Thailand- Land and people:
A male Canadian tourist I met in Ayutthaya said that the reason he came to Thailand every year was it was the only place that was reliably "hot and safe" (hot in the temperature sense, not "hott") for white foreigners. And that seems pretty true- unlike some of the scary stories you hear about traveling in Central America, Africa, or even other parts of SE Asia, you never feel like someone is going to assault you, rob you, or otherwise victimize you in Thailand. Other than con-game scams and a few swindles aimed at sex tourists, whatever criminal element there is in Thailand pretty much leaves the tourists alone. The scariest part of Thailand is the Bangkok taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, who treat lanes, passing rules and one-way streets as mere suggestions rather than "rules".
This is a tuk-tuk:
They are named for the sound the engine makes, and can seat about 2 Westerners comfortably. You'll notice this particular tuk-tuk driver's sign and that he uses the word "farang". This is Thai slang for any white (european, US, etc) foreigner (I don't know if there's an equivalent word for non-Thai Asian tourists). Like "Yankee", farang can be a benign or inflammatory word, depending on intent/context. It's pronounced similar to "sarong", not like "bang".
I read in Traveler's Tales Thailand (an excellent book, btw) that in Thailand, farang are like gods. Not in the sense that they are loved and worshipped (far from it!), but in the sense of the ancient Greek gods- farang have great power, which can be either benevolent power or destructive power, and they must be placated and kept happy. Like the gods, you want the farang to be pleased and use their power for the benefit of the people, and then to go away without destroying anything.
"Power" in the above analogy is money and tourism for the most part, but also foreign policy stuff. Thailand has for the most part avoided recent Western interference in its politics, trade, etc, and a lot of that is probably due to the exceptional accommodation given to tourists in Thailand- You leave Thailand with a sense that the Thai people are gracious and dignified, which reflects well on their government/society. Contrast this with a tourist's typical experience with police in Mexico or beggars in India. When Singapore caned that American for vandalism a decade ago, it was news for weeks. When the current Thai PM decided to end drug trafficking in 90 days, and in the resulting implementation, 2500 suspect dealers and traffickers were killed by police or executed, it created no outrage in the US, if indeed it made the news here. And this only happened in 2003, so it's not like there weren't blogs to cover the story.
Thailand- The Monarchy and the insidiousness of "The King and I"
this is your pal King Bhumibol:
He's been the King since 1946 (all that recent hubbub about Queen Elizabeth's lengthy reign? Bhumibol beat her to the throne by 6 years, even though she's a year older than him) and his picture is EVERYWHERE- in the bank, at restaurants, on billboards as you enter a city-- it's like the banners of Kim Jong Il in Korea with two big differences: 1) king Bhumibol is not bat-shit insane 2) the Thai people really do respect the king and the monarchy.
Sure, you say, they love the King because they have to, or they don't know any better. It's hard to explain, but I think the Thai love of the King is actually pretty sincere. Kinda like Catholics and the Pope, except the King isn't infallible and has no influence on the fate of your immortal soul. The King has no real power (similar to the British monarchy), but unlike in the UK, no one makes fun of the monarchy. Maybe because it's a crime to do so, but also, they really like him.
Thailand doesn't have a big history of censorship in general (although I have read they will cut sexually explicit scenes from imported films), but there's one film that you still can't see in Thailand even 50 years after its premiere: The King and I, the musical starring Yul Brenner. This film is considered deeply offensive because of its suggestions that King Mongkut spoke broken English, was kind of a buffoon, and had an attraction/romance with Anna (the "shall we dance?" sequence). In actuality, the King spoke English very well, had been a monk prior to being King, was highly educated, and was almost 60 when Anna arrived in the Siamese Court (so he was much older than her and already had 20+ wives, so a romance seems unlikely).
Anna Leonowens was apparently the James Frey of her day: her memoir exaggerated her role in the Siamese Court (she was an English teacher and not a governess), said the King threw errant wives into an underground dungeon (which no one has ever found under the Grand Palace, and in fact Bangkok's soil is too swampy to support such a thing), misunderstood basic tenets of Buddhism , etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (as Yul Brenner would say). She also lied about her age, parents, class background, and said her husband had been killed whilst tiger hunting in India. So Anna is a big liar, and any films based on her book are not only suspect but offensive to the Thais. The 1999 Jodie Foster non-musical film "Anna and the King" apparently failed to correct enough of these errors, and it too is banned in Thailand.
The King is of course on all the money, and we had a laugh teasing our friend Aaron that they resembled each other:
In part 2, I'll cover Thai Engrish, weird stuff you can eat, and why Hmong villagers sell folk art clothing with images of robots on them.