First-timers are usually fascinated by Thai People for their friendliness and their charming smile. And in fact Thailand is a great country for travelling. Nevertheless, long-timers see things a bit different. Particularly the guys who search for a girlfriend, a spouse or a marriage find reason to wonder (for more on that topic have a look for Stephen Leather's great novel 'Private Dancer'. Much worse it can come for those who try to make business in Thailand. It's good to be informed before and not being ignorant or dogmatic when exploring Thai culture.
Siam Smile(s) gives a vivid insight into contemporary Thai society in 42 chapters, picking up certain topics of interest which will encounter every western tourist/traveller who spent holidays or even a longer time in Thailand. Hugh Watson introduces a number of philosophers from the ancient Greek up to the 20th century, rolling up western and Thai cultural and philosphical history to conclude contemporary society, and derives some very interesting ideas about the differences between Westerners and Thai People.
A necessary Excursion to Psychology
A particularly good explanation for Thai People's mystical behaviour is the four level model of cognitive development by the Swiss 20th century psychologist Jean Piaget.
Piaget's observations on cognitive development of children describes four levels of learning in detail. In the first three levels a child learns many things starting with getting food, gripping things, language and realizing the permanence of objects. The fourth level starts at the age at around 12 years; in this part of development the child learns logical thinking, abstract thinking, anticipation, the ability of thinking about thoughts and making conclusions, a clear sense for cause and effect. It's the level of formal-operational intelligence. These four levels are universal for all people, doesn't matter their culture. A higher level can only be reached when the preceding level is succesfully completed.
The point now is that the verymost people here didn't reach level four. They stick on a level of human development far below their potentials, doesn't matter how old they are. I have this idea since long also concerning many Westerners, but here in the 'third world' it's clearly the norm, affecting the vast masses of people and, particularly in Thailand, I find very, very few exceptions. Most people literally remain on a childish level of intelligence development.
That is very serious, because living in a society with literally retarded people is bad for everybody. Humans are social beings, and our all sake depends on living in a society as sane, civilized and developed as possible. All the huge problems of our contemporary world can barely be solved by people with a severly minor IQ.
Besides this is another perfect example for the total failure of the education system (in Thailand and worldwide), where the target is to adapt children and adolescents to the existing Capitalist society, 'learning' it's 'values' (including religion and nationalism) and accepting all the nuisances and annoyances it is producing. Also being obedient to the authorities and don't question them or, if, in a way that it doesn't endanger the existing socialeconomic system. That is only meaned to conserve the existing system than to improve or change it to somewhat better.
Despite the philosophical reminiscences most of the chapters remain superficially on the surface of social life, on the level of observation. Though, that's particularly for newcomers in Thailand, who desperately try to make sense out of the really weired things they experience here, the right thing.
It's for example about taxi driving and bus rides, the way Thai People deal with problems ('mental erasure' Watson calles it, they pretend there is no problem and they weren't there. A phenomenon frequently to observe in all-day-live). It's about the language, the style Thai's chat, the famous Thai 'wai', Westerners in Bangkok's Khao San Road (a multi-culture crash), the way Westerners behave here, particularly in long-term, the 'art of felony', shopping, shopping, more shopping and even more, more shopping, and much, much other stuff. Watson tells his lessons with a good deal of humour, always refreshing to read.
Shopping as a fixed Idea
What Watson doesn't mention is what both Thai and Western and all other contemporary cultures on the planet have in common: blind consumerism. He makes himself a pretty poor example when cheering at certain supermarkets where one get's dozends of different cheeses and other exotic food stuff (yes, cheese is very exotic in Thailand) from a lot of countries around the world, or when he recommends the horrific traffic jams in Bangkok as a kind of patience therapie for stressed Westerners.
More serious, he has feverish dreams of how to load a shop card as quickly as possible full with the most expensive consumer crap one can find in a supermarket, hitting a benchmark with it, winning a competition and being rewarded with 10,000 dollars US. There are very few psychologists on earth who treat consumer idiocy.
It's nevertheless an interesting and very amusing book to read, written by an experienced ex-patriate, not only for newcomers and tourists but also for long-timers in Thailand.