Cultural Thais

 

 

I’ve been in a fair few museums in Asia in my time and I’ve come to expect a standard Asian museum experience.  You see a lot of beautiful and / or fascinating artefacts, but they’re presented in a conservative fashion, i.e. they’re inside glass cases with panels of dense writing nearby giving the necessary exposition.  This is fine for an aged, pre-Internet, pre-smartphone fossil with a glacial attention span like myself, but surely less engaging for younger visitors.  Indeed, visiting school groups usually seem to pass through these museums like quicksilver.

 

What a pleasure it was, then, to venture into the Museum of Siam on Bangkok’s Sanam Chai Road one morning and discover a place that wasn’t just interesting because of its contents.  It also displayed its wares in an imaginative, colourful, relaxed, broad-minded and – most important of all – fun way.

 

The museum aims to explore Thai culture, lowbrow as well as high, and what it means to be ‘Thai’.  It isn’t afraid to surprise you and admit sometimes that things that are commonly thought to be Thai aren’t that much so at all.  For example, you’re told that the tuk-tuk, “a Thai symbol recognised internationally, is actually from Italy.  The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheel vehicle, was first produced in 1948.  After that a similar-looking model – the Daihatsu Midget DK – was created in Japan in 1957.  That model was imported to Thailand in 1960, and later, the DK Midget MP4 was imported and sent to Ayutthaya and Trang Provinces.”

 

It has much about Thai costumes and fashions and features a roomful of mannequins dressed in mythological, historical and modern garb (including, cheekily, a Thai take on Ronald McDonald) as well as a changing room where visitors can try on some local clothes themselves.  And the museum’s very first room sets the ball rolling with a mannequin of Lady Gaga from her controversial 2012 Bangkok concert – the American singer songwriter raised Thai eyebrows, and tempers, by arriving onstage wearing a chada (a classical Thai dance headpiece) with a decidedly saucy outfit.

 

 

Meanwhile, a room devoted to Thai “traditions, ceremonies, manners” takes the form of a system of shelves and boxes.  Each box is labelled with a topic – Children’s Day, New Year’s Day, graduation, weddings, smiling, humility – and visitors are encouraged to find out about the topics by removing them from the shelves and rummaging about in their contents.  The New Year box, for example, contains a party hat, gifts, a prayer booklet, a New Year card and something called an ‘Arsenal butter cookie’.  (The boxes do come with little booklets too, to explain things.)  The interactive nature of this display, alas, was lost on a party of Chinese tourists who trekked straight through the room while I was there and seemed to think they’d wandered by mistake into a storeroom.

 

 

There’s also a mock-up of a Thai school room and a section dedicated to Thai cuisine, which is equipped with a selection of high-tech plates and a futuristic console – you place different plates on the console and information about different Thai dishes is duly projected up in front of you.  It was here that I learned the truth about such local favourites as Tokyo rolls, American fried rice and ginger chilli paste.  No, the rolls don’t really come from Tokyo, the fried rice isn’t really American and the chilli paste isn’t really made with ginger.

 

I particularly liked a room dedicated to everyday items that have acquired iconic status in Thai culture.  It contains and explains such things as common-or-garden compact discs (used in Thailand as taillights for elephants, apparently), bumper stickers (used as good-luck charms) and plastic bags (used as receptacles for iced coffee).  It also features those ultra-handy vending tubes used by Thai bus and ferryboat conductors with rolls of tickets at their ends and loose change in their middles.

 

 

But my favourite room was a gallery showcasing 108 deities and icons relating to the Thais’ complex belief system.  According to the gallery’s introductory blurb, the country’s culture “is based on a belief in animism, or belief in the spirit world.  Thai belief is fused seamlessly with Buddhism and Brahmanism.  Thai beliefs are a result of this continuation.  Today we still invent new beliefs based on old ones.  Even Japanese anime characters and even some dolls can become sacred items.”

 

Among the more notable of the 108 exhibits here are Luk Thep or ‘spirit child’, basically a creepy doll that, despite its creepiness, supposedly brings good luck in “business, wealth and work”; a spirit called Luk Krok, the “soul of a stillborn foetus whose mother did not die” and who acts as a guardian spirit to that mother thereafter; and an entity called the ‘widowed ghost’, who “looks for a man to be with her.  To escape her, you must convince her that there’s no suitable man for her in your house.”

 

 

Elsewhere, I learned from the museum that Thailand’s floating markets aren’t directly descended from the floating markets of old.  The original ones died out long ago, but “were brought back to promote tourism” and because “modern Thais felt a sense of nostalgia for the lost past.  Retro was the name of the game.”  I also found out that the Thai monarch King Bhumibol, who passed away in 2016, was a fan of Western jazz and blues music and “started composing music at the age of 18 years old…  His Majesty had composed many songs in these two genres, which were a novelty at the time.”  Here’s a link to one of the King’s compositions, the nattily-titled Candlelight Blues.

 

And talking of music, I learned that Thailand has an equivalent of country-and-western music called Luk Thung, though to my ears it sounds a bit jollier than its trucks / beers / guns / jails / death-themed American counterpart.  It almost expired at the end of the 20th century but managed to rejuvenate itself: “In the early 1990s, Luk Thung… faced a major challenge as pop music dominated the market… But the trend reversed and eventually Luk Thung was brought back to life… Luk Thung singers changed the way they dressed, danced and sang, with a troop of exquisitely dressed dancers in every performance.”

 

I enjoyed my couple of hours at the Museum of Siam much more than I’d expected.  If you visit Thailand and wish to really experience, learn about and understand the country – i.e. beyond what’s contained in a regulation beach-booze-and-bawdiness Thai tourist resort like Pattaya – the museum makes a good first stop on your itinerary.

 

 

A Happy New Year as 2018 blaws in

 

Early in 2017 I posted something on this blog with the title Caledonian Culture War.  This was about the introduction in Scotland of baby boxes – from 2017, the parents of every new-born child in Scotland will receive a box full of baby-friendly goodies like a blanket, changing mat, towel, reusable nappy, sponge and thermometer, with the box itself able to double up as a crib.  Also in the box is a poem of welcome to the bairn written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate).  This is composed in Scots English and begins: “O ma darlin wee one / At last you are here in the wurld / And wi’ aa your wisdom / Your een bricht as the stars…

 

Unbelievably, some people had a problem with this.  And in the post, I stated I had a problem with them having a problem with it.

 

Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to find in this blog’s inbox an email from Jackie Kay, who’d evidently read the post and had decided to include me in her New Year greetings.  The greeting came in the form of a short poem, part of which addresses the baby-boxes controversy.  You can read it in full at the bottom of the Caledonian Culture War post, but I’ll reproduce the ending of the poem here, as the sentiment expressed is perfect for the beginning of 2018.

 

“…happy new year yin and all, wee yins and big yins and – here’s tae us taking a snip at oor cultivated cringe – and turning the whinge down to a low peep in this year about to blaw in, the year 2018, wha’s like us?!”

 

So as 2018 blaws in, I wish you all a happy, cringe-free and whinge-free New Year too.  Though I have no doubt that on this blog I will continue to find things to whinge about from time to time.

 

According to Western Christianity, today is the 8th day of Christmas, so technically we’re still in the middle of the festive season.  Here are photos I took the other night of the Christmas tree and New Year greeting outside the Asok Skytrain station on Bangkok’s Sumhumvit Road.

 

 

Bangkok carp and cabbages

 

 

Suan pakkad means ‘cabbage garden’ in the Thai language and Bangkok’s Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is just that – a museum contained in what was once a palace, built on a piece of ground that previously had been used for growing cabbages.

 

The palace was the residence of Prince and Princess Chumbot Paribatra of Nagor Svarga – the prince being a grandson of one of Siam’s greatest monarchs, King Chulalongkorn (or Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910.  The palace grounds acquired their most striking feature in 1952 when a quartet of traditional Thai houses that’d stood elsewhere were dismantled, transported here and reconstructed with walkways running between them at first-floor level.  In their new location, these houses functioned as exhibition rooms for the prince and princess’s huge collection of cultural, historical and geological artefacts.  These items, still on view today, include furniture, crystal-ware, silverware, porcelain, fans, scrolls, paintings, musical instruments, shells, fossils and precious rocks and minerals.

 

 

Later, further traditional houses were added to the site, as was a ‘lacquer pavilion’ that’d originally been part of a temple near Ayudhya.  (The museum leaflet spells it as ‘Ayudhya’, but I assume it’s the same place as Ayutthaya, a town 40 miles north of Bangkok that’s home to the ruins of an old temple-riddled city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)  The original pavilion was built in the 17th century but it was in a state of disrepair by the 20th; and, shifted to the palace, it underwent restoration until its internal gold-on-black-lacquer murals, depicting scenes from the life of Buddha and tales from the epic Indian poem Ramayana, could be seen again in their full glory.  These days, the palace is a fully-fledged museum operating under the auspices of a Thai philanthropic organisation called the Chumbhot-Pantip Foundation.

 

Suan Pakkad Palace Museum is a few minutes’ walk along the road from Phaya Thai Station, which serves both as a terminal for Bangkok’s Airport Rail Link and as a stop on the Sukhumvit Line in the city’s Skytrain system.  And unfortunately, the close proximity of a transport hub like Phaya Thai is noticeable in the museum grounds.   Although the gardens there are admirably green and tranquil-looking, their peace is sometimes disturbed by clanking, trundling noises that reverberate down from an elevated concrete railway running above their southern perimeter.  Also, the afternoon I visited, some evilly-bland Muzak kept wafting into the grounds from the PA system of a neighbouring multi-storey car-park.

 

 

Still, the traditional Thai houses are gorgeous and there’s much to see and enjoy inside them.  My favourite part of the museum’s collection was contained in the first house – an array of traditional Thai musical instruments, including drums, gongs and Thai variations on the lute, xylophone and zither.  I was always hopeless at learning to play musical instruments – tooting a cornet in a silver band when I was 10 or 11 years old was about as far as I got – but musical instruments themselves fascinate me.  So I spent a good half-hour in there.

 

The sixth traditional house, meanwhile, contains an automated puppet show that enacts a battle from the afore-mentioned Ramayana.  (The epic has a non-Hindu, Laotian version known as Phra Lak Phra Lam, which is popular in north-eastern Thailand, an area heavily populated by ethic Lao.)  Once you press the ‘start’ button, the automated show takes seven minutes to play, although most of it consists of music, song and spotlights snapping on and off to highlight the battle’s protagonists.  After a couple of minutes of listening and watching, this in itself becomes a little trippy.  The puppets don’t actually move until near the battle’s end, and their movements are confined to them gliding back and forth along slots cut in the stage’s floor – which I thought was charming in an old-fashioned way.  However, anyone who watches the show expecting robot-like puppets to suddenly come to life and start hacking at each other with swords will be disappointed.

 

 

Overall, I found the museum a pleasant and informative way to spend an hour or two but, weirdly, my most vivid memories of it involve two slightly-creepy encounters I had with aquatic life-forms.  At the back of the premises stands a boathouse, which has berthed inside it a royal barge called Kao Kung Bayam (used by King Rama V himself during river processions).  I noticed in the water beside the barge what I thought was a soldier’s helmet – discarded, submerged and filmed in algae.  I got a shock when the helmet started moving beneath the water, seemingly under its own volition.  Then I realised I was looking at a green turtle.

 

Meanwhile, one of the traditional houses overlooks a pool that has a fountain in the form of a huge fish-head jutting from the middle of it.  While I was standing on a balcony above the pool, I decided to take a photo of the fountain – and I was perturbed when, through the viewfinder, I saw a second huge fish-head rise out of the water beside it.  The second head belonged to a monstrous-sized carp.  There seemed to be several specimens of them prowling around in that pool, Jaws-like.

 

 

Bangkok’s Kamthieng House

 

 

In previous blog entries I’ve written about the marvellous contrasts you find in Bangkok – contrasts that despite their utter incompatibility manage to exist side by side.  Thus, you sometimes get the sacred, the salacious, the antiquated and the achingly hip and up-to-date along the same street.  And while more and more buildings soar upwards and make the Bangkok skyline look increasingly corporate, Bangkok at street-level, cluttered with vendors, stalls, make-shift eateries, shrines and spirit houses, remains pleasingly intimate.

 

So it’s hardly surprising that the tranquil, grassy compound containing Kamthieng House, a memento of rural 19th-century Thailand, is located on the rumbling six-lane Thanon Asok road just above a junction with the equally busy Thanon Sukhmvit and a line of the city’s fancy new Skytrain system.  The compound is also surrounded by towering chunks of 21st-century Bangkok, including the Sheraton Grande; and a little way south of it, across the road, lurks the entrance to that alleyway-of-iniquity known as Soi Cowboy.  But once you’re on the grounds of Kamthieng House, a reconstruction of a teakwood building that two centuries ago belonged to the Lanna people of Chiang Mai, you feel transported to a different era from that of the hustling, bustling neighbourhood around you.  You also feel you’ve entered a different mind-set, one whose take on life, the universe and everything is altogether more spiritual and holistic.

 

The building’s rooms function as museum galleries and they sit, elevated, on thick wooden columns.  Under the main room is an open-plan terrace where you can see such things as a seo sakang, a totemic pillar serving as a point of worship for the village’s guardian spirits and a place where sacrifices (usually buffalos) were made to them; a tu phra tham, a lacquer chest in which sacred Buddhist scriptures were stored; and a model of the Lanna’s muang fai irrigation system, made of bamboo and hollowed tree-trunks, which still can be seen channelling water from rivers and streams in northern Thailand today.  In the original building, this ground-level area would have been used for doing domestic chores like weaving and basket-making and for keeping livestock.

 

 

A staircase takes you to the complex’s main chamber, devoted to the display of cultural and religious artifacts.  These include amulets, talismans, Buddha images, weavings, swords and a musical instrument called the pin pia, a stringed affair whose sound resonated from a coconut shell and that was played by men during the Lanna courtship ritual.  Also on view are tien yan, candles talismans that were “made from pure beeswax, with magical spells and diagrams drawn on a thin piece of mulberry paper and rolled around the wick” and were burned “in particular places in the house, in times of trouble or opportunity, to invoke the help of natural and supernatural forces”; and pha yan cloth talismans, which were “consecrated by a spell doctor in a rite invoking the spirit of the khru, or ritual masters, and other sacred forces” and which sometimes displayed sexual imagery of extreme sauciness.

 

 

As well as showcasing artifacts, this gallery gives copious information about various aspects of Lanna culture.  Courtship etiquette, for example, “was strict, with no physical contact allowed for fear of phid-phi, or ‘wronging the ancestral spirits’, for which punishment was severe.”  Men often bore sak meuk, symbolic tattoos, on their skins so that “(t)he upper body would have magical spells, geometrical diagrams and animal symbols to protect against obstacles and malevolent forces, and to increase one’s magnetising qualities.”  And the Lanna view of health and medicine had a predictably spiritual perspective – they believed in “the existence of 32 khwan or vital spirits that govern the 32 major elements of a person’s well-being, including hair, teeth, flesh, bones, marrow, major organs, blood, new and old food, and bodily fluids and tissues.”

 

On guard outside this gallery, meanwhile, stand two stone mom, mythical creatures that look like smaller versions of the traditional Chinese lion and were “believed to have the power to bring rain.”

 

 

A walkway takes you to another building that includes a granary room and gives insight into the Lanna’s agricultural practices.  Also here are examples of the naga, a water symbol that adds a decorative aspect to many a traditional Thai boat-end and house gable.  In folklore, naga were serpentine beasts, a little like Scottish kelpies, “believed to reside in deep underground grottoes or beneath the riverbed.”

 

Elsewhere on the premises are the headquarters of the Siam Society, an organisation that in these ever-more frenetic and changing times has the challenging task of documenting and preserving Thailand’s history and traditional culture.  These headquarters contain a bookshop, which I’m sure stocks some fascinating volumes.  Unfortunately, after I’d toured the Lanna building, it’d got very close to closing time and the bookshop had already shut its doors.  At least that gives me an incentive to drop by again during my next visit to Bangkok.

 

By the way, in order to accommodate its spirit inhabitants, the site is equipped with its own Thai spirit house.  And in keeping with the old-worldly, teakwood gorgeousness of Kamthieng House, this is appropriately ornate and venerable-looking.

 

 

Thai spirit houses

 

One detail of everyday life in Thailand that I find fascinating is the ubiquity of san phra phum, i.e. spirit houses.  These are something that every Thai home and business (no matter how big or corporate) seems to have – a miniature house or temple that provides shelter for the spirits resident on the premises.  It keeps those spirits happy and presumably dissuades them from causing mischief.  Here are some pictures of spirit houses that I took during a recent visit to Bangkok, starting with the one serving the spirits in the bank that was next door to my hotel.

 

 

I don’t know why on earth this particular spirit house had to be equipped with a herd of zebra.  But it was.

 

 

Meanwhile, for the ghostly inhabitants of this spirit house, a crisis was clearly in progress.  They had an intruder to deal with.

 

 

A Bangkok heavy-metal Halloween

 

From th-th.facebook.com/ImmortalBarThailand

 

I first went to Bangkok in 1996 and, from my memories of the time, I seem to have perceived it as a dark, crowded, polluted, noisy, seedy and rather claustrophobic city.  But perhaps that was because of bad luck and bad choices – I got those impressions from the district I ended up staying in and the places I happened to visit and explore.  Also, that was before the opening of Bangkok’s Skytrain system in 1999 and Metro system in 2000.  Both transport networks have made the city a lot easier to get around and allowed visitors to sample more of its varied attractions and neighbourhoods.

 

Last week, I was in Bangkok again – my fourth trip there – and now my perceptions have entirely changed.  I think it’s a great city.  Somehow, it manages to combine the corporate and the cosy, the trendy and the venerable, the sacred and the salacious.  Yes, nowadays, there’s a danger that the first of those qualities, the corporate, will eventually buy everything up, take everything over and muscle everything else out.  But judging from the seemingly endless ability of ordinary Thai people to colonise any free space, no matter how concrete, bare and soulless, and transform it – small spaces into stalls, kiosks and makeshift eateries and boutiques, large ones into full-scale markets and food-courts – that corporate takeover shouldn’t be complete for a long time yet.  At street-level at least, Bangkok should remain intimate, decorous, bustling and colourful for a while longer.

 

Anyway, last week’s visit coincided with Halloween.  On the night of October 31st, I thought I would take the opportunity to check out two Bangkok music-bars associated with a genre that’s the sonic equivalent of Halloween monsters, ghouls, demons and macabre japery – heavy metal.

 

Firstly, I went to the Immortal Bar, which is on the second floor of the building at 6 Soi Bun Choo Sri in Dindaeng, about ten minutes’ walk east from the Victory Monument.  On the left as you go in is a lounge / terrace area with no front walls or windows, meaning that any air-conditioning system would be useless and for coolness you have to rely on some whirring ceiling-fans.  But it’s comfortable enough with sofas and pleasantly subdued lighting.  Needless to say, the inner walls are adorned with framed posters and T-shirts bearing angular, jagged logos for the likes of Sepultura, Soulfly, Naplam Death and Thai metallers Dezember.  For some strange reason, though, an end wall has a pair of old black bicycles mounted on it.

 

In one corner stands a san phra phum or spirit house – i.e. a miniature house or temple that accommodates the venue’s spirits, appeases them and keeps them from causing mischief – although this one is bare and empty-looking.  I’d expected the spirit house of the Immortal Bar to be populated by little effigies of long-haired, denim-and-black-leather-clad heavy-metal spirits, depicted in the act of playing air guitar.

 

On the right-hand side of the entrance, meanwhile, is a live-music area with a stage and, also, the bar’s serving counter.  A Halloween show was in progress when I arrived and the band on stage at the time was one called Tantra, whom I thought sounded a bit like the American trash / groove-metal outfit Pantera.  Due to my unfamiliarity with Thai-accented English (or to a distorted sound-system) I couldn’t decide if one song they performed was called Blow Up or Throw Up.  Then Tantra gave way to a band called Rusty Bomb, who did covers of songs by Black Sabbath, Mӧtorhead, Metallica and Slayer.  Their vocalist was a French guy and I scoffed when he announced that their next number would be a ‘French trash metal’ song.  To me, the phrase ‘French trash metal’ sounds about as promising as ‘English haute cuisine’ or ‘Scottish sunbathing terrace’.  But their French trash metal song was actually pretty good.

 

The pub’s clientele were mostly Thais, a few of whom were wearing corpse-paint make-up – although I’m not sure if that was because they were seriously into black metal or because it was Halloween.  A couple of fareng – foreigners – were present, but not many.

 

From there I went to the Rock Pub at Radchatewee, in the Hollywood Street Building that faces the Asia Hotel below the Skytrain line.  Supposedly founded in 1987, the Rock Pub is contained within one long room that resembles an austere, stone-walled chamber from a medieval castle.  It’s definitely more mainstream and commercial than the Immortal Bar.  For one thing, its beer that evening cost 30 baht more than the brew in the Immortal.  Also, there were quite a few fareng among the Thai audience, including a couple of flea-ridden old sex-tourist tomcats who’d picked up their ‘Siamese kittens’ for the evening.

 

When I entered here, another live Halloween show was in progress and a band called Sugar Rocket was playing.  Despite having one band-member in corpse-paint make-up, they were performing a cover of Song 2 by Blur (the one that goes ‘whoo-whoo!’ every other second).  The next band up, Nine Monkey Nine, were similarly eclectic – they managed to do covers of the Foo Fighters and Franz Ferdinand.  So the Rock Pub wasn’t really hosting a heavy-metal night at all, although the memorabilia on its stone walls did include mementoes of Iron Maiden and Napalm Death.  (The legendary West Midlands grindcore band seems to be a favourite in Thailand.  Indeed, they performed a show at the Rock Pub back in August 2010.)

 

In both pubs – and unlike most others I drank in during my sojourn in Bangkok – very few people were fiddling with their smart-phones.  Clearly, they were there to savour the music and enjoy the sociability of being among fellow heavy-metal / rock fans.  The only exceptions were those old fareng sex-tourist guys and their Thai girlie pick-ups.  Actually, I’ve noticed that, thanks to recent developments in technology, Bangkok’s sex tourists and their Thai pick-ups no longer have to go through the awkward, preliminary ritual of sitting in a pub and exchanging stilted conversation with one another.  No, now, both of them can bend forward over the pub-tables and spend the time quietly f**king around on their smart-phones.