Thailand is located at the meeting point of the two great cultural
systems of Asia, Chinese and Indian. In everyday life, Chinese culture
has mixed very well with the Thai, whereas in Thai court culture,
which has been based mainly on Buddhism and Brahmanism, India has
exerted a strong influence. Thai culture can be divided into 3
aspects: linguistic culture, court culture, and traditional culture.
The Thai language, or Phasa Thai, basically
consists of monosyllable words, whose meanings are complete by
themselves. Its alphabet was created by King Ramkhamhaeng the Great in
1283 by modelling it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and
Pali through the medium of the old Khmer characters. After a history
of over 700 years, the Thai alphabet today comprises 44 letters
(including 2 obsolete ones), representing 20 consonant phonemes, and
15 vowel signs, denoting 22 vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs.
As Thai is a tonal language with five different tones, it often
confuses foreigners who are unused to this kind of language. For
example, they have difficulty in distinguishing these 3 words from
each other : "suea" with rising tone, "suea" low tone and "suea"
falling tone which means a tiger, a mat and clothes respectively.
Like most languages of the world, the Thai language is a complicated
mixture of several sources. Many Thai words used today were derived
from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Malay, English and Chinese.
Court culture refers to
the conception of beauty, perfection and harmony in the fine arts,
including painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, drama and
music. In the old days most of these originated in or received the
patronage of the royal court and nobility. Most of the works served
the Buddhist religion. Their styles were influenced by the Indians
through the Mons and Khmers, and then were blended and developed in
unique forms recognized as Thai.
Classical Thai painting is mostly confined to mural paintings inside
Buddhist temples and palaces. They are idealistic and the themes
frequently depicted are those related to Buddhism, such as the
Buddha's life stories, stories of the three worlds (heaven, earth and
hell), and also those concerning customs and traditions. The subjects
of the paintings reflect different purposes: to beautify and dignify
the places of worship, to promote Buddhism, and to educate people
Apart from the royal palace buildings, classical Thai architecture can
be found in monastic monuments, pagodas and temples which have been
the focal points of Thai community activities for centuries. Admitting
Indian, Khmer and other influences such as Chinese and Burmese, Thai
architects developed their own distinctive style of sloping
multitiered roof-tops and soaring pointed towers, intricately
ornamented with carved wood and stucco, gilded lacquer work,
mother-of-pearl inlay, Chinese porcelain fragments and colour glass
mosaic. Under the tropical sun, these buildings give out an artistic
harmony of flamboyance and serenity.
Examples of Thai architecture are seen in Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Pho, Wat
Suthat, the Grand Palace, etc.
Thai sculpture is concentrated on Buddha images that rank among the
world's greatest expressions of Buddhist art. As a result, it is widely believed that the Buddha
images in Thailand, from the Chiang Saen Period (11-13th c.) to the
present Rattanakosin or Bangkok Period, are so numerous that they far
outnumber the population of the country.Made in wood, metals, ivory,
precious stones and stucco, they have been created to represent
Ratanatrai of Buddhism, i.e., Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha's doctrine)
and Sanga (Buddhist clergy).Among the most beautiful Buddha images in
Thailand are Phra Buddha Chinnarat in Wat Mahathat (Phitsanulok
province) and Phra Buddha Chinnasi in Wat Bowon Niwet (Bangkok).
In the early days, Thai literature was concerned with religion,
royalty and aristocracy and hardly anything else. They were written in
verse of various patterns. Then, in the early 20th century, King Rama
VI made a revolution in Thai literary history. Prose has become a
favourite form of writing among Thai writers since then, and common
life scenes have been depicted in their works. One of the most
important Thai literary pieces is the Ramakian, an epic derived
from the Ramayana of India.
In the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance are indivisible.
The techniques of dancing are of Indian origin, but Thai people
evolved them to be much more graceful and slow in motion. Thai dramas include renowned khon (the masked
drama), lakhon (a less formal dance drama with movements more graceful
than khon), nang yai and nang talung (shadow plays) and hun
(marionettes). In former days, dramas were normally performed only in
the royal courts and noble mansions. Ordinary people could enjoy such
performances only on festive occasions in the compound of a Buddhist
Thai classical music uses the diatonic music scale. The instruments
are of four kinds: Those of plucking, drawing, percussion and
woodwind. Apart from drama, Thai classical music is played in some
religious ceremonies, traditional rites and on festive occasions.
By traditional culture we mean customs concerning agriculture and
human relations, and the art of making daily necessities such as
utensils, clothing and basketry.
The basis of the Thai customs and traditions lies in the family, whose
structure is of bilateral descent. Like the Chinese and some other
Asian peoples, the young are taught to pay respect to and follow the
admonitions of parents, elders, teachers and Buddhist monks who, in
the old days, formed a highly educated class.
When speaking about traditional Thai culture, what cannot be left
unmentioned is the wat or Buddhist temple. After Buddhism had
been spread throughout Thailand for hundreds of years, the primitive
animist belief of the Thai people was assimilated by the Buddhist one.
The wat became the centre of the village. It was the place where
people received education, attended rites and ceremonies, and observed
feasts and festivals all the year round.
Nowadays, due to the rapid advancement of technology, the traditional
Thai way of living, especially in the big cities, has inevitably
changed. However, it is still preserved to a large extent in the
faraway rural areas where modern civilization has failed to penetrate.