So, I’ve had my first (but certainly hopefully not my last) taste of Thailand, well the Bangkok suburbs to be exact. 3 nights and 2 days of a new country and culture hardly makes me an expert but as I mostly live in Sri Lanka these days, I thought it would be interesting to look at some similarities and differences in culture between the 2 mainly Buddhist countries. These are just my observations and I do not claim to know anything more, especially being a Suddhi (female) or Farang as foreigners are respectively called in Sri Lanka and Thailand.
5 Cultural Similarities
- Religion – both countries mainly practice Theravada Buddhism ; “The core teaching of the Theravada Buddhism is to see oneself, not with love or hate, but for it is; or in other words, to not see ourselves subjectively but objectively as if it is merely elements or part of the great flow of nature which in combine lacks the existence of a separate or a permanent “self.” This is evident everywhere in both countries in the number of temples, Buddha statues and small shrines everywhere (outside houses, shops, street stalls etc.). The burning of incense at dawn and dusk unites both countries in those sweet smells.
- Drinking culture amongst men – it seems no drinking session in either Sri Lanka or Thailand is complete without bites (an accompanying snack). The actual food is very different but the overall concept is so very familiar. The setting can be anywhere…by the side of the street or the river. All that is required is a bottle or two of spirits (arrack in Sri Lanka and Thai whisky in Bangkok), a bottle or two of mixers (usually coke), some food, some plastic cups, some plastic chairs and some good company!
- Women rule the roost – in Thailand as well as in Sri Lanka women are NOT the weaker sex. They often work (whether in an office, as a tea plucker, rice paddy field worker, stall holder or a management position for the more educated), they run the household and look after their close (children and husbands) and sometimes wider families (parents, uncles, aunts, cousins).
- Smiles are respected, rudeness is not – I suspect this is part of the Buddhist mentality. A smile will help you get what you want, any rudeness, anger and especially threats will hinder this. Both Thais and Sri Lankans find it enormously embarrassing to lose face in an argument thus they find it better to avoid the issue by being generally polite and kind to others. Even during my short trip to Bangkok I noticed that if I smiled whilst ordering food the service was better than when I simply ordered on my first night without even looking at the person who was serving me (I was tired but not an excuse not to smile!!)
- Immigration staff are rude and crap in both countries – fact. See number 4. above for how to minimise your irritation whilst arriving in the country of your choice. Sri Lanka is marginally better now with the online visa application facility. In Bangkok I waited 45 mins to get into Thailand and over an hour (!!) to get out 3 days later.
5 Cultural Differences
- Food – I can’t begin to explain how different the food is in Sri Lanka and Thailand. I love both but the tastes are wildly different. A green chicken curry in Bangkok will be nothing like a chicken curry in Colombo. Thai food has more subtle spices….some claim it is hot but I still find Sri Lankan food wins the chilli stakes hands down. This is not just about the tastes – also the type of food; PORK is everywhere in Thailand, on barbeques as satay, in sausage form, even in noodles (wontons). In Sri Lanka it is rare amongst Buddhists, Muslims and Tamils. Sri Lankan chefs can learn a lot from the Thai salads in particular.
- Prices – I was lead to believe that Bangkok was one of the cheapest capital cities in the world. INCORRECT. Yes beer (alcohol in general), cigarettes and street food are cheap but transport is comparable to Sri Lanka and clothes about 25%-50% more expensive. I only went to Bangkok so I imagine it is even cheaper out of the cities but generally clothes, rent and land cost a lot more in Thailand than in Sri Lanka.
- Religion – both countries mainly practice Theravada Buddhism ; see point 1. above. Although sharing the same beliefs, the two countries respect and pray to Buddha in different ways. In Sri Lanka strict Buddhists do not eat pork or beef. In Thailand they have no such qualms. The history of Buddhism is also quite different in both countries. The temples and Buddha statues are also different in the way they look and the rituals are different.
- Kingdom vs. Presidency – In Thailand the King or Queen is revered in the same way as Buddha. People will not stand on a coin depicting the King’s face. They will stop whatever they are doing and stand to pay their respects when the national anthem is played (I heard a funny escalator story about this ;-) ). Sri Lanka has Mahinda Rajapaksa – the President. Many adore him, however I feel quite safe to say that many also loathe him and would be quite happy to bury a one rupee coin depicting his face into the dirt with their foot.
- Tuk tuks – these three-wheelers are fast disappearing from the streets of Bangkok :-( – in Colombo the numbers continue to grow, perhaps because we in Sri Lanka do not have an efficient public transport system like the Thais. The SkyTrain, buses, trains all run efficiently and to schedule. Add to that the fact that they are super clean and cheap. Who needs a tuk tuk?