Mind Your Manners

February 5, 2001

The other day I was nonchalantly walking up one of downtown Bangkok’s main streets, Suhkumvit Road for those of you who know it. I had spent some time hunting for a birthday present for my mom to no avail. Suddenly I heard a commotion and looked up. It was generated by a group of three very large and tall white men who were all laughing and pointing their fingers at something. I stopped to see what was going on.

There was a very old and thin man, around the age of 70. He was hunched over and cutting the grass with a long pair of clippers in the hot sun in front of Burger King. He was the target of their pointing. He also knew that he was the object of attention. I watched his face. First it showed concern that he had done something wrong. Then his expression changed to a look of absolute bewilderment. The final expression was that of sadness and wishing very much that he could be invisible. He did not need a translator to know that he was being ridiculed.

I listened in050201k1.jpg on the laughing and pointing guys while I was taking it all in. It turns out that these three tourists found it absolutely hysterical that in this super-slick modern section of town a simple pair of shears was being used to keep the grass short in front of something as impressive and high-tech as Burger King.

I got really angry, something I do not do very much these days. I thought about telling the guys off. I even thought about screaming at them, but instead ended up giving them a look of contempt and walking on. Perhaps they got my message and perhaps not. They simply walked on, too. On to the next meal, the next beer, the next souvenir shop, the next game of pool, the next person to ridicule, who knows.

If I could make a wish right now it would be that these three guys spend a month or two clipping grass in downtown Bangkok for a living. Hey, they could make up to 100 baht a day (2.32 US Dollars), and maybe people could stop and laugh at them too. No soothing050201k2.jpg vacation on the glorious beaches of Thailand, no taking in Thailand’s wild nightlife where one beer costs the old man’s daily wage. Just a pair of clippers. Cancel the hotel reservations and get to work!

I am perpetually amazed by some of the tourists who come floating through Thailand. They have an efficient and punctual agenda. They have spent hours on the Internet, hours with their noses buried in guidebooks, and hours tracking flight schedules, visa requirements, prices, tours, and vaccination recommendations. I believe that at least one percent of this time should be spent learning about the culture and customs of the destination.

I have met a person who knew the ‘ten most important things to see in Bangkok’ list by heart and who proceeded into a temple half-naked and sat against the wall with the soles of her feet pointing at the Buddha image she ‘had’ to see. I have also seen a person take their fist and literally pound several times on the very famous Reclining050201k3.jpg Buddha in Wat Po near the Grand Palace in Bangkok. I was utterly amazed. I could not resist. I asked him, “What do you think you are doing?” The response was mind blowing. “I just wanted to see if it was solid or not.” Great. So the next time he heads into a church, shall we all assume he will proceed to knock on the head of Jesus to determine if the material is solid or hollow? Argh.

Thankfully Thai people are the most non-aggressive, friendly, and accepting bunch I have ever come across and are experts at acceptance. When half-naked sunburned backpackers roll into town, it looks extremely bizarre. When visitors have a day of fun sunbathing naked in Muslim areas of Thailand, Thais are not so rude as to point and laugh. But they are disturbed. They view these visitors to their country as being rude.

The other side of the coin is that the visitors have money, and money is really important. Millions of tourists bring millions of dollars and are tolerated all the more because of this. At the same time how very funny it is to hear some of those who have magically afforded a flight ticket halfway around the world proclaiming how very broke they are as they argue over prices at the markets.

Maybe I am being over critical. I just want to say that it might not be a bad idea to practice some basic ground rules while walking on new grounds. A little bit of effort goes a long way. Most of us already know this.

It has been over three weeks since the incident in front of Burger King took place. It remains stuck in my head. I still see the look on the old man’s face. It makes my heart sink.

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