23.5.07

Thailand vs. Niger

Thailand is a truly and amazing and wonderful country. Nancy and I had the privilege of visiting there in March. Although I had lived in Asia (was born and lived the first four years of my life there), I had never before been in SE Asia. Nancy had never been in Asia at all. So it was quite an adventure for us.

We didn’t get to see a lot of Thailand while we were there because we were in meetings most of the time at a resort complex and we arrived and left at night, but what we saw gave us lots of room for comparison with Niger.

Of course, there are many differences. Niger is a land-locked country that is mostly desert while Thailand is situated on the ocean with a long coastline and abundant rain. Niger is on the shore of the Sahara, but we don’t have much water. Here is the view of the Gulf of Thailand that we could see every morning from the balcony of our 12th story room.

There are other differences as well. While the roads in Niger are very good for West Africa, the roads in Thailand are startlingly good. We were amazed to see so many traffic lights. And some of the lights had timers on them that digitally counted down the seconds until the light would turn red or green. In Niger we have very few traffic lights, and many of them don’t work all the time. Almost all the traffic lights are in the capital. You rarely see them outside of Niamey. In Thailand people drive on the left side of the road, and we had to constantly reverse the way we looked for traffic before crossing the road. Instead of looking first to the left, you have to look right. All of W. Africa (including Niger) drives on the right.

Another difference was the food. The staple crop of Niger is millet. Only three countries in the world have millet as the staple crop. The staple crop of Thailand is probably rice, but if I were judging by what we ate, I would say it was pineapples. About 30% of Thailand’s pineapples are exported to the United States, either in canned pineapple or as juice or in some other fashion. We can even get canned pineapple from Thailand in Niger!!! We had fresh pineapple on the table at every meal, and it was delicious and melt-in-you-mouth sweet. I am a fruit freak, and I had pineapple every single meal. There were also a variety of other fruits available, especially watermelon, banana and papaya. All these fruits we can get in Niger, but there also were some fruits that we had never seen. My two favorites were the dragon fruit, a pink pineapple-looking fruit that has white flesh with lots of little black seeds, and the rose apple, a light red, pear-shaped fruit that was crispy like an apple but was lightly sweet like an apricot. Then there was Thai food. Every night we had a choice between traditional Thai food and more western-style food. Nancy always went for the Thai food which was spicy and often had noodles with fish or Thai dumplings. It was all delicious. Our last night, we got to eat at a roadside café and really enjoyed the cuisine.

We saw very little poverty in Thailand, at least not like we see in Niger. Of course, we were in the tourist areas and Bangkok and did not get up into the countryside, and we did see some very simple dwellings (see photo), but the poverty seemed to be on a much more limited scale than we would see in Niger’s capital. Thailand looked like an economic boom town to us. That has its down side, and you are probably aware of the terrible traffic in which many in Thailand are engaged, but there were nice supermarkets, malls, several-story shops, etc. They even had Starbucks!! That’s something you don’t see in Niger. We had never been to a Starbucks before. Thailand was our first experience in a Starbucks.

The buildings in Thailand were also very different. There were lots of high-rise buildings, especially tourist hotels near the beaches, something we don’t have too much of in Niger. There were more humble dwellings, and as in Niger, there was very little wood used in construction, but many buildings were very fancy and modern-looking. Very few were made out of mud block, at least in the areas that we saw.

Another difference was, of course, the language and the religion. The language of Thailand, Thai, is spoken by about 60 million people and used all over the country, quite a contrast with Niger’s 20-odd languages, none of which is spoken by more than 10 million people in the country. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and we saw many Buddhist temples. Niger, of course, is a Muslim country. There were also huge statues of Buddha in the airport and many little shrines everywhere. We even saw a shrine outside a supermarket. The birds were eating the food offered at the shrine.

There were some surprising similarities between Niger and Thailand. The first, which wasn’t so surprising, I guess, is the weather. Both countries are, of course, in the tropics, so their weather patterns are similar, with alternating periods of dry and wet. Thailand was very humid, much like Niger is now in May. But it was nowhere near as hot as Niger in April and May. Another similarity is that Thailand was still in its dry season while we were there in March. (Niger’s dry season goes from October to May.) We were surprised at how dry everything looked. It wasn’t as brown as Niger, but the grass was often yellow, and trees looked a little limp and dry. We were told that it was the end of the dry season, and we did have one gully-wumper storm while we were there, but otherwise it was sunny and dry all day long.

Another similarity is the latitude of the country. If you look at a map, you’ll be surprised to find that Bangkok is at about 14º N latitude. That is the approximate latitude of Niamey, Niger. We thought Thailand was much farther south, towards the equator. Parts of it are, but only the long, skinny tail, down where the tsunami of 2004 hit.

There are also similarities in the transportation system. There are all kinds of cheap transport in Thailand, and vehicles often carry more people than they are supposed to. In Niger, 12-person vans called “bush taxis” are often loaded with as many as 24 people. They may also have loads on top which are taller than the taxi itself. In Thailand, they have modified pickup trucks (called “tuk-tuks” I think) with benches along the back and a step on the back for people to hang onto if the benches are full. We saw lots of people hanging onto these “tuk-tuks” and even got to ride them several times.

One of the most beautiful similarities between the two countries is the friendly people. Hospitality to strangers holds a very high place in both cultures. This is not true of the USA and most European countries, at least nowhere near at the same level. The Thai are a beautiful, hospitable people who try to make you feel at home and provide for your creature comforts. We were well cared for. Niger’s people are also very friendly and hospitable, and you can easily make friends with total strangers.

It was a great trip to Thailand, tiring with long layovers in airports (we got to visit Dubai airport for the first time and fly Emirates, one of the best airlines in the world), and we really enjoyed our visit to this wonderful country.

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