If you want to reinvent yourself, come to Thailand. For 500 years, my adopted home has been a makeover reality show for adventurers, dealers, hedonists and escapees from convention. Some of my best friends used to be someone else. No wonder the country embraces misfits; it constantly reinvents itself – to the point that Thainess conjures a breezy fantastical gloss that charms, but bewilders you.
Whilst visiting an ex-colleague, I too got reinvented. Within four days I was tasked to set up ‘Bangkok Metro’, the first listings magazine in a city I didn’t know. A familiar Bangkok tale of the absurd.
In twenty years, I saw Bangkok undergo four identity transplants: an import-crazy boomtown; a post-crash roots revival; a preening design hub; then retro nostalgia after 2006 brought a 17th coup and 15th constitution. Thailand, formerly Siam, clearly has ADD. Maybe it’s from all the sugar in the streetfood.
That fantastical gloss is Official Thainess, which excludes what you encounter most: the chaotic streetlife. I cherish the marginalized majority, from motorcycle taxis to indy subcultures to herbal whisky aphrodisiacs like ‘Horse Bursts His Stable’.
To make sense of mundane mysteries, I had to unpeel layers of history. At times, Thainess appears invented, pretended, or re-labeled ‘Thai’ from a hidden ethnic origin. Many things Thai turn out to be imports, from the hybrid-Japanese tuk-tuk to fortune telling that blends Indian astrology, Chinese zodiac, Gypsy tarot, cellphone numerology, folk omens, and reading moles on the penis. Each puzzle has more than one right answer, because Thainess lies not in actual things, but the process. So the values remain Thai while the surface churns.
Thais reinvent themselves, too, typically for health, wealth or status. My assistant phoned to ask the English spelling of a lucky Thai word. It turned out to be her new name, something Thais casually change. Likewise, luxury bags gain ‘face’ for ‘hi-so’ scene-sters who live in dingy bedsits. Urbanites disavow their ethnic roots and natural tan; the skin whitening mania now reaches underarm and vaginal bleaching. Aesthetic clinics do nose-bridge and eyelid ops non-stop.
With identity so fluid, Thailand’s sex change industry is not extreme but a matter of degree. Buddhism allows a third gender; not quite enough. Conferences dispute just how many Thai genders there are; one academic counted twelve.
Anyway, reincarnation and Buddhist non-ego mean that Thais see identity as an illusion. Thousands of women and gays become mediums – their entire self possessed by a spirit, such as Shiva, past kings or the ghoulish Golden Boy. Even karma is negotiable. Devotees upgrade their fate through offerings, donations, or the magic in Thai amulets and tattoos.
Reinvented foreigners, the farangs, do act as if under a love charm. It’s not the sexpat cliché, nor the lifestyle, the food, the warmth, or the wackiness. The magic spell is freedom.
‘Aliens’, as Thais call outsiders, can float blithely around a Thai hierarchy that’s formally strict, yet informally free. Street-life revels in that impunity: manic traffic, flouted laws, competing noise, and the world’s highest self-employment rate seen in swarms of hawkers, tour-guides, massage therapists and micro-boutiques. That chaos frustrates, but also liberates. Few expats can stomach going ‘home’ after tasting the good life. No wonder the top request in Thai bars is ‘Hotel California’: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
Philip Cornwel-Smith is the author of ‘Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture’ (River Books, 2nd edition 2013)