Sawadee and Smiles

Thailand offers the granduer of palaces and elephants but also humble hospitality

Thai dancers dazzle the crowd. © Adam R. Cole 2007

Monks blend in with urban culture. © Adam R. Cole 2007

Thailand is known affectionately as the Land of Smiles and holds true to its name in every way. A connection with Thailand is almost instantaneous because of the warmth of the Thai people, whose good nature is truly overwhelming, as it is genuinely a land of smiles. Thai people greet you in a way called Wai, where they clasp their hands together (like in prayer) and then bow and then say the general greeting (for all hours of the day) “Sawadee.” The gesture is not only very friendly, but also shows the humility of the Thai, who will never use gestures (to wave/signal/beckon, etc.) but simply clasp their hands together – all the slap happy, hand shaking of the Western world is somewhat detested out here (though is acceptable in certain situations).

I was blessed to be here, in this distant land, for a military exercise [Cobra Gold – named after the jungle snake prevalent here] and automatically had some friends because of it. Guys like Go, Oat, and Ohm…the people here use nicknames which bring a humble/friendlier nature to their identity and also make it easier to pronounce. Though the Thai people don’t have perfect English, they speak it very well, and readily want to engage you on the finer points of life, such as girlfriend status.

On one occasion during my here, my Thai Navy pals took me out to a ‘local’ eatery, the kind where the food is prepared—fresh veggies, meats, rice—from a small cart/mobile kitchen on a patch of sidewalk and then dined on in an adjacent part of the sidewalk; the dining experience exemplified no frills eating at its finest and is representative of how most of the Thai people get their meals (for usually a couple U.S. dollars or less). Despite the low key environ, the food was quite tasty, a-rawy, and had an authentic zeal to it.

The enchantment of Thailand is in the absolute eclectic and unique cultural offerings, from the ubiquitous sight of elephants to Thai boxing to the thousands of stray dogs to monks clothed in golden brown robes that walk the streets alongside their kinsman. Thailand’s scenes/scenery is equally mixed, as skyscrapers/resort hotels, makeshift shanty villages, jungle foliage and accompanying jungle enclaves, and Buddhist temples all share geographic space.

Thailand’s blend of personas and landscapes was more than apparent during my time in Chon Buri (where the military exercise I was a part of was being held) and then amplified upon my Bangkok arrival. In Bangkok, you had to literally hold on for the ride…that is if you are utilizing the tuk-tuk, a motorized three-wheeler taxi service, whose zoom, zoom makes you feel like your on a racing speedway (note: ear plugs and gas masks recommended when riding the tuk-tuk). While not too good for your health (due to the massive pollution you’re exposed to), it is a great way to get around the city; our helpful driver on the first day, nicknamed Dang, took us to a tailor shop (silk suits are a staple of urban commerce), a night market and then back to the hotel, all for 200 (plus 10 for tip) baht ($7, about), all the while waiting at each stop and providing good insider info along the way to the next destination. The tuk-tuk ‘ride’ was the kind of adventure—and hospitality—always to be found in the huge city…

For a historic view of Bangkok, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ayutthaya is a perfect venue. It is the former capital of Thailand in the 14th century before it was destroyed by the Burmese in 18th century (bitter rivalries have long-existed between Thailand and its neighbors, especially in as Thailand exerted its power during militarily in reign of the Ayutthaya-based dynasty). The grand temples structures, known as wat, still exist there, despite much being burned when the Burmese took over the city (for a very brief period); a good portion of the city’s structures have been rebuilt at the wishes of the kings that followed the Ayutthaya era. The Buddhism-inspired grandeur of Ayutthaya is representative of a once dominant capital; it is marked by huge Buddha statues, given golden sashes, in both sitting and one in a laying down position, with a background of large stone temples whose spires reach to the sky. For me and the particular tour I was a part of, a ride down the Chao Phraya River was complimentary, which made out to be a peaceful journey without the vrooms and zooms of the tuk-tuks.

The crown jewel of Thai national pride can be found at the Grand Palace and What Phra Kaew. The palace was the home of King Rama I-V when Bangkok became the new capital; the king’s palace was later moved to another part of the city. The wat and surrounding sculptures, monuments give off the Buddhism-inspired grandeur of Ayutthaya with much more gold found at this site. The What Phra Kaew is considered very holy because it houses an emerald Buddha, which has a long and complex story that survives centuries upon centuries, surviving natural calamity and enemy intentions – originally had a plaster covering, only to reveal emerald underneath after some fateful events.

Thailand itself seems to be on its kind of theater stage…where all kinds of sounds and colors are being splashed together. While there is no distinct plot, its amazing to watch it all flow and even hop on for the ride (via tuk-tuk or elephant). They call Thailand a gateway to Southeast Asia and it seems to be more than a gateway, but a hub for pieces of the world to connect, even if just for an instant. The hospitality and warmth of the people is overwhelming and is something that kindles in the mind long after departing. The endless smiles and the constant “Sawadee” are sweet sounds that give this country a touching melody.