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 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.






I’d better begin by defining my terms.  Every foreigner I know in Sri Lanka calls these little beetling vehicles ‘tuk-tuks’ after the similar vehicles that are found in Thailand.  But Sri Lankans themselves get a bit sniffy at the term.  Nor do they take kindly to the vehicles being called ‘auto-rickshaws’, as they are in India.  No, the preferred local terms seem to be ‘trishaws’ or plain old ‘three-wheelers’.


I’ve read a report that there are nearly a million tuk-tuks plying their trade – which is shuttling passengers and sometimes cargo across short distances – on the roads and streets of Sri Lanka.  This means that in a country with a population of 21 million there’s one tuk-tuk in existence for roughly every score of its citizens.  Mind you, you can believe those statistics when you see swarms of the things on the move at rush hour in downtown Colombo, passing you in weaving, buzzing streaks of red, blue and green.  (Occasionally, you see an ultra-cool black tuk-tuk.  The black one in my immediate neighbourhood is driven by a guy who also sports an awesome mullet.  He’s such a dude.)



The décor inside Sri Lanka’s tuk-tuks often reminds you of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity.  Mounted on the dashboard might be a figurine of Buddha, indicating that the driver is of the Buddhist persuasion; or a little statue of the cheery elephant-headed god Ganesha, indicating that he’s likely to be a Hindu; or a cross, indicating a Christian; or there might be a verse from the Koran adorning the windscreen, indicating a Muslim.  However, interior tuk-tuk design frequently incorporates non-religious themes too.  For some reason, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are a common motif, with Captain Jack Sparrow’s jolly face emblazoned across many a tuk-tuk’s upholstery.  You get dungeons-and-dragons imagery too, and Bollywood-type stuff, and pictures of Native Americans and Harley Davidsons; and occasionally a weird hallucinogenic mixture of the lot.



I’ve been on board tuk-tuks that have looked as bare and functional as the inside of a cardboard box.  On the other hand, I’ve been in ones whose interiors, bedecked with frills, tinsel and strings of coloured paper flowers, have resembled that of a 19th century Parisian bordello.  Once, I climbed into one that happened to be decorated with emblems of Newcastle United Football Club.  When I climbed out again at my destination, I mentioned to the driver that I’d lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for three years and I quite liked Newcastle United.  The guy looked stunned.  I suppose that of all the passengers he’d ever ferried around Colombo, I must have been the closest one to an actual, living, breathing Geordie.


Here are a few pieces of advice to foreign visitors to Colombo who decide to utilize the city’s immense army of tuk-tuks.


One.  Avoid taking tuk-tuks that have been parked opportunistically outside a shop or restaurant or hotel that might qualify as being (even slightly) ‘touristy’.  These are often guys who’ll try to pre-arrange a fare with you, and it’ll be considerably more than what it would be on a meter.  And if they do use a meter, don’t be surprised if the meter suffers from numerical diarrhea, skittering out higher and higher prices.  Instead, flog down a tuk-tuk that’s passing on the street – the driver’s less likely to be a vulture.


Two.  Make sure the tuk-tuk has a meter and the driver uses it.  And make sure that the starting price – and the blanket fare for the first 900 metres – on it is 50 rupees.  Yes, I have Sri Lankan friends and colleagues who tell me they can travel around on tuk-tuks for less, but as a relatively well-heeled Westerner I think 50 rupees is fine and fair.  Then, keep your eyes on the meter at the 0.9-of-a-kilometer stage.  For once that distance is reached, the price goes up and keeps going up every subsequent 100 metres.  Each time, the increase should be by four rupees: 54 rupees, then 58, then 62, and so on.  If the meter starts climbing in bigger chunks, you’re being fleeced.  Tell the driver to change the incremental charge to four – a surprising number of them will when they’re challenged about it.  If the driver refuses, just tell him to stop and then get out.  Don’t worry.  This is Colombo.  There’ll be another, hopefully-cheaper tuk-tuk along after a moment.


At nighttime, though, the charges are higher: 57.50 rupees as the customary starting charge and correspondingly more-expensive additional charges.  Also, if your tuk-tuk is stationary for a period – as it often is in Colombo’s traffic jams – you’ll notice the meter logging on an extra two-rupee-a-minute ‘waiting fee’.


Three.  If you’re taking a tuk-tuk into an area of the city that you don’t know very well, bring along a copy of the Colombo A-Z so that you can monitor where you’re going.  This will alert you to the driver trying to treat you to ‘the scenic route’.  (Or alternatively, they simply may not know where they’re going themselves.  Tuk-tuk drivers get lost with surprising frequency – they’re not like those London black-taxicab drivers who’ve spent years memorizing every nook and cranny of the city as ‘the Knowledge’.)  At the same time, bear in mind that Colombo’s one-way systems can be both torturous and illogical, and if the driver isn’t taking you the shortest, most direct way it may be because of these.


Four.  Keep your pockets stocked with plenty of change because many tuk-tuk drivers never seem to have any.


The sharks tend to operate in the centre of Colombo, where there are more tourists to rip off.  I usually don’t have issues with tuk-tuks in my neighbourhood, Wellawatta, which is a few kilometres away from the city-centre action.  And when you find yourself in other Sri Lankan cities and towns where meters are much less common – I was in Kandy last week and ended up paying 250 rupees for a journey that would have cost me about 100 in Colombo – you soon start to view the tuk-tuk-driving fraternity in the country’s capital as a fine, upstanding bunch of blokes.



Finally, I should say that one night I was travelling through Wellawatta in a tuk-tuk when we stopped at a red light and another tuk-tuk drew up beside us in the adjacent lane.  This one was covered in a camouflage pattern and had the words TUK-TUK SAFARI stenciled on its side.  Its driver was dressed like a great white hunter, complete with a pith helmet.  Also, the vehicle was open-roofed and in the back rode two foreign tourist ladies.  They weren’t sitting, but standing, so that their upper halves jutted through the gap in the roof.  They seemed to be surveying the street-life of nocturnal Colombo in the way that participants in a real safari would survey the animal-life of the African savannah.


My reaction to this?  I believe that if you pay money to go on a tuk-tuk safari around Colombo, you don’t deserve to live.