THAILAND DIARIES – VOLUME 3 – THAILAND IN PERSPECTIVE
Thailand in Perspective is the Third Volume of my Thailand Diaries and is now almost complete. But before I publish it as an e-book I have decided to post a selection of excerpts which I hope will encourage you to download and enjoy the whole book.
Thailand in perspective
Excerpt 5 – Festivals and Parties
MONKS AT SONKHRAN
There are four or five main national religious and cultural festivals every year which can best be described as similar to Christmas, Easter or Eid al-Adha. They are Sonkhran, Loi Krathong, Bun Luang, Asalaha Bucha and Khao Phansa. There are others which are not so important nationally but have significance in the regions such as the Chiang Mai flower festival. Thais live for their festivals and local communities put a lot of effort into them. They virtually take preference over all else and from start to finish, including preparation, can take up to two weeks as in the case of Sonkhran.
In addition to the festivals families will make lavish affairs of funerals, weddings, initiation of monks, births and anything else that takes their fancy such as house warming. Little expense is spared depending on the financial situation of the family. Funerals seem to be the most popular; or should I say, most frequent and usually last three to five days. I am convinced the population is shrinking rapidly as I have hardly seen one new born baby since settling in Thailand but I have witnessed numerous funerals. They are often quite big and lavish affairs held at the deceased’s home where the body is laid in a coffin encased in a very ornate and colourful miniature temple. People come to pay their respects and give donations to the family of the deceased in ‘dribs and drabs’ over the days until cremation on the last day. Up till then members of the local community will all help with setting up and preparing food. I am sure it must be very stressful for close relatives, particularly when the deceased has died in an accident or at a young age. But quiet funerals are rare as the culture dictates it has to be done. The coffin in its mini temple is wheeled to the crematorium where the cremation ceremony itself involves the village monks, often including some from neighbouring villages or towns, dignitaries from the area, family and others. Right at the end the coffin and mini temple are burned separately following a spectacular pyrotechnic display. It can be quite a send-off.
Thais respect hierarchical relationships which is part of their ancient cultural heritage. Although it disappeared in Western society a long time ago it is important to respect that it still exists in the East. Relationships are defined as one person being superior to the other which is strange to a Westerner. Parents are superior to their children, teachers to their students, bosses to their subordinates and government employees – police, teachers and civil servants – to the rest of us. When Thais meet a stranger, they will immediately try to place you within a hierarchy so they know how you should be treated. This is often done by asking what might be seen as very personal questions in other cultures. Status can be determined by clothing and general appearance, age, job, education, family name, and social connections.
The family is the cornerstone of Thai society and family life is often more closely knit than in Western cultures. The Thai family is a form of hierarchy with the eldest at the top. As in Western culture children are expected to honour their parents. However, there is one big difference. In Western culture parents are also expected to respect their children, their opinions and needs. In Thailand, apart from an emancipated minority, it seems to be ‘one way’ traffic and for many families the hierarchical concept is even abused. Children can never challenge their parents without incurring the wrath of friends and family. They will always lose the battle because parents are immune to criticism. Culture protects them; right or wrong and unscrupulous parents take advantage, often abusing their hierarchical and privileged position and their offspring well into adulthood. It is important to recognize that most Thais, particularly the older generation will not understand this view. Although it may sound harsh, there have been times when I have felt that the family operates like the military where orders must be obeyed without question. Not that I’ve witnessed any Courts-martial yet!
To a Thai it is inconceivable that a son or daughter, of whatever age, could possibly know more than their parents; the logic being that because the parents are older and, so say, have more experience, they will know more. This is, of course, nonsense to any rationally thinking person and something I find impossible to agree with. However, if you live in Thailand you have no choice but to accept that this is the way it has been for eons and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future for change averse Thais.
It is well documented that Thais place great emphasis and value on outward forms of courtesy such as politeness, respect, genial demeanour and self-control in order to maintain harmonious relations. In complete contrast outward forms of affection are not generally acceptable to Thais. I say generally because this appears to be changing amongst the young as they gain more exposure to the world outside Thailand. This is very confusing to the ‘Farang’ who would say outwardly showing love and affection to another brings considerable harmony to relations. Many of the rules of etiquette are by-products of the Buddhist teaching of non-confrontation, in which public dispute or criticism is to be avoided at all costs. To be openly angry with someone might attract the wrath of the spirits, which in turn could cause violence and tragedy. Openly criticising a person is considered a form of violence as it hurts the person and is viewed as a conscious attempt to offend the person being rebuked. Loss of face is disgraceful to a Thai so they try to avoid confrontations and look for compromises in difficult situations. If two parties disagree, one will need to have a way out so as not to lose face. That’s the official version which may confuse you if you stay for any length of time in Thailand. You will read my views on this later in the book.
(Main sources of background information: Personal experience and Wikipedia)
Thailand in Perspective (excerpt 6) – To be posted next week.