It might have only occurred to me as I was leaving, but I eventually realised that Thai culture has had a disproportionate cultural influence across the world. For an ostensibly third-world country with a population of sixty-six million, few cultures have spread ideas and practices as broadly and thoroughly as the Thais.
Think about it: there's a Thai restaurant in every town. Sure, there's a French restaurant; maybe Indian, too. But India has a billion people and France is a rich, imperial power. Thai cuisine spread around the Western world because it is awesome. As a first time visitor and lover of Thai food I'd eaten at home, I had high expectations. They were exceeded. I was overjoyed and humbled to stand in a fresh food market in Bangkok and see something I love so much in motion. I smiled as I watched a stall-holder grinding out the coconut milk and a grocer stacking up the fresh herbs for the day's trade.
Muay Thai kickboxing continues to shape the way Westerners exercise and fight. Both violent and technical, Muay Thai added explosive kicks and gruelling clinch-fighting to the traditional Queensberry boxing that we all knew. Men, women and children throw punches and kicks to get in shape and to defend themselves. The discipline underpins my favourite combat sport, mixed martial arts. All MMA fights essentially begin as kickboxing matches and all MMA fighters must have excellent Muay Thai just to be competitive. Kickboxing is as important to modern fighting as any martial art.
When you mention that you are visiting Thailand, some people chuckle or snigger. Thailand is renowned for its more expansive approach to sexuality, particularly in regard to homosexuality and transsexuality. Thai culture has undoubtedly raised Western awareness of these branches of sexual life, which is a net positive for everyone. For instance, ladyboy culture seems to have become a part of the fabric of mainstream Thailand, particularly in the northern regions. I write this hesitantly because I am no authority on this subject. Similarly, I am sure that Thai homosexuals and transsexuals still experience vicious prejudice in a multitude of forms, just as they would in any country the world. But it does seem that Thailand's more laissez-faire approach has shined a light on difference aspects of the human sexual experience, and that is valuable.
Thai culture has punched above its weight in terms of global influence for decades. The ideas and practices of Thai people have spread around the world not by force or imperialism but on merit: because they were more spectacular, tastier, more diverse. So how did this happen? Thais are creative and optimistic people, first by nature and then by necessity. Generally unburdened by entrenched conservative psychological constraints of the Anglo-centric West, they approach problems and pursuits with fresh perspectives. I enjoyed wrapping myself in such a vibrant culture and look forward to doing so again.