Travel Destinations »

The Thais

The Thais are generally pretty easy to get along with. They’re often slow to get angry and have enough experience with sweaty farangs to tolerate the stupid things that many of them do. Perhaps as a consequence of being the dominant culture and economy in the region, Thais are usually quite self-confident, and can sometimes come off as a bit arrogant.

Thais can sometimes be very hard to read. Though the culture is one of the most liberal in the region, Thais can also be very reserved. Take, for example, the average Thai’s reaction to a belligerent foreigner who shouts angrily that he’s being ripped off or that he’s been cheated in some way. Thais will not shout back or openly show anger. The only manifestation of their inward rage will be twitching eyes and furious silence. Make no mistake, however, many Thais are boxers and could easily beat a man far larger than them to the ground, though most keep their hearts too cool to ever do so.

Young Thais are probably the coolest people in Asia. It seems like a lot of the backpacker culture and style has integrated itself into the culture, and it’s not uncommon in areas that see a lot of tourists for Thais to wear tie-dye shirts and wear long hair in dread-locks. Even in areas with less tourism, the Thais are eminently likable. Going to a BBQ in the countryside, getting drunk on cheap whiskey, and then trying to drive back on a motorbike is all just part of the fun, and there’s rarely the kind of hassle that is so common in other parts of the region.

There are times, however, when the culture is so incredibly different that the traveler simply cannot understand what’s happening around him. Sometimes, the traveler can deeply insult someone without even noticing it. Get up from a lying position on a bed that’s placed against the wall and step over your partner in the process, and you’re likely to hear them gasp in shock. Stepping over someone in Thailand is a deep insult. Fortunately, most Thais will recognize that foreigners don’t understand their culture any more than they understand the farang’s. Regardless of what happens, it’s always better to smile in Thailand.

Racism is alive and well in Thailand, though travelers with white skin will seldom face the negative consequences of it. Most of the scorn and negative prejudice is focused on the Burmese and Cambodian refugees and immigrants who work the lowest jobs in Thai society. Whites and lighter skinned Asians are seen as being of a higher social class, regardless of national background and economic reality.

Thais are quite liberal compared to most of their neighbors, and can be fun to hang out with. They are more likely to look at a traveler as an equal and less likely to view him as a walking wallet than people in other cultures in the region, and this makes it easier to find real friends. The main obstacle for most foreigners in making Thai friends is the language barrier. Few Thais speak English, and those that do have often learned to speak by selling something to tourists. Put simply, they are not representative of the general population.

Thailand is a highly diverse country, with a huge amount of variance in the people based on geographic regions. The most prosperous area of the country is central Thailand, and the people here are taller, lighter skinned, and more materialistically driven than those of the north and northeast, which are more agricultural and poor.

The Southern resort areas of Phuket and Ko Samui see a huge amount of tourists, which has helped drive economic wealth and a greater familiarity with the foreigners than most of the rest of the country.

The far southern border with Malaysia is quite unlike the rest of the country, as it is predominantly Muslim. Here, a traveler passing through is eyed strangely by the locals but is also likely to experience great kindness and hospitality.

Tourists in Thailand will sometimes find it difficult to truly interact with the local population. One place to meet the locals is at bars and clubs. Depending on the location, a bar might be full of westerners, a mix of westerners and locals, or often full of Thais, where a foreigner is rare. Particularly in the local bars where there are few tourists, Thais will often invite you to their table and offer drinks. Usually this is all in good fun, but be careful not to drink too much, especially for a woman traveling alone.

Another way to meet the locals is to find a home-stay. This is quite easy to arrange in the rural areas of the country, and will allow the traveler to learn about Thai culture first-hand and pick up some of the language. If organized in-country, a home-stay will probably be one of the cheapest ways for the traveler to spend an extended time in Thailand, though with the new visa regulations longer stays are more complicated than they were before. Areas of the far north, close to the Burmese border, are some of the best places to do this.

M.J. Lloyd

James Tramplefoot has been, and will continue to be on the road indefinitely, for years and probably decades.