Updated: Nov 6, 2019
“In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined, on the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind.” In this poetic stanza Tennyson offers a vision of the languid lifestyle of Southeast Asia, a dream land often adorned with the Lotus flower, or Bua in Thai. Lotus has a special meaning in Siam as it does throughout Asia. It is said that Lotus flowers bloomed at the feet of the newborn Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) as he walked upon them. To my mind, a budding Lotus flower symbolizes the intersection of Thailand’s peripatetic spirituality, its scrumptious street eats, and the profuse indulgence of its red-light districts.
The Lotus flower – from seed to root to leaf – is edible, as is everything in Thailand it seems. In Siam food is not about intake or refueling before your next event. Rather, eating is a communal experience, a discipline that demands your respect and full concentration. Like Mexican food, generally speaking, the less you pay in Thailand the better the dish. There is Tum Yum Goong, a plate that blends spicy shrimp, squid or octopus, rice noodles, vegetables (including lotus flowers), spices, and mouthwatering broth together in a superlative soup. The first time you eat it you feel reborn. Then, you are reincarnated with Pak Boong (“Morning Glory”), made from a spinach like vegetable that is fried, seasoned with soybean paste, and marinated in oyster sauce. I could go on and on because the list of dishes is endless.
There are over 50 thousand places to eat in Bangkok alone, a big number but perhaps still not enough to exhaust Thailand’s bounteous ingredients. The prodigious options of spices, vegetables, fruits, seafoods, and meats demands mastery to attract suitors. The locals found their champion in Jay Fai, a street chef legend made famous to the globe when she earned a Michelin Star for her virtuosic back alley grub. As these stories so often go, she started from humble beginnings, once rebuffed by her mother for demanding the toque blanche (chef’s white hat) too soon. After tireless early morning hours perfecting her craft, what emerged was a culinary explosion: crab omelets, curried crab, crispy seafood vermicelli and so on. Her menu drew a following that scaled up meteorically, eventually attracting world famous chefs. When Martha Stuart comes knocking, you know you have made it.
Lotus flowers are also used as divine offerings in Siam where ritual is culture. A friend with decades of experience in Siam who speaks Thai fluently told me that Thai culture is like an onion, there are layers upon layers to peel back. Thailand is different from other parts of Southeast Asia in a key aspect, it was never formally colonized. Centuries past it possessed some of the greatest cities in the world in places like Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was once a city of hundreds of thousands when Europe was still largely dispersed into small villages. It was eventually destroyed by the invading Burmese, a big event in the history of Thailand.
Still, it is Buddhism that binds the land and people together. Temples, shrines, Buddhas, and lotus flowers frequently placed at their feet are everywhere. People bow in acknowledgement as they pass by them on the street. Buddhism is a philosophy more so than a religion the way we understand it in the West. What this means in practice is that one can be a Buddhist and a Christian (or virtually anything else you can think of) at the same time. It is a value system and world view that encourages Thais to be respectful, peaceful, and kind like the Monks who inspire them.
These attributes make Thailand a welcoming place and at the same time one might say it lends itself to a morally casual attitude. The Tourism Ministry expresses this sentiment in their slogan: “Go Thai, Be Free!” Siam is more than a little malleable to the less celebrated elements of the human experience. Red light districts and all that come with them are pervasive in Bangkok, Pattaya, and other places in Thailand. Here, sex is unabashedly advertised, packaged, and sold to an eager audience. An important part of this realm is transgenderism personified by Thailand’s famous “ladyboys,” the Thai call them Kathoey.
So called “pink money” is a prominent business sector in Thailand’s tourist industry. They attract, market to, and promote transgenderism around the world, especially to Western suitors. To service this market, sex reassignment clinics that offer hormone treatments are common in Bangkok. While sex or intersex is a part of the economy, such activity is less accepted as mainstream to the Thais than people think.
Siam is still a very traditional society. It is governed by a royal family, there is an unofficial caste system of sorts that groups people into different categories, and skin color still matters. In short, while the public face may show acceptance of the red lights, transgenderism included, this alternative lifestyle is far from embraced. More often it is looked down upon in private.
On my travels, I heard that gender imbalance is another major factor affecting Thailand. Apparently, there are at least 2 females for every 1 male, and some say it approaches 3 to 1. This makes the competition for men fierce while many Thais women simply turn to farang (foreigners) for relationships. A mid-thirties Thais girl told me the imbalance was due to many factors including: diet (GMOs), use of plastics, and even pollution. She also told me the lopsided numbers are exacerbated by the feminization of Thais men. These are things commonly discussed in America where effeminate men are sometimes called “soy boys,” men purportedly feminized because they drink soy instead of regular milk, which reduces testosterone levels. I was surprised to hear similar ideas in Siam.
The beauty of Thailand, both its people and topography, are very attractive to foreigners from West and East alike. They come for the weather, the beaches, the sex, the food, or simply to live cheaply and leisurely in paradise on earth. Of course, such a paradise does not escape the problems affecting the world beyond its borders: inequality, pollution, corruption, materialism, even serial dating and urban isolation. In spite of these human ailments, the Thais people remain communal, ritualistic, and pious. They are also happier than most. Maybe intuitively they are appreciative of the land, the food, and the lifestyle they are born into. As my friend said, the “Land of Smiles” is layered, and the true feelings behind those smiles is nuanced to say the least. The history of Thailand - like all societies - is checkered and so is the modern incantation. Nevertheless, as long as the Lotus flowers bloom in Siam, it will be a paradise to most and especially for them.