The Boundary Of Mai Pen Rai

Mai Pen Rai is that most seductive of expressions in Thai culture. Literally meaning “it doesn’t matter” it has come to be one of the great definers of the Thai character. Being able to deal with difficult situations, not brooding over material and personal loss and an all-pervading cheerfulness are the hallmarks of Mai Pen Rai. It’s a philosophy of life that I personally subscribe to and one of the attitudes that I most admire about Thailand.

But at times has Mai Pen Rai become a bit of a Sacred Cow, especially in the foreign visualisation of Thailand? Is Mai Pen Rai also a concept that has no horizon or alternatively has an actual boundary or boundaries? I ask this question because I have found that there have been times when as a philosophy it has been a tad wanting. One incident that made me question Mai Pen Rai occurred about six years ago.

My wife Mali and myself were on our annual trip to Thailand from Australia. Down in Bangkok for a few days we received a call from Mali’s sister in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa that their best friend Ruong and her eldest son had been killed. Their deaths were senseless – just another pointless road accident that shouldn’t have happened. They were riding in the pre-dawn to the morning market at the nearby town of Phimai when their motorcycle ploughed into the back of a parked truck which didn’t have its parking lights on. They were both killed instantly.

Mali was particularly distressed at Ruong’s death, as they had been best friends from childhood in the village. Thais tend to make friendships at an early age and they often last forever. The funeral, which was held in the village, was the saddest one that I have ever attended in Thailand. Ruong’s parents and her remaining children were distraught and her husband had lost his soul mate of twenty years. It was a typical Thai funeral that lasted several days.

On the last day after the cremation I participated at the last of the several wakes that had occurred over the past three days. As we sat there drinking with friends, family and other villagers it struck me that people were already moving on. Not because they weren’t sad or simply didn’t care – it just seemed to be fatalism beginning to kick in. There didn’t seem to be a sense of outrage at the stupidity of the deaths. Perhaps they felt it in their hearts or I had missed it in translation.

My own personal sense of outrage about the deaths was reinforced the previous day when I rode my motorbike into Phimai for a few hours. On the ride back I was almost killed by a clown pulling out of the oncoming traffic at speed in his car almost exactly opposite where Ruong and her son had perished a few days ago. Ruong’s death and the reaction of people afterwards is probably not a classic example of Mai Pen Rai. Her death did matter and was felt but the end result of the incident was that the matter was shrugged off. Mai Pen Rai in action?

Now I know I have engaged in a bit of stereotyping here. I fully appreciate that there are countless examples of Thais who boat rock and won’t accept injustice or suffer in silence at stupidity such as the human carnage on Thai roads. However I have found far to often, especially in rural Thailand that people simply “accept situations”. This can range from anything such as sloth in the Sangha, police routinely pulling drivers over to shake them down for a few baht or being shafted by “seat warmers” in the Thai bureaucracy. Now I also appreciate that the extenuating circumstances for these situations is that Thailand still has a fairly rigid class system and its an emerging democracy. However for Thailand to fully participate in an increasingly modern world I feel that some things need to change.

At the end of the day I still believe that Mai Pen Rai is still a powerful and worthwhile philosophy. I’d hate to see Thais turn in to a bunch of self centred prats (although its gradually happening in the big cities) like many of us have become in the west; believing at times that “the sun shines through our backside”. The philosophy of Mai Pen Rai is one of the things that makes Thailand unique, but at the same time Thais are going to have to discover that fire in their bellies in certain situations.

At the end of the day some things really do matter.


7 responses to “The Boundary Of Mai Pen Rai

  1. Yes, the dark side of mai pen rai is mai yae sae, or “it’s not my problem!”. I’ve seen many instances of mai yae sae since coming to Thailand. I’ve witnessed a poor man get sideswiped by a pickup truck right on the street in front of my old employer. Of course a crowd instantly formed…but was it to help the man? No…most of the Thais just stood around with blank looks on their faces, like children who while playing roughhouse just broke their mom’s vase. After they got their gawk, they just went on about their business. A (foregin)friend of mine called an ambulance, but unfortunately the man died on the way to the hospital.
    “Mai yae sae” is common to many Asian cultures, ask anyone who has spent some time in Japan! Nevertheless, I feel that you can find mai yae sae in Western culture as well…remember the Kitty Genovese case? However, this phenomenon is much more common in Asia, where, for the most part, if someone is not in your family/clan..then your first impulse is “mai yae sae”

  2. I think ” TU RA MAI CHAI” is a better Thai phrase
    for what you just try to say.

  3. True, “tura mai chai” is closer to the English “It’s not my business/problem!” but I would argue that the root of that comes from a feeling of “mai yae sae”…which is closer to “don’t meddle, don’t make a fuss”. I don’t know how often mai yae sae is used in everyday speech though…

  4. I remember vividly the day we were setting in a Patong restaurant, just gabbing and goofing off, one of us looked up and saw a big crowd of locals on one area the beach almost infront of us…

    Someone was caught in a bad monsoon ridetide and was drownding, like a flash, Aussie Nick ran out of Thai Gardens into the water and saved the young French lady from the rough surf!

    When we asked some of those that stood there idley watching her go down, the reply was “the person to touch a dying person is cursed by their spirit”!!

    We were simply speechless. Fortunatley for the soggy French lass, Aussie Nick was a trained lifeguard and he quickly accessed the situation and it was a happy ending.

    On another occassion, the drunk driver plowed his big rig truck into the small market just around the corner from the Patong Wat, killing a few inside the shop, yes, the driver ran away. When we asked, why didn’t someone stop him, the reply was “we can’t stop anyone from leaving, we can only tell the Police which way he went”

    Just last week, I was at my local Post Office in the States, a lady in big car bashed into another parked vehicle and she then screeched the tires backing away, almost hitting several other cars and people in her efforts to escape the fender bender, we got her license plate number and gave it to a lady inside the P.O.

    But, no one else that saw this accident happen did anything.

    Mai Pen Rai, mai yae sae, tura mai chai, folks will do as little as possible and often only what they are made to do…as Trink used to say huMAN natURE

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  6. The Serenity Prayer is a good guide as to when to apply the philosophy of Mai pen Rai in order to accept the things we cannot change. By changing the things we can “in order to” make the world a better place. A certain amount of wisdom (grace) is required to know the difference.

  7. Just before dusk in a small town, beside a small traffic circle, Thais were siting around talking. An electricity wire had come loose and was drooping down above the roadway to within 5 feet of the ground. Vehicles and motorcycles were dodging the wire. Some motorcyclists were ducking the wire at the last moment. As it was before dusk and darkening quickly, the light was not good and the wire was almost certainly soon going to snag somebody’s head and cause a bad accident and perhaps a fatality.

    The Thais sat there and did nothing. Apparently they were waiting for the entertainment of a motor vehicle accident.

    I grabbed a long bamboo pole and one of the dopey Thai onlookers and got out there and fixed the problem.

    This is merely one example of many similar that I have personally witnessed that illustrate the cluelessness, the nastiness, the ugliness of the Thais. There is something severely damaged about these people.