Thailand is a beautiful place. Thai culture is so inextricably intertwined with beauty that one cannot mention the word Thai without thinking of lush exotic places and colors, ornate golden architecture, and richly satisfying cuisine. All of what means to be Thai is wrapped in a bejeweled package, where layers upon layers delve into greater beauty and intricacy.
Walking around Bangkok’s, The Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, -where foreigners go to awe at the beauty and natives go to make requests of the tiny golden Buddha- one can see the visual manifestation of the root of Thai culture. The palace, like the culture itself, is a smorgasbord of design, color, texture, and detail. Pairing both clean and curvilinear lines with myriad finials and finishes, there is so much to see that if you returned repeatedly for years you’d never see it all -a reality true of Thailand in general.
Thai culture, like their rich food and ornate architecture, is indulgent, in a way. Yet it feels not like the bloated opulence of Western palaces, cuisines, and cultures. Thai culture is bejeweled and grandiose, yet has a grounded feeling that is one with the earth, a dirtiness, perhaps, that epitomizes its realness -as if it were built of mud rather than stone, or were a clean, beautiful girl walking through wet, dirty streets in a priceless gown that, with each step, colors and tatters the dress at its base, connecting the girl to the street and yet leaving the crown of her beauty unscathed, even providing tender contrast. Thai beauty is rooted in the culture of the earth and stands out against its surroundings, not as a starkly alien object, but as simply the earth’s manifested beauty.
Like a good Pad Thai -served garnished on top with a fresh cut lime, clean white bean sprouts, spritely green onions, red pepper, sugar, and vinegar, all the ingredients become mixed into what was the substance of the underneath noodled mass such that the lime is used up, the sprouts and onions darken and wilt, the red pepper stains all with its color, and the others simply dissolve with no visible trace. What you get from the amalgamation you taste in intricacy of flavor. Yes, the appearance changes and becomes something different, but the true gem is in the pleasure of the taste. Indeed, the recognition and appreciation of pleasure is what drives this creative indulgence, whether it be architecture or food. Thais, I believe at their core, truly appreciate sensory pleasure and happiness, whether it be visual, gustatory, or otherwise. Thailand is not called “the land of smiles” for nothing.
Furthermore, in contrast to more westernized places where you feel from people a real sense of singularity -an independence of going about rooted in one’s own mind and experience- it seems Thais are always with one another, moving and experiencing things as a group -or you could say as a family. Friends are, indeed, regarded more like family, a family that spends all their free time together. Extrapolating this, one could say it’s proof of love and happiness for one another. People here go about not alone in the world, but with a myriad of caring others. There is this friendly humanism about Thai people that is as if everyone is either friend or acquaintance.
Now I’m not saying that everyone is friendly or treats me like a family. Often, if not always, I’m charged more for things simply because of the color of my skin. And though everywhere I go people tell my I’m beautiful, perhaps they could also be speaking badly of me behind my back; but still, for me, Thai people seem generally nice and good natured -like they would rather help me than hurt me, even though they’d like also something in return. I just don’t so much see here the pissed-off, spiteful, lonely individuals who feel affronted by any small encounter that I’m so used to seeing in Western places -and particularly in America. And from this vein of closeness, it seems Thais believe in no such thing as personal space. Like a family, food, money, housing, and transportation are shared, and it is common for playful and pragmatic touching of one another.
In a platonic yet caring way, the sanctity of my physical isolation has been breached more times in two weeks than in the previous two years. Western people don’t generally touch each other unless prescribed by appropriate situations, such as greeting, parting, or special occasions of grief or gratitude. Yet touching ones hand or arm to lead in a direction or as an emphatic gesture feels thoughtful, genuine, and connected, like you’d be with family and friends. And touching strangers on the back of a motorbike or on a subway, is absolutely normal here as well; and perhaps it should be, being simply people moving about in unison with one another.
In this place, where people are more naturally human, it’s only normal the Thai fascination and regard for beauty and pleasure. What is further natural, Thais do not create order out of chaos. They leave the disorder, uncleanliness and realities of the environment to build something, at their timely discretion, on top of it. If one can relax into patiently abiding the lackadaisical flow of progress, then one can rise above things seeming haphazard and thwarted, to see beautiful patterns and infinite nuance of the system. Like the thousands of crowded little streets, alleyways, inlets and corners of Bangkok’s sprawling city, Thailand and Thai culture is permutation after permutation billowing and folding unto itself with a grandiosity ever grounded in the muck of real existence. Thais know and accept what it means to be a human with bare feet on the ground, ever sweating, smiling, and surrounding oneself good food and camaraderie. Just like the architecture, it creates something beautiful out of the earth.