The beauty of a petite figure draped in “paa sin”, a colorful length of hand-woven, sarong-like material and performing “wai”, the Thai bow, is breathtaking. The beauty may be human itself or in the eye of the beholder, but in case of the Thai attire, there is no mistake it’s silk!
Most Thai silk is woven by hand, a rather time- consuming task which requires special skill, but in effect gives this most desirable lustrous sheen. Even its slightly uneven texture is appreciated because that’s what distinguishes it from a dull machine-woven fabric. The process of weaving for a skilled weaver may range from several centimeters to several meters a day depend on what kind of weave, or pattern, is designed for a certain item. It is said that for some kind of complicated patterns only the most skilled weavers can achieve acceptable results. Export Thai shawls and scarves are in their majority hand woven, 4-ply, natural, unprocessed silk fabrics. They are extremely lightweight, almost floating on air and the most delicate one, as their sellers boast, should pass without effort through the wedding band. In fact there is more to the weaving variety: there is a Surin, known for the unusual weaving and processing which create a shimmering effect; there is an Open Weave, usually used for cotton fabrics; Batik, which involves unprocessed silk from the Northeast of Thailand; Embroided and Brocaded silk, rich in color and soft to the touch; Matmee silk, famous for its decorative quality, which looks great on a table as a runner or tablecloth. The fading effect created by two-tone, yarn-dyed natural silk is also popular among female clientele for its subtlety and for the ease of matching it with other clothes. In general, Thai silk, being extremely lightweight, is warm in cold weather and cool in hot season. It may add an” ethnic” edge to the fashion but also can be combined with formal or casual wear with great success. Even though most Thai silk is dyed and woven accordingly to traditional patterns and follows tribal designs, its application to the modern, urban fashion of our times seems more than natural. Great designers and dictators of the world of couture from Paris to New York to Tokyo show their fascination for silk and use it profusely. Following the recent fluctuations in world fashion, one may think once-again that the awakening interest in silk and Asian trends came shoulder-to- shoulder with the boom in music, film or even with the changes of a more social or political nature. It may be the case but still it doesn’t change the fact that when the hungry worm found a tender young mulberry leaf and fed 3 times a day for 20 days and increased its length by more than 40 times and shed its skin 4 times in the process, and when it was ready to spin, it met a human being. One may exclaim: What a man!, because, if not for that man, there would be no Silk Road nor cities and cultures built on silk trade and one of the beauties of the world would be lost to us. When the first strand of raw silk left a wooden spindle, one may agree at least that if not as significant as the Bronze era, a new culture of refinement was born.
Q1. What are the characteristic factors of Thai silk?
Q2. Why does the range of silk-weaving per day vary in length?
Q3.What patterns or designs are used in silk-weaving?
Q4. Why do many fashion designers choose silk for their projects?
Q5. What animal is at the base of the silk-producing process and how does it change in time?
Thais are known as a great eaters, and recently with the rising worldwide recognition of Thai cuisine, they are also appreciated as great cooks. It is said that when Thais meet they greet each other by asking: “Where are you going?” and the next question is, “Have you already eaten?” Thais are friendly and family- loving people so their meals are rarely a lonely affair so often observed in more, ironically, developed countries.
In olden days Thai cooking was simple because utensils were few and made of not very strong materials like clay. Grilling meat or seafood over a fire was probably the best method given the supply of natural wood in which Thailand is abundant. Nowadays, fresh seafood grilled and eaten with sweet-and-sour dips is popular among not only Thais but foreign tourists as well and has become the number one attraction of beach-front restaurants. Miniature fishing boats are set on wooden planks, filled with crushed ice and an abundance of fish, clams and prawns and displayed on the beach for potential clients who need only to point at their choice to the restaurant’s staff to get it grilled and delivered to their tables.
Given the simple cooking methods, the most important thing is the freshness of the products which in turn forces one to shop for food every day. Bountiful supplies of raw materials are what the Thai cook needs to create a delicious dinner. Today, as in the old days, despite the benefit of having refrigerators or canned food, any respectable cook, be him a professional or a home-maker, prefers to do his shopping at the market. Here as well, despite the dominance of cars and trucks, villagers come to town by boats and sell their produce without leaving them for a moment. Fresh vegetables and fish are bought by the merchants from town markets in the early morning hours and then sold at their vendors amid much bantering and bargaining with clients, most of them regular patrons. Freshly ground spices and herbs are also preferred by Thais to dried and already mixed combinations, ready for quick use and mostly finding their destiny in foreign tourists’ bags as a souvenir from the exotic Southeast Asia.
For those who meet the art of Thai cooking for the first time, to say nothing of famous Tom Yam Goong, the experience may be challenging because of unexpected taste combinations- for example, a mélange of sour, salty/sweet and hot. Soups are sometimes very hot in spite of their milky appearance, but salads are refreshing and beautiful to look at, with no fat dressings as in Western-style salads. Instead they come with fish sauce, lemon juice, chili, garlic and shallots. Mixing fruits and sea-food is not only tasty but also good for health; moreover the herbs and spices used as common ingredients have always been known for their curative properties. The same may be said for the rich variety of curries, which evolved over years of contact with other cultures and which are now much different from those of the old days. Originally, Thai people didn’t use milk in their cooking, but the cultural influences from other countries, mainly China and Western Europe, brought other cooking methods as well. In case of curry the use of coconut milk became very popular and as important as palm sugar and rice flour. Beloved by Thais, desserts made of egg yolks and sugar syrup were introduced by Portuguese, and some stews look and taste familiar to a Westerner. Sweet, sour and sometimes spicy noodles and stir-fried dishes unmistakably point to their Chinese origin. In general, Thai food is exactly what health-conscious people need: light, but filling, rich in vitamins and nutritious, tasty and never boring, and above all, cheap! Bon appetit!
Q1. Why were the early cooking methods in Thailand kept very simple, and what method was the most popular?
Q2. What are the indispensable things for a Thai cook to create a good meal and where he can get them?
Q3. What can be said about the taste of Thai cooking?
Q4. Why is Thai cooking considered healthy?
Q5. What cultures influenced Thai cooking and in what ways?
Except for the Muslims in the South, the majority of the people of Thailand are followers of Theravada Buddhism (Teaching of the Elders) which was introduced to Thailand around the 8th century by Mons from Burma and later on refined by monks from Sri Lanka. Like all Buddhist teaching, it came from India, and Thailand was on its southern path together with other Southeast Asian countries like Burma/Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. On the northern route were Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, Mongolia and Japan. The southern school, which upholds only canons codified in the early Buddhist era was named Hinayana, “Lesser Vehicle” by the northern school. Responding more to the needs of lay people, the northern school called itself Mahayana, “Great Vehicle”. The goal of both doctrines is liberation of a human being from desire, and the suffering it causes, but in reality the achievement of nibhan (nirvana), the end to all sufferings, seems to be a less popular aim than rebirth (reincarnation) in a more evolved being. To be reborn as a higher being one must accumulate enough merit which could be amassed by feeding monks, performing regular worship and giving donations to a local temple. By acquiring enough merit one can lessen the number of rebirths not only for oneself but even for one’s relatives. With Thai Buddhism, which does not recognize the ordination of female monks, the responsibility put on males grows when only good acts of the son can bring blessings to his mother and female relatives. Thus socially, every Buddhist male is expected to become a monk even for a short period of time, especially before he marries or starts a career.
Every morning, young monks in their saffron robes walk silently from house to house to receive food from Buddhist faithful. They eat it later at the wat (temple) with their elders, the only meal of the day which must be consumed before noon. They move with grace, their faces erased of emotions, their hands raised in a gesture of greeting, their whole figures enveloped in an aura of spirituality. Their presence, indispensable and adding dignity to any gathering, unites villagers into one community. On holy days villagers bring food to monks and have a friendly chat with people they may not see at other times. Everybody sits on the mats and eats and drinks with monks in a kind of setting that might be a repetition of that of their ancestors. While they proceed with their feast all mundane things get their proper dimensions, and people instinctively find their place in the universe. Or maybe they just enjoy themselves, happy to get some rest from back-breaking work in the fields. Whatever the case, it’s easy to observe even for a tourist that the life of Thai people, their art and history are strongly founded in Buddhism.
Q1. What does Theravada mean and what religion does it belong to?
Q2. When did it come to Thailand and what route did it take?
Q3. What is the ultimate goal of the Buddhist doctrine?
Q4. According to the Buddhist faith, by what kind of deeds can one lessen the number of rebirths?
Q5. What is the role that a wat and monks serve in present Thai society?
Thailand is a country with a wide variety of ethnic and cultural heritage. It is known that the first inhabitants arrived as early as 5000 years ago and created a civilization, which, besides being known by the production of remarkably designed bronze utensils, nevertheless remains a mystery because it disappeared after only a few centuries. The 7th and 8th centuries mark the time of the first towns built in the Central Plains by Mons from Burma and Khmers from Cambodia who mixed with the local people before the Thais arrived in the 10th century from Southern China. Starting in the 7th century, Indian merchants carrying their big project of establishing new communities, sailed to the South of Thailand and, together with Malays, created an outpost for Muslim domination there. Thailand, which prides itself on never fighting a civil war, is the home for a multiplicity of ethnic communities with many languages, living peacefully and contributing to the general image of dynamism and harmony at the same time. On the other hand, recent clashes between government officials and the Muslim population may prove the opposite.
The Central Plains are thought to be the most representative in relation to the population. Besides those who describe themselves only as Thais, there are Mons, Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Yao, Karen and Lisu. There are large communities of Chinese in Bangkok. There are Vietnamese, Burmese, Cambodians and Laotians who create their own cultural enclaves while in large part they have blended into the dominant population. This blending of cultures is responsible for liquid borders between tastes and styles which for centuries developed into a unique whole easily recognizable as “Thai”. In Bangkok the best place to meet them all at one time is to go to the market where they sell their snacks, hand-made goods, live chickens and fruit. In the countryside the tribesman are a little more distinguishable because of their elaborate costumes, or, in case of women, headdresses and adornments which are obligatory during various festivals and other social gatherings.
In the so-called Golden Triangle of the northern hills, the land enclosed by Laos, Burma and Thailand borders, one may find tribes who once got their income by growing poppies for making opium and heroin. The situation changed as Thailand gradually became more open to the world, thanks to considerable political stability and the growing tourism industry. Introduced by the Royal Family, the agricultural project for alternative crops like vegetables, though not completely eradicating the infamous poppy crop, has set new goals for slash-and-burn opium farmers. Considering that more than 70 percent of the working classes come from agriculture, any project related to land gets nationwide interest. Thailand’s image may change with urbanization and modern development in the near future, but for now the true heart of the nation lies in the villages where tribal life, stilted houses and work at Nature’s pace are still in favor.
Q1. What is known about the first inhabitants of Thailand?
Q2. From where and when did Thais arrive?
Q3. In what way is The South different from the rest of the country?
Q4. What are the characteristics of Thailand’s population?
Q5. What were the changes brought to the Golden Triangle?
In size, Thailand can be compared to France, but there the comparison ends. You are definitely in the tropics where you can expect all characteristic attributes like rainy and dry seasons, wet rice paddies, brilliantly colored flora and fauna of the jungle and unfortunately tropic-related diseases like malaria. The colorful mélange of ethnic, cultural and geographical diversity is harmoniously woven into one pattern which quite unexpectedly brings an image of homogeneity. All those colors and shapes have something in common: they are in abundance; they are full of life; they are rich in color; and for the unprepared eye of a foreigner, they are chaotic. They have developed a distinct flavor, easily recognized: they are all “Thai”.
For centuries, travelers on their way through the Orient considered Thailand a gem, and you may say, rightly. Besides its famous beaches and azure- colored waters of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, the land offers deep greens of the jungle, more delicate hues where the rice fields spread and a shimmering silver of rivers and canals turning gold in the sunset. Forested mountains and treeless expanses, almost blinding white beaches and deep shadows of the jungle, everything in Thailand seem to be in contrast and in harmony simultaneously.
One of four main regions, the heartland of the nation, is called Central Plains. It hosts the royal capital of Bangkok and is considered the most prosperous area in the kingdom. The country’s rice and vegetable basket is generally a flat area which slowly rises to the West to meet the Tenassirim Range that forms a natural border with Burma. The Mekong River in the Northeast marks another natural border with Laos while its southeastern part is shared with Cambodia. The Northeast, dominated by the Khorat Plateau, is considered Thailand’s poorest region, but its almost treeless land famous for concentration of ancient architecture reveals an abundance of folklore and historical objects. From the Central Plains stretches the narrow peninsula, her tail growing in width while drawing near towards the equator. This part of the country called “The South” has its own distinguishing character. Thailand is mostly a Buddhist country, but the South has a Muslim-based culture. The proximity to Malaysia may also be responsible for the strong influence of Islam in this region.
Q1. In what climatic zone is Thailand located and what are its characteristics?
Q2. What are the names of two bodies of water surrounding Thailand?
Q3. Why are the Central Plains considered to be the most prosperous area?
Q4. What forms the natural borders with Burma, Laos and Cambodia?
Q5. What’s the difference between “The South” and the rest of the country?
Essentially an agricultural nation, Thailand may be depicted by one predominant color: green. In the eyes of foreigners however, its gold-plated temples and almost white, powdery sand beaches are probably even more impressive. Once called Siam, the kingdom of Thailand is an explosion of colors, be it a bird, a flower or a piece of hand-woven silk. Tourists from all over the world used to come in flocks to this paradise on Earth until the 26th of December 2004. On that day the sunny beaches of the Indian Ocean turned in the twinkling of an eye to hell and chaos. The Big Wave, caused by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake with its epicenter near Sumatra arrived in what seemed an instant and… vibrant colors were no more, replaced by brownish mud which covered everything; people dead and alive, palace-like residential hotels and beach-front restaurants, palms and greenery in decorative pots, cars and roads. Most frequently visited resorts of Phuket Island were turned into stages of unprecedented tragedy and fishermens’ huts to piles of rubble with their owners washed away.
For those who could only sit helplessly in their living rooms and watch the horrifying spectacle on the TV news, the scale of the disaster which hit 11 nations was difficult to grasp. It looked almost like a movie, but it was not. Later, survivors spoke to reporters of a nightmare they wish to be awakened from. They were stunned, stupefied and traumatized. The whole world seemed to collapse and yet on another side of the country, untouched by the tsunami, people danced around fires lit on the beaches and enjoyed their holidays to the full.
Compared to Indonesia, Sri Lanka or India, Thailand had fewer casualties due to the tsunami. Still in terms of a trauma and in face of Nature’s wrath, people who suffered, who lost their loved ones and their homes, became grimly equalized. Time and hard work by Thai people would be needed to make now destroyed places livable; and courage and a sense of solidarity on the part of tourists would be needed to bring business back to the beaches. Some people say that hope is last to die in any critical circumstances, and that hope is imprinted in humans’ struggle with Nature. Let’s have hope and let’s have a closer look at Thailand’s vibrant multi-faceted culture and its hospitable people, the magnet for travelers from all lands.
Q1. What happened on December 26, 2004?
Q2. Where was the epicenter of the earthquake?
Q3. Which countries suffered from the tsunami?
Q4. Why did people from all over the world use to travel to Thailand?
Q5. What’s the name of the island most famous for its resorts?