Leaving the Land of Smiles, Fourth time.

Again i prepare to leave the Land of Smiles and again it with a heavy heart. This country has spoken to me in ways that i want to tell you. I find myself calling Phuket “home” even though i travel consistently.

On the practical side, this is the best place for boat work this side of the USA. i am consistently pleased with the quality service and the price of work done here. there is an eagerness to please and excel that is refreshing. Here old world pride in work and new world technology have met and live together. Parts are a bit spendy as there is a whopping import duty but the labor rate is good and the work gets done, usually on time and at the estimated cost. I find i trust the workers here and that is so important.

The scenery is unsurpassed, jungles, mountains, amazing small islands that jet out of the sea. You look around and you know you are in Thailand. The boating here is incredible, unlimited anchorages and so much to explore. This area boasts some great diving too.

All adds up to a great place to cruise but it is the Thai people that make it the mystical haven it is. The Land of Smiles is spot on, everyone smiles and expects you too also. The small things make the difference, traffic here can be horrid with a mass construction project smack dab in the middle of the island and the most traveled intersection. Yet no one gets fussed, no blaring horns, no obscene jesters out the window, it all just flows. If you hear a horn it only peeps, saying “hey i am here” not a blare demanding you change your way or telling you off. Cars merge peaceably and with little direction from traffic signs, there is never gridlock, it is amazing. All the things that bring westerners to the point of going postal just do not effect Thais; horrid traffic, shopping malls or supermarkets, torrential rains all just pass on by with a smile.

Thai people bond and bond fast, this week i have run into several friends from past visits, friends made briefly but solidly. Girls from the bars, musicians, boat workers and today a kayak guide all beaming with joy to see me, know my name (something i sadly cannot reciprocate) and show great absolutely genuine pleasure in reuniting. I might have been here to often as even the lady who does the ping pong shows greeted me as an old friend, yikes! Friendship is paramount to the Thai life style, above all else and treasured.

No one likes to celebrate like the Thais. they have four New Year’s celebrations all done to the maximum: Western New Year, Chinese New Year and two Thai events marking the change of seasons. The upcoming event marks the end of the rainy season, it is celebrated by casting decorated small boats lit with candles into the sea, an event that is heartwarming. But nothing on earth is as absurdly fun as Songkran, the water festival celebrating the beginning of the wet season. Everyone and i mean everyone in the country partakes in a twelve hour water fight, huge water cannons, buckets and anything else that moves water is used to douse anyone in range, an absolute hoot! On the more intense level i just participated in the Vegetarian Festival, a weeklong event that takes on many facets. Many Thais forgo sex and other pleasures (forgoing sex here is a big deal believe me) in a Ramadan or Lent type cleansing. Each day the streets are full of processions for the temples, parades with extreme fireworks which actually wind up wounding a few along the way. the most extreme believers mutilate their faces with swords and axes and walk over hot coal, some climb ladders made of blades to show their faith. It is intense and not seen by most tourists.

The majority of Thais are Buddhists and i find that religion compelling, the peace i find in it has been life changing. I love the rituals and attend the temples often. There is a large Muslim minority here as well and all seem to coexist peaceably, it is common to see young girls wearing the Hijab arm and arm with bare headed Thai girls, all just kids giggling away.

One cannot talk of Thailand with knowledge of the King. The King of Thailand is the most loved national ruler on the planet. He is loved universally and without limit. From the old woman sweeping the streets in her cooly hat to the bar girls to the richest land owner he is loved. i have studied the royal family history, it is remarkable. As an American i would not have seen myself interested in a monarchy but this one works. The recent coup and military takeover was supported by the King, believe me it would not have happened without that support. It has been seamless, peaceful and pragmatic, it made the government work where it was failing. I have been embarrassed the US Gov reaction to this internal situation, why on earth would our Secretary of State meddle here, but he has and it is hurtful.

Thai history is intriguing, the Thais have never gone to war, never been colonized and have lived peacefully for centuries. The few coups came and went with no more violence than is seen on the streets of Kansas right now. But it is going back in time where i have become enthralled. Rama V, the Great, (1868–1910), Chulalongkorn (42 years) is the most loved of all Kings and for good reason. If you recall the splendid musical “The King and I” this is the Prince who was raised partly by Anna the British instructor and renowned abolitionist. Once King, he set out to rid his country of slavery early on but observed the terrible carnage of the American civil war and the sad state of affairs that followed. He meticulously went about a peaceful transition which would provide the slaves a better life not just tossed out into a world of hate. It took him forty years but he did it. By the end of his reign Thailand had no slaves, no one was killed in the transition and the former slaves found a place in the society.

Always a mariner i became intrigued by the “Father of the Thai Navy” after visiting a monument to him. Prince Chumphon enrolled in the British Naval Academy and severed as an officer in the Royal Navy. Upon returning to his homeland he started the Thai Naval Academy and the Thai Navy. His legacy as a mariner grew from there. Today the academy is going strong and the Thai Navy is a functioning well run entity.

One defining difference between western and Thai culture is the approach to the term” good luck” A westerner, Felange, sees luck as something that happens to them from an exterior source; win the lotto, the coin toss. Here it is an internal thing, good luck means happiness and is self imposed. there are many things we do that bring good luck, make the gong sing at the temple, give to the poor, help someone randomly or be blessed by a monk. the other day i was headed to the doctor, saw a street vender selling good luck flowers and thought, man i need some, so bought the flowers. Doc gave me all good news.

On the practical side of life Thailand is incredible, the cost of living low, service high and it is safe, far safer than what i see in the US. One defining element of a good retirement home is medical care and cost. I had been suffering from a bladder infection so off to the hospital i go, reluctantly for sure. i pulled in the car park and was guided by four parking attendants, wow in a hospital? Upon entering i asked someone who looked official to see a doctor, she escorted me to the registration desk where i met my Customer Service Rep. ya imagine that! He guided me to the waiting room. In a manner of minutes i saw a Urologist, ya again i saw a specialist in a manner of minutes!!! After the consultation i was taken to the lab for urine tests and returned to the Urologist’s office. He explained my ailment clearly and gave me two prescriptions and scheduled a follow up visit. I got the meds paid the bill and was out in an hour and a half, all for $137. The return visit including lab work cost $37. No way could you get this treatment or that cost in the USA.

Food glorious food, as the song goes. Thailand is blessed with scrumptious food at every corner on every street, everywhere you turn. Ranging from western tourist food to local food it is all here. The international community of xpats provide an array of European cuisine, best German food i have ever had. the local food is often copied, but never equaled. And again so cheap, if i spend five bucks for a dinner it is a big night out. Local meals are around $2-3 and top end western food in a very nice place may hit $10. I read more and more about GMO and other horrors of American food but here it is all fresh, grown in someone’s yard and purchased at a public market.

i would be remiss if i did not include the wonders of Thai ladies in this piece. Keeping with my PG rating i will be obscure. Misunderstood by westerners often, loved by the ones who do understand them and cherished, worshipped and revered by those of us who know them well, the ladies of Thailand are world famous for their charm, looks and love. Once experienced no one can forget those enchanting brown eyes.

The kind of things that make Thailand so special cannot be measured in inches or dollars, they are the small things that make you stop in your tracks and go ahh.. and that happens to me daily. A beaming smile from a kid, a grin from an old lady, a bow from a young girl, hearing Papa called out as i walk by, a hug from a friend, the flowers i buy each day for good luck from a street vender, those are the things one can only experience firsthand. These are the things that make each day in Thailand a treasure.