The Nation



So much, so little changed

Updating his 'Culture Shock' guide for 30 years gives Robert Cooper a unique perspective

Culture Shock! Thailand




Reviewed by Manote Tripathi

Robert Cooper published "Culture Shock! Thailand" 30 years ago, and the ninth edition, just out, remains a treasure trove of information for first-time visitors and anyone planning to stay here awhile.

Finding happiness in my country isn't as difficult as, say, quantum physics. You're likely to get along quite well with little effort.

You don't even necessarily need a travel guide, but admittedly it's best to be warned, for example, to avoid certain Phuket pubs after 2am. Dodging such hazards - and potential social faux pas aplenty - is explained here in 350 pages.

Obviously there's a reason why "Culture Shock" has been reprinted time and again over the years, and it's not just because of the changes Thailand has undergone. The book's currency and validity have been preserved. The ninth edition includes the MRT and the BTS, Yingluck Shinawatra, the red shirts and even the great flood of 2011.

In the 1970s foreign tourists were just starting to arrive in large numbers, but European-language guidebooks were still scarce. Joe Cummings' Lonely Planet standby didn't appear until 1982. Robert Cooper, a Briton who currently runs Book-Caf? Vientiane, the biggest bookshop in Laos, filled the void.

So I read "Culture Shock" with keen interest, half expecting some hangovers from bygone decades lingering in the text, left behind unintentionally - or even intentionally. I was pleasantly surprised to find none, other than vintage black-and-white photos from old Siam or more recent history.

On page 130 it has this to say: "In spite of the tremendous changes over the past decades, Thailand remains one of the least Westernised of Southeast Asian countries in many ways. The patterns of behaviour and cultural values of her people differ greatly from those of the West."

That's reasonable enough, though some will still debate the statement. In my opinion Bangkok women are quite Westernised, Thai men less so. Thais in general comfortably absorb foreign influences, just as they accepted Anna Leonowens in King Mongkut's court and admired her too.

The Siamese developed an obsession for all things Western that is still in evidence today.

At the same time there remain a few powerful Thais whose thinking has not kept pace with changing times, the point being that culture shock also afflicts Thais in their own land.

Cooper first arrived in Bangkok in time for the 1973 uprising against the Thanom Kittikachorn government. He saw a military helicopter thunder over Sanam Luang and open fire on defenceless protesters below. He ran for his life, fleeing into the Thammasat University grounds, only to find his escape blocked by the river. Someone pulled him to safety on a Navy boat.

Dozens of university students weren't so lucky, of course. A news photo included in the book shows citizens wai'ing the body of a slain demonstrator. They're not sad but smiling. One of them clings to the metal chair that a right-wing extremist had used to batter the student to death for his ideology.

The photo illustrates the section about the wai, and in doing so also tells readers something of what's behind the famous Thai smile. The section itself, though, begs the question of whether - if so much has changed since then - are Thais any more tolerant of dissent?

Cooper has a knack for dissecting Thai attitudes, values and behaviour whose meanings elude most foreigners. Jai yen, he points out, isn't the same as "English reserve", as is often suggested. If a Thai's "cool heart" starts heating up, the outcome is often violent. That's a mark of profound understanding.

Cooper advises farang office managers to win over their Thai staff by avoiding any direct confrontation - and "be nice all the time and buy lots of cream cakes for everybody". I find that amusing. In my office the Thais love pizza and chocolate cake while the farang prefer somtam and gai yang.

Writing about amulets, he offers expert advice on dealing with unfamiliar ghosts and spirits: Treat them the same as any stranger. First, avoid attracting attention to yourself. Then promise them anything that gets you out of an unpleasant situation. Smile and show respect, but not your true feelings.

If this approach fails, Cooper suggests, do everything "in reverse" - bathe with your clothes on, walk backwards, wear your clothes inside out. And he's not kidding. Keep this advice in mind. You won't find anything like it in the other guides.

In fact I would only quibble with Cooper's claim that Thai women are available in just two "flavours" - prio (sour) and wan (sweet). (He says farang prefer the former and other Thais the latter.) The sap, phed and rawn female varieties won't be too happy about being excluded.

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