Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Thu, September 08, 2016 - 5:29:47
Our first day in Thailand, we visited the Museum of Regalia, Royal Decorations and Coins. Case after case of exquisite sets of finely crafted gold and silver objects from successive reigns: How had Thailand managed to hold on to these priceless objects for centuries?
That night, Wikipedia provided an answer: Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that avoided colonization and the inevitable siphoning of treasures to European museums and country houses. Thailand’s kings strategically yielded territory and served as a buffer between British and French colonies. Thailand has cultural resemblances to Japan, which was also self-governing during the colonial era. In each, uninterrupted royal succession progressed from absolute monarchs to ceremonial rulers who remain integral to the national identity. Both countries exhibit a deep animism with a Buddhist overlay. In neither country were ambitious citizens once forced to learn a western language and culture.
In the past, such insights were found in guide books. Today, overall, digital technology is an impressive boon for a curious tourist. It shaped our two-week visit just as, for better and worse, it is shaping Thai society. Consider making use of this golden era for cultural exploration in a compressed timeframe before the window of opportunity closes, before technologies blend us all into a global village.
GoEco and The Green Lion
For over ten years, my wife has planned our travel holidays on the Web. Online tools and resources steadily improve. The planner’s dilemma is the sacrifice of blind adventure for a vacation experienced in advance online, seeing the marvelous views and reading accounts of others’ experiences, and learning and later worrying about possible pitfalls—where nut allergies were triggered, smokers ruined the ambience, and so forth.
This year, TripAdvisor and GoEco were instrumental. GoEco aggregates programs that are designed to be humanitarian and environmentally responsible, creating some and also booking programs created by other organizations. We spent a week in one managed by The Green Lion, which began (as Greenway) in Thailand in 1998 and is now in 15 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Fiji. Travelers do not book directly with The Green Lion—it works with 75 agencies, one of which is GoEco.
The Green Lion “experience culture through immersion” programs, many in relatively rural Thailand, include voluntary English teaching in schools, construction work in an orphanage, Buddhism instruction in a temple, an intense survey of Thai culture, elephant rehabilitation, and Thai boxing. A few dozen participants in different programs stayed in the same lodging compound in Sing Buri Province north of Bangkok. Most volunteers were European or Chinese students on gap years or summer breaks, about two-thirds women slightly older than my teenage daughters; my wife and I may have been the oldest. We shared experiences over communal dinners and breakfasts.
The compound was a miracle of lean organization. The manager appeared on Sunday to convey the basics to new arrivals—distribute room keys, review the schedule on a whiteboard, tell us to wash our dishes and not to bring alcohol back across the rural road from shops established by enterprising Thais to serve the year-round flow of volunteers and explorers, and so on. Every day, a cheerful Thai woman cooked and placed wonderful vegetarian food on a central table. (Thai herbs and spices have reached markets near us at home, but some great Thai vegetables, not yet.) Our conversations were self-organizing. While we were out for the day, there was light housekeeping, gardening, and food delivery.
A volunteer week
We volunteered to help in a school. At some schools, volunteers were handed a class to instruct in English or entertain with no assistance, but our government-funded rural K-12 school had a smart English teacher who had worked her way through a Thai university. Virtually all students managed to acquire a phone, although many came from poor families. The classroom had one good PC and a printer. The teacher maintains a Facebook page, and would like some day to get formal instruction in English from a native speaker.
Our week was unusual, with all-school presentations and displays on Tuesday for a government ministerial inspection, and again on Friday to commemorate the anniversary of the ten-nation Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). On Monday and Thursday, we helped our class prepare booths and presentations. Our daughters were given roles. The events were held in a large, covered open-air space ideal for a tropical country (daytime temperatures were around 90 F). On display was the full range of school activities. Many had a vocational focus: preparing elegant foods and traditional medicines, and making decorations and other objects valued in daily life. In a carefully choreographed reenactment of an historical event or legend, pairs of students representing Burmese invaders and Thai defenders engaged in stunningly fierce combat with blunt but full-length swords. On Wednesday we went to an orphanage with other volunteers and painted walls and helped dig a septic pit. One small, silent boy dropped into the pit with an unused shovel and for 20 minutes tossed earth out above his head, outlasting us volunteers in the scorching sun.
In the school, we saw a hand-made poster on global warming, contrasting the advantages (better for drying clothes and fish) with the disadvantages (dead animals and floods). Drought in Thailand has grown more severe each of the past four years. While changing planes in Taipei airport, we had noticed a large government-sponsored student-constructed public exhibit on global warming. It felt eerie to see the topic embraced in Asian schools more openly than is possible in United States schools.
A tourism week
We spent three days with a great guide and driver recommended on TripAvisor.com. The guide learned English partly in school from a non-native speaker, then while working. She was always available for discussion, but when we were swimming, kayaking, or otherwise engaged, if not taking a photo or video of us on one of our devices, she was texting on her phone. Mobile access was available except for stretches of the drive to Kanchanaburi Province, west of Bangkok. We hiked and climbed to see waterfalls in a national park and kayaked for hours down a river, spending a night in a cabin on the water. We helped bathe some rescue elephants and hiked to see an “Underwater Temple” that is no longer under water; the drought-stricken reservoir behind Vajiralongkorn Dam, which inundated the area thirty years ago, has receded. We walked along the “Death Railway” featured in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Hellfire Canyon museum details the harrowing story of forced construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway by World War II prisoners of war. The museum, an Australian-Thai effort, gathered recollections from Australian, British, and American survivors, as well as contemporaneous written accounts, drawings, and images (POWs sneaked in a few cameras and some local Thais helped them at great risk).
Three Pagodas Pass on the border with Myanmar (often still called Burma), once a quiet outpost, has become one of the better tourist markets we saw—our guide bought goods to take back to colleagues. The immigration and customs building at the crossing proved to be security theatre—from a shop in the market we stepped out a back door and found ourselves on a shop street in Myanmar. As co-members of ASEAN, the neighbors’ relations have relaxed; Burmese raiders are history, although workers slip across from Myanmar in search of higher-paying employment.
Our third focus was Bangkok, which defies easy description. High-rises of often original design and décor are proliferating. On traffic-congested city streets one is often in range of huge LCD displays that flash images or run video ads, reminiscent of Tokyo. We took a public ferry down and back up the wide Chao Phraya River alongside the city, getting off to spend an afternoon exploring the Grand Palace complex, two dozen ornate buildings constructed over a century and a half and spread over 200,000 square meters. “Beware of wily thieves” warned a sign, but instead of larceny in Bangkok, apart from occasional minor errors in making change or setting a taxi or tuk-tuk fare, we encountered dramatically honest and helpful locals, often delighting in selflessly advising an obvious tourist, in a city with many tourists. We researched online and visited the house-museum of Jim Thompson, a benevolent 20th-century American with a fascinating biography. Twice we traversed Khao San Road, once a backpackers’ convergence point and now a tourist stop. We found a bit more of the old ambience one street over.
Phone maps were useful in the countryside and wonderful in Bangkok—and not only for navigating. A map report of an accident ahead exonerated our taxi driver of blame for being stuck in gridlocked traffic. We could relax, observe the ubiquitous street life, and know that wherever we were headed, we would be there when we got there.
Politics and tragedy
On our second Sunday, Thailand voted on a constitutional revision proposed by the military junta that deposed a democratically elected government two years earlier. The change strengthened the junta’s grip; campaigning against it was not allowed. After its passage was announced and a few hours after our plane took off, bombs began exploding. One of our daughters had friended several of our Green Lion cohort; through Facebook we learned that eight who had progressed south were injured, seven temporarily hospitalized. A shocking contrast to the remarkably peaceful, friendly, and safe Thailand we experienced—another mystery that Wikipedia helped resolve. A map on the “Demographics of Thailand” page shows that 5% of the population near the southern border with Malaysia, a Sunni Islamic state, are ethnic Malays; they had voted overwhelmingly against the constitutional change. Some are separatists battling a Buddhist government that is capable of harsh repression.
The future of a unique culture
Apart from the 5%, Thailand appears to have a homogeneous, friendly culture, replete with animism, Buddhism, low crime, and sincere respect for the royal family. The 88-year-old King is the world’s longest-serving head of state. He is the only living monarch who was born in the United States; his father, a prince, studied public health and earned an MD at Harvard. His program for a “sufficiency economy” of moderation, responsibility, and resilience recognizes environmental concerns and is generally respected, although it condones a class system. Like other ASEAN countries, Thailand has professionals who lead upper middle-class lives alongside a subsistence-level less-educated population, plus a few super-wealthy families. Thailand has a relatively high standard of living in Southeast Asia; the poor appear to get food and basic medical attention.
Thailand is not without problems. The highly erratic dictatorship is worrisome. Even in better times, a sense of entitlement at higher rungs of the hierarchy leads to corruption. Some Thai women expressed the view that “Thai men are useless, they don’t work, they drink and expect women to do the work.” We did indeed see exceptionally industrious women, a phenomenon Jim Thompson channeled in a non-exploitative way to create the modern Thai silk industry. Basic education extends to boys and girls, but higher education favors males, for whom it is free if they ordain temporarily as monks, a common practice among Thai men. Omnipresent male monks may contribute more philosophically than productively, but we saw men everywhere driving taxis, tuk-tuks, and working in construction. We saw industrious male students—and the orphanage shoveler.
The King and Queen are called Father and Mother. This familial aura may contribute to the country’s smooth functioning. Artisans produce goods of the kinds that we saw students making, and people appreciate them. They could no doubt be mass-produced at low cost. Without discounting the efficacy of traditional medicines used by both classes, additional modern medicine could bring benefits. And Thais could acquire more technology than they do.
Is that the path they should take? Will they be happier shifting from animism and Buddhism to consumerism? Do they have a choice? They have phones. They can see alternative ways of living. Bangkok is a stunning city of glamor, where Ronald McDonald stands expressionlessly with fingers tented in a Thai greeting of respect.
Thanks to Gayna Williams for planning the trip and suggesting material to include in this post. Isobel advocated that we help children on our vacation. Eleanor brought her high engagement to interactions with volunteers and students. Phil McGovern provided background on The Green Lion and Fred Callaway shared observations on the flight out of Bangkok.
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