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The Land of Faded Smiles

October 12, 2010

After M went home to Thailand, I decided to follow her, and headed over there myself for about 9 days at the end of August. It was midsummer, monsoon season, and humid. But Thailand is a good place to kill a week, and so fun times were had by all.

And by “all”, I mean us two. Thailand sells itself as “The Land of Smiles”, an impression reinforced by the beautiful women smiling peacefully out of the Welcome to Thailand posters at the airport. Luckily, I had M waiting for me at the airport, providing a ton more smiles, so I was happily to go along with it, until the next day.

Wandering around Bangkok, I quickly decided that this was not the most appropriate slogan for the place. Almost every person we met, at any point on our meanders around the city, had an expression of something closer to a tired, bored, fed-up person who just wanted to be somewhere else. Staff would take orders in an uninterested fashion then just walk off when the order was complete; vendors on the street never dropped the irritated face, even when we bought something.

I paid attention in several situations to see if there was any difference. When only M talked – a native Thai – the smiles still didn’t surface. When we went to an international book chain, where the staff were working in a  comfortable environment and would be receiving a regular wage regardless of what we bought, they still just looked fed-up. And all the while, no matter how much we tried injecting our smiles into their faces, the transfer just didn’t take.

I asked M about this, and her response was simple enough: “I just don’t think we have very much to smile about these days”. Maybe she’s right. We went walking past the charred skeleton of a multi-storey mall, destroyed during the riots a few months before, which apparently killed about 90 people and left over 1,000 wounded. According to M, many of the individual owners of small shops in the mall probably did not have insurance, and are now ruined.

Travelling the country a wee bit, attitudes seemed to improve a little outside of Bangkok. I guess like in big cities everywhere, the crowded spaces, the dirty streets, the noise, the smell, the relatively high cost of living and the large number of homeless vagrants and stray animals kind of squeeze the fun out of those unable to elevate themselves above it all. But even so, while people in the countryside seemed less fed up with life, there was still not a whole lot of external happy around.

And it’s a shame. Thailand is a great place. I talked about how awesome it was back in January 2007, but that was some of the stuff that disappeared when my blog hoster black-holed on me. The scenery ranges from lush jungle, rolling hills and elephants in the north, down to beautiful long idyllic beaches in the south. The weather is always warm (posssssibly too much so), the food is plentiful and amazing – especially in the seafood and fruit areas, and the whole country is covered in Buddhist temples and ancient architecture, altogether creating a land full of sights, smells and tastes which are a delight to behold.

So what’s with the attitude? Aside from the obvious third-world-problems deal, I think a lot of tourists contribute to the general funk. Travel books proclaim about the dodgy dealings of the locals when it comes to prices, and always urge everyone to bargain down from asking price. There is no doubt that as a rule, locals will open to tourists with a heavily inflated price. Bargaining is all part of the game. However, many tourists don’t seem to know how to play it very well.

It’s too common a scene: the whitey at the next stall asks how much for this shirt. The shopkeeper might open at something around a 10-dollar mark. The whitey will feign shock, say that is outrageous, demand a lower price, say 2 dollars. After a bit of back-and-forth, the shopkeeper might be settling around 3 or 4 dollars. However, this is where it begins to get nasty. The whitey has given up on the purpose of bargaining being “to reach a fair price”, and is set on the purpose of “winning”. The whitey is insistent that even at 2 dollars, the shopkeeper is making a profit, and refuses to budge from that position, lest the greedy shopkeeper make a fool of him. To be fair, the shopkeeper probably does still make a profit at 2 dollars. But that is business. Just because the shopkeeper is from a poor country, does not mean that he loses the right to a more-than-marginal profit. 3 dollars is still a fantastic deal for the whitey, and the shopkeeper gets to make a sale, maybe marginally higher than he would have with a local.

For some reason, the whitey has fallen into the belief that unless the shopkeeper is selling at cost, the item is overpriced. For some reason, he feels prouder and more righteous the more he manages to drive the shopkeeper into despair. And he doesn’t do it nicely. Instead of being amiable and polite, Whitey’s entire bargaining strategy is to continue to yell his base price at the shopkeeper in an angry voice, then beginning to make fun of the shopkeeper for not having perfect English. The shopkeeper may eventually give in, sell the item for 2 dollars, and be justifiably pissed off about it. While the whitey saves enough for 10 percent of a coffee when he gets home, the shopkeeper loses out on a meal. Whitey then, full of pride at having “beaten” the locals, goes back to his hostel to brag. “Hahaha, I bet he didn’t make anything off that! He won’t be eating tonight!” is typical of some of the boasting I have heard around the backpackers, as the guy knocks back another beer.

If I were a local, I’d be sick of it too.

Of course, the tourists aren’t entirely to blame. There seems to be a general funk in the air that needs clearing out. Some people are trying to increase the happy vibe in the city. There is a building built in the shape of an elephant, just for fun. Many buses recently have begun to paint themselves in bright, flamboyant colours with unauthorised representations of trademarked Disney characters sprayed over, to various degrees of recognisability. Things like this are nice, they try to breathe a bit of colour and variety into a dusty city filled with dust and smoke. So what do the locals do? Complain. These things are too gaudy, they’re eyesores. We need laws against this type of thing, make them all the same again.

On my final morning, M hailed a taxi and helped me to the local station to catch the train to the airport. After a while, the taxi pulled into a station, but not the station we asked for. The station we wanted was connected to the express line, this one wasn’t. “Whatever,” replied the driver uncaringly, “it’s the same line.” At M’s suggestion we just got out and went with it.

I find things like these sad. The longer people stay in a funk, and stubbornly refuse to enjoy what they can; the longer people stem the possibilities for enjoyment to come out of everyday activities and stagnate in the misery of the present, the harder it will be to break out. If more people would take a breath, close their eyes, and be willing to start with a fresh outlook, to back the enterprises some people are making to increase the number of smiles around the city, I believe the enjoyment of life would increase instantly. Money and wealth is one issue that is not easily solved. Attitude is another important factor, yet this one is within everyone’s grasp to fix. For both the locals and the visitors.

Elephant Building in Bangkok

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