Nan province in Northern Thailand is a place of majestic mountains, remote villages, unusual temples and, as it turns out, the friendliest police officers I’ve come across — not only in Thailand but in any country, ever.
Now, I’m not saying that the men and women who proudly don those tight brown uniforms (how can they breath?) are generally unfriendly. I once had a lighthearted exchange with an officer in Mukdahan, and the policemen I’ve dealt with at checkpoints have, for the most part, been polite and professional. Even the cops that I photographed at point blank range during the most recent Bangkok protests reacted indifferently.
Through all of my time in Thailand, I’ve never once been singled out by Thai police — until a crew of traffic cops motioned me over as I walked past on a recent visit to Nan town. At first, I chalked it up to a supposed crackdown on visa overstays. I figured it would be a simple matter of them checking that my visa was valid, though I must admit their request made me a tad nervous. As it turns out, one of the officers simply wanted to have a nonchalant chat with a foreigner in order to practice his English. He began by asking (in Thai), “Welcome to Nan, have you been here before?” and other basic questions like what country I come from and how long I’ve lived in Thailand. Still speaking Thai, he proceeded to ask me if the phrase, “Excuse me” is a polite way to address foreigners.
“Yes, yes, of course it’s polite,” I responded with enthusiasm. Seeing that the officer genuinely wanted to make sure his English was polite, I added that shouting “You!” is very impolite, and that he should say, “Excuse me, sir/mam” instead. He graciously expressed his appreciation for the pointer. (In Thai, the term khun translates as ‘you’ but is also a formal way to address someone as “mister” or “miss,” explaining why police officers and tuk tuk drivers think it’s okay to shout “YOU!” when they want to get a foreigner’s attention.)
Taken aback by this very pleasant conversation with the local traffic officers, we then made our way to the beautiful Wat Phra That Chae Haeng, an ancient chedi just outside of town. And what do you know? As I walked towards the temple gates, another police officer stopped me to introduce himself, insisting that he and I pose for a photo taken with his cell phone. I had heard Nan was friendly, but getting stopped by two Thai cops in one day just for the sake of welcoming me and having a chat? Incredible. And it didn’t end there. Literally taking my hand, the officer led me on a tour around the temple while doing his best to impart complex history and religious info in very limited English. I found out, for example, that one shrine depicts some sort of warrior spirit that keeps Nan safe from invasion. He insisted on taking my photo (with my camera) in front of every last Buddha image, saying “action, action!” while motioning for the camera at each stop. The two of us posed together on several more occasions as well.
The point of this post is not to imply that Thai police are particularly good or friendly as a rule; yes, I’m aware of corruption, though I’ve never been asked personally to pay a bribe. It was simply an experience that made my day. In any case, Nan certainly delivered on its reputation for friendliness.