Americans are not famous for their clear understanding of foreign countries. Their knowledge of other places is generally restricted to travel poster images and anecdotal information. France becomes the Eiffel Tower and snooty waiters. Germany becomes castles and Oktoberfest. Italy becomes ruins and pickpockets. Some enlightened Americans recall that there are famous museums in these places, but most do not care. Asian countries are even less well understood.
I wish that I could claim to be much better informed, but that would not be true. I have wider interests than most people, and I am more experienced of books, newspapers and films than the average person, but I have never had what could be called an compelling academic interest in anything at all.
Before coming to Thailand with the Peace Corps, at the age of fifty-five, my knowledge of Thailand was very thin. I knew that there had been a financial disruption in 1997, but I didn’t know the details. Was Thailand one of the “Asian Tigers” back then? One of the decade’s new economic successes? I’d have to look that up. Mostly, I knew that Thai food was delicious, and from meeting the owners and the wait staff of many Thai restaurants I had the impression that Thai people were very friendly.
The travel poster/anecdote version of Thailand is one of beautiful beaches and prostitutes. These things exist, but they are a very small, insignificant and misleading part of the real picture.
In reality, Thai women are, overwhelmingly, a very modest bunch, and usually quite religious. There are some very nice beaches, but finding one that is not overrun with rude foreigners is becoming difficult.
The Real Thailand
Thailand is a big place, fully as large and as populous as France. The real charm of Thailand is found far off the beaten tourist path.
The food is uniformly excellent, everywhere in Thailand. You might guess that. What comes as a surprise to many visitors is that you can confidently eat the food without worrying about ruining your stomach and your vacation. Thai people are very proud, they don’t want you to get sick on food that they sold to you. They’re careful about what they cook. (Just don’t eat fish on the beach when the vendor has been walking around with the tray for two hours already. I mean, use your head.)
And Thai people more than live up to their reputation for charm and hospitality. No surprise there either. There are many other wonderful things about Thailand and Thai people that are less well known.
Education in Thailand
My university is the Ramkhamhaeng University, and it’s a big one. We have 850,000 students, attending classes at the main campus in Bangkok, a subsidiary campus nearby, and forty-four remote campuses out in the provinces. The students get a very good education, and they have to work very hard for it, but getting in, and paying for it, are easy. Ramkhamhaeng is the biggest “open” university, there are no particular entrance requirements and no entrance test. Tuition is so low that it’s almost invisible without instruments. These are wonderful things that we no longer have in America.
High school students in Thailand have choices that are not available to most American students. High school here is from grade seven through twelve, and it is divided into two parts. Grades seven, eight and nine are mandatory, and free, it’s all free up to that point. Students can then choose to attend grades ten, eleven and twelve for a nominal fee, or go to a technical college for four years in lieu of the rest of high school, also at a nominal fee. The technical colleges provide high quality vocational training in many fields.
Adult literacy is somewhere around 98%. The Thai education system is not perfect, but it is accessible, universal and affordable.
I was born in the 1940’s, and many of my Thai friends who were also born at that time lived in homes with no electricity and perhaps no hook up to a municipal water supply. That has all changed.
By a concerted national effort, virtually every home in Thailand now has both conveniences. I have visited with families that live way outside of town in the rice fields, in homes that have no windows or doors, but those homes have a hook up to clean water, and they all have electricity. The rates are heavily subsidized for families of limited means.
More recently the government has instituted a couple of programs to improve the dental health of students from families too poor to provide it themselves. Ten years ago I began teaching at a small school in a very small, poor town. Many of the children in the fourth, fifth and sixth grade had terrible teeth, mostly missing, some black. It was around then that a program was launched to arrange for dentists to visit all children in this situation at school on a regular basis. Another program delivered milk for all of the students as school was letting out. Within six years virtually all of the sixth grade students at this school displayed very good teeth.
Health care is not universal, but there is a program to make it much more affordable.
Thailand makes a considerable effort to take care of its own, within its budgetary and economic constraints.
Thailand literally means, “the land of the free.” There is near total economic freedom, vastly more than we experience in the United States. For example, some of my teacher friends up north made extra money by cooking after school. They would prepare a big pot of something popular, decant it into plastic bags closed with rubber bands, and simply display the bags on a table outside the house. Usually a teenage child would man the table. People would stop on motorcycles on their way home after work and buy the food. No licenses, no official interference and no taxes. This is what total freedom looks like. (It is possible . . . but that’s another story.)
Similarly, anywhere you go in Thailand there are ways to get around. Usually there is an organized system of vans, tuk-tuks, pickup trucks, or motorcycle taxis, but not always. In some places it may just be guys with cars who serve as taxis for flat rates. Almost anyone that you may ask, “how can I get there?” will be able to help you, even if he has to call a friend.
The unemployment rate in Thailand is something like 0.9%. Thais work too hard, and for too little money, but they’re all working.
Thai politics can seem mysterious to outsiders, and it can often seem chaotic. But there is a mystery and a majesty to it, a certain political genius that I believe arises from what I call the “Spirit of the Rice Field.”
Thai culture is based on concepts like group wellbeing and group happiness. This can be very useful when it comes to avoiding problems, or minimizing them, or massaging them away without too much trouble. Witness the success of Thai kings like Rama IV, and the great Rama V, King Chulalongkorn, who is justifiably revered as the Father of Modern Thailand. Those men kept Thailand free and independent while every other country in South East Asia was colonized by Europeans.
Consider the Thai experience of World War II. There was no alternative but to cooperate with the Japanese, but the Thai government had no enthusiasm for a war against America and England. They were coerced into declaring war against the Allies, but they immediately contacted American intelligence sources and offered to help. Many of the bombing raids launched by America against Japan were assisted by targeting information provided by Thai consular officials in Tokyo and elsewhere.
Proof of this can be found in the fact that after the war, America insisted that there be no penalties imposed on Thailand for having declared war on the Allies. That was a smooth move right there.
So now, if Thai politics goes in directions that I do not fully understand, I tend to trust them to be working some of this old Thai magic. Like the recent coup. Like previous coups, and there have been many, the Thai army will almost certainly protect the economy like a loving mother hen and take steps to bring the country closer to being a working democracy, and as soon as possible too.
Thailand is not a perfect place, but almost nowhere is. Maybe absolutely nowhere is perfect, but I’m not the expert. Maybe Denmark. Someone else could write 1,500 different words about what a terrible place Thailand is. I have obviously chosen the positive side of that debate.
Thailand is, on balance, a wonderful country, full of beautiful scenery and wildlife, with the best food in the world, and friendly, talented people who tolerate foreigners very well. It all works out okay for me, because it now appears that, with their continued indulgence, I’ll be here for the duration.