Every time I visit Thailand – which is not often enough – I’m struck by how much fun everyone seems to be having. Of course, people have fun everywhere. But in Thailand it’s different. The Thais have elevated fun to an ethos, a way of life – one that, frankly, we would all be wise to emulate.
Every culture has a word for fun, but the Thai word, sanuk, is freighted with more meaning, more reverence, than most. Sanuk is not fun as mindless diversion or frivolity; it’s fun as an intrinsically valuable activity.
Walk down any soi in Bangkok, those wonderfully kinetic alleyways brimming with life – or step into any office for that matter – and you’ll see sanuk in action. It might take the form of gentle teasing, clever word play or plain old silliness. It’s almost always good-natured and always includes an element of social harmony.
“The translation of ‘fun’ doesn’t do sanuk justice,” said William Klausner, an American anthropologist who lived in Thailand for decades. “It fails to capture the magic of this rather unique aspect of Thai culture.”
People will resign from a good-paying job because it’s not fun
Travellers can see sanuk in full bloom during the annual New Year festival of Songkran. Held from 13 to 15 April, it’s been called “the world’s biggest water fight”, and for good reason. Step outside during Songkran and you risk getting a thorough drenching, either by children who roam the streets armed with massive water pistols or by bucket-wielding adults. Originating as a Buddhist festival, Songkran is one giant celebration of fun. No wonder it is Thailand’s most important holiday. And no other places in Asia celebrate Songkran with the intensity, or playfulness, of the Thais.
“If it’s not sanuk it’s not worth doing,” said Sumet Jumsai, one of Thailand’s best-known architects, as the glorious madness of Bangkok swirled just outside his office. “People will resign from a good-paying job because it’s not fun.”
This struck me, with my Western sensibilities, as wildly impractical, and for a moment I thought he was pulling my leg. But for Thais, fun is not optional. In fact, Thais use another term, len, or “to play”, to describe activities like academic research and business meetings – ones that most Westerners don’t associate with playfulness. This seemingly contradictory dynamic can be seen in Thai offices; workers look like they’re joking around – yet, somehow, eventually, the work gets done.
When I suggested that Americans also like to have fun – heck, we invented the frothy concept of Big Fun, epitomised by the likes of Disney World and over-the-top birthday parties, he baulked.
We don’t believe in this work-hard, play-hard mentality
“Yes, but you Americans take your fun very seriously. We Thais do not. We don’t believe in this work-hard, play-hard mentality. Our fun is interspersed throughout the day.”
“What do you mean?”
“It could be a smile or a laugh during the work day. It’s not as uptight as in America.”
Sanuk is also a coping mechanism, one that provides “an emotional buffer against the more difficult things in life”, writes Arne Kislenko in Culture and Customs of Thailand. Although Thailand is known as “The Land of Smiles”, the Thai smile is considerably more complex, more nuanced, than most foreigners realise. Yes, Thais smile when expressing joy or gratitude, but they also smile to conceal negative emotions. Thais will smile during a tense standoff, or at a funeral.
Perhaps Thailand’s fun fixation is explained by religion. Thailand is, of course, a Buddhist nation, and sanuk is a Buddhist concept, a reminder of the impermanence of everything and the importance of living in the moment.
A close companion to sanuk is the Thai concept of mai pen rai, variously translated as “don’t bother”, “never mind” or “no problem”. It is not meant negatively, as in “never mind, I’ll do it myself”, but, rather, as a reminder of what truly matters, as in “never mind; this too shall pass”.
It’s a life philosophy that values harmony, avoids confrontation, and recognises, in a very Buddhist way, that all of life is transitory. What seems like a life-or-death matter probably isn’t. And for some Westerners, especially those doing business in Thailand, the twin philosophies of sanuk and mai pen rai can be frustrating. Efficiency (in the short term at least) suffers when everyone is busy having fun.
But Thais see these attributes as productive in their own way. They reduce tension and quieten aggression. In Thailand, a drunk person acting belligerently is likely be ignored rather than confronted. Mai pen rai. It doesn’t matter.
Western culture is task-focused and direct. Thai culture is process-focused and indirect. Fun is not something done in order to achieve an outcome – such as relaxation or team building – but is pursued for its own sake.
This is not to say, of course, that all Thais are happy all the time, or that fun can serve as a substitute for hard work or social change. But it seems as though they are onto something. What we in the West deem as “serious” activities could possibly use a dose of sanuk. Not in order to diminish their seriousness – but to remind us that a furrowed brow usually leads to nothing but wrinkles.
Eric Weiner is a recovering malcontent and philosophical traveller. He is the author of, among other books, The Geography of Bliss and the forthcoming The Geography of Genius. Follow him on Twitter.