Tuesday, November 16, 2010
The real tale of the sign begins in the early years of Thai tourism when Thailand was, as the promotional slogan used to go, “The Land of Smiles,” with the emphasis on the plural. In those days the Realm was awash in smiles, quite unlike the stodgy West where smiles were in short supply and huge demand.
The promise of cheap, plentiful smiles drew hoards of foreign smile collectors to Thailand. Many of these collectors, when confronted with the overwhelming abundance of smiles and almost complete lack of legal regulation, acted like pigs in slop, wallowing, sometimes drowning in a sea of cheap smiles at the likes of Koh Phangan, Phuket, Pattaya and Patpong. Other collectors, perhaps the majority, were better behaved. But behaved or not, all of them had one thing in common. They all bought smiles as fast as the Thais would sell them.
In a matter of just a few short years virtually every smile in Thailand had been bought, packaged and shipped overseas. Such was the state of things when, at the end of a fated high season, a nameless European tourist on his way home from a Thai holiday was waiting in line at airport immigration at Don Muang. As the queue inched forward, he noted the bored, almost surly mechanical actions of the immigration officers - much like the hotel receptionist had acted when he had paid his bill earlier. In fact, he had not seen a single smile since he had gotten out of bed that morning. Not from the waiter at breakfast, not from the taxi driver, not from anybody on the street, not even from the bar girl he woke up with. This was not the Thailand he had known and loved.
Lost in this thought, he didn’t notice the open counter in front of him. The immigration officer harrumphed impatiently, waving him forward. He stepped up, handed over his passport and fell back into thought about the recently purchased smiles he had in his bag - a bunch of cheap 5-for-250 baht smiles from Khao Sarn Road and a couple of big expensive ones from Soi Cowboy. The officer pushed his passport back across the desk and harrumphed again for him to move on.
On an impulse, the tourist reached into his bag and pulled out one of his best new 'Made in Issan' smiles. “For you”, he said, handing it to the officer with two hands and a polite little bow of the head. Slowly, a broad, happy, inscrutably bemused smile spread across the immigration cop’s face. The tourist smiled back, picked up his passport and disappeared into the crowd. Over the next few weeks, as the officer wore his smile around the airport, it became apparent that he was alone.
As it turns out, that tourist was carrying the last few free-roaming smiles in Thailand. By chance alone, he left behind the last living member of a now extinct species. Shortly after the incident, the officer was transferred from departures to arrival immigration where his unique expression became a fixture, and later a legend. That smile, ‘the last smile in Thailand’, was commemorated by the sign, “Welcome to the Land of Smile” in the airport arrival area. He has since transferred to immigration arrival at the new Sovamabhumi Airport in Bangkok, where he works to this day. It is still possible to see him if you happen into the right immigration line. He is easy to spot. He is the only one smiling.