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Traditional Culture



Thais don’t have a word that corresponds with the English term ‘culture’. The nearest equivalent, wáthánátham, emphasises fine arts and ceremonies. Ask Thais to define their culture and they’ll often talk about architecture, food, dance and festivals. Religion – a big Western influence on culture – is considered more or less separate from wáthánátham. When outsiders speak of ‘Thai culture’ they’re referring to behavioural modes rooted in the history of Tai migration throughout Southeast Asia, with commonalities shared by the Lao people of neighbouring Laos, the Shan of northeastern Myanmar (Burma) and the numerous tribal Tais found in isolated pockets from Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) all the way to Assam (India). These modes are most prevalent in Thailand, the largest of the Tai homelands. In the most ‘modernised’ of the existing Tai societies, the cultural underpinnings are evident in virtually every facet of life. ‘Westernised’ aspects (eg


the wearing of trousers instead of a phâakhamáa or sarong, the presence of automobiles, cinemas and 7-Eleven stores) show how Thailand has adopted and adapted elements from other cultures. Nevertheless there are certain aspects of Thai society that virtually everyone recognises as ‘Thai’.
The Thai word sànùk means ‘fun’ and anything worth doing – even work – should have an element of sànùk, otherwise it automatically becomes drudgery. This doesn’t mean Thais don’t want to work, just that they approach tasks with a sense of playfulness. Nothing condemns an activity more than mâi sànùk – ‘not fun’. While you’re in Thailand, sit down beside a rice field and watch workers planting, transplanting or harvesting rice. That it’s backbreaking labour is obvious, but there’s generally lots of sànùk – flirtation between the sexes, singing, trading insults and cracking jokes. The famous Thai smile comes partially out of this desire to make sànùk.
Thais believe strongly in the concept of saving face, ie avoiding confrontation and endeavouring not to embarrass yourself or other people (except when it’s sànùk to do so). The ideal face-saver doesn’t bring up negative topics in conversation, and when they notice stress in another’s life, they usually won’t say anything unless that person asks for help. Laughing at minor accidents – such as when someone trips and falls down – may seem callous but it’s really just an attempt to save face on behalf of the person undergoing the mishap. This is another source of the Thai smile – it’s the best possible face for almost any situation. Talking loudly is perceived as rude by cultured Thais, whatever the situation. When encounters take a turn for the worse, try to refrain from getting angry – it won’t help matters, since losing your temper means a loss of face for everyone present.
All relationships in traditional Thai society – and those in the modern Thai milieu as well – are governed by connections between phûu yài (‘big person’ or senior) and phûu náwy (‘little person’ or junior). Phûu náwy defer to phûu yài following simple lines of social rank defined by age, wealth, status, and personal and political power. Some examples of ‘automatic’ phûu yài status include adults (versus children), bosses (versus employees), elder classmates (versus younger classmates), elder siblings (versus younger siblings), teachers (versus pupils), members of the military (versus civilians), Thais (versus non-Thais) and so on. Although this tendency towards social ranking is to some degree shared by many societies around the world, the Thai twist lies in the set of mutual obligations linking phûu yài to phûu náwy. Phûu náwy are supposed to show a degree of obedience and respect (together these concepts are covered by the single Thai term kreng jai) towards phûu yài, but in return phûu yài are obligated to care for or ‘sponsor’ the phûu náwy they have frequent contact with. In such relationships phûu náwy can, for example, ask phûu yài for favours involving money or job access. Phûu yài reaffirm their rank by granting requests when possible; to refuse would be to risk a loss of face and status. Age is a large determinant where other factors are absent or weak. In such cases the terms phîi (elder sibling) and náwng (younger sibling) apply more than phûu yài and phûu náwy, although the intertwined obligations remain the same. Even people unrelated by blood quickly establish who’s phîi and who’s náwng. This is why one of the first questions Thais ask new acquaintances is ‘How old are you?’. When dining, touring or entertaining, the phûu yài always picks up the tab; if a group is involved, the person with the most social rank pays the bill for everyone, even if it empties his or her wallet. For a phûu náwy to try and pay would risk loss of face. Money plays a large role in defining phûu yài status in most situations. A person who turned out to be successful in his or her post-school career would never think of allowing an ex-classmate of lesser success (even if they were once on an equal social footing) to pay the bill. Likewise a young, successful executive will pay an older person’s way in spite of the age difference. The implication is that whatever wealth you come into is to be shared, at least partially, with those less fortunate. This doesn’t apply to strangers, but always comes into play with friends and relatives.

Traditional Music


Throughout Thailand you’ll find a diversity of musical genres and styles, from the serene court music that accompanies classical dance-drama to the chest-thumping house music played at dance clubs.Classical phleng thai doem (central-Thai music) features a dazzling array of textures and subtleties, hair-raising tempos and pastoral melodies. The classical orchestra is called the pìi-phâat and can include as few as five players or more than 20. Among the more common instruments is the pìi, a woodwind instrument that has a reed mouthpiece; it is heard prominently at Thai-boxing matches. The four-stringed phin, plucked like a guitar, lends subtle counterpoint, while the ránâat èhk, a bamboo-keyed percussion instrument resembling the xylophone, carries the main melodies. The slender saw, a bowed instrument with a coconut-shell soundbox, provides soaring embellishments, as does the khlùi (wooden Thai flute). One of the more attention-drawing pìi-phâat instruments, the kháwng wong yài, consists of tuned gongs arranged in a semicircle and played in simple rhythmic lines to provide a song’s underlying fabric. Several types of drums carry the beat, often through multiple tempo changes in a single song. The most important is the tà-phon (thon), a double-headed hand-drum that sets the tempo for the entire ensemble. Prior to a performance the players offer incense and flowers to the tà-phon, considered to be the ‘conductor’ of the music’s spiritual content.
The standard Thai scale divides the eight-note octave into seven full-tone intervals, with no semitones. Thai scales were first transcribed by the Thai- German composer Peter Feit (also known by his Thai name, Phra Chen Duriyanga), who composed Thailand’s national anthem in 1932. The pìi-phâat ensemble was originally developed to accompany classical dance-drama and shadow theatre, but can be heard these days in straightforward performances at temple fairs and concerts. Classical Thai music has not been forgotten in the dusty annals of history, but has been fused with international jazz elements. Fong Nam, a Thai orchestra led by American composer Bruce Gaston, performs an inspiring blend of Western and Thai classical motifs that have become a favourite choice for movie soundtracks, TV commercials and tourism promotion. Another leading exponent of this genre is the composer and instrumentalist Tewan Sapsanyakorn (also known as Tong Tewan), who plays soprano and alto sax, violin and khlùi with equal virtuosity. Tewan’s compositions are often based on Thai melodies, but the improvisations and rhythms are drawn from such diverse jazz sources such as Sonny Rollins and Jean-Luc Ponty.

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