Read about Thailand and you’ll soon hear it called the ‘Land Of Smiles’. It’s a cute name, but where did it come from?
Thailand is known as the ‘Land Of Smiles’ thanks to a marketing campaign in the 1980s by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to promote the country as a tourist destination.
The slogan was probably based on the friendliness of Thai people, beaming at visitors in a land of glorious sunshine… It caught on like wildfire and is now is a common euphemism for the country of Thailand.
Sometime in the intervening decades, the TAT changed its slogan to the less catchy ‘Amazing Thailand’. Possibly to distance itself from the fact that ‘The Land Of Smiles’ was an advertising campaign. (The best adverts are when you don’t even know you’re being sold something, right…?)
Does Thailand live up to its moniker? Broadly speaking, I think you can argue that it does. But there’s more than a hint of nuance about it…
Do Thais Actually Smile More?
Let’s start with the big exception – Bangkok. Just like people from the North of England will say that London is not representative of the rest of the country, Bangkok is socially and culturally very different to the rest of Thailand.
Bangkok is like any major city with millions of people living in it where friendliness towards strangers is minimal. Don’t expect to disembark at Suvarnabhumi airport and be greeted by smile after smile. (Particularly not from the notoriously grumpy immigration officers!)
Leave Bangkok, the urban areas or tourist hotspots however, and you will encounter authentic (or rather, traditional) Thai culture. A culture which is based around honorifics, the idea that you speak differently to people depending on how well you know them.
You’ll begin to hear Thai people say ka or khap at the end of their sentences. This is a politeness particle that has no direct translation in English but is easy on the ear. It might be the equivalent of being addressed as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.
You might have Thais ‘wai’ you, which is a physical gesture where a Thai person clasps their hands together like how a Christian prays and they will bow down slightly. This is used to express gratitude, as an act of deference or to say sorry.
[pic coming soon :)]
You might notice small acts of inquisitiveness or generosity. I once tried to flag down a motorbike taxi before realising it was just a normal guy on a bike, he offered me a lift anyway without expecting anything! Or when I was given an umbrella by a stranger after being caught in a heavy monsoon during rainy season.
Do Thai people smile more? I think they do. Maybe it’s the culture or maybe the religion. Maybe just the elevated levels of mood-enhancing Vitamin D from the many hours of sunshine! My experience is Thailand is a particularly happy place with particularly friendly people.
Are People In Thailand Happier?
Soaking up the sun’s rays while sipping a mojito on the whitest sand you’ve ever seen fits most people’s idea of paradise. But is everyone in Thailand as happy as the tourists?
This is a complex issue, but I can offer some insights into what life is like for the average Thai.
When it comes to employment, opportunity and social mobility, things are not rosy. Inequality in Thailand is shockingly high, with the Bangkok hi-so types living a different existence compared to the millions on the poverty line. One reason why the sex trade is so massive is that the pay seems incredible if you’re a pretty girl who grew up on a rice farm in Udon Thani.
Even for those who can get a good office job, work weeks are typically 6-7 days and the pay is low relative to a Western standard of living. The average Thai is not able to take foreign holidays, eat in classy restaurants or buy expensive electronics on $400 a month.
On the other hand, Thai people have a very relaxed attitude towards things (arguably too relaxed!) The phrase sabai sabai embodies it, which roughly translates as ‘relax, be comfortable’. The largely Buddhist Thais learn to meditate from an early age and take on more of a ‘whatever will be, will be’ approach to life and happiness. Refreshing for those accustomed to the Western ‘grind until you’re dead’ way of life.
Of course, a smile does not always mean happiness. In Thai culture there is a tendency to smile your way through things, particularly social encounters with people you don’t know. If your boss tells you you’re looking uan (fat) well you’re just going to have to smile through that.
Are expats in Thailand happier? Well, people are happy and unhappy all over the globe and for every foreigner loving life out here there’s a mopey faced farang complaining in a bar in Pattaya.
I’ve lived here for nearly 6 years and despite its frustrations, I’m a lot happier than I was living in Manchester in England. Each visit home reminds me how much I miss the sunshine, warm weather, cheap food and cold drinks. In regards to other expats, some love it and some don’t. But one thing that everyone notices is how often people decide they’re leaving Thailand for good and then end up back here 6-12 months later. It’s a remarkably common occurrence and one which is often met by the phrase ‘they always come back!’
The Concept Of ‘Losing Face’
One aspect of Thai culture that I haven’t touched upon is that of ‘face’. Common in Asian countries but not so much in the West, causing someone to lose face through public embarrassment or injustice of some kind is considered a grievous insult.
Here’s a personal example that demonstrates the idea. A few of of my friends were out at a bar/restaurant one night in Bangkok. A glass of beer was dropped and smashed on the floor. As is custom in pubs in England when this happens, this group of friends gave a loud, sarcastic cheer… “wheeeey!” ….expecting it to be taken in good fun.
Instead, it was a Thai man who dropped the glass and they caused him to lose face in front of his date. A few (possibly genuine) death threats later and they all quickly left!
So you could say one reason why Thai people smile is that their public persona is to not show aggression or annoyance with strangers so they don’t cause face loss. Even if they are particularly annoyed with someone in a situation where a Westerner might get angry a common response could be to smile and bear it, even if on the inside they are absolutely livid.
Why The Phrase “Land Of Smiles” Has Caught On
In the decades since its introduction, the phrase ‘land of smiles’ has spread like wildfire. Not only is it used by all types of people when talking about Thailand, but large corporations are getting in on the act and promoting Thailand as the land of all things smile.
Here’s a picture from Suvarnabhumi airport, the largest and most modern airport in Thailand in the East of Bangkok which has branded itself as the ‘airport of smiles’.
Here’s an airline, ‘Thai Smile Air’, which has been in operation since 2012 whose very name plays on Thailand’s purported ‘smiliness’.
Lastly, for those of you who are learning thai and would like to know how to say it in the language… (Although it must be said, it’s much more of an English phrase than something you hear much in Thai.)
สยามเมืองยิ้ม – sa bai meuang yim