The Land of Smiles
Once visitors to Bangkok have managed to clear their way through the mad traffic and fumes, and have found themselves a refuge away from the noise, whether on a boat cruising along the Chao Phraya River or when turning into an unexpected side street; and finding time to relax and smile, they will find their reward in the beauty of the friendly and serene smiles returned.
The people of Bangkok
The first thing to notice about Bangkok, however, is the crowds. The capital plays host to a population of around 10 million, around 90 per cent of them Thais, although many of the Thais who work in the city commute daily from the provinces. English is the second language here, and is spoken well by the educated and the elite. The Chinese community, as the largest minority group, are centred mainly in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown. The Chinese fit in well, as China has long had trade and Buddhist associations with Thailand. Other nationalities here include Asians from neighbouring countries as well as Europeans and Americans who work in the capital.
Around 95 per cent of the Bangkok population is Buddhist, and the capital is the centre of Buddhism in Thailand, with the country’s most important temples, called wats, located here.
The Buddhist influence
Buddhism pervades nearly all aspects of life for Thais, forming a large part of their identity. It shapes their behaviour and beliefs, as well as the culture and traditions of these gentle and fun-loving people.
Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, which has absorbed ancient Chinese and Hindu beliefs and practices. Folk beliefs are also influenced by Animism and the pre-historic cultures of Southeast Asia, and both ancestral and natural spirits have taken their place in Buddhist cosmology. One example of these surviving beliefs is the spirit houses, which are miniature wooden structures, built for household spirits to inhabit, and kept outside houses or in the street. House-holders present offerings of food and drink to the spirits to keep them happy; otherwise, it is believed that they will cause chaos.
Thai customs and traditions
Many of the traditional customs and folklore of Thai people were lost in the 20th century, however, when modernity swept through Thailand; but the attainment of refinement, which is rooted in ancient Siamese culture, still remains as the highest aspiration of most Thais. This value is seen in daily life, as people try to avoid any coarseness and promote the kind of behaviour that is considered refined. Thais prefer to avoid conflicts and any embarrassment or feelings of shame. Likewise, Thai people avoid displays of emotions, including anger, because serene detachment is valued and a smile shows that no offence was taken or intended. As in many Asian countries, ‘losing face’ is a terrible thing for Thai people, who like to resolve any disagreements with understanding and a smile.
One of the most distinctive and attractive Thai customs is the salutation. Called the wai, this prayer-like gesture with the hands, often accompanied by a slight bow and warm smile, is used to show greeting, acknowledgement or farewell, and is adapted according to the status of the person involved. At the same time, there are certain social taboos here that are worth knowing about so as not to give offence. The first concerns the head, which is considered sacred, and touching someone’s head is seen as rude. The second is related to the feet, which Thais regard as the dirtiest and lowliest part of the body, and that should never point towards a Thai person or towards an image of the Buddha. When Thais sit on the floor, they are always careful never to point their feet towards others but sit with the feet behind them or tucked to the side.
An attitude of respect towards parents and elders in general is a cornerstone value in Thai society that is reinforced in temple rituals and in the festivals. Similarly, Thais show reverence towards the King and to images of the Buddha.
Although the family-oriented Thais tend to be rather conservative in their behaviour, they are generally easy-going and tolerant of others; and in Bangkok, many of the younger generation are westernised.