Thai ties to Nevada

I am writing from beautiful Chiang Mai, Thailand, the location of a short but sweet study abroad program between the University of Nevada, Reno and Chiang Mai University. This is my first time in this part of the world, and thus far, I have been thoroughly intrigued with not only the culture and people but also the economics.

In Nevada, we consider ourselves reasonably deregulated, especially in relation to other parts of the United States. For example, we have legal prostitution, the Las Vegas Strip allows drinking in public, we have no income tax and it’s fairly easy to start and operate a business without too much government interference. Being in Thailand has allowed me to reflect on the meaning of regulation and has given me the chance to understand Nevada’s system even better.

I’ve noticed distinct differences between Thailand’s carefree yet reserved cultural ambiance and Nevada’s gung ho “anything goes” mentality, but I’ve also noticed some key similarities in the intention to put responsibility in the hands of citizens.

One of the first things I noticed was how few police officers I’ve seen around the Chiang Mai area. In conversation with local Thai people and fellow foreigners, I have been informed that it’s very difficult to be arrested for non-drug related offenses. It seems that the worst thing an average person can do is insult the royal family—I heard one story of a drunk American being arrested after drawing a mustache on a portrait of the king behind the bar—but even then, the king himself supposedly pardons most crimes against the family and deports the offending individual. Granted, many crimes are resolved by paying an on-the-spot ticket (read: bribe) to a police officer, but the biggest bribe that I’ve heard of was 2,000 baht (approximately $67) for failing to carry a passport as a traveler.

Traffic laws are different as well. Motorbikes don’t require licenses, and motorists aren’t pulled over by police officers for infractions. Instead, police have stand-alone tents by the side of the road, and they will wave motorists over if they witness something illegal. Despite the lack of police observation, however, I haven’t witnessed any car accidents, nor have any of my taxi rides felt unsafe. It has been a very different feel from the U.S., where police cars are around every corner.

School uniform rules are another major difference between here and home. At my public high school back in Las Vegas, there was a mandatory uniform dress code that was used to prevent gang activity and inappropriate behavior. The public schools here use uniforms as a way to cut down on conspicuous consumption and status symbols. Uniforms are therefore a method for highlighting the equal right to having an education.

As far as censorship goes, the Constitution of Thailand guarantees freedom of speech, although, as previously mentioned, this freedom does not extend to criticism of the royal family, past, present or future. In fact, The King and I and Anna and the King are banned in Thailand for their perceived historical inaccuracies and representation of the king. Offenses against the royal family today can be punishable by a three-year minimum and a six-year maximum prison sentence, although deportation is more common. Finally, much like Nevada, Thailand is a popular destination for sex tourism. Although prostitution is technically illegal, it is tolerated and, to an extent, regulated with a condom requirement. As in Nevada, prostitution is a lucrative industry and practiced fairly openly.

There is nothing like travel to let one both appreciate and rethink the way things are at home. Hopefully I will be able to share my new perspectives as this month progresses and give a new frame of mind to what it means to live in Reno.