Culture Capsule: Bangkok
There are a couple different ways that you can study a culture, and it's really interesting to look at the way outsiders view a culture and compare it to the way that one views his or her own culture. As an exercise in my M.4 (Grade 10) English class, the students were asked to think of items to include in a "culture capsule". Bear in mind, my class is made up of urban Bangkok sixteen year-old Thai students. It would be interesting to see what people of different cultural, socio-political, ethnic, and age groups would have come up with, and how the list might have appeared different. As a matter of fact, the culture of central Thailand is vastly different from that of the northern, northeastern (Issan) or southern regions. The prompt was something like this:
"If you were to create a list of items to represent Thailand to someone who has never been there, what would you include?"
This is the complete list that my students came up with:
1. Royal Thai Elephants
The symbol of the elephant is everywhere in Thailand. The animal itself is the symbol of Bangkok and can be found on clothing, art, architecture... elephants represents good luck in Thai culture, and the Thai people love their elephants. Even ancient Siam was famous for their seemingly invincible war elephants. By tradition, all white elephants in Thailand are the property of the king, and are seen as a symbol of lucky, happiness, and prosperity.
2. Thai Dance and Cultural Performances
Thai dancers practice for years to achieve their iconic graceful moves. If you look at their hands while they're dancing, you'll see that they have learned to bend their fingers backwards to look more graceful. Dancers famously perform at the Erawan Shrine in downtown Chit Lom, Bangkok, offering prayers for good fortune. The dances tell traditional Thai stories, and the costumes and music are an integral part of Thai culture. Pictured above is an example of khon, a traditional Thai masked opera depicting scenes from the Ramakien, Thailand's national epic, derived from the ancient Hindu epic *Ramayana.
3. Temples / Religion
While Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of the royal family of the Kingdom of Thailand, the king is seen as the Defender of All Faiths, and religious tolerance and freedom is practiced in the country. Theravada Buddhism is one of the oldest forms of Buddhism, and Thai Buddhism incorporates aspects of Hinduism along with traditional Thai animist and Buddhist beliefs, as well as reverence for important monks and the king. Temples, shrines, statues, and saffron-robed Theravada monks are a common sight on every street corner in Thailand. Though the Thai monarchy is a Buddhist institution, the royal family keeps court Brahmans, who preside over royal ceremonies, most famously the annual Royal Ploughing Ceremony.
4. Floating Markets
Thai floating market
While today many the floating markets are mostly tailored to tourists, they are a representation of a traditional aspect of Thai life. You can hire a longboat to paddle you down a canal where vendors will sell you fruits, vegetables, and full meals from their restaurant and shop boats! Now many of the floating markets are built as shops along boardwalks.
5. Tom Yum Soup
Tom Yum Soup
If you ask a Bangkok local to choose one food to represent Thailand, they most likely will recommend tom yom goong, a spicy herbal soup made with delicious pepper and boiled shrimp. Tom Yum is a cheap, healthy, and delicious street dish that is popular throughout the "Big Mango".
6. Pad Thai
If you've only had one Thai dish, chances are you've tried pad Thai. Pad Thai, a fried noodle dish with shrimp or chicken, fresh lime, and peanuts is a street food favorite throughout the country, and variants are found in Bangkok, the northern mountains, and in the south. It's the national dish of Thailand, although it was only developed in the twentieth century.
7. Mango Sticky Rice
mango sticky rice
Without a doubt my favorite Thai dish, mango sticky rice is a delicious dessert that I will go far out of my way to get. The sticky rice is warm and sweetened with coconut milk, and the mango is sweet and cool. It's refreshing and delicious! It's always a good day if they serve sticky rice for dessert at school. Black sticky rice with taro root and sticky rice with red beans are tasty, but by far my favorite is when it is served with mango and coconut milk.
8. Bangkok Tuk-Tuks
with a portrait of the princess in the background
These things are definitely a rip-off, but they're fun. You can overpay by about 400-500% versus a metered cab, but you can't deny that they're an iconic sight around town. They aren't how locals travel by any means, and really only cater to tourists, however you can't miss these brightly-colored auto-rickshaws careening around the city. They are literally built around a moped, and the battery sits between the drivers feet. They are named for the sound they make, "
9. Cha Yen - Thai Iced Tea
There is nothing better on a hot Bangkok afternoon than a cooling glass of super sweet "cha yen", traditional Thai iced tea! Usually whipped up from the cart of a street food vendor, cha yen is frothy, thick, and orange (due to the copious amount of sweet condensed milk mixed in!). It is "aroi" (delicous).
10. The Colors of the Day
Monday - Yellow
Tuesday - Pink
Wednesday - Green
Thursday - Orange
Friday - Blue
Saturday - Purple
Sunday - Red
Colors are very important in Thai culture. Every day of the week is represented by a color, and the day of your birth dictates your lucky color! Yellow is the most important color, as the king was born on a Monday. During the king's birthday month in December, we were required to wear yellow every day. We wore blue throughout all of August to celebrate the queen's birthday as well, since she was born on a Friday. The new king was born on Monday as well, so yellow continues to be an important royal color.
11. The Flag and Royal Standards
Thai, Buddhist, and Royal standards
You see flags all over Thailand. The national flag flies from almost every building, but the royal standards are a common sight as well. The king and queen are represented by yellow and blue flag, because they were born on a Monday and Friday respectively. Other members of the royal family have their own flags too, but you don't often see them unless it's a special celebration honoring that person. The dark gold flag with the wheel depicted on it is the flag of Thai Buddhism, and often flies at temples.
12. Shopping Malls
Siam Discovery Mall, BTS Siam
Bangkok is home to possibly hundreds of shopping malls, from the mega-chain Central Plaza to the crazy and chaotic MBK center where you can buy anything from cell phones to sim cards to bootlegged DVD's. No mall in Thailand is as famous or as prominent in the urban-elite Bangkok culture as Siam Paragon, downtown Siam Square's famous luxury mega-mall. My students wanted to include Paragon because they were concerned that when many foreigners think of Thailand, they think of "jungle huts". In fact, Bangkok is one of the biggest, busiest, and most modern cities in the world. Siam Paragon was the most "Instagrammed" place in the world in 2013! Inside you can find the expected dessert cafes, an international food court, and a cinema, but Paragon also hosts a five-star hotel, a (really cool) aquarium, and lots of luxury brands like Armani, Luis Vuitton, Harrod's of London, a Rolls Royce dealership... you name it!
A wai is the traditional respectful greeting in Thailand. You put your hands together in a prayer-like manner and bow your head. People wai at different levels to show different degrees of respect. When my students wai me, they have to bow deeply, and when I see the headmistress at my school, I have to wai to her like my students do to me!
14. Portraits of the King and Queen
There are portraits of the royal family everywhere. Our school has a portrait in every classroom.
Here's a tip: if you are going to eat at a Thai restaurant in the US or abroad, check to make sure that they have displayed a portrait of the king and queen. If you see one, it's very likely that the food will be high-quality and authentic, as the restaurant is probably owned and operated by Thais.
15. Thai Alphabet
(This is Thai)
The Thai alphabet consists of 44 consonants and 28 vowels. My students are very proud of their alphabet, as it represents an important part of Thai heritage. They were very proud when they taught me how to write my name!
I've been learning to read and write Thai this year, and it's not going too poorly! Because Thai is an alphabet system (instead of a character-based system like Chinese), it is phonetic, and not so difficult once you figure out how it works. It's complicated, but I think it is a cool script
16. The Chao Phraya River
orange flag public boat on the river
The Chao Phraya River ("Chao Phraya" is a royal title that is commonly translated to "Grand Duke") is really Bangkok's heart. Bangkok is a relatively new city, founded in the late 18th century after the sack of Ayutthaya, and the river was its lifeblood that helped the city boom into the modern metropolis that it is today. Today, the Grand Palace and most of the oldest parts of the city sit along the banks of the "River of Kings".
17. Durian, the King of Fruit
It smells like stinky socks, rotten meat, spoiled eggs, and gasoline, but it tastes like vanilla ice cream. Durian, known as the King of Fruits, is a strange, strange thing to eat. People either love it or they hate it, but you can't deny that durian holds a special place in Thai culture. If it's not your thing, allow me to recommend fried durian chips, which have all of the flavor and little of the smell!
18. Mangosteen, the Queen of Fruit
The thick purple skin will stain your fingers, but peel it back and you'll find a sweet, soft, white center. Mangosteen is the Queen of Fruits in Thailand, and is recognized for its cooling properties.
Thailand is an ancient country with a rich culture. Although the modern world has definitely arrived in Bangkok, traditional ways of life have not been forgotten. My students may be glued to their iPhones, and they may love Instagram and Snapchat, but they will never forget to wai, or go to the temple to make merit. If you'll pardon the cliche, Thailand is a kingdom where the old and the new converge, and it is a beautiful place.