What really floors you in Thailand is the genuine warmth and generally welcoming nature of its people. A friend is convinced it has something to do with the Buddhist beliefs and teachings. But Buddhism is followed all across the Far East including the neighbouring Combodia where the Pol Pot built pyramids of human skulls by killing more than 2,000,000 people between 1975 and 1979.
So it must be something to do with the Thai culture and traditions, rather than the beliefs they hold. From Thai airhostesses welcoming you with folded hands, bowed heads and bending over forward to salespersons profusely thanking you with repeated bows, Thailand is a large and enthusiastic host which genuinely loves its guests.
And it tries its best to make you feel welcome and at home as long as you are around. Total strangers greet you with a warm smile wherever you go in Thailand — on the ever-humming sky-train in Bangkok, its myriad shopping malls or on its heavenly beaches up north. Not for nothing it is celebrated as the land of big smiles.
Communication may be an issue at times but it's not a big problem as one would face, say in Paris. The amazing people of this incredibly beautiful land go to great lengths to help you with directions, shopping tips or whatever it is you want, even if they cannot speak English or you find yourself overwhelmed by their felicity with the Thai. You couldn't find a more humble people.
Which is perhaps why the tourists or mere curious johnnies like us are everywhere. In the Siam City Hotel where I am staying, in Nana market that reminds you of Delhi's Palika Bazaar or Dubai's own old maze of souqs and the posh Bangkok Hospital, I run into throngs of Arab families.
In recent years, Muslim countries like Malaysia have emerged as a popular tourist destination for millions of rich visitors from the Middle East. Repelled by the unwelcoming and unpleasant reception they have been getting in the US and Europe after 9/11, more and more Middle Eastern tourists are heading eastwards.
Malaysia and other countries in the neighbourhood have benefited immensely from this geopolitical shift, thanks to a certain Saudi billionaire now cloistered somewhere along the Pak-Afghan border.
I saw the Middle Eastern tourists everywhere during my visit to Malaysia last year. But what you see in Thailand is nothing short of a phenomenon. The Gulf and Arab tourists have virtually taken over Bangkok.
The Nana market in Bangkok, where I picked up some cute stuff for my kids while my friends looked around for some 'clean and respectable' massage parlours, looks like a Dubai or Jeddah neighbourhood with its numerous Lebanese restaurants and shawarma and sheesha joints.
The weather is great, especially for people like us tormented by temperatures hovering above 50 degrees in the Middle East. It was mostly raining or drizzling during my week-long stay, a huge relief from the insane humidity of a Gulf summer.
And shopping is even 'more better,' as some of my Egyptian friends would say, with Emirati dirham, Saudi riyal and most Gulf currencies being ten times stronger against the Thai Baht. A much better option against Malaysian ringgit — which is almost equal to UAE dirham and Saudi riyal — or Euro and dwindling dollar, of course.
No wonder the Gulf tourists are arriving in Thailand in their droves. The Thai Airways now has direct daily flights from Dubai, Doha and other major cities in the region, not to mention the service offered by other prominent airlines such as Emirates. And not surprisingly these flights are almost always running full.
Another area where Thailand is seriously challenging Muslim countries such as Malaysia is in medical tourism. Home to some of the finest and most affordable hospitals, the country is seriously wooing and attracting patients — or medical tourists as they are now called, from the Middle East in big numbers. The Bangkok Hospital is more like a five-star hotel, reminding one of super-speciality hospitals such as Apollo and Escorts back home.
By employing Arabic and Urdu/Hindi-speaking doctors and nurses and by offering halal food and most important friendly services, hospitals like these are tapping into a huge and largely unexplored market of the Middle East.
The message lies in finer details like offering directions and public announcements in Arabic along side Thai and English and reserving prayer space for those accompanying patients. It's paying attention to tiny details — and sensitivities — like these that seem to make a big difference.
But the enterprising Thais are far from content with the constant flood of visitors. It is now eyeing the global halal market and Islamic banking. Even though unlike in Malaysia, you still have to watch what you eat notwithstanding the fabulous Thai cuisine, the country is looking for its share of the big halal pie.
For Thailand, a country that likes to style itself as the Kitchen to the World, halal food market, estimated to be upwards of 1$ trillion seems an obvious avenue to pursue. It has set up a Halal Science Center at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, claimed to be the first in the world; it's certainly first in a non-Muslim country.
But Thailand doesn't necessarily see itself as a non-Muslim country. Thanks to its large Muslim population (Muslims are in majority in at least three southern states bordering Malaysia) it has been part of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference) as an observer.
It is even flirting with the Shariah banking by setting up the Islamic Bank of Thailand, run according to the Islamic principle of interest-free banking. Emulating Western financial giants like HSBC and Merrill Lynch, that are into Islamic banking big time, Thailand is looking out for a bigger playing field in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world.
And the continuing unrest in its Muslim south (that was not long ago was part of an independent Muslim sultanate) and the concern — and bad Press — it generates in the rest of the Muslim world are certainly not helpful when you are wooing big money from the Muslim world.
This is perhaps why the Thai leadership is so keen to reach out to the Muslim world. The Thai foreign ministry has been regularly inviting journalists from around the world, especially those from the Muslim countries, to come see for themselves the government initiatives to reach out to the Muslims in the South.
This was certainly necessary after what the now deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did in the South. In the infamous crackdown unleashed by the Thaksin regime, more than 500 young Muslims were killed in 2004. The atrocities were widely condemned by human rights groups in the West and the media in the Muslim world.
Under siege, Thaksin tried to give the whole issue a religious spin cleverly linking the unarmed protesters demanding news about their loved ones to global terror groups and his war on the innocent to America's terror war. Nearly 3,000 people have died since the conflict broke out in 2004.
Thankfully, Thaksin's successors have proved far more reasonable. Even though the present government is still that of Thaksin's party, there's been a watershed change in the approach to the South. The emphasis now is on reconciliation, rather than repression.
Instead of cutting the disturbed region off from the rest of the world, the Thai leadership is inviting the world community to see how and what it is doing to deal with its 'Southern discomfort'.
What is remarkable about this whole approach is the transparency and honesty with which the country is dealing with the insurgency. Unlike other countries facing a smiliar challenge, Thailand is not pretending the problem doesn't exist.
Following one's constant interaction with the Thai mandarins, governors of the three troubled Muslim provinces and local Muslim leaders, one could see that Thailand's leaders are conscious of the excesses of the past. More to the point, they want to make amends and make a fresh start.
Apirath, my infinitely patient and gracious host from the foreign ministry, goes out of his way to help find answers to my persistent and often irritating questions. As long as people like Apirath are around, Thailand will never run out of friends. And as long as it tackles tricky issues like the restive Muslims with a big smile, it will remain an oasis of peace and prosperity. Khob-kun-Krub. Thank you, Thailand!
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a senior editor of Khaleej Times. The views expressed here are his own. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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