Thai Social Customs and culture

In the Thai social system

The village is the unit. It was in former days, a self-contained one in its economy and needs. The people's habits and customs were based mainly on agriculture and religion. Most villages had a Buddhist monastery and a shrine for a village deity. The monastery served their spiritual as well as the people's education. All arts, crafts and learning emanated from the monastery. From birth till death it centered round it. Its precincts were the meeting place for social gatherings on festive occasions. As to the village shrine it was used only occasionally in times of distress or on New Year's Day when offerings were made. It had nothing to do with Buddhism.

No doubt Buddhism softened and tamed animism in many of its cults. The above is only a fundamental and comparative statement which a student has to bear in mind when dealing with mod ern cultural problems. The social system, habits and customs as seen in modern times are superficial modifications of the fundamentals and in a comparative degree only.

In some outlying districts where there are retarded developments of culture due to lack of intercommunication and new ideas, the people are still in their primitive state, quite in contrast to the progress in the capital, towns and cities. In these progressive parts "old times are changed, old manners gone" and a new type of cultures fills its place. This is a sign of progress but it must come gradually. Adapt the old to the new but not in a revolutionary way. The new cultures have also their dangers with problems to be solved, because people take too much interest in politics. To adopt new cultures wholly unsuited to the needs which are peculiar to, and characteristic of each particular place is a danger. Culture ought to be varied with characteristics of its own in each locality and area, harmonizing, however, with the whole-a unity in diversity.

Social Values

Buddhist teachings are at the root of the typical Thai villager's sincere consideration for others, embodied in the virtue known as namchai, "water of the heart," a concept encompassing spontaneous warmth and compassion that allows families to make anonymous sacrifices for friends and to extend hospitality to strangers. For example, a stranger visiting a village will rarely be seen as an intruder and a subject for suspicion and distrust. Much more likely, the villagers will have the namchai to take him in, feed him, offer him a bed in one of their homes, and generally treat him as a friend. Buddhism also lies behind such common expressions as mai pen rai (or "never mind, it doesn't matter") when something unfortunate happens, reflecting the feeling th at one must gracefully submit to external forces beyond one's control, such as the effects of past karma.

Although highly individualistic and resisting regimentation, Thais nevertheless realize that inner freedom is best preserved in an emotionally and physically stable environment. Therefore, they believe that social harmony is best maintained by avoiding any unnecessary friction in their contacts with others. From this has grown the strong Thai feeling of krengchai, which means an extreme reluctance to impose on anyone or disturb his personal equilibrium by direct criticism, challenge, or confrontation. In general, people will do their utmost to avoid personal conflict.

Outward expressions of anger are also regarded as dangerous to social harmony and as being obvious signs of ignorance, crudity, and immaturity. Indeed, during normal social intercourse, strong public.
Within such a behavioral framework, Thais share very definite views on what constitutes friendship and enjoyment. Sincere friendship among Thais is extremely intense; the language is rich in expressions which reflect the degree of involvement and willin g self-sacrifice. Such relationships are found particularly among men. A "phuan tai" -literally, "death friend" -is a companion for whom it would be an honor to die. Should a friend become involved in difficulties, his friend feels an obligation to hel p him, regardless of the danger to himself, because "tong chuai phuan" - "One must help one's friends." This requirement is a sensitive point of honor and explains many circumstances that often baffle outsiders. Displays of dismay, despair, displeasure, disapproval, or enthusiasm are frowned upon. Accordingly, the person who is , or appears to be, serenely indifferent (choei choei) is respected for having what is considered an important virtue.
On the level of acquaintanceship, politeness predominates. When greeting people, Thais will usually show their concern for others' health by remarking how "thin" or "fat" he or she has become. The remark is intended as a gesture of friendship.

Individual Life Cycle

A Thai baby officially becomes "someone" after its name is chosen-frequently by the village abbot-and entered in the village head's records. Soon after birth the child will be given a nickname, nearly always of one syllable. Intimates will continue to call him or her by this nickname for the rest of his life and may have to think for a while to remember the proper name.
Childhood is a carefree, cosseted time. By the age of four, children regularly meet to play beyond the family compound, with boys and girls generally segregating and roaming freely throughout the village. Boys play make-believe games, fly kites, plow imaginary fields, and hunt insects and harmless reptiles. Girls nurse makeshift dolls, "sell" mudpies in make-believe markets, play games emulating their mothers, and look after younger brothers and sisters.
Gradually the children are drawn into work patterns. Around eight years of age, girls give increasing help with household chores and boys assume greater responsibilities such as feeding domestic animals and guarding the family buffalo as it grazes or wallows.

Children attend the government village school to be taught from a standard nationwide curriculum. They acquire varying degrees of literacy and study Buddhist ethics and Thai history. All receive a comprehensive education and by coming into contact with neighboring villages' children and visiting the provincial capital on school trips they enjoy a broadening of social experience.

Having assumed ever-increasing workloads and responsibilities, youths of 15 and 16 are already regarded as fully mature adult laborers. Between graduation from school and marriage at around 20, most village males go into the monastery, usually for the d uration of one rainy season, in order to make merit for themselves and their parents; in some areas a man who has never been a monk is avoided by marriageable girls, who regard him as a khon dip, literally an "unripe person."

The village girl's entrance into adolescence is a gentle one. Courtship is confined initially to communal work groups during planting and harvesting and at monastery-centered festivals and activities. There may be extensive banter between boys and girl s but, individually, young people tend to be shy and "whirlwind courtships" are exceedingly rare. Emotional relationships mature slowly and customarily involve chaperoned meetings at the girl's house.

Most young people select their own marriage partners. Rarely is parental disapproval voiced since marriages often take place between families within the same village, further strengthening and widening communal ties. A marriage is sometimes presented a s a fait accompli by children who work in towns or cities and are thus beyond parental control. In many parts of the country it is the custom for the groom to move in with the bride's family, thus providing extra labor for the family fields and also avoiding friction between mother and daughter-in-law.
Early in the morning, in accordance with traditional Thai belief that married life should begin with merit-making, the bride and groom feed village monks and present them with small gifts. In return, the monks bless the couple and the house or room where they will live.
The village marriage ceremony bestows no official validity on their union but is merely a public proclamation that the two people will live together as man and wife. The young couple's wrists are ceremoniously bound together in the presence of village elders and they are led to the marriage chamber as guests feast, drink, sing, and dance. Later, their marriage is officially registered at the district office and becomes a fact of law. Daily tasks are generally divided equally between husband and wife. Women normally do the household chores, but they work in the fields during planting and harvesting. Men perform heavy tasks and fieldwork, fetch water, and occasionally clean their own clothes. Thai village men are often very good cooks and sometimes help prepare the food for festivals.

When a couple decides to marry a beautiful ceremony is held to mark this turning point in their lives.

After marriage, every couple eagerly awaits the birth of its first child, which usually comes during the first year. Children have a high position in rural and cultural values, since there is strength in numbers, a vital sense of continuity is ensured, and many hands make farming activities easier. Often there exists an unspoken preference for boys since they alone may be ordained as priests to gain merit for themselves and their parents, but no love is withheld if the child proves to be a girl.
Everyday village dress is simple. Men generally wear shorts, a simple shirt, and their versatile phakhaoma -- a checkered rectangle of cloth loosely worn around the waist which, at a moment's notice, can serve as a turban for protection against the sun, a loincloth to preserve modesty during public bathing, a sweat-absorbing towel, or a hammock.
Women wear the phasin (the Thai version of the sarong) and a simple blouse or bodice. Children wear similar clothing as their parents except when they are dressed in their school uniforms.

The Seasonal Cycle

The rice planting season usually begins in April or May. Rice is by far the most important of all Thai crops and the principal food for people throughout the country. Whether boiled and eaten plain, distilled into al liquor known as lao khao, or transf ormed into sweets and noodles, rice and its cultivation comprise a central pillar of Thai life. Kin khao, the Thai expression for "to eat," literally means "to eat rice." The grain provides major government revenues and for centuries has been Thailand's leading agricultural export.
Visakha Puja, the year's greatest religious holiday which commemorates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and death, comes during seeding and plowing. Village elders attend temple celebrations and sermons during the day, while those who have been working all day in the fields return at dusk to join the solemn candle or torch lit procession that circumambulates the monastery chapel three times. Each person carries flowers, three glowing incense sticks, and a lighted candle in silent homage to the Buddha, his teaching, and his disciples.
Shortly after transplanting is completed, usually toward the end of May, the first of the annual monsoon rains arrive to inundate farmland. Daily rainfall replenishes the fields and while the rice is growing much of the family's time is taken up with Ra ins Retreat observances.

During this annual three-month period (Phansa in Thai), Buddhist monks are required to remain in their monasteries overnight, a tradition which predates Buddhism. In ancient India, all holy men, mendicants and sages spent three months of the rainy seaso n in permanent dwellings, thus avoiding unnecessary travel during the period when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally tread on young plants. In deference to popular opinion, the Buddha decreed that his followers should also abide by this tradition. This initiated a move away from an itinerant life to a more or less settled existence since the advantages of communal living became apparent.

Phansa represents a time of renewed spiritual vigor. The monk meditates more, studies more, and teaches more. Laymen, too, traditionally endeavor to be more conscientious, perhaps abstaining from liquor and cigarettes and giving extra financial and physical support to local monasteries. Phansa is also ordinarily the season for temporary ordinations. Young men enter the monkhood for spiritual training, to gain merit for themselves and their parents, and to conform to the widespread feeling that a man who has not been a monk cannot be considered a mature adult.

The Buddhist ordination is a mixture of religious solemnity, merit-making, and boisterous celebration reflecting the Thai belief that the three most important events in a man's life are his birth, his ordination, and his marriage. The ordination ritual itself originated over 2,500 years ago as the Sangha (the Buddhist monastic order) took shape and has changed little to this day. Socially, it is something in which the entire village participates. Local monks comprise the presiding chapter and precepto rs, while villagers gain merit by accompanying the tonsured, white-robed candidate for monkhood (known as the nak) in a colorful procession to the monastery, often marked by joyous dancing and the infectious throb of long drums.

Symbolism permeates every aspect of the ordination ceremony. The nak's white robe connotes purity and the royal umbrella held over his head reminds participants of the royal heritage Prince Siddhartha Gautama renounced during his spiritual quest to become the Buddha. The nak leads the villagers in a triple circumambulation of the monastery chapel to evoke the Buddhist Triple Gem -- the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha (the Teacher, the Teaching, and the Taught.)

Once the rains have ended, the daily rhythm of field work is increasingly concerned with keeping birds away from the ripening rice. During this time fish are abundant in rain-swollen streams and fields. Methods and equipment for freshwater fishing vary from region to region and depending on where the fish are being sought -- canals, rivers, ponds, or rice fields.

In early November, one of the most beautiful of Thai festivals, Loy Krathong, takes place. Loy means "to float," and a krathong is a lotus-shaped vessel traditionally made of banana leaves. The krathong usually contains a candle, three incense sticks, some flowers, and coins. By the light of the full moon, people light the candles and incense, make a wish, and launch their krathongs on the nearest body of water. The Goddess of the water who plays such an important role in rural life is thus honored, and it is also commonly believed that the krathongs carry away the past year's sins as well as the hopes of the launcher for the future. Moonlit waterways throughout Thailand are covered with tiny, flickering lights representing millions of silent aspirations.
By late November or early December, rice in the north and the central plains is ready to be harvested. Wherever possible, water is drained to allow fields to dry. Harvesting schedules are determined by common consent within each village. Early each morning, cooperative work groups go into the fields with sickles to harvest each farmer's crop. Around noon, the host family sends food to the fieldworkers, and after lunch work resumes until dark when the host family provides another meal.

The cut rice is spread in the fields to dry for several days before being bundled in sheaves and taken to the family compound, where it is threshed and winnowed. Except in the south, where later monsoons arrive late in the year, harvesting usually ends in January to February. Then the farm family turns its energies to activities neglected during the rice harvest. Buildings, tools, and fences are repaired and secondary crops are either planted or harvested.

The hot dry season after the rice harvest is marked by the important Songkran festival, which celebrates the traditional Thai New Year. At this time people from rural areas who are working in the city usually return home to celebrate. Songkran is observed with special elan in the north where, because it occurs during a time of relative leisure, it becomes a three to five day festival of entertaining and socializing.

A thorough house cleaning, sprinkling of Buddha images with lustral water, memorial ceremonies, merit-making presentation of gifts to monks, elders, and spirits, the release of caged birds and fish, pilgrimages to holy shrines, parades, dancing, and uninhibited, good-natured water throwing are all features of the Songkran celebration.
Around this time, showers signal the dry season's approaching end, and villagers once more prepare for rice planting as one annual cycle ends and another begins.


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