The publication of Very Thai, a unique guide to Thai pop and folk culture, coincides with the country’s biggest debate about national identity in more than half a century. In the World War II era, the military Phibunsongkhram regime rallied under the slogan “Thailand for the Thais.” Today, the country seems mesmerized again by nationalism. Schools and colleges have been ordered by the Ministry of Education to display the flag more prominently and play the national anthem at a higher volume.
“Thai-ness” is once again a useful political concept: in early February, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist nationalism lifted his party — Thai Rak Thai, or Thais Love Thais — to a landslide election victory, and made criticism of his policies seem unpatriotic.
Yet as Philip Cornwel-Smith argues, one defining quality of Thais is their embrace of all things un-Thai. The country is a cultural fusion of East and West, old and new, all effortlessly assimilated. The Thai horoscope, for example, is a baffling hybrid of Chinese, Indian and Western systems. Thai beauty queens still scoop their hair into a style called a faaraa, as in Farrah Fawcett. One of the most beloved singers of Thai country music is a Swede called Jonas. This ability to digest foreign influences is sometimes literal: villagers plagued by Bombay locusts 10 years ago solved the problem by frying and eating them.
This adopt-or-perish attitude helps explain how Thais have survived three decades of breakneck development. “In one dizzying spasm,” writes Cornwel-Smith, “Thailand is experiencing the forces that took a century to transform the West.” How does a nation modernize this fast without eroding the traditions that define it? In Thailand, “traditional” is now often a pejorative term, meaning low-class or old-fashioned. Many of the temple’s social functions have been replaced by the mall, where, the author notes, “the principal rite is the right to shop.” What matters most is looking dern. Yes, that’s Thai for “modern.”
But looking dern and being it are entirely different things. Clues to Thailand’s recent rural past are everywhere — witness motorcycle-taxi drivers in Bangkok sewing fishing nets as they wait for their next fare. This is still very much a society in transition, a place where the National Buddhism Office in 2003 felt obliged to warn monks not to use mobile phones in public. Very Thai is a compendium of fast-disappearing folklore: fortune-tellers who divine omens from rat-bitten clothes; apothecaries who make herbal aphrodisiacs so strong that they “could make a monk leap over the temple wall in search of romance”; fetus worshipping, spirit channeling, and other not-in-front-of-the-tourists activities.
With the country this year hoping to attract a staggering 15 million visitors — one for every four Thais — one definition of “Thai-ness” is simply “whatever tourists want.” Cornwel-Smith rightly condemns plans to demolish old Bangkok neighborhoods to create “Paris-style open vistas” to accommodate both tourists and convenience-store chains. Very Thai? Hardly. But however tourist-oriented Thailand has become, Cornwel-Smith’s exhaustive research suggests that perhaps foreigners don’t know the country as well as they assume. Despite its freewheeling reputation, Thailand surpasses even Japan in its adherence to stifling social hierarchies — note the national obsession with uniforms. It is also, considering Bangkok’s sexual notoriety, a surprisingly prudish place. Soap operas are so straitlaced that they cannot broach the topic of “minor wives,” as mistresses are euphemistically known. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture (a Thaksin-era invention) pesters young women who wear skimpy clothes during the annual Songkran water-splashing festival, even though “traditional” Thai women wore even less. This public puritanism explains the enduring popularity of the demure “sniff kiss,” which Cornwel-Smith terms “the Thai way to reach first base.”
A longtime Bangkok resident myself, I find the author too charitable at times. Is the city’s Chatpetch Tower really a “post-modernist pastiche” of the ubiquitous Greco-Roman style? Or is it just rubbish, like so much urban Thai architecture? Sometimes, too, the urge to be exhaustive is just plain exhausting, although future social historians will thank Cornwel-Smith for recording how you toughen up a Siamese fighting fish before a bout. (Rather meanly, you “just stir the water.”) Encyclopedic in scope, Very Thai is an unapologetic celebration of both the exotic and the everyday, and an affectionate reminder in these flag-waving times that perhaps Thais care less for state-mandated notions of national identity than their politicians think. They’re much too busy being themselves.
Andrew RC Marshall is a Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist for for Reuters, previously wrote for Time and is the author of The Trouser People.