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 about the Thai monarch King Bhumibol, who was a fan of Western jazz and blues music and who “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.