If you follow me on any social media platforms, you might have seen the big news. Halie and I are moving to Bangkok this summer!! I’m really excited to move to a new country and experience a different culture and be immersed in a different language. But to prepare myself for this, I wanted to conduct a literary crash course in all things Thai. I wanted to tell you about a few books I read (titles are links to Amazon):
A History of Thailand by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Of course I had to start with history. While looking for a book to begin I realized that there aren’t a lot of options when it comes to Thai history written in English. Plenty of travel books, not much history. But this one had good reviews so I decided to begin my literary journey here. And what a journey.
Thailand’s history is a rollercoaster ride of monarchy and democracy and military coups. Thailand is unique in being the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by a Western power. They were left as a buffer between French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) and the British Empire in South Asia (India and Burma). During World War II, Thailand tried to stay neutral but with pressure from Japan (and subsequent invasion), they allowed free passage for Japanese soldiers and declared war against the United States and the UK. But by the end of the war, Thailand had emerged as an ally of the United States.
While the Cold War raged around the globe, the United States saw Thailand as the bulwark of “democracy” amongst all the communist nations of Southeast Asia. Because of this, the United States funded the Thai military and police. This caused political instability, military coups and the weakening of the monarchy’s power for decades well into the 1980s. Although Thai politics began to be more stable by the constitution of 1997, there has still continued to be political unrest and military coups. The most recent military coup was in 2014 and Thailand is still run by the military junta.
Theravada Buddhism by Diana & Richard St. Ruth
I decided next to move from history to religion. 95% of Thailand’s citizens practice Theravada Buddhism, a sect of Buddhism that began in Sri Lanka and spread throughout Southeast Asia. This short guide explained the beginnings of Buddhism, the division of Theravada from other sects and the practices of the religion. I believe this has been very helpful in understanding some of the cultural practices of Thailand. Their interactions with their monarch, the temples and shrines everywhere and their relationships with each other can be explained in the context of Theravada Buddhist practices. The only issue I have with Buddhism is all the numbers! The Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Threefold Discipline, the Seven Purifications… It just gets to be a little too much counting for me!
Four Reigns by Kukrit Pramoj
Published in the 1950s, this fascinating book follows minor nobility through major transformations of Thailand. Told through the point of view of a girl (and later woman) named Phloi, we follow her life during four different kings of Thailand, spanning the years 1890-1946. We get to see Thailand become a part of the global political world and part of the modern world. The end of the absolute monarchy and the introduction of the first constitution in 1932 is seen through the eyes of the citizens of Bangkok. We see, through Phloi’s experiences, when Japanese soldiers start marching through the streets during World War II and the different reactions of people depending on their place in Thai politics. The story ends with Phloi’s death at about the same time as her fourth king, Ananda Mahidol.
I would love for there to be a sequel, maybe titled One Reign, that follows a character similar to Phloi during the next king’s tenure. Bhumibol Adulyadej began his reign in 1946 and at the time of his death in October of last year, was the longest serving head of state (70 years). He was a much loved king that was a sign of stability for the citizens of Thailand during the tumultuous politics of the Cold War and into current events.
Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap
So I didn’t talk about every book I read but I wanted to end my literary research (for now) and my blog with a modern Thai book. This debut book published in 2005 is a collection of seven stories. They are all set in modern-day Thailand, some in Bangkok and some in the Thai countryside. Most of the stories have young children as the protagonist and they all beautifully depict a different side of life in Thailand.
“Farangs,” the name of the first short story and the word for foreigners, gives us a picture of the interactions between tourist and Thai. “Sightseeing,” the fourth story, is a gut-wrenching example of the difficulties of growing up, especially with an aging and sickly family member. “Don’t Let Me Die in This Place” is a hilarious and touching story of an American father who becomes handicapped and forced to move to Thailand to live with his son and Thai daughter-in-law. As you an tell from the title, he’s not too excited to be there. “Priscilla the Cambodian” gives us a short look into the life of Southeast Asian refugees that are forced to live in Thailand. Really, all the stories are well worth reading. I’m excited to see what Lapcharoensap publishes in the future.