Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Some Thoughts About Thai Culture

Today I moved north to Mae Hong Son. I woke up and had rice soup at the same place I found yesterday and then caught the bus up here. On the bus ride I met a nice older Belgium couple who have traveled all over the world. After arriving up here I just checked into the guest house and walked around town trying to find a local place for noodles but was unsuccessful but saw a bunch of town and the large market. Then I decided to go to a farang place I saw and the Belgium couple was there. I ate lunch with them and then read my book (The Killing Fields) at the little lake here and watched the sun set. Thats my day so far.

I figured this was a good time to do some writing about Thai Culture, which is a bit strange. First off I don't really know what to think about the monks or the practice of Buddhism here. I get the impression it is not very strict or true to the actual beliefs of the religion. Monks seem to do whatever, including whores if they want to. It has made me question all the monks here even though it is probably only some who do whatever. They look innocent and pure then you will see them pull a cell phone out of there robes, or walk into a whore house. Some travelers even said they had gay monks hit on them. It is like the fact that boys think of becoming a monk the same as becoming a lady boy kinda says it all. The only good thing I can say about them is that a poor person, or child, can go to a monistary and be taken care of, at least having a place to stay and food.

On the surface it looks like Buddhism is the religion here but really everyone prays to the almighty dollar. People have figured out that monistarys, or Wats make money from tourism. This place is such a mix of old culture and new western society that people don't know what to do, but everyone wants money. I haven't even been to the most touristy parts of Thailand yet and tourism is still affecting everything.

Another aspect of the culture is that it is very class based, and the people have been living like that for years. There are the higher class people that feel like they can do anything, and probably can because they have connections. Treating everyone equally here is a joke because the way the culture is people are of different classes and should be treated differently. That is why a middle class person can use whores from the lower class and then go to the monks, which are a higher class, and pay them respect without even thinking what they are doing is wrong. From there perspective the lower class is there to use and the higher class should be respected. Like the burmese refugees are definately a lower class and here to use so they are screwed in Myanmar and then also screwed here. You can travel here and not see it, but if your like me and are here to absorb and observe a different culture, it screams at you. I've heard other countries are worse but all I've seen is Thailand.

Then there is the "face" thing. I am lucky that my friend Greg, who just returned from China, told me about the concept of face. It is the most important thing. Saving face is more important than telling the truth, and loosing face is worth killing over. You can see it all over the place if you are looking. People are so kind but if someone feels like they loose face then they are so ashamed. I saw a higher class person almost pull a gun on a shop owner because he raised his voice at him, therefore loosing face. So, with the class thing and the face thing people are very careful about how they behave, but at the same time envy the western cultures and want to earn money like us.

With all this negative stuff, or differences of viewpoints, there is also this extreme kindness. People put there hands together and bow when saying hello, and thank you, and there are always smiles. I really don't know what to think about it. I can't figure out if people are really kind or just saving face, or think I'm a higher class and deserve respect. I have had some large reactions when I bow and show respect to some people, maybe because they are a lower class, and then others act like they expect it, maybe because they are a higher class. It is hard to tell if people are sincere, because kindness is part of the culture and if they weren't kind then they would loose face. This is all sinking in now, and perhaps I will have a different view in a couple weeks, but these are the realities of the culture here.

I am still reserving my judgement. I don't want to think all monks are fake, but it does seem like the western idealization of monks if completely false, at least in Thailand. Also I would like to think people are kind and not just treating me kindly because I am considered a higher class. It is very hard to tell what is going on without speaking the language. I kinda feel like I understand the latin american culture but still do not understand this culture. They are very different! With all this I am realizing it is an uglier place than I thought but that doesn't change my desire to understand the culture. I will continue to travel and talk to people and observe, but Thailand is a very confused country.

I wanted to share these thoughts with others and this seemed like the place to do it, thats why I'm keeping a blog. Tomorrow I think I will hang around Mae Hong Son and take care of some stuff, but not do much. Another thing is I think I gave the wrong impression about Mae Sariang. The whole Burmese refugee thing, and therefore extreme mix of cultures, is really isolated to the Mae Sot area becuase of the boarder crossing there. Mae Sariang may have had a Chinese and Karen vibe a bit, but the poverty and refugee aspect that was in Mae Sot is not up here, at all! That has been surprising to me because all these cities are along the boarder. I liked it a lot better down there where it seemed real and people needed help. Up here its back to buisness as usual where people promote tourism and ignore the problems across the boarder. Well, thats all for now. Peace and Love to all!

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