I just got back from a conference in Thailand after an oddly long gap of twenty-four years since I last visited the country. That trip in the late 1980s is still vivid in my memory and I recall at the time thinking that Thailand was one of the most distinctively “foreign” countries I had ever visited. It seemed to have its own very particular character as expressed through its history, food and language that distinguished the Thais more emphatically from their neighbours than they did from each other.
On this trip I was struck by how much has changed since those impressions were formed. The country clearly retains its beauty and charm, but this time I was taken aback – and disappointed – by the inexorable process of homogenisation that seems to have rolled over Thailand. Of course a quarter of a century of tourism and extraordinary economic growth have transformed the country but I was still disheartened by the extent to which Thailand now feels a lot like anywhere else.
Siamophiles will no doubt point out that there is still a lot of the country that retains much of its original character and perhaps it is not just Thailand that has felt the effects of globalisation: I have too. In the years since that first visit I have spent a great deal of time travelling to different parts of the world which no doubt has left me de-sensitised to the exotic, even as I try to preserve that more youthful sense of curiosity and wonder about the world.
It has also made me a travel snob: however much I decry the relentless rising tide of Irish pubs, cappuccino bars and pre-packaged culture, I now regard it as a fundamental human right to be able to download the Times crossword on my Ipad each morning.
Familiarity brings risk. As we move from being in awe at the individual nature of countries to wallowing in the easy ubiquity of the modern traveller’s life, it becomes harder to discern what is really happening beneath the surface. Strangely, the more we see and the more of us that see it, the less we know – or the less we seek to find out, assuming that common tastes equals mutual understanding. We assume that if people drink chilled, mocha frappuccinos and so do we, then we must understand how they think.
Thailand is no exception. The last few years have brought millions of tourists to the country and millions more have come to do business in one of the most dynamic of emerging markets. But it is a market that has been beset by on-going social turbulence that often we struggle to fathom. The day I arrived there was a Red Shirt demonstration just outside the airport for reasons that were not immediately clear. But once you settle down with a bottle of the same brand of Thai beer that you can buy in the supermarket at home, it is easy to lose the determination to figure out exactly what it is that brings people out on to the street.
As with many countries, we confuse familiarity with knowledge. And the complexities of Thai politics and the fault lines that run through this society remain as hard a puzzle to unravel as ever.