Thailand: Where Beauty Abounds
Through the years, Thai government has given the regions of Thailand a reputation for being one of the most culturally homogenous countries in Southeast Asia. However, regional diversity in Thailand has taken a blow from state-initiated assimilation and a “Bangkok-centered” national cultural identity. In fact, the Thai Feds have made their opinions very clear that they prefer the use of the uniform “Thai” instead of formally widely-used ethnic classifications of its people like the “Khmer” and “Lao”. Despite the attempts of Thai government to squash it out, the true multiculturalism of the state has thrived. Thailand’s absolutely enormous tourism industry, though it places the history & culture of the principalities as a commodity, has been the impetus for a renewed vibrancy of local cultures in Thailand. The surge in ethnic identity is quickly making evident the need for a revitalization of the nation’s aged governmental organization.
Understanding Thai culture relies in awareness of each distinct region and its history. However, the full history of Thailand is impossibly long and complicated.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THAILAND
Artifacts found at Ban Chiang in the Northeast date all the way back to about 2000 BC and have led archaeologists to believe that the very first agriculture-based civilization in Asia to make bronze flourished in Isan, in or around the Khorat Plateau, five thousand years ago.
I gleaned what I could from research on the country from 2000 to 0 BC, and could only come up with this laughable and probably wrong timeline of events down in my notes as some kind of reference:
- 2100 – 200 BC: Early humans inhabit the region.
- 600: T’ai people begin to trickle down into modern-day Thailand from Southern China, splitting into two groups on the way down: one stopping in the North, the other settling in the South.
- Theravada Buddhism permeates the land in the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC.
Things started to make a little bit more sense after I hit the Common Era, but the narrative of the country’s history is criss-crossed with migrating peoples, the rise and fall of empires and especially the addition and loss of territories. Distinguishing the past “Pre-Thai” kingdoms and their complicated relationships with each other through the 13 century was frustrating, to say the least.
Thailand was home to the Mon, Tai and Khmer tribes in the early centuries AD. These empires had some of the heaviest influence on contemporary Thailand including Theravada Buddhism (which is practiced by almost 95% of the current Thai population), taken from India by the Mons, as well as ideas and practices of Hinduism introduced by the Khmers.
A group of Khmer principalities united in the 13th century to eventually become the kingdom of Sukhothai in 1238. Sukhothai is traditionally accepted by the Thai as their first kingdom, though Thai history began before its establishment. Additional Thai kingdoms Ayuthaya and Lanna Thai were soon created. Ayuthaya experienced a golden age in the 14th century, absorbed Sukhothai by 1448, and finally drove the remaining Khmers completely out – only to be totally destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.
The fall of Ayuthaya led to the foundation of Bangkok as capital of Thailand – then called Siam - and the start of the Chakri Dynasty in 1782, which is still in power today. King Chulalongkorn (reigning from 1868-1910) is one of the most famous Chakri kings for preventing the colonization and aiding the modernization of Siam, establishing the country’s 1st railroad in 1901, and abolishing slavery in 1905.
1932 saw a nonviolent political coup successfully overturn Thailand’s absolute monarchy, and create a new constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government. Unfortunately, the decades following (especially after Thailand declared war on the United States in 1942/WW2) up until right now the government has experienced general turbulence such as political collapse, economic crises, corruption scandals, and natural disasters.
The best view of Thailand is given by addressing the distinctions of each region instead of generating more of the monocultural identity that is usually associated with the colorful country. For example, Buddhism is the national religion, and has had an immeasurable impact on Thai culture and customs. Still, followers of other teachings such as Islam (primarily located in the South), Christianity and Confucianism thrive throughout the country. In fact, Hindi Sikhs are well known in Thailand for their charity to the poor and elderly. Even Hill Tribes of the North, such as the Lisu, Karen, and Akhu tribes deviate from Buddhism, Animism and folk traditions in favor of Christianity, brought into the country in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Buddhist monks are given the absolute utmost reverence by every Thai citizen, and have been respected so greatly for centuries. Sacred Buddhist texts and books written by Buddhist monks concerning topics like family life, astrology, and the performance of rituals make up the most of the literature coming from the Lanna peoples, a primary ethnic group of the North. Buddhist literature is also integral in the South. Nora, a dance/drama that the Southern region is widely known for, usually takes its plot from the story of the kinnanari (half bird, half human) Manora. Taken from her Himalayan kingdom by a hunter who first cuts off her wings, Manora is transported to the hunter’s kingdom where the crown prince falls in love with and then marries her. The story’s villain persuades the king that his life is in danger and to kill Manora while the prince is away in order to survive. As Manora stands on a pyre to be burned alive, her wings suddenly come back and she flies away to her forest kingdom. She is joined by the prince (who has been an incarnation of Buddha in some variations) after he completes a series of tasks and is given special powers that allow him to visit the kinnanari forest.
I think the forest kingdom Manora is said to have lived in is part of the Himmapan forest, a legendary forest in the Himalayan mountains invisible to mortal eyes and said to exist below the Buddhist heavens. A famous Indian epic, The Ramayana, is the source from which many of the Himmapan creatures were inspired. Other creatures also originated from depictions in visual art, literature and folk tales of Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. For example, the Ghilen is a chinese dragon/deer/ox combo whose Thai counterpart has 2 antlers and is seen on many Buddhist temples in the country. Erawan, a figure in both Himmapan lore and Hindu beliefs, is a colossal white elephant with 33 heads. To give an idea of its magnitude, each of its heads has seven 16 million-meter long tusks. Even aquatic creatures are accounted for, such as the Thai Pla Seau (tiger head, fish body) and the Kunchorn Waree, a swift swimmer with the head and two front legs of an elephant and body of a fish (not to be confused with the Waree Kunchorn, an elephant that lives underwater with the help of gills and fins).
In addition to Nora dance, the South is known for three other things – shadow puppetry, its people’s bubbly exuberance, and most of all the food. Food from the Southern region is famous for being especially spicy, which is no small feat for type of cuisine known for its heat. Unlike Central Thailand’s main staples of rich and fish and the Northeastern habit of eating whatever edible you can get (green plants, snakes, toads, snails, all birds, all eggs, and buffalo, among other treats), Southern food is packed with beef, pork, and fowl saturated in eye-watering spices and pungent herbs. Though the main dishes of Thai food are present in the region (stir fries, curries, raw veggies w/ dip and soups) the Southern style is so bold and distinct it has to be mentioned apart from the rest of the country’s eats.
Here are a couple recipes for signature Southern dishes:
Khao Yam: A Southern Thai rice salad
Gaeng Som Pla: A sour curry
Kua Kling: A dry curry made with beef or pork
And so, I leave you with these Thai customs/tips on how to conduct yourself in Thai society just in case you find yourself craving some of that intense fish soup straight from the source…
- The Wai: A hello, thank you and goodbye gesture of putting your hands together at chest/nose level and slightly bowing your head. This is a super important staple of Thai etiquette!
- Stop what you are doing and stand up whenever the national anthem is played, which is quite often. National pride is a big deal in the country.
- Thailand is incredibly nonconfrontational, and disputes of any kind - especially in public - should be avoided at all costs. The phrase “Mai pen Rai”, basically meaning “nevermind”, is used by locals in particularly draining moments as a testament to their dedication to harmony and lightheartedness
- Trans men and women are unapologetically visible in Thai society. Thailand is very LGBTQ-friendly.
- The head is considered the most important part of the body, and touching someone’s head is a no-no. So is gesturing to/touching people or religious objects with your feet.
- Women are to make way for monks in public and try to never touch one.
- No PDA between unmarried couples.
- Food is served buffet-style, always. For example, at a restaurant, everyone would order his or her dish then pass everything around for the duration of the meal. Guests are expected to try a bit of everything. Always leave a little on your plate and don’t go for second helpings until asked.