Although I have kept a home in Thailand, and my family has stayed here, for many years I have been mostly working in universities outside the country while returning to my home in Bangkok between semesters. Having two children in university made it desirable to temporarily seek a higher income than I could generally make in Thailand.
Returning to live in Thailand is quite different from coming to live here for the first time. Instead of everything one encounters seeming exotic, one mostly senses the familiar. On return, one doesn't go through either the tourist or culture shock stage and instead one tries to quickly slide back into life while updating one's local knowledge.
Upon return, I do notice both changes and continuities in life and culture in Thailand, although how much change is due to actual changes in Thailand and how much is due to the changes in me, as the perceiver, is impossible to tell.
The pace of change here seems to have slowed down from the go-go days of the 1980s and 1990s. Having been recently working in the rapidly growing economies of Vietnam and China, the people in Thailand these days seems a little less optimistic and ambitious in comparison. The "anything is possible" attitude which seemed to permeate both university classrooms and workplaces throughout the capital of Bangkok, if not the whole country, in past decades seems to have been tempered to some extent by slower economic growth which has limited professional opportunities.
While Thailand still deserves the title of "Land of Smiles", the smiles seem to appear just a little less frequent and are a little more forced than in times past, or maybe it is just I have changed and my perceptions have changed. I wonder if the recent political divisions have exasperated the major divisions in society. As an American, it appears the severe political divisions in the USA have caused tensions which can be felt in the air and have increased the divisions between different groups of people.
I wonder if a similar situation has been happening here in Thailand. While no one who has studied the country's history or culture could claim Thailand has ever been egalitarian in nature, the divisions between social and economic classes seem to have widened. Much like as seen in the USA, individuals on both sides of the political division don't seem to be able to find much common ground and this political division might have crept into daily life as the population has become more politically active. I don't remember any taxi drivers talking politics in years past, but it seems pretty common these days.
I have occasionally heard a few foreigners say things like Thailand never changes and has never "modernized." But from my vantage point, the country has gone through huge changes in the last 25 years or so which is about the time I have been involved with the country and its culture. When I first came to Thailand, there were no electric lines in many of the villages and most people had no TVs and little access to transportation. In the evenings, when returning from the rice fields, families would often gather alongside their neighbors and for entertainment would eat together and chat and tell stories.
Today, life in the villages is not that different from what is found in other "modern" places with people owning TVs, trucks (or motorcycles) and mobile phones. Therefore the local community has lessened in importance as the outside world has crept in. Another example, when I first came to Thailand, the concept of lining up (queuing) in stores or waiting for a bus was not well known or accepted. Today, when getting on the subway or Skytrain, the behavior of the passengers is little different from what one would encounter in Western societies.
Whether these changes are "progress" or not is up to each individual to decide, but the changes in life in Thailand in the last 25 years appear to have been more radical than what has been seen in Western societies during this same period of time.
I have always found Thailand to be a great place to live, but not always a great place to work. As Thailand is generally considered a desirable place for foreigners to live, and due to the increase in skills and education of many Thais, competition for good jobs is fierce and employers generally do not have to pay high wages to attract talent.
If the situation works out, I have plenty of work for the next year or so, but I will have to eventually find new sources of income if I plan to settle down here for good. I plan to stay, but then again one does not know when the perceived need for a higher income and/or wanderlust will kick back in and new opportunities in other foreign lands will be sought. But for the time being, I am enjoying life back in Thailand. I enjoyed working in both Vietnam and China, and in my teachings and writings I often advocate the concept that it is not very useful to try to compare, evaluate and rank some cultures as being better than others, nevertheless, it feels good to be back "home."
Scott Hipsher is the author of a number of books, book chapters, academic journal articles, conference papers, magazine articles and newspaper pieces.
His books include
The Nature of Asian Firms: An evolutionary perspective
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking free from the colonial paradigm
Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An interdisciplinary analysis of Theravada Buddhist countries
The Private Sector's Role in Poverty Reduction in Asia (coming soon)