Tag Archives: Thailand

They Do Things Differently Here (more on Thailand visit)

It’s always good when traveling to keep an eye out for opportunities to explore something off the usual tourist trail and this trip I found out how things work inside a Thai hospital. All the staff, medical and administrative, wear the most stylish uniforms and do everything with utmost professionalism. My key contact there told me he had been trained for 6 years in Sydney, Australia. But slightly veering off the usual day-to-day experiences opens one’s eyes to little things where values and expectations differ in sublte ways from what we expect in Australia and probably many other white English speaking countries.

For one, when my contact (who is responsible for international visitors to the hospital) introduced the nurse who would be the one responsible for my immediate care he introduced her with “This most beautiful lady’s name is ….” Things like that immediately hit one in a way to remind us Westerners at least that we have a whole different social thing going on with feminism and how men have to learn to do things differently from the way they were done in the old days. At least where I worked — in public universities and libraries — such a manner of addressing a woman in a professional situation would always be considered inappropriate. (He spent 6 years in Sydney but the Thai customs never left him.)

Then there was this. The day I was discharged I was being wheeled out and for the first time I saw the walls around me and not just the ceilings …. now I don’t know about other Anglo-Saxon countries, but I have a feeling that we would be most unlikely to be confronted with the following cartoon figure in such a place, (or is my experience of hospital murals way too limited?)

Actually before I went to the hospital I was looking for an ordinary doctor somewhere and following helpful directions I came to an area where there were sort of nurse-like-uniformed girls standing outside a shop handing out flyers, presumably to encourage people to enter — I wasn’t sure if it was actually a doctor’s surgery so I looked in and asked the woman I thought was the receptionist at the front desk for a doctor and she replied that she was the doctor and asked how she could help. There was a quick diagnosis over the counter …. But I will not want to leave the impression that that’s how all doctors here operate! Nor would she always service all clients that way.

Anyway, it was all a very interesting experience, something different, which I always look forward to. Oh, one more detail. When being discharged I was handed a form to fill out. It consisted of dozens or questions — but all in Thai — which I learned were asking me how I felt about their service, would I ever like to use them again, would I recommend them to someone else, that sort of thing, I think. I scarcely know the Thai alphabet so I left it aside.

And while talking of different things, here are a couple more.

I was in an outlying “suburban” area of Bangkok (though it was more like a city centre in many places in Australia) and was waiting responsibly at the lights to cross the road. When they turned green to signal me across I stepped out but not a damn car or motor bike seemed to notice that they had a bloody red light! There must have been about a dozen cars and bikes that just kept on driving through and weaving their way around me. It was a stimulating experience, that’s for sure. Usually cars stop at red lights, even here. But obviously not always. And when I reached the other side I passed two police officers nonchalantly walking back to their vehicle with their purchased lunches.

Anyway, I went into a chemist and asked for something and they searched frantically everywhere for me but couldn’t find what I wanted, so with their smiling apologies I left. I must have been about 50 metres down the street when I heard a woman shouting. She reached me to show me that she had finally found what I was asking for. It wasn’t quite what I was wanting but I couldn’t disappoint her after making such an effort so I returned with her and made the 39 baht ($A2) purchase.

Beer is not such a big deal here. Every shop sells it and sometimes the staff helpfully add a straw before you take it away. I know you won’t believe me so I took a photo to prove it’s true.

 

I know I am back in East Asia (specifically Thailand) when . . . .

I know I am back in Thailand when . . .

— at my place of stay having one of the regular uniformed security guards snap to attention and salute me every time I walk by

— our residence, like every residence here, has something like the following shrine in its enclosure:

— and supermarkets have an additional row for “ceremonial products”:

— there is a young person employed to stand at a door between a carpark and main shopping mall and hold it open for anyone entering or leaving. They are usually tasked with politely greeting everyone who passes through. (I sometimes get the urge to ask them how much they are paid and if the job is given them as a punishment for some misdemeanour.)

— a busker at a railway station performing a traditional Asian dance in mask and costume

— no-one points directions with their finger (very rude), but with the full hand (or thumb)

— money is handed to me with both hands, never one, and I feel like an uncouth westerner if I take it with merely one hand. Ditto for the exchange of business cards. Always take time to read in full a business card you have just been handed. Never merely pocket it for later reference, how rude!

— a young woman dressed astonishingly sexily/glamorously, very high heels, short pink pants, swaying pink ear-rings, at a shop front speaking into a microphone to invite other very responsive women to enter, look around and purchase cosmetics.

— bookshops and games and recreation areas in shopping malls that promote goods and activities and things to give your young child “a genius IQ”.

— a gaudy shopping mall complex hosting all-day singing entertainment by young (some very young) children with the sound system at full rock-concert totally deafening volume!

— extremely polite service staff at a railway platform, rushing over to lead an elderly person away from escalators in order to take a nearby lift instead.

— alcohol sold at most food and grocery shops but only during certain hours of the day; you’ll be politely pointed (with full hand, no finger) to a sign saying you can’t buy alcohol if you are there at one of the forbidden times — though a more downbeat family store may not be too worried about abiding by that law. (Is this unique to Thailand? I can’t recall.)

— strange billboard ads like this one (it’s for some sort of timber protection):

— which reminds me of one of the first things everyone sees when leaving the airport in Bangkok — a large billboard with a message replicating this one:

 

Buddhist Thailand – occasional notes

While speaking of Buddhism in Thailand here are some additional little details:

Signage in a city train. Can you guess what the orange one represents? A Buddhist monk.

I don’t often see monks on public transport and have to confess I felt somewhat outraged when once a monk asked me to move for him. There was a vacant seat next to me but if he took it he would have had to sit between me and a woman. He made it clear to me he had no intention of sitting next to a woman!

Monks are not allowed to touch female members of the opposite sex. And that makes for some interesting gossipy news as per the following that I have taken from a news site:

The monk normally places his hand on a man’s heart for the extra blessing but on a woman’s head for same; but this is a trans man undergoing hormone replacement treatment. As I alluded to earlier there seems to be a more easy acceptance of transgenders here in Thailand than one expects in Australia. (Nonetheless the above picture did cause a bit of a scandal even here.) Recollecting The Federalist article I spoke about earlier, I should add that there is nothing unusual about seeing a prostitute taking a few moments out to offer prayers and offerings at a shrine or temple. No-one there to respond with a command, “Go, and sin no more!”

A more common scene in both streets, shopping complexes, work offices and factories, and in household properties, both inside and outside houses and units, are Buddhist shrines where regulars and passers-by will often be found stopping to pray and leave offerings. People do both in public quite unselfconsciously as if simply filling up at a petrol station or pausing to answer their cell phones.

That photo reminds me of a scene I witnessed this morning. In a busy city street a man had stopped on his bicycle to call to a passing monk. After sorting out the various food items in his bike basket he gave most to the monk who then proceeded to pray for him. Both faced each other, hands held together in our familiar prayer gesture, while the monk prayed at some length. (He had been given a lot of food, after all.) They each then went on their way.

Here are the contents of one of many aisles in a large supermarket. Can you work out what they are? They are ceremonial items for one’s shrine at home or anywhere else where one wants to stop and pray and leave an offering. All part of the weekly grocery shopping list.

And here’s the shrine at the entrance to where I happen to be staying now: Those items on the front table are drinks, one an equivalent of a Thai coke with a straw in it. They are part of what have been left there by passers by stopping to kneel as they pray before moving on with their daily business.

I find it difficult to dislike Buddhism because what I’ve been exposed to is on the whole so non-judgemental compared with Western Christianity. But it does consist of humans and as I think I mentioned previously there are massive public scandals about one outfit accused of all sorts of corruption. Nor do I ever know what to make of seeing monks in a goldsmith’s shop, as I sometimes do. And I cannot help but wonder if behind the public facade there are the same sorts of sexual abuse going on that have finally come to light among Western Christian churches.

 

A Passing Note on Thailand

While waiting here in KL for my flight to Thailand I have been catching up with rss feeds from all over the place and one stood out as timely and appropriate: What The West Can Learn From Thailand About Loving One’s Heritage by Casey Chalk. Unfortunately it’s from The Federalist site whose articles I normally find way too “conservative” for my own tastes, but it does make some substantial points about Thailand that are worth noting.

Since the story of the Thai students trapped in a remote cave hit the international news wire, observers have been fascinated with the children’s expression of Thai religious piety and customs. Videos released by the Thai navy show the boys offering the “wai,” a traditional greeting where the palms are pressed together. Images that accompany related news stories often show large groups of Thais, including their classmates, offering Buddhist prayers for the stranded children.

The first time I was in Bangkok and greeted by two Thai nieces with the wai I gaffed by wai-ing back. It is not appropriate, I quickly learned, for the senior to wai the junior, or certainly not to bow in doing so. There are all sorts of rules about that.

Tourists visiting Thailand are usually taken aback by the signs prominently displayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport and on billboards along the highway into downtown Bangkok. One such billboard reads: “It’s wrong to use Buddha as decoration or tattoo. Means no respect. Don’t buy or sell Buddha.” Another sign asserts: “Welcome to Buddha Land. It’s wrong to buy or use Buddha symbol as merchandise, decoration, tattoo or to own Buddha head. Disrespect to Buddha is wrong by law.”

Thais are a very conservative people and the Buddhist religion runs deep. It is customary for boys to spend time as monks just as it is customary for young men to do “national service” in some other countries. I find Buddhism easier to stomach than western “Churchianity” but don’t think Buddhism is all the same here. There are serious corruption charges under way against certain Buddhist monks under way. Some monks come across as plain greedy. But those appear to be the extremes. As usual there is the vast middle of normality and by-and-large respectability.

Families are bound by values Westerners would regard as old-fashioned. It is not universally accepted, for example, that young people live together before marriage. For a young person to do so could well cause deep pain, even offence, to many parents.

Reverence for the Thai monarchy has been bound up with Buddhist conventions, too. I can discuss that side of things another time in more depth. Not everything connected with that question is a good thing.

Oh yes — when you go to a movie here in Thailand you will experience just before the main feature the playing of national anthem and a film of the king. Everyone stands, of course.

Casey Chalk talks about the infamous sex tourism but it is very easy to live and get around in Thailand without seeing that side of things at all.

I’m not sure I’d think of certain Western differences from Thai culture as “losses” as Chalk goes some way to suggesting. The “traditional ways” have their own challenges. There’s way too much poverty here and I can’t justify the status quo by appealing to (or hiding behind) “unifying traditions”.


Added note some time after original posting:

It doesn’t really work to compare values or social attitudes between different cultures as if there can be neat correspondences. Example: I’ve talked above about the ‘conservatism’ of the Thais but I would despite the West’s gains in acknowledgement of gay rights I still would not expect to walk into a very ordinary hairdresser shop in a major conservative-area suburban-type shopping mall and be attended by a ladyboy.


 

The king will return

Thailand’s twelve month long period of mourning for King Bhumipol is now drawing to a close with spectacular cremation and exaltation-to-heaven ceremonies. One interesting detail one hears talking with Thais — a detail I have not seen in any news media report — is a rumour (“some say”, is how it is introduced) that the greatly loved king will return. Why? Because, the rumour has it, his work was not completed. He cannot come back as Rama XI (another has beaten him to that position) but he will return when born as Rama XII.

This rumour that one sometimes hears from face to face conversations with mourners may be inspired, I wonder, by a certain anxiety over the future.

Humans — the same today as they have always been, it seems. Returns, resurrections, reincarnations, messianic and millennial expectations. . . .

 

Image from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/26/thai-king-funeral-crowds-gather-to-farewell-father-of-the-nation

Thailand Holiday with Rhyming Parallels from Another Ancient World

Each time I visit Thailand I find myself wondering if I am in a country with religious parallels to the ancient Mediterranean world in which Christianity emerged. Obviously there are enormous differences, too, and it would be silly to ignore those and try to say that Thailand, like a number of other east Asian countries are replicas of the world of the New Testament. But history does rhyme, does it not? Take a look at these photos…

Everywhere one turns there is an image of the king or his wife looking benignly upon all and sundry. Thais overwhelmingly demonstrate adoration for their beloved king. People have photographs of him in their homes, in their business offices, in their work factories. And of course in public places, roadways, buildings. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) died in October last year but there is a year long period of national mourning and the amount of black being worn by shoppers and office workers cannot fail to be noticed. Westerners who come from a tradition of mocking their leaders should understand the seriousness of Thai customs and their lèse-majesté laws. Do let the reader understand!


Check out the official name of a certain hospital building, too. The same name cum date cum title cum occasion, in full just as you see it here, is attached to the building itself.

But that’s just what we should expect in a city whose full ceremonial name is nothing less than

“City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest.”

But you can call it Bangkok, or if you want to impress the locals, Krung Thep.

Then there is the religious variety. Thailand is a Buddhist country but people are seen pausing to pray to images or other reminders of Hindu and Chinese deities or spirit protectors as well. One even sees the occasional reminder of Christianity as one of their options.

Buddhist temples are ubiquitous, of course.

But then there are any Hindu deities everywhere, too, and people don’t mind what their provenance, they will very often be seen praying to them without discrimination. read more »

Pity the dead who were poor

Today’s photo from Thailand. . . . I’ve met this chap a few times now, always in the grounds of a Buddhist temple. His presence never fails to put a smile on my face, so I’d like to share his company with you, too….. He is inviting you to slip a donation into the coffin at his feet. It’s to pay for the funerals of the deceased (specifically for their coffins) too poor to finance their own final farewell.

Behave, Kid! This Is School!

Today’s Thailand photo — entrance to a primary school!

 

A local Thai tried to assure me that the character is not the badass school headmistress or head prefect but a character from a popular children’s story.

To be fair, I should add that on moving on I discovered a happier figure on the other side of the gate. . . .  read more »

Mudskippers — Today’s Thailand post

I got terribly distracted today while lunching at one of scores of river or canal restaurants in southern Bangkok. I was fascinated by the mudskippers just below from where I was sitting. They are common enough to the locals but to me, they set my mind imagining various ways such creatures as this could be seen as the evolutionary link between sea and land fauna.

I will have to rely upon someone else’s uploaded video for this one.

And there are some more fascinating videos following on from the one above. It was cute the way some of them would simply fall over all the time as they tried to walk on the mud. You can see that happening in the video above and in some ensuing ones. And I once let myself fall for the line that “legs” or “wings” or “eyes” etc would have to “work perfectly” the very first time or the creature would never survive. Balderdash.

And that back fin. I could not but help recalling from my childhood fascination with dinosaurs that image of the dimetrodon. For one of the first dinosaurs we know of it sure looked a rather dumb and boring thing compared with the T Rex.

 

 

 

 

Two more pics from Bangkok

And taken with permission, one of the most ubiquitous of scenes but one I always enjoy encountering …..

Ladies Parking

They do things differently in foreign countries, as I was reminded this evening shortly after landing in Bangkok, Thailand. I would be surprised if many immersed in Western ways would be familiar with an entire floor in a multi-storey carpark being reserved for females. (No, there’s no religious reason; Thailand is a Buddhist nation.)

Here’s a close-up:

Presumably it’s a space where women can feel safe from violent and rapacious men. We are warned in public announcements at airport railways stations not to touch any stray dogs here. Rabies being the reason. The parking floor is a depressing reminder that wild dogs aren’t the only threat.

Damn. It’s actually been a good day and I should have posted something more positive. Will try again tomorrow.

It’s a living — being paid to pray

Today I returned to the Erawan shrine in Bangkok to see how it had fared since last year’s bomb attack (that the Thai government refuses to call an act of “terrorism”). There was very little to remind anyone of the carnage last August. It was very much business as usual. I do feel for the Thai dancers, though. They surely have one of the most gruelling jobs — hours every day sending up prayers to the god through their dance and chants.

Tourists (I’m sure they are mostly tourists, Chinese and Japanese mostly) and the occasional local drop by to pay for a blessing or prayer; the more they pay the longer of more effective the prayer, I think. Pay little and maybe only two dancers will do their act; pay lots and you’ll get the full house. The number of musicians remains constant.

It looks to me like the prayer or blessing one pays for is written on a piece of paper and handed to a lead dancer so she is sure to say the right things and decide how many should accompany her.

And whenever they get a chance for a break they get those crowns off their heads very fast and make the most of their short breaks — checking iphones, having a smoke. It was very hot work and they looked like they were fast wearing down in between dances.

I suppose you could call it a service industry. Those earning the money are giving hope and comfort, not unlike western psychiatrists, astrologers and priests, perhaps.

I try to imagine what Jesus would want to cast out here. Surely he’d have pity on the tedium and low pay that the dancers and musicians so stoically endure. Perhaps he’d be offended at the rip off prices charged for the holy trinkets, incense sticks, prayer scrolls — but he would want to be careful he did not leave the cleaners and maintenance staff without a job. But the prices don’t look all that “rip off” to an affluent Westerner like me. 25 baht is a little less than $1.

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Those dints in the plaque are probably a reminder of last August’s bomb blast. They weren’t there in June 2015 (the bombing was two months later) when I took the photo below:

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A $1 for a garland would be very expensive for the poorer Thais but hey, this is a Hindu shrine in “the land of the Buddha”. (Though Buddhists do seem to me to pray to anything that looks sacred.) Maybe Jesus would be angry that the prices prohibited the poorer Thais from participating. But on the other hand there don’t appear to be an over abundance of those poorest Thais in this central part of the big city dominated by multinational brand names no matter what direction one looks.

Maybe Jesus would just like to see the dancers, musicians and maintenance staff get a bigger slice of the day’s takings.

A few short clips:

Looks like two Chinese tourists planning where to place their garlands and incense sticks and one local (left) who has done it many times before. . .

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Good place to plant a bomb

Heavy on my mind at the moment is the bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok. Just pausing to put up a few photos and one video I took of the shrine when I was there two months ago on a family visit to Bangkok. No way of knowing who was responsible yet — I’d be surprised if it came from Redshirt activists from the rural and North region or from the Muslim separatists in the South; Thailand did return Uyghur refugees to China a month or so ago . . . Who knows. Horrific. These pictures were taken around middle of day. The bombing was in early evening when the site was much more crowded.

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shrine

dancing

prayer2

These details are superfluous, but for the record it’s a Hindu deity but the worshipers are mostly Buddhist.
Seven more pics and one video . . . read more »

Phuket, Thailand

May only be able to respond patchily if at all to comments till next week — am off on a weekend holiday away, and regular internet access is not a priority.