Magic Hills

July 9, 2001

One thing that is certain, while traveling in Thailand always expect the unexpected. Once while driving in western Thailand (Kanchanaburi province) my friend looked up at a tree and exclaimed, “Hey! That sign says ‘magic hill up ahead’! Shall we try it?” I sat there wondering just what kind of magic the road would perform and enthusiastically agreed.

We drove for about another kilometre and saw three other cars parked on the side of the road. “Well, this must be it!” We followed suit, stopped the car, turned it off, shifted it into neutral, and all gasped as our car magically continued up the hill. What fun! It really felt and looked like magic. Three people were in our car: one American, one Swiss, and one Thai. The two westerners worked hard thinking of scientific experiments that could prove whether or not the hill was magic. We asked our Thai friend about the hill and he said, “Well, it’s magic.” He then went back to napping. I found the difference in responses intriguing and fitting.

One unique thing about Thailand is the atmosphere of acceptance that surrounds most everything. From magic hills to illegal activities, most Thais will just shrug most things off with an ‘it is what it is’ or ‘never mind’ attitude. The western approach is usually the complete opposite.

Thais tend not to ask ‘why’. It is very rare indeed for a Thai to question me about my obvious cultural differences. Thais know that westerners are different from them and leave it at that. I spend most of my time in Thailand asking ‘why, why, why?’ not only on behalf of this column but because it is simply my nature to do so no matter where I am. I wonder just how annoying this is for my Thai friends who know I’ll always have questions.

I was astonished when local authorities put up ‘No Fishing’ signs around my neighbourhood pond and everyone actually obeyed them. Usually the pond’s shores are stuffed with fishermen, some fishing for fun and some fishing for dinner. No one tried to sneak a pole in at night. No one took down the signs. No one gambled on not being caught. The sign went up. The fishing stopped. The sign came down. The fishing started again. It is a fact that surprised me: Thais tend to accept authority. The sign said that the road was magic, so the road was magic. Period.

Why don’t Thais ask why? I believe this is due to the Thai system of hierarchy. Everyone and everything in Thailand can be placed in its clearly-defined and highly-respected system of rank and order. As being aggressive is a definite sign of rudeness, the polite way is to sit back, wait for orders to come from above, and follow them, period. The golden rule is to respect those ‘above’ and not to question their authority. To disagree with your boss would simply be unthinkable.

The present Thai education system does not encourage ‘why’ either. Teachers write on the board and students copy the information into their notebooks. Memorization not conversation rules the learning atmosphere. Opinions are not asked, nor are they freely given. Critical thinking is scarce. Thailand is currently trying to revamp its education system but it’s easier said than done. The education system reflects the structure of Thai society and society reflects the education system.

Thais do not like to ask why but why should they? Although Thais are often criticized for having little initiative, frankness or critical thinking, where would this new, improved ‘why’ world actually get them? Thailand, with all of its plusses and minuses, still gets the job done at the end of the day without too many ‘whys’ or worries for that matter. Asking or answering ‘why’ does not necessarily change the reality of the situation. In most cases it only provides a mutable opinion. Perhaps ‘why’ is overrated.

Many months later all three of us were back at the magic hill again. This time we had a marble with us. First we stopped the car and went for another ‘magic ride.’ Next, I placed the marble on the pavement (out of view from other cars taking the same ride as to not disappoint them with the potential truth) and alas, the marble rolled backward. My suspicions were confirmed: the ‘magic’ of the hill was only an optical illusion.

The sign that marks the magic hill has since been taken down. I wish that I could still see people enjoying its magic. I wouldn’t mind going for another magic ride. There is said to be a second magic hill somewhere in Thailand. If I ever get to it, I will leave the marble at home.

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