The first thing that comes to mind when most people think about Thailand is the rampant sex with unwilling, underage girls who are being exploited because of their poverty.
Many people believe – with the help of the salacious media – that Thailand is a poor, backward, developing country somewhere in Asia – where drugs and organized crime are rife, ruled by a ruthless military government and dictatorial king. Fundamentalist Muslims overrun the country, fighting a guerilla war against a corrupt Buddhist government and regularly exploding bombs in downtown Bangkok.
Well that’s just plain wrong. The real truth about Thailand is quite different and far more nuanced.
Firstly, Thais are far less interested in sex than us Anglo-Americans are. They certainly enjoy it as much as we do, but for them it’s mostly a sport – like tennis: fun and sweaty. There’s nothing sinful about it, it’s a natural biological force.
Secondly, Thailand is a remarkably modern, sophisticated country. It’s currently a military state and the democratic institutions are currently in limbo – but then… not all that different from countries like the UK, USA or South Africa, after all!
If you keep to yourself and don’t express your political opinions publicly or on social media then you will be mostly left alone.
There are some problems with drugs, as in any country, but the Thai police have successfully reduced the level of drugs produced in or passing through Thailand. Thailand does, however, have a draconian approach to drug dealers (the authorities believe that a drug-pusher causes more mayhem than a lone killer because drugs destroy the lives of dozens of people and their families, not just one person’s life). But it also has some of the most progressive policies towards drug users, giving addicts several opportunities to rehabilitate before incarcerating them and legalizing medicinal marijuana.
But beware, foreigners do not benefit from liberal drugs policies: if caught with drugs you will end up with shockingly long sentences.
There are Muslims living in Thailand, too. But mostly in the southern-most three provinces bordering Malaysia. Overall, only about 9% of Thailand is Muslim. There’s a significant population in Bangkok and Chiang Mai (about 4% of residents are Muslim) and they tend to live in one of several “Muslim Quarters”. There are even a small number of Jews, with a strong presence in each of the bigger cities, and there are many Christians living here too. The Christians from the West are on the whole quite devout. Many Thais have converted to Christianity too – but what virtually knows is that they treat it as a secondary religion as a kind of enhancement to Buddhism. Having being brought up as Buddhists, they have no concept of the idea of a “single path” to heaven, because Buddhism celebrates multiple paths to enlightenment, and no one path is deemed any better, or worse, than another.
As for food, Thailand is known as the kitchen of the world. The Thais love their food and they eat (or graze) all day – without getting fat!
It’s probably the number one reason why I chose to settle here. There’s a cornucopia of delicious, cheap food – ranging from simple yet tasty and satisfying rice and noodle dishes to soups of all kinds to delicious, exotic, spicy stews to steaks, burgers, sausages, pizzas, sushi and fish and prawns and lobsters.
You can eat out on the street for about $1-$2 per dish, or go to a more upmarket Thai restaurant (with air-conditioning) where you pay around $3-$4 per dish. For $6 you can go to a Korean-barbecue or, if you prefer, a top hotel to enjoy an international buffet lunch. Even at the western restaurants, you can get a genuine Italian pizza for around $6.
There was a time when it wasn’t so easy to find bread and cakes and cookies and pasta. But now all the top supermarkets bake their own breads, ranging from French baguettes and rolls and croissants to Italian focaccia, German rye bread and British multi-grain breads, not to mention a wide selection of mouth-watering cakes and pies. And a huge selection of pastas and beans and coffees, teas, cheeses and wines.
And as for medical care, well it’s worth coming to Thailand for that reason alone. Many of the ‘tourist’ hospitals are glorified hotels with the latest medical gadgetry – where you get seen by a doctor within 30 minutes, receive your treatment often the same day – (for operations, you usually have to wait for the next day) – be taken care of by pretty nurses in a luxurious, private suite. Not to mention, the food!
I often go to an international hospital for no other reason then to eat at their restaurant. The Thai food is often cheaper than a regular air-conditioned Thai restaurant, but just as delicious. Only the Western food is a bit pricey, but only by local Thai standards.
The cost of a typical treatment (or operation) is a fraction of what it would cost you at home at a private medical facility. In fact the whole trip to Thailand – with flights, accommodation, meals and entertainment – plus the treatment is still a lot cheaper than back home. And with no waiting times. Sure, you can get many treatments for free in the UK or Australia or in the USA with the appropriate insurance. But in the UK at least (if you opt for free NHS treatment), you might have to wait for several months before you can be treated.