After spending eight days in the heart of Thailand — the 10-million-soul city of Bangkok and tourist destinations of Pattaya and Hua Hin — on what was ostensibly a golf familiarization trip but turned into a quick-fire cultural education, I'm tempted to take that nation's long-standing path toward at least an idea of "peace." They know how to live the word, to breathe it, to embrace it in ways that most Americans can't conceive.
Most of the Thai people's centuries-long commitment to peace derives from the Buddhist philosophy to which about 95 percent of the population of 65 million subscribes. "Buddha is not a God, but a way of living," said our tour guide, Shah, who wants to visit the Grand Canyon someday but is having trouble getting a U.S. Visa. "We don't worship Buddha."
Instead Thais look to the Hindu god of Brahmin for their deity needs — hence all those gorgeous, elaborate temples that come to mind when most Westerners think of the the Southeast Asian nation. They're everywhere, wedged between modern skyscrapers in Bangkok, shoehorned among tin shacks in roadside burgs and erected on hillsides above the hotels, golf courses and housing developments that slowly conspire to steer the country toward a western way of life. Between the two faith/philosophies, Thais are among the world's most peace-loving people. Even their semi-frequent governmental coups rarely involve violence — such transfers of power more resemble handing over the keys in a "you drive for a while" stance between one political faction and another, rather than any kind of protracted struggle (last year's semi-tense showdown at Bangkok's new airport notwithstanding). And King Rama IX — the beloved figurehead whose image is splayed across the country, billboard style, at almost every turn — is the latest and perhaps the greatest in a long line of familial monarchs who have held ceremonial power continuously for 700 years. Why? Because of his intelligence in dealing with potential invaders, a trait honed at Harvard (he was actually born in Massachusetts, and now, at age 81, is in ill health). "Throughout his reign he's been very good at keeping other people from taking over our country," Shah told me one morning over breakfast in Pattaya — a city known for its very open and bustling sex trade, which is a widely accepted avenue for many young girls (and boys) to lift themselves out of the abject poverty in which most Thais exist — again, with an amazing dearth of violent thought or action. "When someone wanted to invade, he would just give them a piece of the land and they would either pass through peacefully or go around."
Hence, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian national that remains uncolonized. It's an enormous source of pride for the average citizen, and proof positive that a sovereign nation can survive, if not thrive, for eons without resorting to armed insurrection. And that fact must, on some level, at least from a Thai point of view, result from the core Buddhist philosophy of seeking inner peace. A worthy goal under any name, in any language, and certainly for harried and media-glutted Americans.