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Same Same But Different


There is a saying in Thailand that you may have seen on a T-shirt: “Same same but different.” When you ask a local how Ko Samui compares to Ko Lanta, he might scratch his chin for a moment, then shrug and say “Same same, but different.”

Back in May I wrote about Bowerbirds, a species of bird that attracts its mate by creating works of art. Their almost human-like values of beauty remind us that the superficial quality of form is the only thing that makes us different from other life. The function is pretty much the same, only the methods and styles differ. Within the narrower spectrum of different human populations, we’re even more alike.

Thailand has become a rather heavily touristed country, and I suppose that has taken the edge off the culture shock a westerner might feel stepping out of an airport taxi into the streets of Bangkok. For me it was a little bit of an adjustment, but I have to say I was surprised at how similar this side of the planet is to the side I’m used to.

There are countless little differences, but they are all quite little. Every experience, from buying a shirt to hailing a taxi, is slightly different, but in essence it’s all the same things happening here that happen in Canada; people work, play, dine, rest and wake. It is only in the details that one finds differences.

Bangkok took some recalibration, but not much. Fewer people spoke English than I expected, and it was more crowded than I had imagined — picture sidewalks so packed that pedestrians spill onto the roads, while motorcycles wheel onto the sidewalks when the street is too crowded.

But it was not an alien world. It was just the same human world I left in Canada, only with different trimmings, like a familiar movie scene with some of the color and picture knobs having been played with. I already knew the biggest actor very well: the human being.

The Thai Restaurant Experience

Eating in a restaurant, for example, is fundamentally the same — sit, order, eat, pay — but there is a consistent set of little differences. They don’t give you much time to choose your meal, even when there are sixty options. In two or three minutes they are back, standing over you, pad in hand. Often they give you the menu and just stand there waiting.

Except on rare occasions they will not bring you the bill or ask you if you want it. You must find them and tell them when you want to pay, even if they’re in the back room watching TV. Napkins are usually just a roll of toilet paper in a bamboo cylinder. They don’t keep checking on you like we’re so used to in the west, refilling your water every five minutes and asking “How is everything tasting?” Taxes are included and there is generally no tipping.

There is an amusing lack of uptightness surrounding cleanliness and protocol in Thailand, not just while dining but everywhere. A strange dog might walk in off the street and curl up by your feet while you eat lunch. There might be geckos in your shower. They might charge you a price ten baht different than it says on the handwritten, photocopied menu. At cooking class they don’t make you sign a waiver before handing you a razor-sharp cleaver and having you fish tofu chunks out of a spattering deep fryer.

Even thought the culture is different in this and other respects, these are all ultimately insignificant differences. The people here are still eager please their customers, and the customers are still looking for a good experience.

Humanity is Consistent

Though the Thai language is quite different from English, nothing truly exotic or bizarre happens when two people converse in it. In fact, you witness almost exactly the same transactions as at home.

If you live in an apartment, you’ve probably overhead muted conversations through the walls or ceiling. Even though you can’t make out the words, it is easy to get an idea of the dynamic of the conversation by the tone and timbre of the speech. You can tell if it’s lazy small talk at breakfast, playful teasing, or an argument.

It’s no different listening to a conversation in a language you don’t understand. Most of the communication is not contained within the vocabulary, but in the gestures, tones and expressions that humans everywhere seem to understand without any cultural common ground.

Even ten thousand miles away, the surf still sounds the same. The sand between my toes is something I knew with profound intimacy long before I got here. Same same is the heat of the sun, as well as the menacing roar of street traffic even though it’s at least 50% motorbike here. Same same is the sweet chorus of birds in the morning though they are completely different species, and the majesty of the forest, even if it’s endless jungle and not endless mountain pines. Dogs still wag their tails and lick themselves. Toddlers still throw tantrums. Convenience stores are still poor places to find a meal, but there are different choices. Same same but different.

The human animal is so unapologetically the same, wherever you go. They want to feel comfortable and valued and safe. I know my travel experience is quite limited at this point, and maybe I’d change my tune if I visited rural Japan or Syria. But so far, I see a comforting consistency to life on earth that has been there wherever I’ve gone.

The details are different, but the social and biological fabric behind those details seems to be the same everywhere. Culture, I suppose, is just a word for the superficial differences amongst humanity that arise from different lifestyles and economies. The differences are colorful and fascinating, but they are only different reflections of a very familiar creature.

When it comes to being human, there are fundamentals — emotional needs, appreciation for food and drink, the worship of beauty, the drive for prosperity, to name a few — that ignore our petty political boundaries with impunity. You’d have to leave the planet altogether to find a population that doesn’t adore their children, take pride in their work, or find themselves smiling inside when the sun is out.


Photo by fotographix.ca

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Whitney November 16, 2009 at 2:23 am

I just found your blog on stumble upon. I am captivated by your words, by your experiences. This is an extraordinary glance into true human perception, and although I was orignally taken to your very well-thought-out 88 truths, I found your travel blog to be inspiring and motivational. I also do not have a lot of travel experience outside of the United States, but from my experiences, I agree that humans are human – we all share the thread of language and although the language varies – it helps to define our cultures, our hopes, dreams, experiences, expectations, as well as failures, loss and sadness – it connects us to one another through these shared experiences, although some things do get lost in translation. We recently read a book in my grad school English class – Culture and Environment called Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas – I’d recommend the reading. Thank you for your insights, and I look forward to reading more.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:06 am

Hi Whitney, I’m glad you found Raptitude. There is so much familiarity in people, it’s easy to see we’re the same creature in different clothes.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) November 16, 2009 at 3:37 am

A beautiful read~

The cooking class~ very cool.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:09 am

I actually took a second cooking class because I liked it so much. I want to cook Thai at home, when I do get home.

Nadia - Happy Lotus November 16, 2009 at 9:34 am

Hi David,

That is the beauty of traveling around the world, you come to see that the human experience is pretty much the same. We all want the same things and deal with the same issues. People are people regardless of skin color, language and/or religion. Being human in universal.

By the way, talking of restaurants…I have been in places in Asia where cockroaches were walking on the floor and no one would really care. And these cockroaches were huge. The irony is that while in Asia, I never once had any cases of food poisoning. While here in America, I have had it more than I would like to remember.

Keep having fun and safe travels!
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Hanging Out with Hemingway =-.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:11 am

Hi Nadia. I love that contradiction: in North America people are so uptight about sterility and cleanliness, but after seeing the lax procedures here, I doubt that hysteria prevents any illness at all. I think people get sick when they are afraid of getting sick.

Avi November 16, 2009 at 9:58 am

Reminds me of Bob Harris’s book Who Hates Whom.

You sound like Dumbledore. :)

David November 17, 2009 at 12:12 am

I’ll take that as a complment, thanks. :)

Erin November 16, 2009 at 10:11 am

So good to be part of the family of man! Nice post.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..Release, Receive, Renew =-.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:12 am

For sure. Most places I’ve gone here, I feel at home.

Eric | Eden Journal November 16, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Too funny, I often use the phrase “same but different.” It’s so useful in describing so many things. I have yet to travel to any foreign countries, but I had made the same observation on a recent trip to Pennsylvania. It was my first time visiting this state, and I noticed how similar things were to my hometown in Florida. Same stores, same restaurants, everything was very similar. Look closer and then the differences begin to appear. Local eateries, interesting architecture, historical landmarks. It’s comforting to know that even though some things are different, others remain the same.
.-= Eric | Eden Journal´s last blog ..WIN a $25 Amazon Gift Card! 5 Weeks of Contests, 5 Chances to WIN =-.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:14 am

I like to think it’s the curious details that differ, and the truly important things that stay the same.

Patty - Why Not Start Now? November 16, 2009 at 9:43 pm

David, this is one of the loveliest pieces I’ve read about how we humans are fundamentally much more alike than different. And in your words I hear such an embrace of humanity. I hear something like, “humanity, I love you.” But I think e.e. cummings said that. Hey, I bet he would love this piece too.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..A Large State of Fear =-.

David November 17, 2009 at 12:16 am

Thanks Patty. I’m flattered. I don’t think e.e. cummings would like all my uppercase letters though :)

Dayne | TheHappySelf.com November 17, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hey David, always a pleasure to read your posts. And this one was no exception. I think of other people as simple reflections of myself in one way or another. When you start to look at people that way (the good AND the bad aspects)…it’s amazing what we can learn about ourselves.

.-= Dayne | TheHappySelf.com´s last blog ..The 5 Most Beautiful Things In Life That Are Invisible =-.

David November 18, 2009 at 4:25 am

For sure. I’m in Trang now, where not many people speak English. There is a definite language barrier, but we work it out with gestures and experessions. A species barrier would be much more difficult to overcome.
.-= David´s last blog ..Same Same But Different =-.

Zengirl November 17, 2009 at 7:02 pm


every country, people, religion has their own culture, once I understand it, it makes lot of sense. We are same yet we are so different, like you said, same same but different. I guess that what makes us human beings. Gosh, am I making any sense?
.-= Zengirl´s last blog ..Stress Free Thanksgiving Party =-.

David November 18, 2009 at 4:27 am

Yeah, lots of sense :)

Ethnic prejudice is pretty ridiculous when you realize different cultures are just the same animal doing the same thing different ways.
.-= David´s last blog ..Same Same But Different =-.

Heinz November 19, 2009 at 6:43 pm

well the world changed a whole lot in the last 40 years. it didnt used to be like this. they had their very own culture but western culture was/is so successful that it spread all over the world. the western country basically exported their culture.
do you think thailand would have cars, and all that stuff if it wasnt exported with all the know-how too?

we are seeing a global village beeing bulit by western models.

David November 19, 2009 at 7:03 pm

That’s a good point Heinz. I have not yet been anywhere that has absolutely no western influence. It is not cultural similarities I’m talking about though, it’s the biological and social traits of humanity, such as smiling, eating, raising children etc.

It does go both ways too. We have adopted all sorts of cultural items that originated in the east. What would America be without coffee, gunpowder and noodles? :)

Iva November 22, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Hi, there. I am trying to send you a question through the contact form but it kind of doesn’t work. It keeps asking me to enable my cookies, although I already have them enabled…so I was wondering if you have some sort of e-mail contact or something similiar.
.-= Iva´s last blog ..Zagorjeli toast i druge životne filozofije (1) =-.

David November 22, 2009 at 11:59 pm

Hi Iva,

That’s bizarre, I’m not sure what’s happening. My test email went through fine.

The contact form sends email to david AT raptitude.com, so you can just email me there.

Rory November 25, 2009 at 8:58 am

I just returned from my first trip to Thailand, and your article is spot-on. The geckos, crowded sidewalks (but not too crowded for a motorcycle!), etc. are exactly the things I recall the most. My only question is this… where did you find aplace that gave refills on drinks? LOL I always had to buy a second can of soda! I spoke very little Thai, and really cheated by getting a Thai-speaking app for my iPhone (called iPood Thai), but I got around with no problems. Hand gestures and tones were truely the key… but shopkeepers, etc. really appreciated when I tried to speak even the smallest bit of Thai.

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