Thai culture is a unique and highly interesting mixture of the many Asian influences that have permeated the region throughout the centuries – remnants of Chinese, Indian, Malay and Indonesian culture are all seen in modern Thailand.
Thai culture is made up of many different aspects, and whether they be language, music, religion, food or architecture; all have a particular notion that signifies their Thai origins. Although Thai art has a definite Indian aspect, the predominance of Buddhism is its largest influence.
Paintings in the classic Thai style are often most well-known as murals inside Buddhist Temples and palaces dotted around the country. The themes of these artworks are, on the most part, closely related to Buddhism and the life of the Buddha.
Popular themes are traditional stories, battles and depiction of ancient life and arts. These paintings serve to educate and signify the importance of the places of worship. Thais are skilled, or at least enthusiastic artists, and many can be found flogging their wares at night markets or shops near tourist areas, such as Patong in Phuket. However, the subjects and depictions aren’t as sublime as the art found in Vietnam.
As with the other forms of art, Thai sculpture is heavily influenced by Buddhist history and culture. The most famous period for sculpture is that of the Sukhothai age, during which Buddha sculptures abounded in beauty and exhibited supreme skill. There are thousands of examples of amazing Thai sculptures found all over the country; walk into any temple and you are guaranteed to see beautiful statutes and carvings.
Thai literature was originally concerned with religious aspects and members of the aristocracy rather than the everyday lives of normal Thai people. The popular style was epic poems that depicted wars and events of great social relevance. It was only in the 20th century that Thai writers began to examine more ‘mundane’ themes that were based on scenes of common life. On the whole, however, literature here isn’t one of the strong points of Thai culture, but there are some classics, such as the epic Ramakien.
Thai theatre is a heady mix of music, dance and acting. The dancing techniques have their origins in India, but have been changed and developed into a slower, more classically laxidasical style. The most famous Thai theatre is known as Khon, where performers wear masks and move in rhythmic, puppet-like ways. Khon usually tells the story of Ramakien, but Menora is another popular one. Other types of drama include Lakhon dancing and Thai folk opera, known as Nang Talang.
Also popular is Likay, a kind of humorous slap-stick theatre of impromptu one-liners and appropriate sound effects, which is sure to raise a laugh from even to most po-faced Thai or Westerner and can commonly be seen on Thai TV. You can watch Likay at many of the large social gatherings that take place frequently throughout the country.
Thai traditional dance is one of the truly graceful aspects of the country and is quite symbolic of the Thai character itself. To see these beautifully costumed ladies and men patiently miming the ancient stories, which were originally developed and performed as entertainment for the royal court, is a treat that makes even modern audiences feel privileged.
The form is very strict, employing 108 basic movements and keeping the body upright from the neck to the hips, moving up and down using only the knees, and stretching to the rhythm of the music. A great deal of symbolism and importance is displayed in complex and beautifully executed finger and hand movements. Sometimes six-inch, specially designed finger nails add to the effect and complement the splendour of the spectacularly ornate costumes. All of it combines to produce a hypnotic and memorable experience of Thailand.
Accompanying classical Thai dance is a traditional orchestra, using unique instruments such as the Ranad (a wooden, floor level xylophone), Sa-law (a bow-shaped instrument played with a violin-like bow), and two bamboo flutes, the Phin Pia and the Khlui. Together they are known as a Pii-phaat ensemble (between five and seven instruments), producing a pleasant mid-tempo melody to a steady metronomic rhythm. It is a charming and pleasant experience, played out with patience and repeating measures, perfect background music for your dining. There are also popular Lanna folk songs reflecting the idle pace of everyday life in the north.
When examining Thai music, one should never overlook the music derived from the rural areas of Thailand, which is known as ‘Luk Thung’. These songs are notable for their depiction of everyday events relevant to everyone, such as death, marriage, love and heartbreak. Thai people have a great love of music and you can often see groups of Thais playing guitar and singing, along with a huge number of karaoke bars and booths dotted around. In fact, Thais can be brilliant singers with a large local pop music industry and some accomplished musicians and producers.
Although far smaller than its Chinese counterpart, Thailand’s’ movie industry has seen many successes recently. Films like ‘Ong Baak’ (Muay Thai Warrior) and ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ have been well received by audiences throughout the world. Thai films generally fall into three loose categories; historical dramas, comedies and ghost stories. The Thai have a wonderful creative eye and some movies, such as the delightful ‘Fan Chan’ (my lover) tells a nostalgic story of childhood sweethearts against the backdrop of the small town of Petchaburi in the ‘80s. Although the soundtrack is only available in Thai, the cinematography is a charming rendition of a small Thai town during the era. Sukhothai was a epic blockbuster released internationally and tell the story of an historic drama from the 15th century.
Most popular international films can easily be seen in Thailand’s numerous cinemas. Often the films are in English but have Thai subtitles. An interesting point to note is the playing of the ‘King’s’ Anthem before the movie begins. Everyone in the audience stands up with pride as images of their revered King are shown and the cinema is hushed in respect to their beloved monarch.