Most people familiar with Thailand will agree that, in many ways, it’s a land of contradictions.
From personal freedoms to political restrictions, to the meeting of Eastern beliefs with Western expectations, and the undeniable clashing of the old against the new, Thailand as a country can be pretty paradoxical.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – in fact, it’s what endears the country to many – but occasionally, something will happen so utterly at odds with our preconceived notion of ‘Thainess’, that it gives pause for thought.
One of the issues I wrestle with over here is the value given to individual life. Something I find hard to reconcile is the Thai people’s tangible devotion to family and community with the not-uncommon apathy displayed towards the life and death of others.
Sometimes, it feels like there’s almost a frivolity attached to loss of life; and I mean that towards the country’s expat community too (myself included).
Death is everywhere, but in Thailand it’s just another day at the office.
Traffic accidents, suicides, murders transpiring from loss of face, bodies turning up in the Chao Phraya – these stories are almost mundane, right down to the badly pixelated corpses splashed across news websites and social media.
Another farang found dead at the bottom of a tower block? We roll our eyes. Another 12 people crushed in a minivan crash? We question what fools trust their lives to the whimsy of a minivan.
Why don’t we care? Is a life in Thailand worth less than in the West?
Just another death on the road
Road deaths are frustratingly common in Thailand, to the extent that deaths at their hands have almost lost their shock value. There are 80 deaths every day, leaving the Kingdom second behind – bloody hell – Libya in traffic fatalities.
I don’t drive in Thailand but do take taxis regularly. Just as I used to do back in London.
When in a London taxi, I felt pretty safe most of the time. I was reasonably assured that my driver would be getting me to my destination in a safe manner. There’s definitely a few bad eggs but it’s assumed in the West that your life will never be recklessly endangered, except in dire circumstances. Or perhaps that’s my own naivety.
Cut to Bangkok. Here, I’m pleasantly surprised when I have access to a working seatbelt and feel obliged to tip more if so. If I have to take a trip on the highway – usually headed to the airport – I’m always more worried at the almost inevitable prospect of reckless speeding than I ever am about the impending flight.
While many Bangkok taxi drivers are great, many are not, and there’s been more than a few times when I’ve felt that my safety as a passenger – and therefore, my life – was a far lesser priority than the driver getting to the destination quickly.
I’ve talked about this before, and the reaction from Thais and expats alike has been a shrug and some version of “that’s just how it is over here”. Road deaths that happen to occur in the January New Year or Songkran periods are simply tallied up and attributed to “the 7 dangerous days”, while the rest of the year it’s just chalked up to bad luck.
Are the lives of the rich valued higher than those of their victims?
Two incidents rolling around the zeitgeist right now have put this issue in the spotlight:
Firstly, the 2012 road crash that killed a policeman, perpetrated by the grandson of the billionaire founder of Redbull, and secondly, the 2010 incident which saw the underage daughter of a notable HiSo family crash her car into a van, killing 9 of its passengers and injuring 7 more.
Binding these cases together is the fact that neither of the guilty parties have gone to prison.
The former has paid hefty compensation but has never been tried for dangerous driving, and a charge for speeding was dropped after the statute of limitations expired. The other was initially sentenced to two years in prison, later suspended and reduced to completing 48 hours of community service a year for four years.
What has really fuelled the fire against her though is this photo taken directly after the crash, appearing to speak volumes about her apparent apathy towards the situation.
She was just 16 at the time, and that shouldn’t be dismissed. But the inescapable fact in both cases is that people lost their lives while the two guilty have given little of their own in amends for their misdeeds.
Corpses for clicks
‘Corpses for clicks’ is a term I use to refer to the Thai and English language media’s preponderance for illustrating death reports with photos of the corpse. They usually pay lip service to sensitivity with some degree of pixelation.
Jumped off a building? Your splattered body will be online in an hour. Had a heart attack in your hotel room? Yep, just because you’re a foreigner, your badly pixelated corpse will soon be sprawled across Twitter..
Shocked at first, I’m pretty desensitised to it now – as, I assume, most people who regularly read Thailand’s news and forums are – although I still find the photos needlessly graphic and even potentially harmful.
It’s easy to forget that we don’t live in a vacuum. These pixelated corpses probably have families and friends who really don’t want to be haunted by that sort of imagery.
I know someone that killed themselves jumping off a building. It was a tragedy and I wouldn’t have been prepared for the sucker punch of seeing their corpse pop up online for the delectation of internet voyeurs.
After all, what’s the point? These photos aren’t being used to educate readers, they’re being used for a short-term burst of interest. It’s death porn, only good for dehumanising the person behind the news.
Do we just fetishize ‘life’ in the West?
But aside from the above behaviours, it’s hard to deny that, day to day, Thai people visibly value and celebrate life.
There’s a real sense of community here and that people care for their own – not something remotely guaranteed in the West.
I regularly see Thais give to beggars, disabled people and ‘small business’ setups on the side of the road when, shamefully, I just duck my head and continue on my way.
They look after their families ride-or-die style, and don’t simply put their parents aside as soon as they have children of their own. There’s a palpable sense that life – at least the life of the people they care about – is very valuable indeed.
Perhaps we simply fetishize the prospect of life in the West. Sure, we don’t have pixelated corpses staring up at us every time we look at BBC News, and we mostly feel safe while being driven around, but there’s seemingly far less of the community care and value attributed to life as we live it compared to what I see over here.
In the West, we get bogged down in the stress and single-mindedness of day-to-day life and forget about the lives of others around us, and even ourselves. A beggar with the gall to ask for money is grumbled about as a nuisance, elderly parents are packed off into care homes, and the depression that clouds our lives leads us to painful divorces, a move to Thailand and then a jump off a Pattaya condo building a few years later.
The circle of life, eh?
Nowhere’s perfect, not Thailand and certainly not the West, but it’s definitely a learning curve watching the two worlds collide.
Featured image is via Swongviggit