00. Traditions & Folklore in Thailand during 1910-1920
JUN. 29, 2023
PETE & RYAN
Out of office. Pete and Ryan head to Thailand to discover Tradition and Folklore, including the King who was determined to modernise, and the man who refused to let go of the past. Also a lot of people called Rama.
In this short but sweet out of office special, we’ll be covering Traditions and Folklore in Thailand during 1910-1920.
Officially called the "Kingdom of Thailand", but known in Thai as Prathet Thai, meaning "Land of the Free" Thailand is located in the heart of Southeast Asia nestled in a group hug with Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia.
At around 513,000 square kilometres (or 198,000 square miles), Thailand is approx 0.93 times the size of France.
Best known for its tropical beaches, ancient ruins, ornate temples and vibrant street life, Thailand is home to around 69 million people, as well as roughly 40 million tourists which visit every year.
The official language is Thai, Buddhism is the religion, and the national animal is the elephant. The flag has horizontal stripes of red, white, and blue and the national anthem is known as "Phleng Chat Thai", which means "National Anthem of Thailand".
Thailand’s capital city is Bangkok. The name comes from the word "Bang Makok", which comes from the Thai words "Bang" meaning a village on the bank of a river, and "Makok" which is a type of tree that produces yellow plum-like fruits.
Butif you’re Thai, you probably don’t call it Bangkok, you probably call it croong tep ma ha na kon, which means "City of Angels".
BUT the full ceremonial name for Bangkok is in fact Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharat Ratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphiman Awatarnsatthit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit, making it one of the longest place names in the world!
History of Thailand
At Lampang, northern Thailand Homo erectus fossils, known as Lampang Man, date back somewhere between 1,000,000 – 500,000 years, some of the very earliest of early man.
Fast forward to the bronze age - Ban Chiang in North East Thailand was a center of copper and bronze production around 2,000 years BCE.
This area was covered by the Buddhist Mon kingdom and the Hindu/Buddhist Khmer kingdom. After them, over time a group of people migrated into the area from Southwest China. hese people were known as Tai people.
In 1238 the Sukothai kingdom was formed as an independent Thai state in the area of central Thailand
After this, in South West Thailand the Ayutthaya Kingdom developed, often considered the precursor of modern Thailand who did well for 500 years up to 1767 when the Burmese finally beat them after 200 years of war.
But they really bounced back, the various fragmented areas were pulled together into a new state known as Siam was put together by a capable leader and called Taksin. He then allegedly went a bit mad, there was a coup, Taksin was overthrown and executed and a new chap took the helm of Siam in 1782.
He was Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, who are still on the throne today. Then Rama II and Rama III had their turn, followed by Rama IV and Rama V who oversaw a period of fraternising with Europe and modernisation.
Rama IV, note, was the king from the famous Anna and the King of Siam aka the King and I, and Rama V was the child to whom Anna was teacher.
Whilst being open to contact with the West and modernisation, Siam/Thailand was never colonised by Europe, partly because it acted as a buffer state between areas controlled by the French and the British.
In 1910 Rama VI came took the throne and was in charge during the 1932 Siamese revolution, a bit of a coup, bloodless, that saw the country transition to a constitutional monarchy, but actually a military dictatorship.
Partly to emphasise this change, in 1939 they change the name from Siam to Thailand.
However, the constitutional period has seen a number of coups, and military governments that were not as democratic as one might hope. In 1973 there was a student uprising intended to advance democracy in the nation, but which at first led to some ups and downs, democratically speaking,
the country currently on its I think 20th version of the constitution since 1932.
Today, freedomhouse.org says “Following five years of military dictatorship, Thailand transitioned to a military-dominated, semi-elected government in 2019.” Scoring it 5/40 for political rights and 24/60 for civil liberties.
So who knows what the future holds.
Traditions are essentially deeply-rooted practices, customs, beliefs, and rituals that have been passed down through generations of people. Some traditions could be distinct to specific cultures and societies, while others might be universally recognised.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Thailand was brimming with such customs, many steeped in rich histories spanning thousands of years. There were practices like the Ghost Festival of Loei Province, a vibrant celebration honouring the departed, where locals donned intricate ghost masks and costumes.
Another was Sak Yant, the intricate art of tattooing that was believed to bestow protection and good fortune upon its recipients.
Even in death, tradition held sway with water funerals, a ritual where the deceased were set afloat on a raft, meandering down the river towards their final journey.
However, this plethora of traditions faced a significant challenge, and in some cases a complete overhaul, in 1910. This upheaval was spearheaded by a pivotal figure, the newly enthroned King, Rama VI.
His progressive reforms and policies rapidly propelled the nation into a wave of Westernisation. As a result, many entrenched cultural, educational, and social traditions vanished, almost instantaneously.
So, who was King Rama VI?
Born as Vajiravudh on January 1, 1881, this was a future king who had an upbringing steeped in Western education.
He studied law and history in England, and travelled extensively throughout Europe and the United States –which exposed him to a culture he wasn’t familiar with. Upon returning to Siam in 1903, he ascended to the throne in October of 1910 following his father's death.
As a ruler, Vajiravudh, promptly marked his reign with bold, sweeping changes, relegating many traditional practices to historical archives.
Dissatisfied with the prevailing education system, he introduced compulsory schooling for children aged 7 to 14 and established Chulalongkorn University, the country's first university. The Gregorian calendar replaced the traditional lunar calendar, in healthcare, he challenged the heavy reliance on traditional medicine by implementing 'conventional medicine'.
He commissioned Western-style hospitals, mandated universal smallpox vaccinations, and laid the foundation for the Thai Red Cross.
Societal norms weren't spared either; the king legally prohibited polygamy, endorsing monogamy instead.
Furthermore, he mandated the adoption of surnames, a departure from the customary practice of giving a child only a forename.
Even fashion and the arts fell under his reformist gaze.
Western-style clothing became the norm, with men donning suits and women sporting long skirts and fringed haircuts.
The king's cultural influence permeated Thai literature and theatre.
He penned around 50 original plays under various pseudonyms and adapted over 100 plays from renowned English and French dramatists, including Shakespeare.
However, not all of King Rama VI's reforms found favor with his subjects.
In fact, his relentless altering of national traditions incited frustration and alienation among many Thais.
His reforms were perceived as undermining traditional society, particularly when he legislated changes to gambling houses and opium dens.
His policies were so contentious that in 1912, military and navy officers planned a revolt. Although unsuccessful, the attempted coup indicated the depth of the discontent. Thus, the 1910s became a defining decade for Thailand, marking a profound shift in its traditional landscape due to the vigorous and controversial efforts of King Rama VI.
Whilst one king was trying to move on from traditions, another notable Thai was preparing to save traditional folklore.
On December 14, 1888, Yong Sathiankoset, also known by his noble title Phya Anuman Rajadhon was born. He graduated college in 1905 and went to work in the Department of customs where he achieved the rank of Deputy Director General in 1922.
But he was also a keen self-taught academic, a linguist, anthropologist and ethnographer who used his skills to study and document the beliefs and folklore of Thailand.
In fact, he was the first person to to document the folk beliefs of the country. Under the pen name Sathirakoses He wrote a large number of books, including and Ritual in Old Siam and Essays on Thai Folklore Life.
In his book Essays on Thai Folklore there is the following quote:
“In 1914, the former Royal Institute, which is now the Fine Arts Department, appointed a committee of experts to select the best works of Thai literature from each of the various styles of composition in the Thai language.”
The selection chose 6 Thai stories and I’m going to tell you one of them.
This is the story of Phra Law or King Lo.
“Phra Law is a romantic story dealing with the king of a small country in the north of Thailand. He was young and very handsome” he starts.
Songs and tales of Phra Law’s beauty reach the ears of two princesses of a neighbouring kingdom called Song. They fall in love with the man.
The problem was that Phra Law’s father had previously killed an earlier the King of Song who was in power before the princesses’ father. This left his widow pretty annoyed but doesn’t seem to bother the princesses too much.
Because they decide to use some magic to lure them over to them. So they enlist the help of Pu Chao, described by Rajadhon as “the genie of the forest” but elsewhere as a Rishi, kind of an enlightened spirit in the form of a were-tiger.
In any event he casts his spell and Phra Law feels a strange and urgent need to visit the neighbouring kingdom.
Rajadhon doesn’t mention his but apparently there’s something of a magical battle as Phra Law’s mother enlists her own magical forces to defend him, but in the end, Phra Law makes his journey, in part, Rajadhon says, “lured by a magic cock”.
Eventually Phra Law finds himself and two assistants in the neighbouring country. “Phra Law and the two princesses met and made love clandestinely in the garden.”
Rajadhon adds “The two faithful attendants also met their loves in the persons of the two trusted maids”.
This was a very sexy park.
But, tragically, the woman who’s husband had been killed by Phra Law’s father, finds out about their antics. Seeing a chance for revenge, she sends soldiers to murder Law.
A great battle begins, but Law does not fight alone. By his side were the two princesses, loyal to the last. The fight is heroic, but inevitably Phra Law and the princesses are all killed. As are the loyal servants four servants.
But revenge was not sweet for the widow.
The princesses’ father, King of Song, discovers the tragedy and is enraged. The King flays and executes the widow.
Phra Law and the princesses and their loyal servants are cremated with full royal honours. An envoy is sent to Phra Law’s kingdom to say sorry about all the murdering, and to offer reconciliation with Law’s mother. She, after considering revenge, accepts, sending envoys and gifts as a gesture of reconciliation.
Thus the two neighbouring kingdoms come to be allies, a sign of hope birthed from the ashes of tragedy.
And everyone who wasn’t dead already lived happily ever after.
As for our author and folklorist, Unesco staged a commemoration of the man and his work on the Centenary of his birth in 1988.