Thailand: The land of smilesWhen you check out this year’s Forest Park Community Guide, you’ll discover that we have five Thai restaurants and one church in which Thai is the predominant language. Because I have a deep affection for the Thai people – I belong to the Thai church and have been to Thailand seven times – I want to give you a small window into their culture.
Thailand is a country of about 65 million people in Southeast Asia. It’s close to countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). For those of us old enough to remember the Vietnam War, Thailand’s countryside looks very similar to the rice paddies, hills and jungles we saw on the news almost every evening back in the ’60s. Bangkok, in contrast, is a megalopolis with six million inhabitants and hundreds of gleaming glass-and-steel high-rise buildings.
Thais are generally more traditional than Americans, and that plays out in different ways.
First, they tend to be much less individualistic. For example, they are less concerned with “I gotta be me” and more focused on fitting in with society. The upside to that is their willingness to place a greater value on the common good – something that stands in contrast to the more Americanized philosophy of “what’s in it for me.”
Second, they respect the elderly more. I was talking to a Dutch missionary living in Thailand who said that, in the Netherlands, you are over the hill when you pass 35. In Thailand that’s the age when you first start getting some respect.
Third, they love their king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (aka Rama IX), who has been on the throne since 1946. It is hard to convey to an American how much the Thais respect and revere their monarch. Many commentators say that the Thai cultural identity is a stool resting on three legs: one is the national religion of Buddhism, a second is the nation of Thailand and the third is the king. They adore the man, partly because he has earned it.
Because Thailand is a constitutional monarch, the national parliament does all of the governing. H.R.H Bhumibol’s role is more symbolic and moral. We have no one who embodies our country like the king does in Thailand. The next time you are in a Thai restaurant, look around. You’ll probably find a picture of Rama IX or one of his predecessors.
Because 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist, temples with Buddha statues are as omnipresent as Christian churches are around here. There are 200,000 monks – very visible with their shaved heads and saffron-colored robes – in the country. Understanding Thai Buddhism can be difficult because a large dose of animism is mixed in with it. Almost every Thai home has a spirit house where frequent offerings are made. When you are in a Thai restaurant, you will also probably be able to spot a small spirit house, somewhere.
Thailand is often referred to as the Land of Smiles, and that’s not just hype from the Bangkok Chamber of Commerce. The Thai smile is genuine. Eric Weiner, in his book The Geography of Bliss, calls Thailand one of “the happiest places in the world.”
“America’s place on the happiness spectrum,” wrote Weiner, “is not as high as you might think, given our superpower status. We are not, by any measure, the happiest nation on earth.” He goes on to speculate why we are not as happy as people in a still- developing country like Thailand.
According to Weiner, “The self-help industrial complex hasn’t helped. By telling us that happiness lives inside us, it’s turned us inward just when we should be looking outward … to other people, to community and to the kind of human bonds that so clearly are the sources of our happiness.”
He also wrote, “We are able to acquire many of the things that we think will make us happy and therefore suffer the confusion and disappointment when they do not.”
Keep up with new postings of my travels alone in Thailandby clicking on the following link or going to my blog at OakPark.com/ThailandTravels.
Tom Holmes has worked in Forest Park since 1982 as a pastor and as a writer. He is grateful that his children grew up in this town and finds inspiration in the personal relationships he has developed with so many.