Thailand - Culture & Arts

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Thai Culture

Thailand is a meeting place where people of diverse backgrounds have come together to pool their cultures and racial characteristics. Thailand's culture is a compound of the Mongolian and the Indic, with contributions from Malayan and other ethnic groups.

It would seem that Indian culture along predominated throughout the Indo-Chinese Peninsula for a long time, but became less important from the 13th century as the power of Islam grew in India. It happened that in the same century the Mongols invaded China and set up the Yuan Dynasty, choosing Peking as its capital. Not being content with the conquest of China, the Mongols continued to make further conquests, setting up four khanates in the central, southwestern and north-western parts of Asia and the eastern parts of Europe. The territorial possessions of the Mongols at the height of their power were greater than those of any other Empire in world history.

With its military might and economic prosperity, the Mongol Empire overshadowed all other countries in the East. However, owing to the wide expanse of its territories, which were hard to govern, this huge empire began to disintegrate soon after its founding. At the same time the Mongol rulers earned the ill will and even hatred of the Chinese by harsh and oppressive measures. This, together with political corruption and misgovernment in the later years of the Yuan Dynasty, gave rise to a nation-wide revolt and the Mongol rule in China was finally overthrown in 1368. The four Mongol khanates mentioned above also disintegrated one after another.

Chinese history records two movements in which large numbers of Chinese emigrated to foreign countries. The first was at the end of the Southern Sung Dynasty when many Chinese sought to escape the oppression and persecution of the Mongols. This happened a second time at the end of the Ming Dynasty, when people fled from the Manchus, and a large number of Chinese emigrated to the south.

The Thai race is one that has populated the vast region of Southeast China. South of the Yangtse Valley, many centuries ago, they founded the independent kingdom of Nanchao in 650 A.D. In 1253 A.D. Kublai Khan's horde conquered Nanchao; and a mass migration took place southward.

On arriving in the valleys of the Chao Phraya and Mekong rivers, they were formed into various small states. Those to the west were Shans, to the east were Lao and those in between were Siamese. They were all Thai in fact and Thai's are still found in Yunnan province of South China, still speaking their Thai language, retaining many customs which are familiar to us in Siam though they are politically Chinese.

The migratory Thai established themselves in various centres among which were Lanna around which today is Chiang Mai, Lanxang which today is Luang Phrabang and Vientiane, and Siam along the river Chao Phraya. The people of Thailand are called Thai, though on linguistic grounds they may be said to be composed principally of three main ethnic groups of people; that is the Thai whose old home within historical times was in Southern China, the Austronesian and the Mon-Khmer. The later two groups were the forerunners of the Thai who had migrated into Thailand and adjacent areas. With these people, the Thai, after their migrations from Southern China, mixed appreciably to form themselves into the Siamese, as the inhabitants of Siam were called before 1939, at which time the name was officially changed to Thailand.

Siam; like most other Southeast Asian nations, has been deeply influenced by a culture emanating from what is known as Theravada Buddhism imported from Sri Lanka about the 13th century. Thai's were parts of those peoples who migrated, or perhaps infiltrated, into Southeast Asia about a century or so before that time. It has been said that the Thais may have already been influenced by Buddhism of some sort prior to that time. To add to such an ethnic blend, the Siamese in more recent times have intermingled, to some degree, with the Southern Chinese who have migrated into the country. Such is ethnologically the composition of the population of Thailand which today stands at some 60-70 million.

Influence of Indian Culture

As regards culture, Thailand was always in the sphere of influence of India, down to the modern period of the epic deeds of the courageous Portuguese navigators who opened to European commerce a new and easier way to the East Indies. It was, in fact, through this Eastern mistress of civilization, which admirably corresponds to Rome in the West, through the medium of the Buddhist missionaries in the fourth century before Christ, of the Brahman teachers and of the Malabar and Coromandel merchants who immediately followed in their wake, that Thailand received its first gleam of civilization.

The Indian 'presence' in Thailand is so much part of the environment that one does not normally realize how far back into antiquity this relationship can be traced. There is some evidence of trading and other contacts between India and Thailand dating from six or seven centuries before Christ. One theory is that, under the pressure of the Aryans, the Dravidians of South India were driven eastwards. Some records of which can be found in the Puranas and also the Ramayana.

It is from the Jakatas, however, that a clearer picture is available of the range and character of Indian migration to Southeast Asia. Ships from Banaras, Patna and Bhagalpur carrying hundreds of merchants set out on their voyages of exploration - in the direction of Suvannabhumi, the land of gold, of which Thailand was a part. These adventurers were no doubt inspired by legends of untold wealth in Southeast Asia but this was reinforced at a later date by invasions in India, population pressures and the missionary zeal of Brahmins and Buddhists.

Trade was confined in the early stages to semi-precious stones including beads and cornelian until the Portuguese arrived in Malacca, and available records support the view that this trade between South India and Kedah was maintained with occasional interruptions for as long as 2,000 years. It was by such gradual penetration and not by invasion or conquest that the first Indian settlements were established on Malayan soil and by the 5th century A.D. immigrant colonies were centres of flourishing commercial activity in northern, eastern and western Malaya.

The immigrant traders, having established a home from home, rapidly acquired a status of their own and established mutually profitable relations with villagers in the Malayan interior, the Malay settlements and in Thailand. This status was reinforced by increasing wealth and power, which in turn led to inter-marriage and the introduction of Hindi ceremony in the local courts. Thereafter followed a period of almost imperceptible Hinduism. Sanskrit or Pali was adapted and Hindu manners and customs were so thoroughly absorbed as to become, in course of time, indistinguishable from the local culture.

From that time onwards the laws of Thailand and all its political and religious institutions, and also its arts, have been moulded after those of India, quite different to the case of Eastern Indo-China on the other side of the Annam Highlands (in Vietnamese Truong Son) which runs parallel to the coast, where in a short period of time the influence of Chinese civilization predominated and took a firm root. This mountain range formed a natural barrier to the further extension towards the West of the invading civilization and of the ideographical writing of the Chinese. In Thailand, Kampuchea and Laos, which all lie to the north and/or west of the Annam Highlands, Indian institutions still exist. Countries on the other side of the Annam Highlands, i.e. Lower Cochin-China and Annam, had their Indian influences supplanted by those of China.

From the influx of this Indian civilization imperishable monuments remain in Thailand, in its primeval capitals Sawankhaloke, Sukhothai, and Lopburi. The same can be found in Kampuchea, in its peerless buildings, among which the most famous and best known is Angkor Wat. Along with religion, civil institutions, and arts, literature was also imported from India into Thailand. Principally Buddhist, together with the language of its sacred books, Pali and the Indian alphabetic writing, which later was adopted to represent, with necessary modification and orthographic variation, the native language.

Personal Habits

Basically the traditional culture of the Thai is an agricultural one. The Thai have lived relatively like their neighbours on the mainland of Southeast Asia, in an under-populated but fertile land, where their requirements for sustenance in the old days were simple and easily obtained. Famine was comparatively rare in this sparsely populated and fertile land. In such a self-sufficient economic life, to work more than one wants or to be thrifty and to accumulate wealth in the modern sense was meaningless in those days. Though the life of the farming masses was at times arduous, there was still ample time left for the people to enjoy their leisured life.

The early Thai were neat and clean. They dressed their hair carefully, scented themselves with locally made perfumes and took pains to keep their teeth clean. They not only rinsed out their mouths and cleaned their teeth after eating but also bathed at all hours for cleanliness and for recreation. Bathing was very modestly done, even when no one else was present. The most general hour for bathing is at the setting of the sun, because at that time they have finished their labours, and could bathe in the river or canal to rest and refresh themselves. They were careful also to see that their houses were scrupulously clean, keeping a vessel full of water at the door of every house from which every member of the household or visitor could draw water for washing his or her feet before entering.

In the manner of clothing the Indian influence can be seen in the typical Indian sarong and turban, the Chinese influence in the jacket with sleeves, the loose trousers used by the natives, and some types of hat. Furthermore, the Chinese introduced silk, porcelain, and glazed pottery. These then are the important cultural influences, which deeply affected the Thai people long before European civilization came into contact with them.

Village Life

Socially the Thai, to a certain extent, remain a village-centred people. In the Thai language the word for village is Baan and the larger centres of population were ruled by a chief or a king, who was called Muang in Thai. These two words formed the conception of the universe for the older generations. They were public minded people in so far as their village was concerned. They worked and helped one another in times of need and enjoyed their life socially and aesthetically together. In such circumstances of life, money was valueless. In fact there was very little currency in circulation. Of course, there were wealthy and poor people of the village, but the enjoyment of life was nearly on the same level. The individual villager calculated his wealth in arable land, oxen and buffaloes as well as farming implements and tools. In later times, when money became a medium of exchange, the wealthy people of the village would spend their money on public utilities such as building roads and bridges, public rest houses or a monastery. The surplus money in silver coins was either hidden under the ground or spent on gold jewellery. The poor villagers would contribute help in any undertaking by their labours while the wealthy would supply food and drinks. After the completion of any major public utility there were celebrations and feasts supplied by the people themselves with the wealthy bearing the major share of expense. The thai family structure is of bi-lateral descent, with an exogamous system where male is married out into another village's family. There are reciprocal and friendly meetings either at one or the other villages during the festival occasions.

Spiritual Life

There are two strata of belief of the Thai people. The first stratum is animism, not unlike that of other peoples in their primitive days. There are traces of beliefs and conceptions similar to that of the Chinese, no doubt due to the early contact with and influence of the Chinese, in Southern China. Next comes Buddhism, with elements of Brahmanism and Hinduism, which were mostly confined to the elite classes. In Thai popular Buddhism, these two layers of beliefs and conceptions among the mass of the Thai people have become intermingled in an inextricable degree.

In every village there is at least one Buddhist temple (wat) with monastery, and a shrine of the village tutelary guardian. An abbot of the village wat, if he is a man of age full of lore and wisdom, is a highly respected person in the village. No man is personally more serene than the abbot, yet he understands the problems of ordinary people. His counsel is eagerly sought in difficulties and differences. The villagers would prefer his advice and decision even in a serious case rather than refer the case to the official authority for decision.

The abbot in his spare time will make a round of afternoon visits to the villagers, giving advice or distributing his homemade medicine or other things as needed by the people. Feasts and festivals as observed the Thai Buddhists are mainly religious and connected with the changing seasons. The wat is therefore the centre of social meetings whether in life or death of the folk. All traditional arts and literature of the Thai are essentially religious and most of them are dedicated to their religion, Buddhism.

To sum up, Buddhism of the Thai on its popular side is tinged with Hinduism and animistic ideas stemming from their long contact and free intermingling especially with the Mons and Khmers. With the exception of the Vietnamese and Malays, the people on the mainland of Southeast Asia may be said to have a unity of traditional culture.

Thai Characteristics

The Thais are rather small in stature, but agile and quick and very well proportioned; their faces are of an oval form, their complexions from fair to reddish brown; their hair is black; they have light-coloured eyes. The women are finely made, have sparkling eyes and a very captivating address. Thais are a neat, tidy, clean and well-dressed people.

The common people are plain in their habits and food, but rich, as they know how to content themselves with a little. Thais are happy with their easy way of living. The Thai family is warm, full of love and togetherness. When the family grows, new members will be very well looked after. Their children are remarkable for their docility and sweetness of disposition, and have the most unbounded love for their parents, who make themselves more esteemed than feared. Another special characteristic of the Thai family is respect for the elders. Thais do not cut them off when they get old, but will give more love and care to them instead. Thais honour children, women and older people. Children will pay respect to their parents and among siblings the younger will pay respect to the elder.

Thais are hard working at agriculture and industries. The Thai is not easily discouraged and is willing to try any new kind of work, which may be interesting or profitable. They can work just as hard as anybody else, and some work can be very hard and rough for some of the tasks that the Thai has to perform are very toilsome indeed. To realize this, one has only to watch a Thai farmer setting the spouts in his rice field under a scorching sun, chopping off old tree trunks or hauling a boat across the violent whirlpool of a rapid. Yet most of a Thais jobs are regulated by recurring natural events. Each new season, each full moon, brings on the cares of a job to be done and the fun of some feasts to be celebrated.

From a foreigner comes the testimony that the Thai has great aptitude for tools and machinery and an insatiable ambition to secure an education. The Thai is, in fact, one of the most teachable of persons; and it is astonishing how quickly they can possess themselves of the more obvious aspects of a problem. Thais have the mental adaptability which characterizes all progressive peoples is evident from the success they have had in absorbing and assimilating the useful elements of foreign cultures with which they have come in contact.

Thais are an optimistic and fun loving people. In festivals, Thais will lend each other a helping hand. They help each other doing the work with fun and oneness. They get their work done and get fun out of doing it. This is the outstanding characteristic of the Thai whose principle is participation and fun in work. Being optimistic and good-humoured makes life enjoyable for the Thais.

The Thai has moral as well as physical fortitude, they meet misfortune uncomplainingly and set to work promptly to repair any damage done. The Thai way of life, and their faith, is marked by a tolerance and self-control that has largely contributed to the peace Thailand now enjoys.

The Thais are, generally speaking and as befits their climate and native country, very docile, very good-natured, and great lovers of rest and quiet; they welcome foreigners, make much of them, and treat them with civility. Generosity in the heart of the Thais is like raindrops that freshen those who receive. The Thai people are indeed generous. They give of themselves to help in the progress of their country. Generosity is something beyond prosperity. Not rich in wealth, the Thais are rich in kindness. The Thais feel that making merits without any expectation for reward is in itself a virtue that cleanses their mind and purifies it. Being kind-hearted has become part of Thai culture.

Generally speaking Thais are all very affable, accommodating, open to reason, and very respectful, neither quarrelsome nor obstinate, but obliging and submissive when they are approached in good faith. Although occasionally they may impugn what is proposed them, and bring fairly strong reasons in support of their opinion, it is always less to defend their point of view and more to gain a greater understanding of the other. Often the questions and objections they bring forward have the effect of making foreigners converse about their customs, their laws, and their religion, which is prized more highly by the Thai than all the treasures that might be offered them.

Thais love sports and have sporting spirits. They love justice and like to play games in a fair manner. Thais are honest and thankful to benefactors. Thais are good to a good friend and fearsome to an enemy.

The Thai is a natural soldier and Thai troops have gained a great deal of honour in various engagements in the First and Second World Wars, and also during the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Thais are supreme fighters and Thai soldiers are the equals of any infantry that Asia can produce.

In the main the Thais are a peaceful race, both from a private point of view in their personal relations and internationally, with strong roots in the family and strong love of home and neighbours. The Thais affection for Thailand, its King and Queen, school or college, local sports team, is inarticulate but real and sincere. The impassive features of the Thai have a frank, ready smile for friends and for the ludicrous. The Thais are courteous and polite, and live in the greatest domestic union with each other. Socially, the Thais are one of the most adroit peoples. For graciousness, smoothness and courtesy, they are unequalled.

The Thais are warm, friendly people who will always welcome you with their traditional warm hospitality wherever you go in Thailand. Such, then, is the land, and such are the people who have been entrusted by providence with its use and development.

The Thai Country Woman

The Thai woman of warrior race is, in general, strong and robust. Their physical and moral strength during the distressing period of the exodus from the cradle of Thai race in Yunnan, China, to this country during the reign of Genghis Khan needs to be mentioned. How courageous she was, fighting side by side with her man in fierce battles with the enemy, wild beasts and hunger.

Now, settled forever in this happy land Thai women are renowned for their gentleness, for their happy homes, and their many children. The Thai woman is considered by her countryman, as his equal as far as work in sun and in shade is concerned.

She does not neglect the cooking, weaving, raising and education of her children or attention to the needs of her husband. She will never neglect to plant and harvest the rice crop, to raise domestic animals, to carry water and firewood - and to thresh the rice before dawn.

She is thrifty and able to augment what she already possesses. From the very beginning Thai women have shown a natural aptitude, a skill in the selling and exchange of goods in order to earn a little money. Formerly the Thai woman, with her primitive ways of calculating, had difficulty in competing with the experienced Chinese.

From childhood, the Thai female looks after her little brothers and sisters. Her hip and her back serve as a cradle for the little angels. She sings as she rocks the cradle: 'Sleep my little sister, sleep. I see the head of the gecko, and the wild cat who will bite at your liver. Sleep and then awake, I will give you a banana.'

If she has become eloquent and learned the poetry, it is from her grandmother for whom she cares that she has learned it, for her grandmother recites each evening many tales and poems. The wat is for her a school as well as a club. She helps her mother and elder sister; she carries offerings to the monks. She helps her mother to spin and to feed the silkworms. She is allowed with the other young girls to take part in celebrations, which are held at her house or elsewhere.

Thai girls are taught the gentle ways of womanhood - among them the art of providing graceful service. The warmth, the natural hospitality are part of them.

She will always be scolded by her mother or elder sister if she walks too heavily or if she laughs too loud, or if she does not bow down in humility in passing before her superiors. When she seats herself she must arrange her skirt and see to it that her legs are properly placed.

When she reaches the age of a young lady (16 years), her parents take out of the bottom of the trunk the family jewels for her adornment. Her duties are now heavier and she has more responsibility.

Love comes after marriage, says Thai tradition, passed down by betel-chewing grandmothers. A good girl is demurely silent in these matters. She leaves everything to the elders, for they know best.

A girl is compared to a flower, which must be protected from nectar-raiding bees. From the days she reaches puberty she is closely guarded. But in most cases a girl does go out of the house frequently - to wash clothes by the river, to work in the rice field, to help at weddings and other festivals and ceremonies such as Songkran, the building of a sand chedi (Kaw Phra Saai) inside temple enclosures, and also Loy Krathong. It is on these occasions that she is 'viewed' by her future mother-in-law and often by her future husband too - for tradition does not allow a young man to indicate his choice to his parents. Special arrangements are sometimes made for a young man to see a girl his parents have in mind.

Accompanied by his parents and relatives, he pays a formal visit to his house. As she silently serves drinking water or Pepsi-Cola, he has a chance to look at her and make his decision.

Some parents allow a girl to choose her husband but not to go out alone with a boy. Others allow dating if they know the boy and he brings her home by a specified time. A few parents give their daughters complete freedom.

Press grandma a little further and you may hear of tokens exchanged through a little boy and even a midnight rendezvous under a mayom tree - all very innocent, of course.

Then, remembering her role of the upholder of tradition, grandma will say: 'But nothing would have come of it if our parents had not approved.' Or, she will have to wait for the end of the period when, after twenty years of age, her young man must serve as a Buddhist bonze and don the yellow robes. True enough, everything hangs on the parents' wishes. The young man's mother, especially.

Qualities considered desirable in a daughter-in-law are purity, gentleness, and good housekeeping. Beauty is secondary, although her son may not think so.

Once a young man and his parents agree on a girl, a relative is sent to make discreet inquiries, called Mae Sue or matchmaker. This is to make sure that the girl has not been promised to another and that a formal application for her hand would have a fair chance of success. Representatives of the young man's parents go in a group to the girl's house, where they are ceremoniously received by the girl's parents and close relatives. Very gradually and obliquely - in highly stylized sentences - the leader of the mission brings up the purpose of the visit. The leader of the girl's side replies with equal subtlety.

The usual reply is to ask for time to discuss the proposal with other relatives. The mission leaves a ring: if the proposal is rejected, the ring returned; if accepted, it is kept as a token. The girl is not supposed to know anything about the affair. But little brothers and sisters act as loving spies. They eavesdrop behind doors and report to their sister.

Next comes the engagement ceremony, sealed with a ring. A family dinner may be given or there may be a separate one just before the wedding.

Thai people are very superstitious. The months for marriage are May, August, November and March. They believe these months are very lucky for marriage. But a monk or fortuneteller must assign the lucky day - nearly all the ceremonies are held at the bride's house.

Then comes the wedding day! The happiest and most beautiful day of her life, she will be the loveliest of all. Her friends and neighbours come and help her in the kitchen. You will hear laughter and jokes in the courtyard coming from the young men who form the bridegroom's coterie. They come to put up with a lot of teasing. She will be surrounded by half a dozen girls of her own age.

In Thai villages a marriage means a big party and ceremonies are usually held in the evening. The older generation, officials and friends of the young couple are all invited. There is a procession from the bridegroom's to the bride's house. According to Thai custom the groom has to pay a toll before entering the room. The older persons pour lustral water onto the young couple's hands wishing them with happiness. Friends and persons younger than the couple are not allowed this privilege.

The girl must sit very still with downcast eyes throughout the many ceremonies. She must not smile, however much she is teased. The bride will be timid at her groom's side. It is unseemly to look happy at getting married. After the good wishes from the groom's friends the guests depart.

On the eve of the wedding ceremony proper, the two fiancés are united by a cotton thread to a chapter of monks who then bless the water in which the couple will be bathed early next morning. Immediately after, the couple offer food to the monks and receive their blessings. This is the ceremony known as Suad-monh Rod-narm (pouring of lustral and scented water sprinkled with jasmine and rose petals), by which the two are joined in wedlock before their monks.

After the ceremony, the newly weds are led to the wedding chamber by a lady, who in order to ensure the happiness of the couple, is chosen among the most virtuous women in the village. In the meantime, surrounded by bottles of Mekhong and victuals of all kinds, the guests go on feasting, joking, laughing and signing.

With serene and happy eyes the young girl thus prepared to leave the familiar home of her childhood. Freely she has chosen to follow the marriage traditions of her ancestors, as do many Thai girls today; confidently she looks forward to a new life, a new home.

One this day, surrounded by the close family ties, the age-old traditions, the honoured customs that continue to live in the freedom of her homeland, the bride went forth with a joyful heart. This was the day she had long awaited; this was the day of her wedding.

Love, Thai-style does seem a little peculiar in the modern concept of romance and courtship before marriage.

The Thai City Woman

It would be almost impossible for anyone acquainted with present-day Thailand to imagine the condition of subjection in which women were forced to live 90 years ago. Before 1914, any woman who tried to assume personal, social, economic and political equality would have been stigmatized as 'grandiloquent'. Closer to home ground, the roles played by Thai women in their communities have also been barely acknowledged.

But times have changed unrecognizably, and tables have turned. Women in the olden days were responsible for very specific, but limited tasks - being dutiful daughters, good sisters, virtuous wives and excellent mothers but, nowadays, they are called upon to be responsible in all aspects of development of the country. The Thai girls of today have become more emancipated. Today's girl is freer than here mother could ever have imagined. No more is she required to look sad because of some outmoded convention, and other unnatural restrictions on her spirit have also been eased.

Women in Thailand now have civil and political rights; they are competing in public and private employment with men and even clamouring to quality with men. It is a modern tendency. Where before they have quite naturally devoted themselves to the home and to raising their children, now they enter into all professions, as well as business and politics.

In 1979 Thailand had 897,970 women working in the fields of finance and commerce, 2,642,840 in agriculture and forestry, 968,260 in industry and 791,000 in services. Women are finding their way into jobs as senators, ambassadors, bankers, judges, village headperson, research workers, lawyers, trade promotion, advertising, bus conductors, lorry drivers, air hostesses, and take up take up several other professions which were normally reserved for men. Many more are running large hotels, bus lines, newspaper and printing offices, travel bureaux, business colleges, dress making and textile designing institutes, employment agencies, beauty parlours, cottage industry shops and countless small shops and factories, have a monopoly on river commuter traffic, and unofficial controlling shares in real estate. The National Defence Forces, the Police Force, the National Planning Board, the State Railway, the Port trust, The Immigration and Customs Police, the Posts, Telegraph and Telephone Organizations and various government departments all employ women.

Women teachers, nurses and social workers reflect in their paid occupations their roles as 'wife and mother, supporter and nurturer'. One prominent foreign visitor to Thailand once said: 'When I first arrived in Thailand and saw Thai women working in every sphere of the business world, I was amazed'.

Thai women have always played a quiet yet vital part in their homes, in agriculture and trading. At home their multiple roles include managing the household income and lending much valued support to their men folk.

Outside the home, women have always had indirect avenues of influence in matters relating to community. This influence, in the form of opinions expressed to fathers, brothers or husbands was not a thing of little consequence. Womanpower, while excepted and recognized has mostly been informal and non-public.

If you are familiar with the women of Thailand, you will agree that they are very beautiful indeed. Thai women, traditionally, are slight of stature, graceful of movement and friendly of nature. They are fully clothed in all the mysteries of glamour, quicker to smile and more appealing than they have ever been. From the cinema and T.V., books and fashion magazines, she has learnt how to dress and acquire the charm designed to bewitch and captivate the male. Thai girls have seriously taken to heart the sacred cult of glamour. Read the newspapers and the many varied women's magazines; they run miles of columns on fashion, beauty hints and other feminine 'secrets' to please men.

Westerners are now looking towards Thailand for women, who they strongly believe have more femininity, more charms, and are less manly than their Western counterparts. Increasing numbers of tourists who come here from Western countries on charter flights take back a wealth of information about Thailand and its charming people. Several journalists, especially from Europe and America have also been in this country and have written about Thai girls and their beauty in newspapers and magazines.

The lure of the Orient for gay young bachelors is legendary, and it is not surprising that many males never get beyond Thailand in their hunt for the perfect woman. Few countries in the world can boast to have so many pretty girls as Thailand, and professional bird-watchers have been known to go into a complete daze at their first introduction to the local scene.

Thai girls have a unique appeal that is not really hard to explain. For probably more than any of their Asian sisters, they have managed to absorb the more desirable aspects of Western culture without losing along the way their distinctive character.

But don't get the wrong ideas about the pretty young girls you see perambulating along Bangkok's streets. They may be wearing lipstick, eye shadow and other mod gear, but at heart they are still likely to be aware of family commitments and be bound by ancient customs.

A girl must be careful about whom she associates with. Her father may well lecture her about her responsibilities, and will point out that any scandalous behaviour will reflect on the honour of the whole family.

A young Thai girl has to help her mother (boys are dispensed from this duty) and to learn as much as she can from her. She should not play herself into the foreground or try to attract attention, except by grace and charm. In the presence of guests and other persons commanding respect she is expected to be silent except when her opinion is asked for.

The modern Thai woman is as yet uncertain how she should react to this tradition. She is determined to emerge from the home and the family more in future and to take on new roles in society. But she would not wish, in doing so, to forfeit her special charm.

Thai Arts

Sculpture & Architecture

The following scheme is the standard one used to categorize historical styles of Thai art, principally sculpture and architecture (since very little painting prior to the 19th century has survived).

A good way to acquaint yourself with these styles, if you are interested, is to visit the National Museum in Bangkok, where works from each of these periods are on display. Then as you travel upcountry and view old monuments and sculpture you'll know what you're seeing, as well as what to look for.

In 1981, the Thai government made restoration of nine key archaeological sites part of their 5th National and Economic Development Plan (1982-86). As a result, the Fine Arts Department, under the Ministry of Education, has developed nine Historical Parks (Uthayaan Prawatisaat):

These Parks are administered by the Fine Arts Department to guard against theft and vandalism and to protect tourists from bandits at more remote sites. In 1988 they even managed to get the famous Phra Narai lintel returned to Prasat Phanom Rung from the Art Institute of Chicago Museum.

Additional areas of historical interest for art and architecture are Thonburi, Lamphun, Nakhon Pathom, Nan, Ratchaburi, Lopburi, Chaiyaphum, Sawankhaloke, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Chiang Saen and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Some of the monuments at these sites have also been restored by the Fine Arts Department and/or by local interests.

Some recommended books are Arts of Thailand by A B Griswold and A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam by Reginald Le May. Several good English-language books on various aspects of Thai art are for sale at the National Museums around Thailand (particularly at the Bangkok National Museum) and at the Muang Boran office on Ratchadamnoen Road in Bangkok.

For information about the export of antiques or objects of art from Thailand, see the Customs section.

Spirit Houses

Every Thai house or building has to have a spirit house to go with it - a place for the spirits of the site, or Phra Phum, to live in. Without this vital structure you're likely to have the spirits living in the house with you and that can cause all sorts of trouble. Spirit houses look rather like a birdhouse-sized Thai temple mounted on a pedestal. At least your average spirit house does - a big hotel may have a spirit house as big as an average house.

How do you ensure that the spirits take up residence in your spirit house rather than in the main house with you? Mainly by making the spirit house a better place to live than the main house. Most important, it should have the best location and should not be shaded by the main house. Thus the spirit house's position has to be planned from the very beginning. The spirit house has to be installed with due ceremony and if your own house is improved or enlarged then the spirit house should be as well.


From a western perspective, traditional Thai music is some of the most bizarre on the planet and is an acquired taste for most of us. It is well worth the effort! The classical, central Thai music is spicy, like Thai food, and features an incredible array of textures and subtleties, hair-raising tempos and pastoral melodies. The classical orchestra is called the piphat and can include as few as five players or more than 20.

Among the more common instruments is the pi, a woodwind instrument that has a reed mouthpiece and is heard prominently at Thai boxing matches. The pi is a relative of a similar Indian instrument, as is the pin, a banjo-like string instrument descended from the Indian vina. A bowed instrument similar to ones played in China and Japan is aptly called the saw. The ranaat ek is the wooden percussion instrument resembling the western xylophone. An instrument of tuned gongs arranged in a semi-circle is the gong wong yai. There are also several different kinds of drums, some played with the hands, some with sticks.

The piphat ensemble was originally developed to accompany classical dance-drama (khon) and shadow theatre (nang) but can be heard in straightforward performance these days, in temple fairs as well as concerts. One reason classical Thai music may sound strange to the western ear is that it does not use a tempered scale as we have been accustomed to hearing since Bach's time. The standard scale does feature an eight-note octave but it is arranged in seven full intervals, with no 'semi-tones'.

In the north and northeast several types of reed instruments with multiple bamboo pipes, functioning basically like a mouth organ, are popular. Chief among these is the khaen, which originated in Laos and when played by an adept musician sounds like a rhythmic, churning calliope. The funky luuk thung, or 'country' style, which originated in the northeast, has become a favourite throughout the country.

Popular Thai music has borrowed much from western music but still retains a distinct flavour of its own, despite the fact that modem Thai musicians play electric guitars, saxophones, drum kits, electronic keyboards, and so on. Although Bangkok bar bands can play fair imitations of everything from Hank Williams to Olivia Newton-John, there is a growing preference among Thais for a blend of Thai and international styles. The best example of this is Thailand's famous rock group, Carabao. Carabao is by far the most popular musical group in Thailand at this writing and has even scored hits in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines with songs like 'Made in Thailand' (only the chorus is in English). This band and others have crafted an exciting fusion of Thai classical and luuk thung forms with heavy metal. Cassette tapes of Thai music are readily available throughout the country in department stores, cassette shops and from street vendors. The average price for a Thai music cassette is 50 to 60 Baht. Western tapes are cheaper (about 30 Baht each) if bootlegged, but the days of pirate tapes in Thailand are numbered now that the US music industry is enforcing on international copyright laws.

If you're interested in learning how to play traditional Thai instruments, contact the Bangkok YMCA (tel. 0 2286 1542 or 0 2286 2580) to enquire about their weekly classes taught by Mr. Pranai Navarat.

Some recommended books are The Traditional Music of Thailand by David Morton and Thai Music by Phra Chen Duriyanga.


The origin of likay, according to Prince Damrong's Rules and History of the Thai Theatre, is a similar dramatic play performed centuries ago where participants sang and spoke alternately while dancing. Many watch a likely if only to see the costumes worn by performers, who also don masks but expose different parts of their bodies. Embroidered, multi-coloured and decorated with jewels, these costumes underscore the amount of time and effort spent by those who made them.

The movements in a likay are not continuous and there is a lot of wailing and gesturing done. Performers dance to the beat of music played by a small orchestra whose instruments include a rammana drum, a set of gongs with different pitches, a xylophone and wind instruments.

Thus, the likay is more than just an entertainment number. It is a microcosm of the ways of society.

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