Death and violence in a land of smiles: the tourist paradox

King's Brithday celebrations in Thailand

King's Brithday celebrations in Thailand

I’m watching the news from Bangkok with great sadness. I can’t begin to understand the politics and the troubled history behind the anger on the two sides of the dispute, and am not qualified to offer any opinion other than a wish for the fighting to stop quickly and a peaceful resolution to be found.

Inevitably though, seeing and reading the latest from Thailand takes my mind back only a few months to our visit in SE Asia. Although trouble was brewing already then and people we spoke to feared that something like this would happen, it was a very different Thailand and a very different Bangkok. By contrast we witnessed the happy celebrations of the King’s birthday; such very different scenes to the current chaos and violence.

I go back again to the same thought that keeps recurring on our travels: how can a nation that appears so content and peaceful to us, the visiting tourists, be at each others’ throats just over the horizon? We were in northern Uganda in 1993, when the LRA were just establishing their murderous presence there; in Peru a couple of years later, when there was still widespread fear of the Sendero Luminoso who had only recently lost their grip on much of the country; and again a little while later in Sri Lanka where tourists were kept well away from the bloody civil war that raged in the north. On each occasion we left enchanted by the warm welcomes we received, at the smiles, the laughter and the apparent contentment of the people.

How can we explain this contrast between nations that on one hand extend a warm welcome to visitors and on the other are busy tearing themselves apart? Maybe others have answers they would like to share; for me there are only questions. Are we just seeing a front when we encounter these smiling faces? A Thai person we met was quite amused at the ‘Land of Smiles’ label that is constantly applied to her country. She explained to us that the Asian culture and the spiritual beliefs of the peoples of SE Asia lead people to keep their troubles deeply internalised. There is little tolerance for moaning and griping about everyday ills, and while people may give an outward appearance of happiness, it is much to do with the pressure with the society to keep what is personal, personal.

Is is that as tourists, in a country for a week or a month, we just don’t get beneath the surface of a culture and its people enough to get beyond the superficial? The answer is probably yes, but maybe it’s a convenient deception. After all, given a choice of travelling to a place renowned for its happy smiles and warm welcomes, or one where the local people live in fear and deep suspicion of outsiders and one another, it’s obvious where most will choose to go. Do we just accept that we are only seeing a carefully crafted front when we visit a destination? And should this matter to us, passing through for a few days or weeks?

I hope Bangkok is peaceful again quickly, and the smiles once again replace the tanks and the guns. I’d rather see this great nation market itself again as the Land of Smiles; whatever lies underneath the surface of a welcome, the reality is that for a tourism market to boom, it is that first impression that is so important.

Author Information

15 Responses to “Death and violence in a land of smiles: the tourist paradox”

  1. wow andy.. well said. Everybody has a cracking point. Sometimes the smiles are such a habit that when the real s*** (pardon my french) hits the fan, the violence is catastrophic. I totally agree that this is a common trait in Asians – the internalizing of problems, fears and the worst of the lot, anger. I too hope Thailand will be “OK” again. They are my neighbours. I really love the country. Let’s pray for forgiveness, then healing.

    May 15, 2010 at 11:21 am
  2. I am currently in Bangkok, and actually unable to leave my apartment because my area has been designated a live bullet zone, and grenades & gunfire have been going off. I’ve been here since mid-March when the protests started (peacefully) and have watched and photographed as the situation has deteriorated. As you’ve stated in your article, a population with a deeply internalized breaking point combined with a tangled, complicated history replete with violent struggles just like this one is a deadly cocktail: it is total anarchy on the streets right now (and just outside my door, too). I’ve tweeted some pictures from my street (, and will post this evening with updated links, articles and video shot from the area. Over and above the tourism needed to boost Thailand’s sagging economy, its people need to find a way out of their century old struggles – the staggering number of coups in the country is testament to this struggle – and I can only hope that this cycle does not continue into the future. Until it does, violent clashes like this one unfortunately will occur.


    May 15, 2010 at 2:49 pm
  3. Thanks for the comments, Ciki and Jodi, and thanks for both of your insights into this round of violence and the deeper issues that simmer beneath.
    It’s a good thing Jodi how you and others are providing the world with unbiased and uncensored news and images from BKK, to cut through the propaganda that both sides both doubt push. It’s a demonstration of the power of digital media. Stay safe.

    May 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm
  4. Unfortunately, in many third world countries (and even my own for that matter) when someone achieves political office they become corrupt and start caring too much for their own well-being instead of serving the people that elected them. In this case the government was not even elected by the people. It just seems that too often that governments forget what their purpose is and that is to serve the people and not themselves.

    Jodi, hope the situation does not turn even more violent and that you can soon leave your apartment and also hope for your continued safety.

    May 16, 2010 at 4:23 pm
  5. Thanks Andy and Tony. I made a run for it this AM, and it was quite an experience: grenades going off and gunfire and the intersection clogged with black smoke from the burning tyres. It’s impossible not to sound over-dramatic when recounting the scene, but that was the reality as I left.

    If you are interested, my pictures and a roundup of the videos and galleries from this weekend’s deadly clashes are here:

    Best regards,

    May 16, 2010 at 7:28 pm
  6. hey legal nomads i hope youre doing okay? are you guys still in the country? anyway thanks for sharing with us your first person insight. i’m definitely gonna check out the pics now.

    May 17, 2010 at 9:10 am
  7. I am seeing a pattern, you visit, the country ends up in flames…. I would be concerned if I were you ;> Please don’t visit any of the African countries I am planning to until after I have been OK?

    May 17, 2010 at 2:24 pm
  8. Definitely doesn’t sound good, does it Guy? If I really had that gift I suspect I would be worth a fortune! :-)

    May 18, 2010 at 2:37 pm
  9. It’s just a shame what’s going on there. It doesn’t really matter which side is right. Every first of May we have some fights with the Police in Hamburg & Berlin. But that’s different… the same with the G8 fightings. Sadly this is a good way to get into the media. If thousand protestler are peaceful, the media will show them for 10-20 seconds. If cars are burning they will have an extra show for it. It’s just like that, even if it’s not good.

    But what’s happening in Thailand is even worse… for the whole country. If I remember right, Thailands second biggest income is the tourism branch. Well done! They just handled the situation after the Tsunami & now they help themselves with a new crisis.

    The protestlers would have made a much bigger impact with peacefull demonstrations, just like in the DDR in the past or even in Burma. The Thailand regime would have never acted like in Burma & I’m sure they would have more success that way!

    I just hope that in a couple of months, everything is back to normal… more or less.

    May 20, 2010 at 3:17 pm
  10. Hi JR. Am still in Bangkok, yes. It’s not burning anymore but my area has been decimated. Here are some ‘after’ pictures from yesterday: Pretty sad stuff. Things have calmed down, but we’re all pretty wary as it might well get violent again. Hopefully not! Thanks for reading, and Andy sorry to be taking over parts of your comment thread :)


    May 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm
  11. Hey Jodi not at all, I really appreciate your contribution. It’s incredible to see these images, and I’m sure it’s not a Bangkok that most of us will recognise. A really sad situation. Thanks again for sharing these with everyone.

    May 21, 2010 at 2:12 pm
  12. Christos Greece #


    don’t tell me you also came to Greece e.g. last year, before the economic crisis begun,
    cause that will definitely mean you bring bad luck! :-P PP

    Just kiddin’ of course. Trying to bright the day with (black) humor.

    (Un unemployed Greek in his early 30s.)

    June 10, 2010 at 11:25 am
  13. Sorry Christos, haven’t been to Greece for many years, so I can’t be blamed for that one :-)

    June 10, 2010 at 11:26 am
  14. Christos Greece #


    Ok…so I guess it was just us, Greeks…

    PS. Jodi, really strong pictures.

    Take care you all.

    June 10, 2010 at 11:41 am


  1. What We’re Reading: May 21, 2010 | Two Go Round-The-World - May 21, 2010

    [...] from 501 Places provides his take on the recent developments in Thailand in his piece “Death and violence in a land of smiles: the tourist paradox“. He writes “A Thai person we met was quite amused at the ‘Land of Smiles’ label [...]