Traffic may be a good reflection of the humanity as embedded in different cultures, so it is with Thailand.
The Thais together with the Japanese stopped honking their horns more than 30 years ago, while the rest of Asia had their car horns tied to their heartbeat. Here in Thailand, cutting in and out is tolerated, and the thought is ‘he must be in a hurry, let him in’.
The impatience and the constant hurry in the West can be an advantage, but may also work against the West. Japanese negotiation tactics based on extreme patience and perseverance bringing out western opposites is a good example.
During the monsoon or rainy season in Thailand, water puddles as big as lakes are frequent in Bangkok, and drivers try hard not to splash water on pedestrians. It’s a form of etiquette and courtesy to avoid splashing others who are risk of getting drenched while you are safe and dry in your car.
Parking is a problem like everywhere and double - or even triple - parking occurs frequently. But there is always a way to shuffle the cars to get out, as the owners do not lock their brakes and are aware of the need of others to leave. There is a sensitivity expressed through traffic, which confirms the human feeling and atmosphere in Thailand.
My observation of traffic during my six decades in Thailand has led me to conclude that our urban societies in the West seem to live a very nervous lifestyle. We are easily disturbed by noise, have sleeping problems, seek the sun during the day but light interferes with night rest.
There is a distinct difference in Thailand. Drivers - and even passengers - of commercial vehicles during their breaks can easily park beside a bustling market and fall asleep within minutes.
During my strolls around Bangkok over the years, I have taken numerous photos – a few of them being published here – of people sleeping in what seems to be very awkward positions. My wife, Helen, and my children fall asleep quickly anywhere - in a car, on chairs, on the bed, no matter - whether the TV is on, loud music is blaring, or there is bustling activity around. I admire this ability to fall sleep easily and have tried to copy it, but with very limited success.
Why? I don’t have an answer to this question. It must be peace of mind, a sense of detachment (the essence of Buddhism) to all matters…
And this sense of detachment from external interference brings me to another aspect of Thai people which intrigues me. What makes Thais so self-confident? They seem so settled inside, no agitation, no struggle; their mind is just fixed on the subject in front of them.
I myself, have always been driven, always in search of something, and I have felt that with other Westerners to varying degrees.
We in the West are driven by the changing seasons, creating the need to plan, to look ahead. It’s a matter of survival. We need different clothes, and to prepare food for the winter. The seasons force us to prepare in order to survive.
The Thais don’t have that need. They live day to day. I remember when houses along the khlongs or waterways would have their huge nets with a counter weight, which were lowered into the water an hour before lunch and dinner to catch some fish…
In the West, the need for planning goes far, even as far as where to cut the wood during the waxing or waning moon to ensure the wood will be prone to insect attacks, and that it will last a long time.
I am sure that there are many similar seasonal rules in Thailand too, and building houses on stilts is one of them, to avoid flooding during the rainy season which has always been an annual re-occurrence. Most other rules are short term.
This need of planning and the marginal life we live in the West are certainly the reasons of our restlessness.
But I suspect another reason is guilt. The two religions of the book, the Jewish and Christian religions, believe in a collective guilt for all humans as a result of the Original Sin that caused Adam to be expelled from the paradise of Eden. Whoever has read Philip Roth’s novels can see that the feeling of guilt run deep in Jewish life. The Christians are very similar, especially the Protestants, who suffer under the Augustinian Original Sin complex. The Protestant “work ethics” espoused by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is based on guilt, and a serious part of Christian behavior is too.
It seems to me that the Thais are free of such feelings of guilt because in Buddhism, each individual is responsible for his or her own “sins” and their repercussions. Buddhism also teaches social rules, but the whole set up of the religion is much more decentralized, with temples being at the centre of community life, in contrast to the centralized Catholic religion where the Pope defines the rules.
I’m aware that I am treading into sensitive territory here, and maybe I should not dig too deep. I am only trying to raise certain differences and adapt where I can, but being a German, the leopard has problems changing its spots…
(The photos in this blog have been taken by Rolf over the last few decades in Thailand)