Living with a Thai family for a number of days gave me an interesting insight into Thai values and lifestyle. I discovered without much surprise that they love to eat and shop!
There is an art to buying and eating food in Thailand. Most food is bought from street stalls, where a complex, fresh and tasty dish can be made in minutes before your eyes. This is fast food with style and elegance. Herbs are thrown in, soups are poured and dips and rice are packaged. A whole meal is contained within clear plastic bags tied with elastic bands.
Eating is a communual affair and everyone brings a dish they discovered to the table. The skill then comes in adding the right dipping sauce to the right dish. It is important to have a mix of hot, sweet and sour together. I tried everything I was offered – from famous Thai fish balls to crab, crayfish, giant prawns, fried fish, spicy soups, rice porridge and one of my favourites – fried mini coconut pancakes. My tolerance to chilli grew, but one lunchtime the food was so hot my eyes started watering and I had chilli tears running down my face.
I went to a buddhist temple with the family. It was so different to simply visiting as a tourist and snapping photos of the beautiful structures. We went as an act of gratitude, it was a chance for my thai friend to say thankyou for answers to her prayers 2 years previously. The whole family – brothers, wives, sisters and husbands went together and I was humbled by their sincerity and faithfulness. The experience was also very interactive with children folding petals and offering lotus flowers, incense sticks being lit and bells being rung. They also bought and released different river creatures. Each animal represented something you hoped for – from prosperity to good health. The cynical side of me saw this as a great business opportunity, where the animals are then caught and re-sold.
Another side to Thailand, not often seen by tourists is the parades and fashion shows of wealthy, young thai children. Aiming to be like American beauty pagaeants with an asian twist, children as young as 7 or 8 are preened, made up and encouraged to be like models. I did not enjoy seeing this competitive and pressurised environment that promoted an image based culture of beauty. It was an unexpected insight into the values of some Thai people.
The Thai people are also obsessed with royalty. Many people venerate and worship their existing monarch to the level of a God. King Rama XI is the longest serving head of state in the world and is genuinely loved by the vast majority of the country.
I was in Bangkok just after his recent birthday and the streets were lit with strings of lights and flowers were planted especially for this occasion. I visited Rajabhakti Park down the coast in Hua Hin, which was built by the Thai Army to display huge statues of Kings past and present. It was packed with Thai visitors buzzing around in the sunshine under bright umbrellas.
I also went to the elegant and beautifully designed summer palace built out of wood and open to the sea breezes. The big worry for the people is the age of the existing king who is now in hospital and who will be his successor. I got the impression his son, who is next in line was not popular, whereas his daughter is admired for her fairness and care. I think it will be extremely turbulent times in Thailand when the King dies.