Editor’s note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels

The samlohr arrived at the Nan Guest House at 7:30 am to take me to the bus station.  The bus ride to Chiang Mai was pleasant.  There was a bathroom at the back of the bus and the scenery was beautiful.   I arrived at the Riverview Guest House at 3:00 pm.  The three pretty young women who worked the front desk smiled when I arrived and made a graceful wai.  After eight days on the road, this felt a bit like a homecoming. 

I had a bowl of green curry and rice at the mom and pop open air restaurant in the parking lot a block and a half from the guest house, grabbed a waffle filled with taro on the way home and was in bed by 9:30.  I thought I was just tired from travelling.  When I woke up at 9:00 the next morning, I knew I was sick.

When the young women who cleaned the rooms knocked on my door at 9:00 am, I said as loudly as I could, “Mai sabai (I’m sick).”

“Mai sabai,” I heard them saying to each other.  The small exchange made me feel better, because I was able to communicate in Thai one more time and because the six young women were very cute.  When I would waddle out of my room to breakfast at the guesthouse, they would interrupt their work to give me a wai, a smile and a “good morning” in English.

Saying they were cute is not a remarkable comment, since almost everyone I’ve talked to on the subject of Thai women agrees that the ladies in the Land of Smiles are on the whole some of the most beautiful in the world.  They move their slender, almost school girl like bodies with a grace that farang (westerners) can’t seem to match.  The way their black hair falls on their tan shoulders is exquisite.  And their smiles!   Their radiant smiles make me weak in the knees.

At first I entertained fantasies that the three women at the front desk and the young ladies who did the cleaning liked me better than the other guests, because they always greeted me with such charm.  But during the course of the almost four weeks that I stayed at the Riverview, I noticed to my disappointment that they responded that way to everyone.

Cynics, I suppose, might say that the smiles were there to please customers, but based on my observations, Thais are for the most part a genuinely happy people.   Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss ranked the Thais near the top of the list of the happiest people on earth.  The smiles are authentic.

A melancholy, brooding temperament like mine doesn’t get the happiness I see all around me.  I like it, but I don’t get it.  Weiner attributes this abundance of bliss to not thinking too much.  “Thais do not buy self-help books or go to therapists or talk endlessly about their problems,” he writes.  “The Thais, I suspect, are too busy being happy to think about happiness.” 

The genuine smiles make these beautiful women even more attractive to me, but there’s something else which allows me to enjoy their beauty.  The many attractive Thai women I’ve encountered don’t seem to know that they are beautiful.  Unlike many Americans, both male and female, who seem to be always checking themselves out in the mirror, Thai women seem to be not hung up on themselves.

Karen Connelly was an exchange student in Thailand for a year.  In Dream of a Thousand Lives (Alternatively entitled Touch the Dragon) she was describing seventeen and eighteen year olds when she wrote in her journal,

These girls are too young, too innocent to be sexy—the very word is too vulgar for them—but they are living paintings of Oriental beauty and sensuality, even in their blue and white school uniforms.  I’ve never before seen the grace of beauty that does not see itself.  Here it is everywhere. (p. 100)

In Thailand this grace of beauty really is everywhere.  Connelly was talking about high school girls, but I’ve seen this grace in women in their twenties, thirties and fourties.  I’ve also seen in it children. 

I can be a with a group of young women dressed in very short skirts—which they can look good in because of their slim figures—and not feel any sexual vibrations being given off.  For me, this is a great relief– in contrast to the western tendency to sexualize almost everything–because it allows me to enjoy the beauty of these young women in an easy, uncomplicated way.

What I have just said, of course, seems to stand in contradiction to the fact that, by all estimates I’ve ever read, there are more prostitutes in Thailand than monks. . . . .and there a lot of monks.  Connelly says it is due to a double standard in Thai society.  In another part of her journal she wrote, 

My [male] guardians forbid me to be alone with Thai men, almost fall over if they see me wearing a pair of walking shorts, yet their houses are adorned with pictures of naked beauty queens and their weekends in Bangkok are full of frolicking in massage parlours. (p. 92-93)

One commentator I read on the web said that if a man is a virgin when he gets married he is ridiculed by his friends, while a woman who has had sex is damaged goods.

Dr. Niels Mulder is an anthropologist who has observed Thai society for over thirty years.  He has this to say about the smiles on the faces of Thai women who  function daily as “the hind legs of the elephant,” as the Thai saying goes:

Most Thai women are quite pragmatic about all this.  Where many men often appear to be wish-washy, spoiled, cocky, and carried away the greatness of their schemes, the women are generally hard-working, responsible and conscientious.  .  . .In the male dominated world of Thailand, a smile may mean anything.  .  .and behind smiling female grace and elegance, one often finds powerful, go-getting women.  Nevertheless, even given all that, the Thais appreciate grace and elegance; things should be beautiful to be in order, yet this order also requires hard work and dependability.  Which is why it is women who are at the heart of Thai life. (Inside Thai Society, pp. 72-73)

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...