Located at the heart of South East Asia, Thailand has quickly developed over the last ten years to become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Its meteoric rise from nothing more than a haven for backpackers to a mainstream and popular holiday favourite (for which Koh Samui plays an important role) only looks set to continue.
The appeal of Thailand as a holiday destination is obvious with its amazing beaches, beautiful countryside, fantastic cuisine and low prices. Another attraction for many people who visit the Land of Smiles is the fascinating and unique cultural heritage, which is infused with many ideas and philosophies from the Buddhist religion.
Some aspects of modern Thai culture have been influenced by factors from the West but some things are very different indeed. For example, in parts of Thailand, particularly in Bangkok, it is possible to buy the latest designer clothes and jewellery or go to fast food chains such as McDonalds, KFC and Subway; but the fact that Thailand has, for a large part managed to maintain its rich cultural heritage, which is what helps to make the country special and is one of the many reasons that people from all over the world travel to Thailand each year.
One of the most striking differences between Thai and Western culture revolves around sexual orientation. Probably the most prominent example of this is with Ladyboys who live freely and are very much accepted as part of Thai culture and society. In some cases Ladyboys are even celebrated and simply regarded as the ‘third sex’ in Thai culture.
It is quite a joke and often said amongst young male travellers to Thailand that the cute girl you end up chatting to in a bar one night, might not actually be a girl at all! And to a certain extent this could be true. Ladyboys are everywhere in Thai society and you will often see them working in all walks of life including shop assistants, travel agents and beauty therapists.
Koh Samui itself has quite a lot of Ladyboys, as do the other popular tourist destinations of Pattaya and Phuket, many of whom appear in cabaret shows in these tourist hotspots. Go to any popular nightclub or bar of an evening and there is a good chance that you will see a Ladyboy dressed up to the nines and dancing the night away.
It is fair to say that the whole culture of Ladyboys or Katoeys, as they are known in Thailand, will probably be viewed very differently in the West. Some Western countries are actually quite homophobic in their attitudes towards gays, transsexuals and Ladyboys. Very often these minority groups are not treated equally and can even be persecuted against.
As mentioned, the ‘third sex’ is almost celebrated in Thailand, where people are free to explore their own sexuality and be who they want to be, without any fear of backlash or persecution from other sections of society.
In many high schools and universities it is common place to see Ladyboys in a class mixing with the other pupils, who do not even bat an eyelid that someone of a different sexual orientation is sitting alongside them in the classroom. This accepting attitude is very different to what it would be like in Western culture.
One of Bangkok’s most famous women’s universities, the Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, actively welcomes and encourages Ladyboys to attend their classes. The university itself is thought to be the first in the world to sanction Ladyboys or transsexuals to attend what is regarded as a women’s only university.
Aside from the culture of Ladyboys, Thailand is also well known for its fabulous food, with Thai cuisine now being regardedamongst some of the best in the world.
Thai Food and Eating Habits
Sampling some of Thailand’s famous exotic cuisine is an absolute must for anyone who visits the country. However, the culture of eating, particularly meal times, might come as somewhat of a shock for anyone who is visiting the country for the first time. This is because, as far as ‘meal times’ go, Thai people don’t really have any and they will often eat all different times of the day and night. No matter if it is 6 in the morning or 11.30 at night you will not have to look very hard to see groups of Thais eating at any of the local roadside restaurants or cafes.
Where as in Western culture people tend to eat rather different things for breakfast than they would do for dinner, Thai people tend to eat the same sort of foods, such as noodles, chicken and rice or spicy soup, no matter what time of the day or night it is and this can be quite a shock to foreign visitors.
Also, what people eat in Thailand can be quite different from the sort of things that you are used to eating back home. Whilst many different Thai foods not only taste great but also look pretty amazing too, there are other things that might not look all that appealing to foreigners but Thai people love to eat on a regular basis.
If you ever happen to visit Koh Samui’s famous night market at Chaweng or any other night market for that matter, the chances are that you will see a wide variety of different animals that you can buy to eat, many of which will be on sticks and in the process of being barbecued!
Some of these sights will no doubt seem strange to foreign eyes. However, Thai people not only enjoy eating things like frogs legs, chicken feet, small birds, deep fried insects and ants eggs, they also consider these types of foods to be very much a delicacy. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see a Thai person tucking into frogs legs or chicken feet for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
It is also not uncommon to see the intestines or organs of pigs, chickens and cows being grilled, barbecued or deep fried ready for eating. Certainly very little of an animal that has been killed for eating goes to waste and trip to the local market can certainly be a real eye opener.
It is not unreasonable to say that the standard of Thailand’s roads will almost certainly not be up to the same standards as what you are used to back in your home country. It’s not so much the condition of the actual roads themselves that is the problem, although the conditions of some of Samui’s road are particularly bad; the problem with road travel in Thailand is more to do with the driving habits, which are combined with the blatant disregard for basic road safety by the vast majority of Thai people who use them.
In many Western countries road safety is taken very seriously. However, road safety rules and regulations are a different thing altogether in Thailand. At first glance it could even look like no rules apply due to the manner in which people drive. Undertaking and tailgating are so common that they are considered a normal way to drive. Sometimes cars can get frighteningly close to the car in front, which is a recipe for disaster and just one of the reasons why there are so many accidents on Thailand’s roads each year.
It is also common to see cars and trucks heavily overloaded with either passengers or cargo. For example nobody in Thailand seems to think that there is anything wrong with 25 people sat precariously in the back of a pick-up truck whilst it travels down the highway at 150 kilometres per hour. Likewise when people travel on motorbikes with sometimes as many as 4 people perched on the motorcycle, it is often an accident waiting to happen.
People drink driving and people not wearing helmets are also a major problem on the roads of Thailand. Whilst some local police forces do try to crack down on these sorts of thing, many do not. If you do ever drive either a care or motorbike whilst staying Thailand, make sure that you wear your seatbelt or helmet at all times and always drive carefully and responsibly.
Thailand’s infamous sex industry is another area of the country’s culture that some foreign visitors might be shocked by. There is no doubt that lure of the sex industry in Thailand is why some foreigners decide to visit the Land of Smiles. However, for the vast majority of people the sight of bar girls, go-go bars and sex shows will not be something that they are necessarily used to seeing back in their home country.
It is claimed that only a relatively small percentage of Thailand’s sex industry is accounted for by male Western tourists, as it is all too common for Thai men to visit sex workers or prostitutes too. The tradition of Thai men visiting prostitutes or having mistresses is said to date back centuries and is something which is very much in practice today. Of course not every Thai man could afford to frequent the services of a prostitute but the ones who can often have mistresses or other girlfriends, as well as their wife.
Today’s sex industry in Thailand, particularly that in certain areas of Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket is very much aimed at and caters for foreign men, many of whom visit these particular areas of Thailand with one thing in mind. It is said that many of the red light districts, bars and shows originated during the Vietnam War, when American soldiers would travel to Thailand for some much needed ‘R and R’.
After the Vietnam War was over the large numbers of American soldiers were replaced by an even larger number of tourists, which meant that Thailand’s sex industry continued to flourish in such places as Patpong in Bangkok and in Pattaya. It is these locations where you will find the majority of girl bars, sex shows, brothels and massage parlours. Technically this kind of prostitution is illegal in Thailand but it is often the case that many local authorities, including the police turn a blind eye to the industry that is going on around them.
The vast majority of women who work in Thailand’s sex industry often come from the poor rural areas of the north and north east of the country or from the neighbouring countries of Laos and Myanmar. Many of these women travel to the destinations that are popular with sex tourists in order to work in girl bars or massage parlours. These girls, some of which are as young as 15 or 16, can earn enough money to support their whole family. As well as this they can also establish a small amount of financial freedom and security for themselves, which is something that they are unlikely to have experienced before.
A girl working in a bar or massage parlour in Pattaya or Patpong could make more money in a couple of nights than say a trained secretary or office worker could make in a whole month. With this in mind it is not surprising that many girls from poor families end up working in bars, massage parlours or sex shows. Sometimes, girls from poor families might even be actively encouraged to seek work in this industry and any money the girl makes is often used to support as many as two or three generations of the same family, which could equate to as many as ten or twenty people.
The appeal of the Thai girls to foreign men is easy to see. Generally speaking they are very petite and slim, have a beautiful complexion, long black hair and gorgeous brown eyes. They also have a great smile and fun personality. Many of them also see it as their duty to ‘take care’ of their man.
Many Thai girls actively try to seek out foreign boyfriends or husbands as they know that they will be in a much better financial position to be able to provide for them and very often, their family too, than a Thai man would. Therefore, don’t be all that surprised when you see many beautiful young Thai girls in the arms of older foreign men. Without being rude, it is probably fair to say that these Thai girls didn’t get with these men for their youthful looks and athletic physiques.
Some naive men can often let their heart rule their head where their young Thai girlfriend is concerned. Caught up in the whirlwind of a two week romance, with a girl half his age and who is more beautiful beyond his wildest dreams; some men decide to shower their new girlfriend with gifts such as jewellery, designer clothes, mobiles phones and of course, money. Other men have even spent considerable sums on cars or property, which is in their girlfriends name, that he then goes onto lose once the relationship fizzles out.
Having said all that, very often a relationship between a western man and Thai woman can last a considerably long time. There is no doubt that many Thai women can make very good wives and girlfriends and with both parties being happy and in love, the relationship can go onto to flourish and last many years.
Generally speaking, some Thai people can come across as being very shy and quiet when compared to westerners and they can also be quite reserved in showing their feelings too (with bar girls being the exception!).
As well as being perfect hosts, Thai people are generally also very tolerant, understanding and accommodating towards foreigners who visit their country. Earning the nickname the ‘Land of Smiles’, it is true that Thai people do smile a lot and an important part of Thai culture and society is about having fun, enjoying yourself and smiling.
One thing that may catch some foreigners by surprise is the natural curiosity of many Thai people, which in some cases could lead to them asking personal questions regarding your health, social situation or private life. Although this sort of thing isn’t really done in Western cultures, you shouldn’t be offended if someone asks you things like this whilst you are staying Thailand.
Even though Thai people will actively try to avoid conflict or confrontation with someone, they do not have any problem with openly discussing someone’s personal appearance. Whilst this is not meant in a nasty or derogatory, Thai people will often comment if they think you are fat, short, tall, thin, or beautiful or even passing comment on some other part of your appearance such as your nose or ears.
Now, whilst this very much goes against Western culture, it is a good example of the honest nature of many Thai people. If someone happens to say comments about your personal appearance to you, you should take them with a pinch of salt and remember that they are not meant to be hurtful or derogatory.