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 Home > About Thailand > The Land and its People

The land and its people

Approximately the size of France. covering an area of some 513.115 squre kilometers. Thailand displays comsiderable geographical and climatic variety in its four major regions. The far north. where rhe narion's borders mee t those of Burma and Laos, is mountainous with valleys watered by a number of rivers and streans; during the winter months temperatures are cool enough to permit the cultivation of such temperate-zone crops as coffee, lychees, and strawberries. The rolli ng northeastern plateau, by contrast, suffers from frequent droughts, although these are being alleviated by an increasing number of reservoirs and other man-made water facilities. The central plains region, through which flows the Cho Phraya River, is on e of the most ferrtile ricegrowing areas in the world and has been the scene of Thailand's greatest historical development. The narrow southern peninsula, stretching to Malaysia, has coastlines with spectacular beaches along both the Gulf of Thailand and the Indian Ocean and lofty jungled mountains in many areas.

Traditional and modern edifices coexist harmoniously in today's Bangkok.

The country is blessed with an equal varity of natural resources. Though logging is now resteucted in the teak forests of the north, the region contains rich deposits of flourite, wolfram, and tungsten and its riverine valleys support a large number of orchards and farms. Potash is plentifol in the northeast, and mulberry planrarions have traditionally sustained the cultivation of silkworms. Both flourite and gems are mined in the west, while some of the finest sapphires in the world come from the mountains of the finest sapphires in the world come form the mountains of irrigation canals which supply water not only to countless rice fields but also to vegetable farms and fruit orchards. Natural gas deposits in the Gulf of Thailand a re supplying energy for many development projects, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard. In addition to a plentiful supply of seafood, the south has extensive deposits of tin and huge plantations of coconuts, cashews, and other fruits.

Though the great majority of Thailand's 50 million people are ethnically Thai and Buddhist, the country has a substantial number of minority groups who have historically lived together in harmony. Of these the Chinese are perhaps the most numerous, p articularly in urban areas, though they have become so thoroughly assimilated it would be difficult to isolate them as a distinct group. Similarly, while there are Laos and Khmer groups in the northeast and west, nearly all regard themselves as Thai, cul turally as well as by nationality. More clearly defined are the Muslims, who are mainly concrntrated in the southern 0provinces, and assorted hill tribes who live in the far north; there are also sizeable communities of Hindus and Sikhs in large cities l ike Bangkok.
The Family

Perhaps the best way to comprehend Thai social values is to focus on its basic unit, the Family, and in particular the rural family in its typical village setting. Generations living under one roof, or at least under several roofs within the same compound; and it is here that the Thai child learns codes of behavior that will guide him throughout much of his later life, whether it is spent in the village or beyonds.

In a village, home is usually a simple wooden house rased on posts; domestic animals like buffalos, pigs, and chickens are kept below, and the family lives above, often in a single room. There is little privacy, though this is not as highly regarded as in Western countries, and the communal lift style instills a strong sense, of social harmony in which tact, compromise, and tolerance are essential. The father is regarded as the leader, but the mother also plays a significant role, particularly in the f amily finances.

The coastline of the East is being developed into the so-called Eastern Seaboard, which will be a center of industrial development in the future.

When small, children are treated permissively by various members of the family, which as likely as not will include grandparents and sometimes more distant relatives as well. Respect for elders is taught very early, however, and by the time a child walk s he is aware of his position in the family hierarchy, a distinction that applies not only to the relationship between parents and children but also to that between siblings of different ages. This same delineation of roles also applies to the wider worl d outside the family and will remain deeply ingrained throughout life, thus explaining the reluctance of younger Thais to oppose or otherwise confront a senior during their subsequent careers in business or government.

A sense of responsibility is also inculcated in early childhood. Each child is assigned certain duties according to age and ability-feeding livestock, leading the family buffalo to graze in nearby pastures, taking care of younger brothers and sisters w hile parents are at work in the fields. As they grow older, responsibilities increase and they are allowed to paticipate in family discussions, with their opinions taken into account when important decisions are made.

One of the prime responsibilities placed on children is that of taking care of parents in their old age, a prominent feature of the Thai concept of family. There is no felling of being inconveniened by this duty of caring for aged parents; on the contra ry, their acquired wisdom gives them an honored place in the household, and their counsel is actively sought in teaching their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to be responsible adults with the same traditional values.

Village Organization and Leadership

Beyond the family, the next larger unit of social organization is the village. Although there are regional variations in house styles and crop cultivations, and the setting may vary, in essence Thai villages are remarkably similar, revolving around well -defined climatic, religious, and farming seasons.

The typical village contains around 100 to 150 households, or an average of 500 to 700 inhabitants. The houses are nearly all simple wooden structures, elevated on stilts as protection against flooding and unwelcome animal intruders and also to improve air circulation. A small wooden granary, also on stilts, is often found beside the house, together with large earthenware jars in which rainwater is stored for drinking. Most villages now have electricity but water for washing and cooking comes from ca nals, rivers, or ponds, or, in the arid northeast, from communal wells.

On the village outskirts are the local school and the wat, or Buddhist monastery, sometimes adjacent to one another, sometimes at opposite ends of the village. The school is generally a simple wooden building, perhaps a single room where several classes are held simultaneously; an essential feature is the flagpole upon which the Thai flag is ceremoniously raised each school morning and lowered in the evening. The monastery, constructed and maintained largely through local donations and thus reflectiong the village's wealth, is often separated from the community by an open field to give the resident monks maximum privacy and seclusion for their relgious activities. This grassy expanse also serves as the village common, a place where children assemble t o play kickball and where local fetes are held.

The village is self-governing, led by an elected headman, or phu-yai-ban, who until recent years was always a man; since 1983, however, women have also been eleted to the position. A candidate is not affiliated with any political party but must be a lit erate Thai house holder who has resided in the village at least six months and be at last 25 years old. If he retains the villagers'esteem, the phu-yai-ban can remain in the post until retirement at 60 through repeated reelections; by the same token, he c an be removed if he forfeits their respect.

The phu-yai-ban preserves the social harmony valued so highly by all Thais by skifully settling minor disputes, talking care to ensure that neither party feels cheated or loses face. In addition, he keeps the village birth and death records and acts as a spokesman for the community in negotiations with the government bureaucracy.

Administratively, neighboring villagers are organized into groups known as tambon which, depending on topography and population density, consist of two to 28 villages. The phu-yai-ban within each tambon elect one of themselves to be kamnan, or commune h ead-person. Thailand has nearly 5,000 tambon at present. The kamnan is chairman of a committee which often includes a government school headmaster, an agricultural extension worker, and sometimes a Health Department doctor or paramedic in charge of a lo cal clinic. It also contains at least two men selected by the nai amphoe (or district officer, who is the kamnan's immediate superior or appointed by the provincial governor.

This committee is responsible for deciding which villages should have new roads, irrigation budgets and health services, while the kamnan's main individual responsibilities are to see that justice prevails within the commune, to maintain records and stat istics, to help preserve peace, to assist in collecting taxes, and to act as the intermediary between the district officer and all village headpersons in his tambon.

The wat serves as a social center where villagers have both religious and recreadtional activities.  

The wat is the focal point of the village, symbolizing the Buddhist religion and also acting as the major unifying element, particularly during festivals and merit-making ceremonies when it also becomes a social center for young and old alike. Abbots an d senior monks frequently enjoy more prestige and moral persuasion than the village head, and in times of personal crisis they are often the first whose advice is sought. Within the wat the abbot has absolute administrative, clerical, custodial, discipli nary, and spiritual responsibilities, and they determine the monastery's relationship with the village. If an abbot is scholarly, meditative, and retiring, the monastery is unlikely to concern itself much with mundane village affairs. On the other hand, if one is a dynamic personality he may make the wat a community center with a subtle but powerful influence on social action. Every young man in the village, before he starts his own family, will spend a period of study and reflection in the wat, thus i ncreasing the influence of Buddhism.

Social Values

Buddhist teachings are at the root of the typical Thai villager's sincere consideration for others, embodied in the virtue known as namchai, "water of the heart," a concept encompassing spontaneous warmth and compassion that allows families to make anony mous sacrifices for friends and to extend hospitality to strangers. For example, a stranger visiting a village will rarely be seen as an intruder and a subject for suspicion and distrust. Much more likely, the villagers will have the namchai to take him in, feed him, offer him a bed in one of their homes, and generally treat him as a friend. Buddhism also lies behind such common expressions as mai pen rai (or "never mind, it doesn't matter") when something unfortunate happens, reflecting the feeling th at one must gracefully submit to external forces beyond one's control, such as the effects of past karma.

Although highly individualistic and resisting regimentation, Thais nevertheless realize that inner freedom is best preserved in an emotionally and physically stable environment. Therefore, they believe that social harmony is best maintained by avoiding any unnecessary friction in their contacts with others. From this has grown the strong Thai feeling of krengchai, which means an extreme reluctance to impose on anyone or disturb his personal equilibrium by direct criticism, challenge, or confrontation. In general, people will do their utmost to avoid personal conflict.

Outward expressions of anger are also regarded as dangerous to social harmony and as being obvious signs of ignorance, crudity, and immaturity. Indeed, during normal social intercourse, strong public.

Within such a behavioral framework, Thais share very definite views on what constitutes friendship and enjoyment. Sincere friendship among Thais is extremely intense; the language is rich in expressions which reflect the degree of involvement and willin g self-sacrifice. Such relationships are found particularly among men. A "phuan tai" -literally, "death friend" -is a companion for whom it would be an honor to die. Should a friend become involved in difficulties, his friend feels an obligation to hel p him, regardless of the danger to himself, because "tong chuai phuan" - "One must help one's friends." This requirement is a sensitive point of honor and explains many circumstance that often baffle outsiders. displays of dismay, despair, displeasure, disapproval, or enthusiasm are frowned upon. Accordingly, the person who is , or appears to be, serenely indifferent (choei choei) is respected for having what is considered an important virtue.

On the level of acquaintanceship, politeness predominates. When greeting people, Thais will usually show their concern for others' health by remarking how "thin" or "fat" he or she has become. The remark is intended as a gesture of friendship.

Individual Life Cycle

A Thai baby officially becomes "someone" after its name is chosen-frequently by the village abbot-and entered in the village head's records. Soon after birth the child will be given a nickname, nearly always of one syllable. Intimates will continue to call him or her by this nickname for the rest of his life and may in deed have to think for a while to remember the proper name.

Childhood is a carefree, cossetted time. By the age of four, children regularly meet to play beyond the family compound, with boys and girls generally segregating and roaming freely throughout the village. Boys play make-believe games, fly kites, plow imaginary fields, and hunt insects and harmless reptiles. Girls nurse makeshift dolls, "sell" mudpies in make-believe markets, play games emulating their mothers, and look after younger brothers and sisters.

Gradually the children are drawn into work patterns. Around eight years of age, girls give increasing help with household chores and boys assume greater responsibilities such as feeding domestic animals and guarding the family buffalo as it grazes or wa llows.

Children attend the government village school to be taught from a standard nationwide curriculum. They acquire varying degrees of literacy and study Buddhist ethics and Thai history. All receive a comprehensive education and by coming into contact with neighboring villages' children and visiting the provincial capital on school trips they enjoy a broadening of social experience.

Having assumed ever-increasing workloads and responsibilities, youths of 15 and 16 are already regarded as fully mature adult laborers. Between graduation from school and marriage at around 20, most village males go into the monastery, usually for the d uration of one rainy season, in order to make merit for themselves and their parents; in some areas a man who has never been a monk is avoided by marriageable girls, who regard him as a khon dip, literally an "unripe person."

The village girl's entrance into adolescence is a gentle one. Courtship is confined initially to communal work groups during planting and harvesting and at monastery-centered festivals and activities. There may be extensive banter between boys and girl s but, individually, young people tend to be shy and "whirlwind courtships" are exceedingly rare. Emotional relationships mature slowly and customarily involve chaperoned meetings at the girl's house.

Most young people select their own marriage partners. Rarely is parental disapproval voiced since marriages often take place between families within the same village, further strengthening and widening communal ties. A marriage is sometimes presented a s a fait accompli by children who work in towns or cities and are thus beyond parental control. In many parts of the country it is the custom for the groom to move in with the bride's family, thus providing extra labor for the family fields and also avoi ding friction between mother and daughter-in-law.

Early in the moring, in accordance with traditional Thai belief that married life should begin with merit-making, the bride and groom feed village monks and present them with small gifts. In return, the monks bless the couple and the house or room where they will live.

The village marriage ceremony bestows no official validity on their union but is merely a public proclamation that the two people will live together as man and wife. The young couple's wrists are ceremoniously bound together in the presence of village e lders and they are led to the marriage chamber as guests feast, drink, sing, and dance. Later, their marriage is officially registered at the district office and becomes a fact of law. Daily tasks are generally divided equally between husband and wife. Women normally do the household chores, but they work in the fields during planting and harvesting. Men perform heavy tasks and fieldwork, fetch water, and occasionally clean their own clothes. Thai village men are often very good cooks and sometimes h elp prepare the food for festivals.

When a couple decide to marry a beautiful ceremony is held to mark this turning point in their lives.

After marriage, every couple eagerly awaits the birth of its first child, which usually comes during the first year. Children have a high position in rural and cultural values, since there is strength in numbers, a vital sense of continuity is ensured, and many hands make farming activities easier. Often there exists an unspoken preference for boys since they alone may be ordained as priests to gain merit for themselves and their parents, but no love is witheld if the child proves to be a girl.

Everyday village dress is simple. Men generally wear shorts, a simple shirt, and their versatile phakhaoma -- a checkered rectangle of cloth loosely worn around the waist which, at a moment's notice, can serve as a turban for protection against the sun, a loincloth to preserve modesty during public bathing, a sweat-aborbing towel, or a hammock.

Women wear the phasin (the Thai version of the sarong)and a simple blouse or bodice. Children wear similar clothing as their parents except when they are dressed in their school uniforms.

The Seasonal Cycle

The rice planting season usually begins in April or May. Rice is by far the most important of all Thai crops and the principal food for people throughout the country. Whether boiled and eaten plain, distilled into al liquor known as lao khao, or transf ormed into sweets and noodles, rice and its cultivation comprise a central pillar of Thai life. Kin khao, the Thai expression for "to eat," literally means "to eat rice." The grain provides major government revenues and for centuries has been Thailand's leading agricultural export.

Visakha Puja, the year's greatest religious holiday which commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment ,and death , comes during seeding and plowing. Village elders attend temple celebrations and sermons during the day, while those who have been working all day in the fields return at dusk to join the solemn candle or torchlit procession tha t circumambulates the monastery chapel three times. Each person carries flowers, three glowing incense sticks, and a lighted candle in silent homage to the Buddha, his teaching, and his disciples.

Shortly after transplanting is completed, usually toward the end of May, the first of the annual monsoon rains arrive to inundate farmland. Daily rainfall replenishes the fields and while the rice is growing much of the family's time is taken up with Ra ins Retreat observances.

During this annual three-month period (Phansa in Thai), Buddhist monks are required to remain in their monasteries overnight, a tradition which predates Buddhism. In ancient India, all holy men, mendicants and sages spent three months of the rainy seaso n in permanent dwellings, thus avoiding unnecessary travel during the period when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally tread on young plants. In deference to popular opinion, the Buddha decreed that his followers should also abide by thi s tradition. This initiated a move away from an itinerant life to a more or less settled existence since the advantages of communal living became apparent.

Phansa represents a time of renewed spiritual vigor. The monk meditates more, studies more, and teaches more. Laymen, too, traditionally endeavor to be more conscientious, perhaps abstaining from liquor and cigarettes and giving extra financial and phy sical support to local monasteries. Phansa is also ordinarily the season for temporary ordinations. Young men enter the monkhood for spiritual training, to gain merit for themselves and their parents, and to conform to the widespread feeling that a man who has not been a monk cannot be considered a mature adult.

The Buddhist ordination is a mixture of religious solemnity, merit-making, and boisterous celebration reflecting the Thai belief that the three most important events in a man's life are his birth, his ordination, and his marriage. The ordination ritual itself originated over 2,500 years ago as the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) took shape and has changed little to this day. Socially, it is something in which the entire village participates. Local monks comprise the presiding chapter and precepto rs, while villagers gain merit by accompanying the tonsured, white-robed candidate for monkhood (known as the nak) in a colorful procession to the monastery, often marked by joyous dancing and the infectious throb of long drums.

Symbolism permeates every aspect of the ordination ceremony. The nak's white robe connotes purity and the royal umbrella held over his head reminds participants of the royal heritage Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced during his spiritual quest to beco me the Buddha. The nak leads the villagers in a triple circumabulation of the monastery chapel to evoke the Buddhist Triple Gem -- the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha (the Teacher, the Teaching, and the Taught.)

Once the rains have ended, the daily rhythm of field work is increasingly concerned with keeping birds away from the ripening rice. During this time fish are abundant in rain-swollen streams and fields. methods and equipment for freshwater fishing vary from region to region and depending on where the fish are being sought -- canals, rivers, ponds, or rice fields.

In early November, one of the most beautiful of Thai festivals, Loy Krathong, takes place. Loy means "to float," and a krathong is a lotus-shaped vessel traditionally made of banana leaves. The krathong usually contains a candle, three incense sticks, some flowers, and coins. By the light of the full moon, people light the candles and incense, make a wish, and launch their krathongs on the nearest body of water. The Goddess of the water who plays such an important role in rural life is thus honored, and it is also commonly believed that the krathongs carry away the past year's sins as well as the hopes of the launcher for the future. Moonlit waterways throughout Thailand are covered with tiny, flickering lights representing millions of silent aspira tions.

By late November or early December, rice in the north and the central plains is ready to be harvested. Wherever possible, water is drained to allow fields to dry. Harvesting schedules are determined by common consent within each village. Early each mo rning, cooperative work groups go into the fields with sickles to harvest each farmer's crop. Around noon, the host family sends food to the fieldworkers, and after lunch work resumes until dark when the host family provides another meal.

The cut rice is spread in the fields to dry for several days before being bundled in sheaves and taken to the family compound, where it is threshed and winnowed. Except in the south, where later monsoons arrive late in the year, harvesting usually ends in January to February. Then the farm family turns its energies to activities neglected during the rice harvest. Buildings, tools, and fences are repaired and secondary crops are either planted or harvested.

The hot dry season after the rice harvest is marked by the important Songkran festival, which celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. At this time people from rural areas who are working in the city usually return home to celebrate. Songkran is obser ved with special elan in the north where, because it occurs during a time of relative leisure, it becomes a three to five day festival of entertaining and socializing.

A thorough house cleaning, sprinkling of Buddha images with lustral water, memorial ceremonies, merit-making presentation of gifts to monks, elders, and spirits, the release of caged birds and fish, pilgrimages to holy shrines, parades, dancing, and unin hibited, good-natured water throwing are all features of the Songkran celebration.

Around this time, showers signal the dry season's approaching end, and villagers once more prepare for rice planting as one annual cycle ends and another begins.
The unique Thai-style takro still maintains its popularity among the younger generation.

Leisure Activities

A penchant for khwam sanuk combines with a natural gregariousness to ensure that both spontaneous and formal leisure activities are vital parts of the Thai village's social fabric.

Rice cultivation demands consistent hard work, but the communal gatherings that result set the stage for all types of group activities from feasting to courting. Some evenings after a hard day's work, many villagers, instead of going to bed, gather arou nd bonfires to talk. Young people sing and court. Older people chat, smoke, and drink homemade rice liquor ,a mild or potent brew depending on the brewer's skill and the ingredients at hand.

There may be a rhyming song contest and a lot of friendly banter between old and young as individuals try to outdo each other in composing choruses with familiar themes. Local musicians may play reed instruments, bamboo flutes, hand cymbals, and drums t o accompany singers, providing both inspiration and humor.

Ordinations, particularly when a number of families pool resources for a group ceremony, are often celebrated with similar festivity. Enormous feasts are prepared. Electric generators may be rented, a band organized, and a folk dance drama troupe engag ed to keep revellers spellbound until the early hours with satiric comic opera performances featuring outrageous puns and double entendres, sly ribaldry, and popular folk songs.

Throughout the year, villagers share a common interest in gambling, traveling (pai thieo), national lottery excites imaginations in every province, as do cockfights and such exotic competitions as fish and beetle fighting. Card games are a pastime favor ed by both sexes and almost everyone can play Thai chess.

Pai thieo by foot, boat, bus, motorbike, or rail is a favorite way to relax when time allows. Traveling makes the villager less insular and personal relations with family and friends are treasured as much for the opportunities they afford for travel as for the affection upon which they are based.

Besides national celebrations, there are regional festivals like the northeast Ngan Hae Bang Fai, or skyrocket festival, in May or June of each year. Traditionally a time of letting off steam, the festival's high point comes when, amid much merrymaking, villagers fire homemade rockets, some of them 20 meters tall, to ensure a plentiful rainfall for the forthcoming rice season.

Takro and kite flying are popular traditional sports. Takro is played by a loosely formed circle of men who use their feet, knees, thighs, chests, and shoulders to acrobatically pass a woven rattan ball to one another, endeavoring to keep it in the air as long as possible and eventually kick it into a basket hanging high above their heads. (There is a also a professional version of takro, known as sepak takro, which is played by teams from various ASEAN countries.)

Kites are flown mostly during the breezy hot season. Popular in Thailand since at least the founding of Sukhotai, kites have been used effectively in warfare: an Ayutthaya governor quelled a northeast city-state's rebellion in 1690 by flying huge kites, called chulas, over the beseiged city and bombing it into submission with jars of explosives.

In addition to being an individual pleasure, kite flying can be a competitive sport. Opposing teams fly male (chula) and female (pakpao) kites in a surrogate battle of the sexes. The small agile pakpaos try to bring down the more cumbersome chula, whil e the male kite seeks to snare the female kites and bring them back into male territory.

During temple fairs, another popular sport is the unique martial art of Thai boxing. A form of self-defense developed during the Ayuthaya period, Thai boxing forbids biting, spitting, or wrestling. On the other hand, the contestants may punch, kick, an d shove, and unrestrainedly use their bare feet, legs, knees, elbows, shoulders, and fists to elbow smash to the eyes, a knee in the stomach, of a whiplash kick in the chest can immediately floor the sturdiest of opponents. Nowadays boxers wear conventio nal boxing gloves, a somewhat humane development considering that less than 50 years ago they customarily bound their fists with hemp which contained liberal quantities of ground glass.

The major portion of Thai cuisine is highly spiced and chilli hot, thanks to the addition of a variety of chillies, large and small, some more potent than others. The burning sensation of Thai chillies has caused much fanning of mouths by stunned foreig ners on theri first sampling but increased experience often brings enthusiastic approval, as attested by the popularity of Thai restaurants today throughout the world.

The ideal traditional Thai meal aims at being a harmonious blend of spicy, subtle, sweet, and sour and is meant to be appealing to eye, nose, and palate. A large central bowl of rice may be accompanied by a clear soup (perhaps bitter melons stuffed with minced pork), a steamed dish (mussels in curry sauce), a fried dish (fish with ginger(, a hot salad (sliced beef on a bed of greens with chillies, onions, mint, lemon juice, and more chillies), and a variety of sauces and condiments, of which the most es sential is nam pla (fermented fish sauce), into which food can be dipped. This is normally followed by a sweet dessert (bananas coated with sugared coconut and deep fried, for example) and, finally, fresh fruit (such as mangoes, durian, papaya, jackfrui t, watermelon, and many more) of which Thailand boasts a year-round supply

Thailand's ditinctive cuisine, is becoming more and more popular throughout the world.

Food varies from region to region, with modifications of standard dishes and also local specialities. In Chiang Mai, for example, the food is generally milder than that of the central region; naem, a spicy pork sa usage, is a northern delicacy.

Northeastern food tends to be very spicy, with explosive salads and special broiled, minced meat dishes mined with miniature, high-voltage green chillies. Glutinous rice is more popular in this region than steamed rice and exotic dishes like fried ants and grasshoppers and frog curry are not uncommon.

Southern cuisine makes delicious use of the creatures which team in the nearby seas. Lobsters, crabs, scallops, fish, and squid are common ingredients and unusual delicacies like jellyfish salad can also be found. In the southernmost provinces, where t here is a large Muslim community, sweet, mild, and spicy curries abound.

Foreign foods have also found a place in the Thai diet. Some of these go far back into history, like the egg-based portuguese sweets which were introduced in the Ayutthaya period, while others like bread and cake are more recent acquisitions.

To please the eye, Thai cooks pursue the ancient art of fruit and vegetable caring to transform tables into visual feasts. Originally an aristocratic art practiced at the royal court, vegetable carving flourished throughout the Ayutthaya period, when a deft hand could fashion a white radish rose in a matter of minutes. It reached its zenith during the Bangkok reign of King Rama II when court ladies created flowers, fish, vases, bowls, and other decorative objects from watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, and other unlikely garden produce. On a somewhat broader scale the art is still practiced today: there are few more charming surprises than discovering tomato roses and cucumber primroses with a local fast lunch.

Urban Life

In terms of present-day Thailand, to speak of urban life essentially means to speak of Bangkok, for though many provincial capitals have grown rapidly in recent years the national capital is still the ultimate city to every Thai. One out of ten Thais li es is Bangkok, which is 45 times bigger than Chiang Mai, the second most populous city The metropolitan area now covers some 1,537 square kilometers on both sides of the Chao Phraya River.

Almost all major domestic and foreign companies are located in the capital, as are all government ministries and most of the country's leading educational ,sporting, and cultural facilities. The greater part of Thailand's imports and exports pass throug h Bangkok (though this may change when the Eastern Seaboard Project gets underway) and 90 per cent of the motor vehicles in the nation are registered there. It is the focal point of Thailand's aviation, railroad, and communications network, as well as th e chief destination for the majority of tourists who came annually to occupy its more than 20,000 hotel rooms.

Given such facts, it is not surprising that Bangkok acts as a magnet for people from all parts of the country. They come to be educated at its schools, colleges, and universities, to find employment in its numerous factories and commercial firms, or sim ply to see its famous buildings and monuments and enjoy its highly varied pleasures. Both metaphorically and literally, all Thai roads converge on the capital.

By contrast, provincial cities tend to reflect regional characteristics. For example, Hat Yai, the south's major city, is growing rapidly but it is still very much a projection of the tin and rubber industries which dominate the region. Chiang Mai in t he north is both a coordination point for the agriculture of the area and also famous as a center of northern culture and traditions. Similarly, such northeastern cities as Nakhon Ratchasima and Khon Kaen, while prospering on local development, are essen tially provincial in all senses of the word.

Only Bangkok, with its huge, diverse population, its shopping centers and highrise office buildings, and its cosmopolitan sophistication presents itself as a city in the international sense of the term. Thus to understand modern urban culture in Thailan d, it is necessary to examine the capital in some detail.

" High-rises along busy Silom Road, as seen from Lumphini Park "

Bangkok's in the 1990's

Numerous districts in Bangkok are centers in themselves, each unified by common features rooted either in ethnic character of a specific function or business. Thus Ratchadamnoen Avenue and its environs remain the center for government ministries and in ternational agencies, while there is a major concentration of commerce in Chinatown. Silom Road has become the primary banking and financial district and the Sukhumvit Road area is predominantly a middle-class residential section. Those seeking entertai nment are attracted by the neon glare of Patpong and New Phetburi Roads, where there are hundreds of bars and restaurants.

Outlying residential districts, meanwhile, continue to expand rapidly as more housing estates and shopping complexes are built to accommodate both the flow of migrants converging on the capital from upcountry and the new generation of young married coupl es who are increasingly leaving their parents' homes for places of their own. Heavy industry, too, is concentrating on the outer fringes of the city, with industrial parks springing up along major highways leading out into the country. To facilitate com munication between the suburbs and downtown areas, an elevated expressway has been built. A ring road project, the major portions of which have been completed, will also relieve congestion by permitting through traffic to bypass the city center.

Older Bangkok residents lie in separate, private houses, located either in high-density neighborhoods or, increasingly rare, in relatively spacious compounds in long-established residential areas like Dusit and Bangkapi. Rising land values, however, are producing new housing concepts, especially in the more congested inner city. Though Western-style apartment buildings are inhabited mainly be foreigners, more and more Thais are moving into " town houses," projects in which they own the actual land and building but share a common wall with their neighbors; hundreds of these projects have been constructed in the city, some consisting of several dozen units in an area that once contained a single dwelling.

As the 1990's got underway the biggest residential boom was in condominium construction. This era dawned with the passage of the Condominium Act by Parliament in 1979. According to a survey conducted in 1982, there were 48 condo projects being impleme nted in the country, most of them in Bangkok; another survey at the end of the decade found more than 220 such projects, with whose in the capital being concentrated on Sukhumwit and Rachadapisek Roads and along the Chao Phraya River. An important factor in the sale of condominium units has been a desire to escape the traffic jams which add hours to suburban commuting times.

Throughout Bangkok, lining main roads and side streets, are innumerable two-three-and four-story shophouses which contain specialty shops, restaurants, or small factories that are generally family concerns. Workers and family are commonly housed on upper floors. Such dwellings rarely have recreational space or gardens, though imaginative roof-top plantings can be glimpsed on some. Automobiles are generally parked inside on the ground floo r and children play on the sidewalks outside. Poorer people often live in single-storey houses made of scrap lumber, concentrated around the port area and in certain suburbs. Government public housing usually takes the form of lowrise blocks of simple flats located throughout the city.

The rapid growth of Bangkok has severely strained its facilities and led to a number of serious problems. The city now has over a million registered motor vehicles and because of the limited road surface traffic congestion is heavy in downtown areas. M oreover, some parts of the city are sinking due to the pumping of water from artesian wells to supply suburban projects and drainage is inadequate in others; both have resulted in periodic flooding during the rainy season. Experts are presently working o n elaborate plans to relieve these problems, among them an elevated system of rapid public transportation and extensive flood-control projects.

Bangkok's population is predominately young. Over half the residents are under 30. Numerous new schools, both public and private, have emerged to meet the needs of this high concentration of young people, as well as two "open" universities for those wh o cannot be accommodated by the older institutions of higher learning. The young have also influenced the life of the city in other ways-most of the capital's shopping centers are youth-oriented, as are its entertainment facilities.

The city's cultural life is greatly enriched by its minority communities. Chinese and Indians account for nearly 10 per cent of the capital's population and contribute to its variety of cuisines and festivals. Japanese and Asians from neighboring count ries also figure prominently in the city's cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Western influence has been instrumental in creating a taste for new fashions and new life-styles, reflected in such things as golf and tennis, delicatessens and boutiques, music and drama, libraries and popular games, architecture and interior decoration . Fast foods from the West, too, like hamburgers and pizzas, have become popular with young and old alike.

Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is wellknow worldwide for its fierce and exciting ways of fighting.
Leisure in the city

The stress of city life make leisure activities vital, and weekends find Bangkokians dedicated to having a good time. Sometimes there are local temple fairs featuring food and traditional forms of entertainment like the ever-popular li-ke. Sporting eve nts draw large crowds, whether they be of purely local interest or involve foreign footballers boxers or gymnasts. Several museums, a planetarium, art galleries, and a cultural center can be visited for instruction as well as relaxation. There are dozen s of modern air-conditioned cinemas throughout Bangkok, most of them showing Thai and Western movies. The most popular local productions are melodramas with equal measures of comedy, romance, and epic adventure.

Several amusement parks are located on Bangkok's outskirts, with carousels, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, shooting galleries, and ice cream stalls to keep young visitors cheerfully occupied for hours. Lumpini Park, in the heart of the city, is crowded on weekends with footballers and strollers, as well as joggers and others in search of physical fitness. Chatuchak Park on the outskirts is the site of the famous Weekend Market featuring several acres of stalls selling a remarkable assortment of goods: household pets, every conceivable kind of fruit, fresh vegetables and spices, clothing, Buddha amulets, various handicrafts, potted plants and trees, secondhand books and records, and probably, if one is persistent, the proverbial kitchen sink. The new Rama IX Park, presented to the city on the occasion of His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej's 60th birthday, is another popular place to excape the city's clamor; Thailand's only true botanical garden, it also features an imposing pavilion with displays of the king's life and interest.

Bangkok boasts some of the most varied nightlife in the Orient. Visiting ballet, operatic, and folk dance troupes from Europe, The U.S., and various Asian countries frequently appear, and film festivals are held by foreign cultural organizations like th e Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute, and the British Council. Patrons of nightclubs and supperclubs, many of them in the city's leading hotels, are entertained by international as well as local performers. Discotheques with the latest gadgetry fl ash and throb to the insistent beat of music played at top volume.

Bangkok's cosmopolitan quality is particularly evident in the incredible variety of foods offered by its countless restaurants. Diners in the city have a choice of French, Danish, Italian, German, Japanese, Middle Eastern, Swiss, English, Mexican, Korea n, Indian, Vietnamese, Burmese, and American fast food outlets, as well as of course, superb Chinese and Thai cuisine.

Although Bangkok abounds in markets, shops and department stores selling every possible kind of merchandise, those who prefer to spend the day at home in the city's residential lanes can buy what they need from it inerant vendors who bring necessities right to the door-step, selling charcoal (for cooking), fruit, ice cream, noodle dishes, grilled chicken, handmade brooms, pots and pans, and countless other items.

Urban Values

Buddhism is at the center of the Thai view of life and forms the foundation of most attitudes, in the city as well as in the village. But just as even the toughest material will change its shape under pressure, Buddhism has undergone certain alterations caused by the stress of Bangkok}s fast-paced urban life style.

In the village, the wat is the heart of social as well as religious life. Bangkok}s monasteries to day inevitably play less of a social role and are normally visited only for religious observances or for one of the festivals scattered throughout the Bud dhist year. Accessibility is the main problem: in rural areas the wat is generally just a short walk away, while in the city a visit often entails a long, hot drive in heavy traffic. Therefore, many Bangkok homes have a room set aside for family Buddha images and a small altar. This little private sanctuary serves as a place for prayer and meditation in the morning and evening-daily rituals that in a village setting would be more often performed at the wat.

Urban surroundings also rob many monasteries of the tranquil atmosphere which characterizes their upcountry counterparts. Nevertheless, monks continue to practice their meditation in them, apparently undisturbed, by the bustling life outside, just as th ey go out each morning to collect food offerings from city dwellers as anxious to make merit as villagers. Many Bangkok residents also go there to study meditation during their off-duty hours from work.

Formerly everyday life was highly structured and circumscribed by Brahmanic ritualistic taboos, and some of these still linger in modern society. Wednesday, for example, was deemed an inappropriate day on which to cut hair and accordingly, some Bangkok barber shops close each Wednesday.

Astrology also retains its ancient influence and is used by many people to determine auspicious dates for major undertakings. Today it enjoys a kind of reassurance-consultancy role, as certain types of psychological counselling do in the West. Buddhist monks, Brahmans, and professional astrologers cast horoscopes according to which the and hour to embark on a trip are decided. Purchasing land, starting a new business, or opening a shop are also often subject to an astrologer's calculations, and few co uples would agree to be married without first determining the suitability of their union and the most auspicious day and minute for the ceremony.

Traditional Thai life-styles, which survive virtually intact in upcountry villages, have undergone extensive reshaping under the pressures of urban demands. Family ties in the city, for example, are not as pervasive as in the village, and young married couples often set up housekeeping on their own.

Modernization has greatly extended the grange of employment opportunities open to people migrating to the city. A decade or so ago, virtually the only acceptable course available to a newly-arrived girl was to take a position as a domestic. Nowadays, s he may prefer a job in one of the light industries-sorting transistors, assembling pocket calculators, or working in one of Bangkok's huge textile plants. An incidental effect of this development has been the introduction of an increasing number of labor saving electrical appliances into middle-and upper-class homes. Considered a wasteful extravagance only a few years ago, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and microwave ovens are now popular household items available at all department stores.

Despite all the apparent changes, however, traditional Thai values are still strong beneath the surface of urban life, a reflection, no doubt, of the fact that the over-whelming majority of city dwellers have come from village backgrounds and also of the potent strength of Thai cultural heritage, which over the centuries has so often demonstrated its ability to bend without breaking.

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