Happy New Year!
Alan and I just got back from a 5-day vacation in Bangkok yesterday. For me, it was the first trip made where I made a conscious decision that I didn't want to be a thoughtless traveler focused only on my enjoyment for the moment, taking away no new lessons and giving nothing to the place in return.
One of the biggest realizations for me from this trip came out of several conversations with travelers we met along the way and with friends or family when talking about Thailand. Generally, Thailand has been seen as a cheap place to holiday, with many travel shows promoting it as home to the world's best street food for the price of a dollar.
Bangkok in 2018, however, has come a long way. It also houses sprawling malls and designer cafes and labels some of which we don't even have in Kuala Lumpur. And so a common refrain I've been hearing (not only about Bangkok but about Eastern European countries that are considered cheaper to travel to from the Nordics and Western Europe) is "It's getting more expensive these days." And that statement is usually made to sound like a bad thing.
Happy to be paying more
This trip, it hit me that paying more isn't a bad thing. It is a good thing, one I should be celebrating and being happy about. Yes, I may have to spend more on my holiday, but it's because a developing nation is doing what it should be doing - developing. Many of these countries are countries emerging out of poverty or repressive governments and are beginning to discover their modern, entrepreneurial identities. When the prices of things go up, it means that people are starting to be able to command and earn more and enjoy higher standards of living.
And if we can no longer afford the same luxuries we used to be able to, then we just need to adjust our lifestyles accordingly. In some of the safest and richest countries in the world today, people mow their own lawns and clean their own toilets and cook their own food. Cheap labor is not sustainable and not equitable. It's not hard to do our own chores, it's just about learning how to do them instead of relying on cheap labor.
Another thing that was important to me on this trip was to find a local charity to donate to doing meaningful work. I came across Issara Institute, and found out about the work they are doing to stop trafficking and human rights violations in the poorly regulated fishing industry. They focus on two areas I am especially passionate about, food supply chains and worker rights, so it was a natural fit to want to give to them.
Local is best
Another of the things I loved seeing both in Malaysia and Thailand was the sheer amount of home grown clothing labels and food companies (both dine in and packaged food) that have sprouted up. Once upon a time, people used to think local was inferior, but today we are waking up to the fact that it often means more artisanally produced, fresher, and higher quality. Southeast Asia is also getting better at marketing itself, and that helps too.
Beyond tolerance to embracing, beyond resilience to joy
Another thing that hit me about Thailand was how liberal the nation is. Seeing multiracial couples or LGBTQ people walking around is completely normal. This is reflected not only in the streets but in the bookstores and books displayed on shelves - erotica and LGBTQ literature is not something to be hidden away but displayed in plain sight along with all the other titles. Because sex is, after all, a normal part of life.
Which brings me to another reflection that has been on my mind a lot lately. In Malaysia, we like to talk about the term "tolerance" a lot. We wear our tolerance like a badge of honor and say this is the way we have survived peacefully in such diversity. But look at our schools and neighborhoods. We have Malay, Chinese, and Tamil schools. The same goes for our neighborhoods. We may tolerate, but we certainly don't integrate or embrace people who are different. The majority of my Malaysian friends are Chinese, most of whom have probably never eaten an idly or poori or attended an akad nikah. Tolerance is great, but I don't believe it should be regarded as the gold standard or final destination.
Another value we tend to hold up as an ideal, especially in modern American literature, is the idea of grit and resilience. Certainly, the attitude of Finnish "Sisu" is something I resonated a lot with and found it natural to understand upon moving to this cold and frosty region. But one thing Alan and I noticed about most Thai people compared to other parts of the world is that their environment hardly affects their demeanor. In many tropical countries people are loud and laid back, much like the weather. In cold countries, people are more quiet and reserved.
But the Thai live in completely hot, noisy, chaotic surroundings amid crazy traffic. Yet, they still are quiet, respectful, form orderly queues to get into trains, and are completely chill even when waiting for the light to turn green in the middle of a four way junction, without the constant honking that is so common in Malaysia and Vietnam.
We found a clue to this strange behavior when dropping our clothes off at a laundrette next to our hotel. It was New Year's eve but the shop was still open. Despite that, the party had already started. The two girls running the shop were at a wooden table outside by the street having beers with two other friends and music playing on a speaker. We interrupted their dancing to ask them about prices, after which they promptly went back to laughing and dancing.
A few days later when we went to pick up our laundry, Alan commented that they must have had a good party the other night. The girl laughed and said, "I don't remember anything that happened after 9pm!"
Maybe it's the liberal approach they have to sex and pleasure (which also includes edible pleasures). Maybe it's their devout Buddhist faith that values inner peace over outer actions.
Whatever it is, the Thai people are good at not just being resilient and hardy - they seem to aim to have fun while running their businesses and feeding their families as well.
And that's a lesson I want to carry with me into the new year. To not just tolerate, but to learn about and embrace those who are different from me. To not just be strong and resilient, but to know when to kick back, relax, laugh and dance as well.