We spent a total of one month this summer in the small northern Thailand towns of Mae La Oop and Mae Chaem. While we were living there I noticed something was missing. Something I see everyday in the United States. I look at this household item several times a day at home. Sometimes I spend up to an hour at a time staring at it, analyzing and adapting what I see when I look at it.
In rural northern Thailand, mirrors are mostly absent. And the ones that are there are small or cracked or dirty or all three.
At our homestay in Mae La Oop, the “fancy” bathroom, with the western toilet and concrete tub had no mirror.
This is the unfancy bathroom. It also had no mirror.
The only mirror I could find was tucked away in a side room on the doors of a cabinet filled with bedding. I often found myself using the forward facing camera on my phone just to see what I looked like before leaving the house in the morning. Thank you, selfie mode.
In Mae Chaem, there was a plastic framed mirror in the bathroom that looked like it had never been cleaned. Of course, the lighting in the room was so poor it was hard to see clear reflection anyway. I’ve learned to put mascara on by getting a general idea of where my eyelashes are and hoping for the best.
Not once in the month we spent in northern Thailand, did I see a full length mirror.
It was curious to me that mirrors held so little importance in this culture. It wasn’t that locals didn’t care at all about their appearance. Everyone was dressed in clean, neat clothing that was appropriate for their culture. Boys and men had short hair cuts. Young girls wore their hair in a bob with bangs or in braids. Teenage girls wore ponytails with ribbons to school.
And not having a decent mirror to look into didn’t make these people less attractive. The teenagers were cute. Grandma had that grace and refinement that comes with age. And the wife at our homestay was downright beautiful.
I think what is different between this culture with its lack of mirrors and my American culture that is practically obsessed with mirrors is that people in northern Thailand were more accepting of looking how they looked.
In the United States, many people spend tons of time and money trying change how they look, either with makeup, beauty products or treatments, plastic surgery, and even exercise (I never saw one person in rural northern Thailand exercising).
I’d like to say that spending time in the land without good mirrors has changed how much I care about my appearance. But I still spend time everyday looking in a mirror, no matter how dirty or how bad the lighting is. And I still check my reflection in windows as I walk past, more to see if the backpacker gypsy pants I am wearing make me look fat than anything else…
But this experience has taught me that the amount of time spent on appearance doesn’t really matter. I could spend two minutes or two hours in front of a mirror and I still look how I look. Yes, there is a bit of a difference between bedhead and glossy curls. And makeup can accentuate my features. But that doesn’t change who I am.
The people of northern Thailand are beautiful not only because of their physical appearance but also because of their friendliness, their kindness and their generosity. And no amount of time spent looking in the mirror changes that.