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The quote: You have the watches, but we have time. (Proverbio africano)

Thailand, Land of the Free Men

Thailand is an exceptional country in many ways. It’s the only country in South East Asia (and almost the only one in whole Asia) that was never colonized, although it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and therefore in 1939 it officially adopted the name Thailand, which means “land of the free men”.

It’s no coincidence that it is also the most developed country in the area, as they had no colonial governments to overexploit and exhaust their resources.

After having traveled for three months in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, entering Thailand is a shock: suddenly you realize that there are traffic lights and people actually respect them, the streets are asphalted and they have sidewalks, there are bookshops where one can buy books and newspapers in English, and all sorts of shops, from optician’s to Armani boutiques.

Despite all these luxuries, Thailand is not more expensive than its neighboring countries for backpackers, and some things are even cheaper, like food, accommodation and transport.

Thailand is in many aspects a first world country: only 4% of its population is illiterate, it’s the first exporter of rice and rubber in the world and it boasts an important industrial development which covers the lacks of its neighbors (a strange thing is that although in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar chili sauce is always from Thailand, in Thailand they mainly use Heinz).

Thailand also boasts the longest-lived reign, Bhimibol Adulyadej’s 48-year period. The king cult raises him to a semi-god status and his photograph is in the streets and in big murals, where he is depicted doing several activities (reading, writing, using a Nikon camera –for which I suppose he is not paid- , hunting, fishing), as if it were a big “Hello!”.

The thing reaches the extremes, as it is considered offensive if you lick with your tongue a stamp with his figure or if you step on a bill –as they depict his face- in case the wind blows it away and you try to catch it.

The religious cult is widespread, as 95% of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism. Entering temples or houses barefoot is prohibited because feet are the impure part of the body and they should never be placed on a chair, a table or point at a person. Thus, the western habit of sitting with crossed legs is frowned upon, Thais sit on their feet.

Thailand, like its neighbors, has a mighty army. In the 8th century Sukhothai emerged as the capital of the Thai kingdom, which fought against the hegemony of Angkor, then in decline.

In 1350 the capital was shifted to Ayuthaya and for the next 400 years, 34 kings dominated a territory that became larger each time, comprising areas of Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia, until 1765. Then the Burmese invaded the country and destroyed the capital, which was moved to the south, to what today is Bangkok.

The last dynasties opened the country to the West from the 19th century on, establishing commercial ties and agreements with several countries that, thanks to the negotiating capacity and no- confrontation-policy of the Thais, allowed the country to be free of colonialist attempts, although Thailand was forced to concede areas of Laos and Cambodia to France.

In 1932 a bloodless coup d’ etat converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, but chaos reigned Thailand for 50 years, as the anticommunist generals –who were becoming more obtuse, incompetent and dictatorial as time went by- brought the country to the verge of a civil war, with thousands of dead people in mass demonstrations, like the one of the Thammasat university in 1976.

The most recent coup d’ etat took place in February 1991. It was the tenth successful coup since 1931 (there were another nine unsuccessful ones, too), but people were not willing to allow it; led by charismatic Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, they took to the streets once again, and although the generals had to back, there was a death toll.

In 1997 the Constitution of the People was passed, which stabilized politics and the economy, after the late 90s Asian Dragons Crisis, and current development rate is around 6%.

What is Thailand’s secret? Cliche as it may sound, I think its the permanent politeness and smiling that one comes across, which make you feel as if you are king, even if you are a backpacker who pays 2$ for a bed, 1$ for food or 1$ for three hours of Internet access.

The acceptance that foreigners enjoy in Thailand, the contribution and interaction of cultures and the positive aspects of Thai pop music (because to many ears it only has negative aspects) have led many vacationers to stay in Thailand forever.

The serious issue of prostitution cannot be ignored; I’m not referring to the free interchange between two adults, which I consider respectable, but to the trafficking of under-aged children that continues to be a major problem; there have been criminal gangs that took advantage of the post-tsunami chaos in order to abduct children that would never be sought, as they would be considered dead.

To learn more about Thailand’s history, consult Wikipedia, and Lonely Planet, in order to travel around the country.

For further reading on Thailand, we recommend Suthira Duangsamosorn’s article in English: Themes, characters, and influence in contemporary thai writing in english, as well as the following books (in English, too):

Bangkok people and Boat people, by James Eckardt, , a falang who has been living in Thailand for several years.

Jasmine nights, by SP Somtow.

Moonsoon country, by Pira Sudham .

The Beach, by Alex Garland, although apparently the actual beach of the story is in the Philippines, but he didn’t want it to be flooded with visitors, so he situated the action in Thailand.

The film The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was shot in the Phi-Phi islands, one of the most affected areas of Thailand by the tsunami.

Till later !!


From Thailand, May 10th, 2005

Translated by Yorgos Axarlis ( on Sept 1st 2005

Published: 03/01/2008 00:00

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