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Thai Cultures

Thailand is located at the meeting point of the two great cultural systems of Asia, Chinese and Indian. In everyday life, Chinese culture has mixed very well with the Thai, whereas in Thai court culture, which has been based mainly on Buddhism and Brahmanism, India has exerted a strong influence. Thai culture can be divided into 3 aspects: linguistic culture, court culture, and traditional culture.

Court CultureTraditional CultureLinguistic Culture

Court Culture

Court culture refers to the conception of beauty, perfection and harmony in the fine arts, including painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, drama and music. In the old days most of these originated in or received the patronage of the royal court and nobility. Most of the works served the Buddhist religion. Their styles were influenced by the Indians through the Mons and Khmers, and then were blended and developed in unique forms recognized as Thai.

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Court Culture : Painting

Court Culture : Painting Classical Thai painting is mostly confined to mural paintings inside Buddhist temples and palaces. They are idealistic and the themes frequently depicted are those related to Buddhism, such as the Buddha's life stories, stories of the three worlds (heaven, earth and hell), and also those concerning customs and traditions. The subjects of the paintings reflect different purposes: to beautify and dignify the places of worship, to promote Buddhism, and to educate people through pictures.

Court Culture : Architecture

Apart from the royal palace buildings, classical Thai architecture can be found in monastic monuments, pagodas and temples which have been the focal points of Thai community activities for centuries.

Wat Phra Kaeo

Admitting Indian, Khmer and other influences such as Chinese and Burmese, Thai architects developed their own distinctive style of sloping multitiered roof-tops and soaring pointed towers, intricately ornamented with carved wood and stucco, gilded lacquer work, mother-of-pearl inlay, Chinese porcelain fragments and colour glass mosaic. Under the tropical sun, these buildings give out an artistic harmony of flamboyance and serenity.
Examples of Thai architecture are seen in Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Pho, Wat Suthat, the Grand Palace, etc.

Court Culture : Sculpture

Phra Buddha Chinnarat
Phra Buddha Chinnarat
Thai sculpture is concentrated on Buddha images that rank among the world's greatest expressions of Buddhist art. As a result, it is widely believed that the Buddha images in Thailand, from the Chiang Saen Period (11-13th c.) to the present Rattanakosin or Bangkok Period, are so numerous that they far outnumber the population of the country. Made in wood, metals, ivory, precious stones and stucco, they have been created to represent Rattanatrai of Buddhism, i.e., Buddha, Dharma (the Buddha's doctrine) and Sanga (Buddhist clergy).Among the most beautiful Buddha images in Thailand are Phra Buddha Chinnarat in Wat Mahathat (Phitsanulok province) and Phra Buddha Chinnasi in Wat Bowon Niwet (Bangkok).

Court Culture : Literature

In the early days, Thai literature was concerned with religion, royalty and aristocracy and hardly anything else.

Thai Literature : Hanuman and Thossakan
Hanuman (left) & Thossakan
in the Ramakian
They were written in verse of various patterns. Then, in the early 20th century, King Rama VI made a revolution in Thai literary history.Prose has become a favourite form of writing among Thai writers since then, and common life scenes have been depicted in their works. One of the most important Thai literary pieces is the Ramakian, an epic derived from the Ramayana of India.

Court Culture : Drama

Thai Culture : Khon
A khon scene from the Ramakian

In the purely classical form, Thai drama and dance are indivisible. The techniques of dancing are of Indian origin, but Thai people evolved them to be much more graceful and slow in motion.

Thai dramas include renowned khon (the masked drama), lakhon (a less formal dance drama with movements more graceful than khon), nang yai and nang talung (shadow plays) and hun (marionettes). In former days, dramas were normally performed only in the royal courts and noble mansions. Ordinary people could enjoy such performances only on festive occasions in the compound of a Buddhist monastery.

Court Culture : Music

Thai classical music uses the diatonic music scale. The instruments are of four kinds: Those of plucking, drawing, percussion and woodwind. Apart from drama, Thai classical music is played in some religious ceremonies, traditional rites and on festive occasions.

Traditional Culture

By traditional culture we mean customs concerning agriculture and human relations, and the art of making daily necessities such as utensils, clothing and basketry.
The basis of the Thai customs and traditions lies in the family, whose structure is of bilateral descent. Like the Chinese and some other Asian peoples, the young are taught to pay respect to and follow the admonitions of parents, elders, teachers and Buddhist monks who, in the old days, formed a highly educated class.
When speaking about traditional Thai culture, what cannot be left unmentioned is the wat or Buddhist temple and monastery combined. After Buddhism had been spread throughout Thailand for hundreds of years, the primitive animist belief of the Thai people was assimilated by the Buddhist one. The wat became the centre of the village. It was the place where people received education, attended rites and ceremonies, and observed feasts and festivals all the year round.
Nowadays, due to the rapid advancement of technology, the traditional Thai way of living, especially in the big cities, has inevitably changed. However, it is still preserved to a large extent in the faraway rural areas where modern civilization has failed to penetrate.

Related link: Thai Tradition & Festivals of Praying for Rain

Linguistic Culture

The Thai language, or Phasa Thai, basically consists of monosyllable words, whose meanings are complete by themselves. Its alphabet was created by King Ramkhamhaeng the Great in 1283 by modelling it on the ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pali through the medium of the old Khmer characters. After a history of over 700 years, the Thai alphabet today comprises 44 letters (including 2 obsolete ones), representing 20 consonant phonemes, and 15 vowel signs, denoting 22 vowels, diphthongs and triphthongs.
As Thai is a tonal language with five different tones, it often confuses foreigners who are unused to this kind of language. For example, they have difficulty in distinguishing these 3 words from each other : "suea" with a rising tone, "suea" low tone and "suea" falling tone which means a tiger, a mat and clothes respectively.
Like most languages of the world, the Thai language is a complicated mixture of several sources. Many Thai words used today were derived from Pali, Sanskrit, Khmer, Malay, English and Chinese.

(For more information about the Thai language,
see Speaking Thai and Romanization System of the Thai Language sections.)

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