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Buddhism in Thailand is strongly influenced by traditional beliefs regarding ancestral and natural spirits, which have been incorporated into Buddhist cosmology. Most Thai people install spirit houses, miniature wooden houses outside their dwellings, where they believe household spirits live. They present offerings of food and drink to these spirits to keep them happy. If these spirits aren’t happy, it is believed that they will inhabit the household and cause chaos. These spirit houses can be found in public places and on the streets of Thailand, where the public make offerings.
Prior to the rise of Theravada Buddhism, both Indian Brahmanic religion and Mahayana Buddhism were present in Thailand. Influences from both these traditions can still be seen in present day Thai folklore. Brahmanist shrines play an important role in Thai folk religion, and the Mahayana Buddhist influence is reflected in the presence of figures like Lokesvara, a form of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara sometimes incorporated into Thailand’s iconography.
The traditional customs and the folklore of Thai people were gathered and described by Phya Anuman Rajadhon in the 20th century, at a time when modernity changed the face of Thailand and a great number of traditions disappeared or became adapted to modern life. Still, the striving towards refinement, rooted in ancient Siamese culture, consisting of promoting that which is refined and avoiding coarseness is a major focus of the daily life of Thai people and high on their scale of values.
One of the most distinctive Thai customs is the wai. Used in greetings, leave-taking, or as an acknowledgement, it comes in many forms, reflecting the relative status of those involved. Generally the salutation involves a prayer-like gesture with the hands, similar to the Añjali Mudrā of the Indian subcontinent, and it also may include a slight bow of the head. This salutation is often accompanied by a serene smile symbolizing a welcoming disposition and a pleasant attitude. Thailand is often referred to as the “land of smiles” in tourist brochures.
Public displays of affection is not overly common in traditional Thai society, especially between lovers. It is becoming more common, especially among the younger generation.
A notable social norm holds that touching someone on the head may be considered rude. It is also considered rude to place one’s feet at a level above someone else’s head, especially if that person is of higher social standing. This is because the Thai people consider the foot to be the dirtiest and lowliest part of the body, and the head the most respected and highest part of the body. This also influences how Thais sit when on the ground—their feet always pointing away from others, tucked to the side or behind them. Pointing at or touching something with the feet is also considered rude.
Since serene detachment is valued, conflict and sudden displays of anger are eschewed in Thai culture and, as is many Asian cultures, the notion of face is extremely important. For these reasons, visitors should take care not to create conflict, to display anger or to cause a Thai person to lose face. Disagreements or disputes should be handled with a smile and no attempt should be made to assign blame to another. In everyday life in Thailand, there is a strong emphasis on the concept of sanuk; the idea that life should be fun. Because of this, Thais can be quite playful at work and during day-to-day activities. Displaying positive emotions in social interactions is also important in Thai culture.
Often, Thais will deal with disagreements, minor mistakes, or misfortunes by using the phrase mai pen rai, translated as “it doesn’t matter”. The ubiquitous use of this phrase in Thailand reflects a disposition towards minimizing conflict, disagreements or complaints. A smile and the sentence “mai pen rai” indicates that the incident is not important and therefore there is no conflict or shame involved.
Respect for hierarchy is a very important value for Thai people. The custom of bun khun emphasizes the indebtedness towards parents, as well as towards guardians, teachers, and caretakers. It describes the feelings and practices involved in certain relationships organized around generalized reciprocity, the slow-acting accounting of an exchange calculated according to locally interpreted scales and measures. It is also considered rude to step on any type of Thai currency (Thai coin or banknote) as they include a likeness of the king.
There are a number of Thai customs relating to the special status of monks in Thai society. Thai monks are forbidden physical contact with women. Women are therefore expected to make way for passing monks to ensure that accidental contact does not occur. A variety of methods are employed to ensure that no incidental contact (or the appearance of such contact) between women and monks occurs. Women making offerings to monks place their donation at the feet of the monk, or on a cloth laid on the ground or a table. Powders or unguents intended to carry a blessing are applied to Thai women by monks using the end of a candle or stick. Laypersons are expected to sit or stand with their heads at a lower level than that of a monk. Within a temple, monks may sit on a raised platform during ceremonies to make this easier to achieve.
When sitting in a temple, one is expected to point one’s feet away from images of the Buddha. Shrines inside Thai residences are arranged so as to ensure that the feet are not pointed towards the religious icons, such as placing the shrine on the same wall as the head of a bed, if a house is too small to remove the shrine from the bedroom entirely.
It is also customary to remove one’s footwear before entering a home or the sacred areas within a temple, and not to step on the threshold.
Traditional Thai clothing is called chut thai (Thai: ชุดไทย Thai pronunciation: [tɕʰút.tʰaj]) which literally means “Thai outfit”. It can be worn by men, women, and children. Chut thai for women usually consists of a pha nung or a chong kraben, a blouse, and a sabai. Northern and northeastern women may wear a sinh instead of a pha nung and a chong kraben with either a blouse or a suea pat. Chut thai for men includes a chong kraben or pants, a Raj pattern shirt, with optional knee-length white socks and a sabai. Chut thai for northern Thai men is composed of a sado, a white Manchu styled jacket, and sometimes a khian hua. In formal occasions, people may choose to wear a so-called formal Thai national costume.
Birth traditions and beliefs
Traditional principles concerning pregnancy and childbirth are largely influenced by folk beliefs, especially in rural areas of central and north Thailand. Modern practices follow the Western medical model.
Thai people universally have one, or occasionally more, short nicknames (Thai: ชื่อเล่น name-play) that they use with friends and family. Often first given shortly after birth by friends or an older family member, these nicknames are overwhelmingly one syllable (or worn down from two syllables to one). Though they may be simply shortened versions of a full name, they quite frequently have no relation to the person’s full name and are often humorous and/or nonsense words. Babies may be given a nickname of a relative or named for a characteristic of birth, e.g., “little”. Traditionally, nicknames would relate to things of low value, e.g., “dirt”, which was to convince evil spirits lurking in the vicinity that the child was not worthy their attention. Today this folk custom is on the decline.
Some common nicknames translate into English as “small”, “fatty”, “pig”, “little”, “frog”, “banana”, “green”, or “girl/boy”. Though rare, sometimes Thai children are given nicknames in the order they were born into the family (i.e., “one”, “two”, “three”, etc.). Nicknames are useful because official Thai names are often long, particularly among Thais of Chinese descent, whose lengthy surnames stem from an attempt to translate Chinese names into Thai equivalents, or among Thai with similarly lengthy Sanskrit-derived names. In recent years, English language words have become popular nicknames. Examples include: “Ice” (ไอซ์); “Bank” (แบงค์); “New” (นิว); “Ball” (บอล), and even “Beer” (เบียร์).
Thai Buddhist marriage ceremonies are generally divided into two parts: a Buddhist component, which includes the recitation of prayers and the offering of food and other gifts to monks and images of the Buddha, and a non-Buddhist component rooted in folk traditions, which centers on the couple’s families.
In former times, it was unknown for Buddhist monks to be present at any stage of the marriage ceremony itself. As monks were required to attend to the dead during funerals, their presence at a marriage (which was associated with fertility, and intended to produce children) was considered a bad omen. A couple would seek a blessing from their local temple before or after being married, and might consult a monk for astrological advice in setting an auspicious date for the wedding. The non-Buddhist portions of the wedding would take place away from the temple, and would often take place on a separate day.
In modern times, these prohibitions have been significantly relaxed. It is not uncommon for a visit to a temple to be made on the same day as the non-Buddhist portions of a wedding, or even for the wedding to take place within the temple. While a division is still commonly observed between the “religious” and “secular” portions of a wedding service, it may be as simple as the monks present for the Buddhist ceremony departing to take lunch once their role is complete.
During the Buddhist component of the wedding service, the couple first bow before the image of the Buddha. They then recite certain basic Buddhist prayers or chants (typically including taking the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts), and light incense and candles before the image. The parents of the couple may then be called upon to “connect” them, by placing upon the heads of the bride and groom twin loops of string or thread that link the couple together. The couple may then make offerings of food, flowers, and medicine to the monks present. Cash gifts (usually placed in an envelope) may also be presented to the temple at this time.
The monks may then unwind a small length of thread that is held between the hands of the assembled monks. They begin a series of recitations of Pali scriptures intended to bring merit and blessings to the new couple. The string terminates with the lead monk, who may connect it to a container of water that will be “sanctified” for the ceremony. Merit is said to travel through the string and be conveyed to the water. A similar arrangement is used to transfer merit to the dead at a funeral, further evidence of the weakening of the taboo on mixing funerary imagery and trappings with marriage ceremonies. Blessed water may be mixed with wax drippings from a candle lit before the Buddha image and other unguents and herbs to create a paste that is then applied to the foreheads of the bride and groom to create a small dot, similar to the marking made with red ochre on Hindu devotees. The bride’s mark is created with the butt end of the candle rather than the monk’s thumb, in keeping with the Vinaya prohibition against touching women.
The highest-ranking monk present may elect to say a few words to the couple, offering advice or encouragement. The couple may then make offerings of food to the monks, at which point the Buddhist portion of the ceremony is concluded.
The Thai dowry system is known as the sin sodt Thai: สินสอด. Traditionally, the groom will be expected to pay a sum of money to the family, to compensate them and to demonstrate that the groom is financially capable of taking care of their daughter. Sometimes, this sum is purely symbolic, and will be returned to the bride and groom after the wedding has taken place.
The religious component of marriage ceremonies between Thai Muslims are markedly different from that described above. The Imam of the local mosque, the groom, the father of the bride, men in the immediate family, and important men in the community sit in a circle during the ceremony, conducted by the Imam. All the women, including the bride, sit in a separate room and do not have any direct participation in the ceremony. The secular component of the ceremony, however, is often nearly identical to the secular part of Thai Buddhist wedding ceremonies. The only notable difference here is the type of meat served to guests (goat and/or beef instead of pork). Thai Muslims frequently, though not always, also follow the conventions of the Thai dowry system.
Traditionally, funerals last for at least one week. Crying is discouraged during the funeral, so as not to worry the spirit of the deceased. Many activities surrounding the funeral are intended to make merit for the deceased. Copies of Buddhist scriptures may be printed and distributed in the name of the deceased, and gifts are usually given to a local temple. Monks are invited to chant prayers that are intended to provide merit for the deceased, as well as to provide protection against the possibility of the dead relative returning as a malicious spirit. A picture of the deceased from his/her best days will often be displayed next to the coffin. Often, a thread is connected to the corpse or coffin which is held by the chanting monks during their recitation; this thread is intended to transfer the merit of the monks’ recitation to the deceased. The corpse is cremated, and the urn with the ash is usually kept in a chedi in the local temple.
Thai Chinese and Thai Muslim minorities bury their deceased according to the rituals of their respective communities.
Thai visual arts were traditionally Buddhist. Thai Buddha images from different periods have a number of distinctive styles. Thai temple art and architecture evolved from a number of sources, one of them being Khmer architecture. Contemporary Thai art often combines traditional Thai elements with modern techniques.
Literature in Thailand is heavily influenced by Indian Hindu culture. The most notable works of Thai literature are a version of the Ramayana, a Hindu religious epic, called the Ramakien, written in part by Kings Rama I and Rama II, and the poetry of Sunthorn Phu.
There is no tradition of spoken drama in Thailand, the role instead being filled by Thai dance. This is divided into three categories: khon, lakhon, and likay, khon being the most elaborate and likay the most popular. Nang drama, a form of shadow play, is found in the south.
The music of Thailand includes classical and folk music traditions, e.g., piphat and mor lam, respectively) as well as string or pop music.
Important holidays in Thai culture include Thai New Year, or Songkran, which is officially observed from 13–15 April each year. Falling at the end of the dry season and during the hot season in Thailand, the celebrations notoriously feature boisterous water throwing. The water throwing stemmed from washing Buddha images and lightly sprinkling scented water on the hands of elderly people. Small amounts of scented talcum powder were also used in the annual cleansing rite. In recent decades, water fights have been increasingly industrialised with use of hoses, barrels, squirt guns, water-filled surgical tubing, and copious amounts of powder.
Loi Krathong is held on the 12th full moon of the Thai lunar calendar, usually early-November. While not a government-observed holiday, it is nonetheless an auspicious day in Thai culture, in which Thai people “loi”, meaning “to float” a “krathong”, a small raft traditionally made from elaborately folded banana leaves and including flowers, candles, incense sticks, and small offerings. The act of floating away the candle raft is symbolic of letting go of all one’s grudges, anger, and defilements so that one can start life afresh on a better footing.
National Elephant Day or Chang Thai Day is a holiday in Thailand, held on March 13th, which celebrates the cultural and historical significance of the elephant in Thailand.
Reading and Internet
Eighty-eight percent of Thai people read books and spend an average of 28 minutes per day doing so, according to a poll conducted by the Thai Publishers and Booksellers Association (PUBAT) and Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Economics and Research Centre for Social and Business Development.
A total of 3,432 Thais aged 15-69 in 12 provinces, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Songkhla, Nakhon Si Thamarat, Nakhon Ratchsima, and Khon Kaen, were interviewed from December 2014 to January 2015. While 88% of Thai respondents said they read books, 12% said they did not. They cited as reasons lack of time, bad eyesight, and dislike of reading.
Averaged over the entire population, Thais spend 28 minutes a day reading books. The reading sub-set of the population averages 46 minutes a day. Of this group, those aged under 20 spend the most time reading books, 56 minutes a day. That figure shrinks as people age until they reach 61, when people tend to get back into reading.
By comparison, 71% of Thais use the Internet almost everyday for an average of 92 minutes. Those who spend most time on the Internet are people under 20, on average 224 minutes a day, while those over 61 spend ten minutes a day on-line.
In 2013 the Thai National Statistical Office conducted a reading survey that found that Thais aged over six spent an average of 37 minutes a day reading. The survey was not focused specifically on reading books, but also reading journals, the Internet, tablet computers, and smart phones.
Thai boxing is the indigenous national sport in Thailand. Football is perhaps the most-watched sport. The English Premier League is surprisingly popular.
Traditional games of Thailand
Kratai kha deow (one-legged rabbit)
“Kratai kha deow” or “one-legged rabbit” is a type of catch game. The catcher will call the rabbit, and the rabbit must stand on one leg and jump or tiptoe to catch the other players and switch to rabbit instead. This game will exercise your legs and practice balancing on one leg. The number of players are divided into two teams, or may not have a team at all. Normally, there are two or more players. At the first time, the player will select the rabbit or team by “rock-paper-scissors”. The loser would have to be a rabbit.
In the case of solo player, the rabbit must stand on one leg, then jump to chase and touch any part of the body of other children who have run away. Everyone must stay within the designated area. A player who runs out of space loses the game and must be switched to rabbit, but if the rabbit is exhausted and cannot stand on one leg, it was that defeated and must be punished.
In team play, the rules are similar to the solo player, but the rabbit team will send a representative to catch the other team to all the people. Those arrested will have to wait outside until the rabbit team can catch all of the rival teams. Rabbit team can switch to teammates to catch on until they are exhausted, and if the all of the members in rabbit team are exhausted and cannot stand on one leg, the rabbit team lose the game and must be punished too.
Banana stalk hobby horse riding
Banana stalk hobby horse riding or “khee ma khan kluay” in Thai is a traditional game of Thailand that Thai kids frequently played in the past. They use a banana stalk to make the parts of a horse such as head, ear, and horsetail. The materials for making a banana rib hobby horse are banana stalk, knife, small bamboo pin, and string. First, find a banana stalk around 1.5 m long. Cut it in the form of the head, neck, and ears, then use a small bamboo pin to connect the ear to the head of a horse. The remaining part of the banana stalk becomes a horsetail. Attach a string between the head and the tail of this banana stalk horse and place on the shoulder of the rider.
Kids sit on the horse and pretend they are riding a real horse, shouting “hee hee” or “yee haaah”, sounds typical of people on horseback. They may race with friends if they have more than two players. The team that runs faster is the winner.