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
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.
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
|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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
||The unique Thai-style takro
still maintains its popularity among the younger generation.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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 "
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
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
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.
Leisure in the city
||Muay Thai or Thai Boxing is wellknow
worldwide for its fierce and exciting ways of fighting.
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
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.
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.
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.