Thailand's global popularity as an expat and holiday destination suggests a native people comfortable with other cultures.
The country's relatively relaxed attitude about everything from sex to religion to rules in general makes it a popular place among, well, almost everyone.
However, it would be foolish to assume that these superficialities represent similarities in the thought processes of Thai and Western minds. A good example is the different thoughts Thais and westerners are capable of while sitting in the back seat of a Bangkok taxi, hurtling up a highway.
Foreigners might get anxious, all too aware that contact with another car at 100kmh is certain death. Most Thais do not panic. Anyone who spends time travelling around this city in vans will know the vast majority of Thais don't wear safety belts. They relax, maybe use their phones. They even fall asleep.
Being a Thai person myself I've paid attention to this over the years. From things I'd hear or read I increasingly started to believe many Thais were putting their trust not in the driver but in his religious amulets. Seeing a handful of the right amulets hanging on the rear-view mirror along with the appropriate spells painted onto the inner roof and the smell of a floral garland would make Thais feel safe.
My suspicion was that many truly believed that these tiny totems somehow created a magical barrier, protecting passengers from the dangers of the road. This, I thought, is a huge difference in how Thais and westerners think.
I wanted to investigate this a bit more so I started visiting the Facebook pages of various Thai news sites: Bangkok Post, Khaosod English, Khaosod - ข่าวสด, and MatichonOnline. I wanted to see how people commenting in English differed from those commenting in Thai. I thought this might be interesting to the many foreigners living here who can't speak Thai. As it turned out, I identified a number of differences between Thai and foreign commenters, and I also tried to find plausible causes for them.
Thailand is second in the world for road accident deaths according to the World Health Organization and there is no shortage of news relating to the many tragedies that befall our roads. This is where I began my research. Before I begin I should also point out that while my findings do not represent unanimous opinion, they do illustrate the general tenor of the comments.
Who was at fault?
Back in May 2017, a woman was hit by a car while crossing a four-lane road in Chonburi. She died subsequently in hospital. On Khaosod English, people blamed the pedestrian because she jaywalked even though there was a crosswalk in sight. They said she was too interested in her phone while crossing the road. The English-language commenters also expressed sympathy to the driver for having to be held responsible for another person's stupidity.
Over at Khaosod - ข่าวสด, the Thai language news Facebook page, the comment section was much the same as Khaosod English; they agreed that the woman on her phone caused the trouble because of her carelessness. However, a key difference was that many people linked this accident to faith and luck.
This was an opinion entirely absent among the English language commenters. A few said the driver must have had bad luck. Some comments declared that she had clearly run out of merit and that she would have died no matter what she did. One comment that received many likes said ‘She had bad luck having to die and it got even worse because she will go to hell instead of heaven for causing trouble before she died.'
Back in November 2015, a taxi was crushed between a cement truck and a public bus. It was pushed under the rear section of the bus and its roof was ripped off. Despite the apparent carnage, the taxi driver walked away with only minor injuries. On the English language Facebook page BangkokPost the story had 174 comments at the time of writing. Most complained about how dangerous the traffic is in Thailand. Fewer than five comments spoke of supernatural powers; all were facetious.
The same story at Thai language Khaosod - ข่าวสด got 730 comments. More than 300 comments related the accident to the supernatural. A top comment asked: ‘What amulet was he wearing? Looking at his car, he couldn't have survived.' A few people claimed that previous-life merit must have protected the driver. Many people asked for his license plate number - it would influence which lottery ticket they'd later buy. Some said he survived because fate determined it. Despite not being an ostensibly supernatural claim, a few even put survival down to fast reflexes on the part of the driver.
This story of "survival against the odds" so impressed Thais that news publishers even did a follow-up interview with the driver. They wanted to know if he was wearing a Luang Pu Thuat (หลวงปู่ทวด) amulet, Luang Pu Thuat being one of the most famous Buddhist monks and one believed to be spiritually very powerful. Any amulet blessed by him is believed to protect the person wearing it from evil spirits or bad luck.
Another news story I examined relates to accidents in the construction of the Red Line Skytrain. Many accidents have occurred during this project but the most recent one was in May 2017 when a crane collapsed and killed three workers. On both BangkokPost and Khaosod English, people commented about how terrible it was and how Thais do not put safety first in construction sites.
Over at the Thai news pages, Khaosod and MatichonOnline, many blamed corruption. A few hoped that the victims would go to Heaven.
One Facebook user said, ‘They should change the color code name for this line, red brings misfortune.' His comment received almost a hundred likes and more than thirty replies. Some supported his idea, some thought he was joking. Some users said that the Red Line is cursed because the company invaded spirits' territories without asking for their permission. To fix this, it was suggested, they might hold a blessing ceremony and build a spirit house.
Looking at these comments we can see that people commenting on English language pages tend to put the blame on the actual person causing the accidents without expressing any supernatural or religious beliefs. English commenters are not exclusively foreigners and there are a few Thai people who follow and comment too, though maybe their awareness of foreign cultures makes them less influenced by Thai beliefs.
Thais are more likely to believe bad luck and evil spirits are the cause of accidents. If the victims survived, Thai people are likely to give credit to the victims' luck, merit, or amulet. Why is this?
Put simply, we are a superstitious people. Satirapat Kungsapichat, writing in Pseudo Science magazine (2014), stated that 94.3 percent of Thai people are superstitious. According to the National Statistical Office of Thailand (2012), 94.6 percent of all Thais are Buddhists.
So why do so many Thais believe in the supernatural even when it is not part of Buddhism's teaching? Probably the answer lies in Thailand's version of Buddhism being interwoven with Hinduism and many older beliefs over thousands of years. Brahmin practices have been integrated into Thai religious ceremonies since Brahmin priests came to Thailand back in the early Ayutthaya period.
Belief in the supernatural existed in Thailand long before Buddhism arrived. These started out - as they did among all early humans - as an attempt to cope with uncontrollable crises like accidents, natural disasters and disease.
When Buddhism became the state religion of Thailand, the ancient beliefs were not removed, but they continued to coexist alongside and influenced Buddhism. That's why animistic beliefs including attachment to amulets, spirits, and luck still influence Thais' way of thinking. Even the concept of making merit in Buddhism is animistic; most Thai people see merit making as a mechanism to ensure safety.
Despite this long tradition of supernaturalism, the media is partly culpable for perpetuating it. Different headlines for the same stories effectively illustrate this.
Let's go back to the taxi driver as an example. On Khaosod - ข่าวสดด, the headline was ‘A cement mixer's brake failed, slammed into a taxi, sent it under the 107 bus - the taxi driver miraculously survived' (รถโม่ปูนเบรกแตกพุ่งขยี้ท้ายแท็กซี่กระเด็นเข้าใต้ท้องเมล์สาย107 - โชเฟอร์รอดตายปาฏิหาริย์) while on Khaosod English it was ‘Taxi crushed, but driver suffers only minor injuries.' The facts were stated plainly in English. In Thai we witnessed a miracle.
Another road accident on Khaosod - ข่าวสด was headlined ‘Shocked!! A pedestrian got hit by a car crashing on the footpath, the benjaped driver was seriously injured.' (ช็อกทั้งถนน!! เดินๆอยู่ เก๋งเสยต้นไม้เหินขึ้นทางเท้า-พุ่งชนคน หนุ่มเบญจเพสคนขับสาหัส). Benjaped (เบญจเพส) is a Thai word for being twenty-five years old that has a negative connotation.
Traditional Thai belief suggests that whoever is twenty-five years old will have bad luck; serious accidents might befall them, evil spirits could try to take their lives. English language news supplies facts; Thai language news publishers add a supernatural sense to their headlines to grab Thai readers' attention - much better than boring facts.
This surely reinforces Thais' belief in the supernatural and goes on to set the tone in the Thai comment sections.
Thailand may well have a laid back culture that charms foreigners. But as long as this avoidance of personal responsibility determines how we behave, Thais will continue to wreak havoc on roads and foreigners are right to be nervous on them.