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Thailand is the quietest place I’ve ever lived. It’s cultural, built in to things like mai bhen rai. You just don’t make a big scene or argue or shout. You talk, you figure it out, and if you can’t, you just accept it and move on.
Yes, there are parties and fireworks and the buzz of tuk tuks and the whizz of motorcycles. But they don’t bother you - they’re not fighting for your attention. Shops aren’t blazed with neon. You just walk by a place, look in, and notice it’s a shop. If you want to go in, you go in. Simple.
The effect on my headspace is profound. In any city in the U.S, I pretty much have to get out into nature to be able to hear myself think.
In Thailand, anytime, any day, no problem.
Living in a country where Buddhism is the majority religion (built on some lovely older belief systems that still stick around in awesome ways) has been wonderful.
The reasons are two-fold. The first is about how people treat each other. Buddhism doesn’t have the same sort of “pray to get out of jail free” card that most of the Zoroastrian religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc) have as part of their system.
The result in how people treat each other is dramatic. In Buddhism, if you’re shitty to someone, or some thing, that goes on your karma. That’s bonus suffering for you, because you were a jerk. There’s no escape - all you can do is be good and kind to make up for it. The result is a social pressure to be kind to the world, that while subtle, makes a real day-to-day difference.
The reincarnation belief also changes the way people interact with the world. Animals and plants are treated as fellow living things, stuck in their particular lives this time ‘round. There isn’t some “human good, plants and animals here for us to use” mindset. We’re all living things on this earth, all trying to make it through life.
Those two states of mind are a wonderful, wonderful thing to be a part of, on a daily basis. They create a soft but real space for me to live in - to live up to. Be kind. Treat all living things well.
I can get behind that.
The second is that it’s challenged me to really focus on and improve myself. One of my life-long favorite quotes is from the Buddha, roughly saying(#1):
Do not accept anything simply because you heard it, because it’s in a scripture, or because it’s tradition.
Don’t accept something just because you thought it or because it conforms to what you already believe, or because someone who’s supposed to be wise said it.
Accept only based on your experience. When you know, this thing is moral, blameless, praised by people I find wise, this thing, when I do it, is conducive to well-being and happiness, then accept it - and live up to it.
That last part has always held strong resonance for me. That it’s not having beliefs that matter, it’s putting them into action in the world.
Here in Thailand, I’ve tripped over so many things I do while living my life that don’t agree with my values, that aren’t conducive to my well being or happiness, or the well-being of others. Some of them intense, running deep.
Learning to take actions I do believe in, too. Like talking about hard things like depression and self-worth. Starting a project to help people live lives in line with their values. Working every day to make myself a little bit better, and the world around me a little bit better.
Knowing it’s only the actions that count.
It’s possible this blooming would have happened anywhere. But I sort of doubt it. Whatever it is for you that is resonant and helps you create a better you, and a better world, I hope you find it.
For me, in so many ways, it is the bedrocks of Buddhism, and it is here.
I made it a goal not to write any cliches about Thailand while I was here, so I’ll spare you the line about smiles - though it’s true. Instead, I’ll talk to you about the reason for the smiles.
Thai people genuinely seem to be a lot happier than folks in the west. From strangers to the people I’ve gotten to know fairly well, there’s an acceptance and letting-go-of-it that everyone here seems able to do that’s massively conducive to being happy.
The platitude is true: Happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.
The Thai people are looking toward the future, are looking to grow and change and become whatever the future of Thailand is. But it’s not from a deep feeling of lacking or envy. It’s from a desire for better.
I could write ten thousand words on the food here, but it wouldn’t be fair to make you read them without giving you the real thing to eat. I’ll just say this.
In terms of food, every week I’ve been here tops any other week of my 34 years on Earth. The end.
Even better - it’s healthy. I eat a lot, anytime I want, and every single meal is delicious. Without trying, or being crazy about exercise, I’ve lost 20 pounds, including the muscle I’ve added.
I think that tells you everything you need to know. It really doesn’t get better than this. Or, if it does, I can’t wait to see how.
Ok, I have to. They seriously are lovely. From Thai babies (who have to objectively be some of the cutest in the world), to old men who give you a head nod and a little grin as you pass, it’s a place full of smiles. Take a minute to notice, and you’ll see you’ve been wearing one too.
These are interesting times in Thailand, a set of years that will largely decide the direction of the country. They’re figuring out how they want to develop, how to bridge a gap between rich and poor, how to handle change at the highest levels of their society and government. I don’t know how any of that will turn out - nor does my opinion matter - it’s for the Thai people to decide. What I do know is this:
Thailand marches to the beat of its own drum.
It’s the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized, and it’s rightfully proud of that legacy. Thailand’s vision for the future isn’t “Turn into the USA or Russia or China.” They’re not looking to other countries as role models. They’re staying true to centuries of culture, and figuring out authentically who Thailand is in the 26th century. (Yes, 26th. As a part of never being colonized, they kept their calendar. It just happens to be older than the Roman one by about 500 years.)
In that space, it’s been easy to march to the beat of my own drum, too.
To live here is to have a relationship with the world beneath you. There is no other way. For me, I wouldn’t want it any different.
All my life, I’ve been waiting to become the person I am here. Uncoupled from the habits and sticky things I couldn’t get myself away from, working fully every day on getting better, and making the world better.
As my feet wander on to the next place, I hope hope hope - this sticks.
Jeanette Winterson opens one of my favorite books drawing that exact connection, and she’s right. Here, on the leaving edge, the loss is real. Strong. It is sad and it is sweet. The way the best sort of loss can be.
I don’t know how it will feel, when I land for a brief while in the United States, or further on, in Mexico. Or where my journeys will take me after that.
But I know for Thailand - I will almost certainly be back.
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