners, and Thai women are only recently getting empowered enough to question this widespread practice of their husbands. The first bars and clubs targeted at foreigners opened only in the 70s when lots of American soldiers were based in the country during the Vietnam war. In the 80s, the go-go bars were marketed officially by the Thai tourism board, establishing Thailand’s reputation as a sex tourism destination.
Before going to Thailand, we were a bit skeptical whether we would like it. Too much had we read about the country evolving into a mass tourism destination, with hordes of Western and Chinese tourists crowding every place. But that was not what we actually found. Of course, Thailand was still the most touristic of the countries we’ve visited, but as soon as we went a bit beyond the easily accessible photo spots, there were not many tourists left. And in the end, we are tourists ourselves, so that’s anyways always a point to keep in mind.
Thailand is a fascinating country. Very proud of its history, its religion and its king. Very diverse in its traditions, people, landscapes. Very rich in delicious food, often served from small street kitchens. And lastly, very friendly – it’s not without reason that the country is marketed as “The Land of Smiles”.