Often viewed in a positive light, Thais are all about sanuk (fun), saduak (convenience), and sabai (comfort). As creatures of comfort, we undeniably love all the light-hearted things which are parts of our joie-de-vivre. But beyond the superficiality of Thais’ friendly smiles, we are full of contrasts and contradictions. In the new millennium, Thais’ traits have evolved to survive among the fittest.
Thai characteristics and personality are the products of our environment, moulded through centuries via our geography, climate, environment, social norms, values, traditions, religions, political regimes, foreign influences, etc. Although these factors may give clues as to why we behave in certain ways, most visitors find Thais’ hearts and minds quite conflicting. So our merits and foibles can be observed through Buddhism and daily behaviours.
With respect to Buddhist teachings and codes of conducts, many misdeeds we hear about everyday refute the simple Five Precepts. First, the precept “Do not take the lives of others” seems to be completely ignored when we see tabloid news full of guts and gore, cold-blooded murders, and gunmen cheaply hired for assassinations. Second, “Do not take others’ possessions” is contradicted by the glut of corruption, bribes, and theft in all forms. Third, “Do not engage in improper sexual misconduct” doesn’t matter when pleasures can be fulfilled by premarital sex, extramarital affairs, prostitution, and a society full of “friends with benefits”. Fourth, “Do not make false statements” has to compete with all the lies, gossip, propaganda, alternative facts, and half-truth marketing schemes. Fifth, “Do not be intoxicated” cannot stop the inundation of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs at every corner.
Peculiarly, although Thais are superstitious and fatalistic, we are not afraid of committing sins. Perhaps, we tolerate too much. Like many cultures, Thais prefer comforting lies to unpleasant truths. Being polite and ghreng jai (considerate and deferential), we avoid confrontations and would rather compromise than create conflicts. This can be summed up in one word: hypocrisy. We alternate between our public and private personae. Behind the wais and the smiles, many are not as unaffected as they seem. To the general public, we are cool-hearted, easy-going, and happy-go-lucky, but in reality it’s every man for himself. These contrasts can be observed in three different situations.
Formal vs. Casual: As much as we love pomp and circumstance, we are laid-back and carefree due to the sanuk mentality. In formal milieu, social hierarchy guides us through etiquette to conform according to rank and status. However, in familial settings our decorum becomes more relaxed and our attitude shifts and makes way for contempt, negligence, and tardiness. Witnessed on several occasions, guests or attendants would talk during speeches at weddings and ceremonies or during sermons at funerary wakes. Seemingly unserious, it shows lack of respect. Artistically, Thais have defined a rare taste and displayed how elegant our culture is in beautiful architecture of palaces and temples and other refined creations. However, our garbage and waste management shows the world how casual and disrespectful we treat the environment. This has caused several detrimental incidents in recent years, such as floods and fires.
Compassion vs. Selfishness: Known for our nahm jai (generosity) coupled with Buddhist morals and ethics, we are compassionate and tolerant to many aspects of life. But unbeknownst to the world, we can be very selfish. A simple case in point is the notorious traffic jam. Like Dr. Jeckyll transforming into Mr. Hyde, many Thais become maniacs behind the wheel, as we push, rush, take over lanes, and speed. Without sounding too pious, patience is not a virtue during road rage. We and our destinations are of the utmost priority. Interestingly, Thais have finally learned how to queue. For decades waiting in line was a big problem, but in the modern mass transit systems Thais are now lining up nicely. However, when using an escalator, standing to one side has yet to be taught.
Detachment vs. Greed: Buddhism ultimately teaches us to let go of attachments such as egos, possessions, and external stimuli. We should focus on the happiness within, but looking at materialism in modern Thai society the question is: How much is too much? Megaprojects and multi-purpose complexes mushroom all over cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and as basic and functional infrastructures, they serve their objectives very well. Nonetheless, how many skyscrapers, condominiums, and shopping malls do we actually need? Defying logic, some may not think about these as greed because they are deceptively packaged and presented to hide less attractive effects such as traffic congestion and pollution. Because Thais love showing off, the false value of conspicuous consumption has become normative, and exponentially expanded into the digital realm.
Our traits are the reflections of our society. They will keep fascinating sociologists and psychologists and also ourselves. Sunthorn Phu, a Thai poet in the early 19th century honoured by UNESCO for his literary works, allegorized that human psyches are even more wicked and twisted than the vines. And these confused minds make us all too human.