What Is It About Thailand?

     –   by Jay Shepherd, July 31, 2014

I can’t count the number of times people have asked me why I return to Thailand, year after year.  What is it about that country, they say, that draws me back, even when I have no obvious reason to go any more?

There was a time when each trip had an excuse.  At the beginning, I was doing a friend a favour, helping with one of his businesses there.  It wasn’t really legal work.  Just a friend helping a friend, in this case by “mentoring”, I suppose you can say, the local manager, who was his son.

Maybe I never would have gone to Thailand, but for that first request to help out.  It wasn’t on my list of places I wanted to go.  Generally, tropical climates are not high on my list because of the discomfort of the heat (and Thailand is, most days, VERY hot).  I’m not much of a beach person anyway, and aside from beaches I didn’t know very much about the country.  There are lots of places I would have traveled first, all other things being equal.

That first trip wasn’t a particularly great one, as it turns out.  The airline I chose was not very good, and with the long flight I was unhappy at the end of it.  I also made a poor choice of hotels (there were a lot of single men in the hotel – don’t ask), and another friend arranged for a guide who didn’t really speak English.  The trip was also planned for only eight days, which from Canada is far too short given the travel time.  I only had five days in Thailand.

It ended up being OK.  The assistance I gave to the business worked out well, and didn’t take a lot of time.  I had a less than pleasant meeting with Thai lawyers, but then I spent some much more pleasant time in my friend’s factory.   Otherwise, I was free to see the sights and relax.  Once I ditched the Thai-speaking guide for an English-speaking one, being a tourist was not bad.

One thing that I found difficult is that Thai culture is much different from North American culture, and in five days I didn’t really adjust.  I found getting things done frustrating, and when I pressed, nothing I would say or do made anything better.

The other negative was the heat.  Suited up like a businessman, I was uncomfortable virtually all of the time I was outside.

With that experience, I wouldn’t have rushed to go back, and I only did so because there was a responsible investing conference in Bangkok the next year, and I was invited to speak.  My friend took that opportunity to ask me to help out again, and I booked three weeks rather than one.  I also chose a better hotel, and this time I knew a couple of local residents.

But what really made that second trip better was that, a week into it, I started to realize that Thais were reacting negatively to my aggressive, “North American lawyer” personality.  Slowly, over the course of the next couple of weeks, I learned to smile more, accept more, and just relax.  When I returned to Canada, I felt good.  Nothing particularly magical had happened.  But I felt good.

There is something fundamental in Thai culture that we don’t have in Toronto.  Confrontation and conflict are not socially acceptable behaviour.  Co-operation, acceptance of others, and positive interaction is not just encouraged, but expected.

This was most surprising to me in routine day to day events.  I was in a department store, waiting patiently to pay for something, when another customer quite rudely cut in front of me in the line.  Without thinking, I gave him a dirty look, and sternly pointed to the back of the line, four customers behind me.  It’s my natural tendency:  don’t take any shit from anybody.  Seemed fair in the circumstances.

Suddenly, I was entirely in the wrong.  The fact that the other person was rude, and the fact that my unhappiness was justified, both were completely irrelevant.  Confrontation, even in that situation, put me in the wrong.  It is bad manners, to the point of being repugnant to most people.

Luckily, I was with a friend, who immediately drew me aside, out of the line, and explained.  She also showed me how, with a smile on my face, I could have assumed that the rude person simply made a mistake, and helped them in a friendly way to find the rear of the line.  No conflict, no anger, but you still get the job done.

That isn’t to say Thailand lacks any aggressive behaviour.  Far from it.  Thai men, in particular, can sometimes be very aggressive to tourists who have wandered off the beaten path.  (They can be very aggressive to each other, too, especially when they have had a few drinks.)  The difference is how to handle it.  If you respond to aggression with aggression, it will certainly escalate, and you will be considered wrong for allowing that to happen (even if you didn’t start it).  If you respond to aggression with calm – smiling and friendly without backing down – it almost always dissipates.

For a while, I thought this was only true in Bangkok.  Now that I’ve traveled to a number of other areas of the country, I realize it is consistent throughout (although perhaps less so in Phuket, which is a little more European in tone).

It is so pervasive that, in fact, I have a theory about the crowds on city streets.  Westerners notice fairly early that, when you walk along a busy Bangkok sidewalk, other people will often bump into you.  Sometimes they don’t even try to avoid the contact.  This doesn’t normally happen in North America, even when it is very busy.  My theory is that Thais are free to bump into others, precisely because no-one will call them on it.  In Toronto, or New York, if you bump into someone, there’s a good chance someone will raise a fuss.  You can’t raise a fuss in Bangkok.

Despite the bruises from walking the streets, this Thai attitude of non-confrontation is overwhelmingly a positive.

It took me a while (there could be a debate about how long, exactly, and I know my Thai friends would have a variety of opinions on this), but eventually I started to get it.  Now, when I go to Thailand, it only takes me a day or two to get into Buddhist acceptance mode, a laid-back version of myself that most of those who know me back home would surely not recognize.  Once I get into that mode, I stay there for the four or five more weeks of my trip.  When I’m riding my bicycle, I am not yelling at the drivers who cut me off.  When I am in restaurants, I get great service, not because I’m demanding, but because I am happy and calm.  Driving in the countryside, I avoid problems by defensive, not aggressive, driving (which it turns out is a very good idea).

When I return, I am truly rested and relaxed.  It is therapy.

Sure, I have lots of other reasons to go to Thailand.  Until 2011, I was still helping my friend.  I now have some people I know there, and it is nice to see them again from time to time.  Of course, Thailand has many great things to do and see, including my favourite – lots of beautiful waterfalls.  (And my second favourite, one of the world’s biggest and most interesting weekend markets, Chatuchak.)

But the truth is, there are many other places with attractions, and some of them are also places where I know people.  None of them, though, allow me – force me, even – to wind myself down to a non-aggressive state, and maintain that calm demeanour for weeks at a time.

I come back from London (another great place) singing show tunes, or from Paris with art and architecture bouncing around my brain, or from New Orleans infused with jazz and blues, but in each case I am the same when I come back as when I left.  (Just happier.)

When I come back from Thailand, I am not just happy, but I’m also a different person.  Who knows how long it lasts each time, of course, but that period of calm and non-aggression is very good for me.  When I go a long time between Thai trips, I crave it.

That’s why I keep going back to Thailand, year after year.


About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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2 Responses to What Is It About Thailand?

  1. Birnie says:

    Interesting article, Jay. Your disciplined background certainly helps you tell good stories, like this one about adapting to foreign cultural differences. You left us wondering what keeps people so happy in an American environment once they discover a life abroad, but admittedly, that’s another story. 🙂


    • Jay Shepherd says:

      My Thai friends – some of them – lament that Thailand is not aspirational enough. They see that non-confrontational attitude as too passive, and would prefer a more competitive and aggressive society. This may be a little bit of the grass is greener on the other side, or it may be part of the age-old truth: extremes are rarely optimal.


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