Thailand: the land of smiles and helpful hands
Even in the darkest moments, people genuinely want to help
We actually made it out of the door in good time for school so of course we were bound to get a flat tyre, such is the nature of sod's law. And this was no little flat tyre - we are talking super puncture, jump off the bike and hopelessly walk about a sleepy village in the already searing sun kind of flat tyre.
Luckily for us this is Thailand, and within 20 seconds a couple of elderly women sat sipping chai yen in the shade were gesturing down the street to us, in the direction of the nearest place that could help us. It wasn't even 8 am so we were doubtful that anyone would be open. Every few people that we would pass, someone would continue to gesture down the street. When we reached the first place that was inevitably closed, it wasn't long before another set of helpful people were sending us off to the next potential place.
When we got there they obviously weren't open but as usual, this business place also doubled as a family home and before long we were being offered a seat and the bike was whisked off by a young man still dressed in the boxers he slept in. As we waited for the tyre change I was shown a baby with fifteen chins by a proud grandmother, and after a few minutes we were back on our way to school.
If none of those people had shown us which direction to walk in we would have been searching for an age - this village is a real rabbit warren of a place. Even though they couldn't speak our language they saw that we needed a hand. And bless the guy for getting his hands dirty when he hadn't even had his breakfast or even put on any clothes!
This is just a perfect example of how helpful the people in Thailand are. If you've got a problem, they will try their best to help you to find a solution.
Another example of this unfortunately also shows the darker side of Thailand.
A couple of months ago at the start of the term, a new teacher was staying at our house until she could sort out a place of her own. We were on our way home, using a relatively quiet road that runs behind our school back to our village. It's a lovely stretch of road, meandering through rubber farms and large spaces of unspoiled land (proudly earmarked for new development, as the signs boast). We were driving home in convoy, The Man and I on our bike and the new teacher just behind.
A couple of guys whizzed past us, waving. A few hundred metres on they were pulled up at the side of the road, gesturing for us to pull over as they had no fuel. There was no way we could help them so we shrugged and carried on. After a few minutes, The Man and I heard something awry behind us and turned to see the two guys right up next to the new teacher as she drove along the road.
I thought that they were just messing around, but we soon realised that something more serious was going on when they were pulling the key out of her bike so that she rolled to a stop. A knife appeared. A big, scary knife. Things start to feel a bit more real when there's a knife involved. Within seconds they were wrestling her bag from the bike while waving the knife in all our directions before making off, leaving us in shock at the side of the road.
Within about 30 seconds, the first of many people stopped to see if we were OK. Despite being unable to speak our language they were so eager to try and find out what had happened and to try to help us. Phone calls to the police were made. People drove ahead to look for any sign of where the men may have gone. It was clear that we were in a bit of a crisis situation and unfortunately in the UK it is often the case that people will actively avoid getting involved, keeping their heads down, pretending not to see.
It was a crazy situation - we went from seeing Thailand's ugliest side to seeing it's most golden. People were apologising for what had happened, and those apologies were sincere. These people were on their way home from work or were on the school run, small children in the backs of pick-ups moaning that they want to get home.
We even met a little boy who had just finished his first day at school - excitedly keen to get home to his mother to tell her all about it - but instead he sat bewildered at the side of the road, at one point sweetly picking a flower and giving it to us - kids have that sixth sense and always know when something's up, I guess.
After a couple of hours at the roadside completing police reports and posing for photographs (not for any official reason - for the officers' personal collections - look, the day I helped a farang!), we made our way back to the village. A crowd had already gathered outside our house. Further apologies were made, a sea of sorry faces, genuine with concern.
For the next few days, people would stop us and ask us about what had happened - usually utilising the medium of mime, as none of our Thai is quite good enough. More apologies. Even now, a few months on, we still meet the odd person who asks us about it, pointing in the direction of the road that it happened on and shaking their head.
What happened was really unfortunate for the new teacher. Even just watching it left me shook up and unsure. A wave of distrust swept over me. But the show of support that we saw left a much warmer feeling, once the darkness subsided.
There will always be bad people wherever you are in the world, but in Thailand people overwhelmingly want to help you. Whether it is the influence of being a largely Buddhist nation, or simply the way of the people - this innate need to help is one of the reasons that Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles.
For more of my reflections on life in Thailand visit my personal blog.
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Great story, that's the real Thailand, not all the other stories we so often hear about in the news. The vast majority of Thai people are very kind and generous due to I think a combination of strong local community ties, a simple life and probably most of all a very strong Buddhist culture.
By Thomas, Thailand (27th July 2013)