Thailand is dubbed – Land of Smiles. It’s more or less true that Thais invariably smile though not constantly but a hell of a lot more than Europeans do. In part I think it stems from the oriental loss of face by displaying ill temper, anger, irritation or annoyance in public. So, are the smiles insincere? No, not at all. It takes time but it is possible to detect which smiles mean “Piss off, idiot, and leave me alone”. Let me tell you a story of a recent event.
I was talking with neighbours and the oldest guy said that he hadn’t realised that he and his wife still had to visit Immigration Police every 90 days to confirm their address even though they have (as I do) an annual visa for retired folks. They had overstayed this requirement by a couple of weeks and had gone to Immigration that day to rectify it. There they had been informed that the fine was 2000 baht each for the lapse. Neither of them can speak any Thai and neither would be likely to smile when concerned about this breach of the law.
This conversation was of great concern to me as I was alerted to the fact that I had forgotten to do likewise fully a month before. I went down to Immigration first thing the next morning. I spoke Thai as best I could and said that I was an idiot and was very sorry but I had completely forgotten about it until a month later. But more importantly, I believe, I smiled throughout my interaction with the police officers. The police captain said, “Be careful not to do it again or else we will be obliged to charge you a fine of 2000 baht. Today we will be of good heart and you don’t pay the fine.”
Thai people have the deserved reputation of being charming, kind, helpful, co-operative and politely considerate. This is at odds with some of the things that I have spoken about on driving behaviour and fails to fit with the fact that they tend to speed up rather than slow down or change lanes when you wish to join a stream of traffic from a side street. Or why they will double-park in a lane that is scarcely wide enough for two vehicles and has plenty space for single parking. Or will variously inconvenience other road users.
I think that I have sussed it. Relationship is so important that it must be preserved and honoured by all the previously mentioned social graces. And relationship is subject to the rule of Now. Thais will readily form trivial and tenuous relationships that are ephemeral and only belong in the Now. Shopkeeper and customer, neighbours, work colleagues and all other established relationships down to those people who are complete strangers but with whom you have exchanged smiles and/or “good day”.
Other car drivers, motorcyclists or pedestrians are complete strangers with whom you have no relationship and therefore you have no need or obligation to be pleasant or thoughtful of them. They are beyond the pale of your consideration. However, if another driver is close enough and driving slowly enough for me to smile at, then he or she will be eager to accommodate to my needs. A relationship has been formed and must be honoured, albeit for the space and duration of a few seconds.
Story: Raymond Lightbown
Pictures: Silvia Muda