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Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, third ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kindle Edition.
Years ago, I read David Wyatt's "Thailand: A Short History" but it was a bit too dry and not too short. I nearly gave up as he went on and on reconstructing the pre-history of Thailand. But Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit's “A History of Thailand” has been a completely different experience. The authors have written a briskly moving narrative that gives you the big picture, highlighting the important people and events in the development of the country without getting bogged down in the details. The first chapter (Before Bangkok) takes you through early history to the founding of Bangkok in 1782. In not too many pages, the authors give a helpful picture of the 15-18th century, the empires of Southeast Asia, the old Thai feudal system, and the steps leading up the founding of the Chakri dynasty. And it is the Chakri dynasty and the last 200 years of Thai history that form the bulk of this book.
As the book unfolds however, tracing the political, cultural, and economic development of the country from Rama 1 (1782) to the pre-coup political climate of March 2014, it becomes obviously that writing a history of “Thailand” is problematic. As it were, there was no “Thailand” per se, until the colonial powers forced the kingdom of Siam to define it borders in response to French and British colonial acquisitions in Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia. In the late 19th century, the kingdom of Siam spread across what is now Central Thailand into Western Cambodia, while the Lao kingdoms and Shan States functioned rather independent of Siam to the north, albeit many of them in a tributary relationship to Siam. The region that constitutes modern day Southern Thailand was also only loosely connected to Bangkok. But as the colonial powers claimed some of these territories and agreed that others belonged to Siam, the government of Siam felt that it was necessary create a sense of unity and nationhood among these different territories and peoples in order to consolidate power and ward off interference from foreign aggression. These reasons, along with the belief that the majority of “Thai” people are passive peasants, led to justifications for a strong state with Bangkok as the center. The strong state was first embodied in the absolute monarchy, but after the revolution of 1932, the strong state re-emerged on-and-off in the form of military dictatorships up through the 1970s and beyond.
As a Westerner, there are many aspects of Thai society and thinking that I find strange, baffling, or frustrating - and sometimes all three at once. But as I read through Walter Ong’s book “Orality and Literacy”, there were several “Ah ha!” moments about Thai culture. Many of his descriptions of oral cultures resonated with things that I’ve observed in Thailand. I felt like I was beginning to understand why the Thai do some of the things that they do, thus disarming the judgmental attitudes that I’ve had at times.I suspect that many more cultural differences between Thailand and the West that can be tracked back to orality than the ones that I list below. And even these differences likely cannot be attributed entirely to orality. Whether you are primarily oral or literate, other factors such as personality, family background, education, sin, and faith come into play in making a person who they are. To classify all Thai people as oral thinkers and all Westerners as literate thinkers would grossly oversimplify matters. However, as a general grid to think about cultural differences that I encounter, orality and literacy are a helpful framework even though individual people from any culture may fall any place along the spectrum.
Watching the news tells you what is happening but it doesn’t usually tell you how to respond. In today’s guest post, missionary Erwin Kint reflects on how Christians are to respond in times of crisis, and how Thai Christians are responding to the flooding crisis in the Central Thailand province of Lopburi:
Everywhere in Central Thailand and in Bangkok, one can find all kinds of walls and dams erected to protect people’s property, like houses and shops. If I want to go to the 7/11 in our neighbourhood, I need to use a sand-bag step to climb over an approximately two feet high brick wall. If I want to go to the bank, a big step over a brick wall suffices. Many other people use sandbags to protect their property, but we all know that sandbags without a water pump are only temporary means of flood protection.
This phenomenon of keeping the water outside the gates occurs at different levels: individuals guard their houses, neighbours seal off their neighbourhoods, cities protect industrial parks, and provincial authorities protect their region. Nobody is happy to receive a massive deluge of water, and as a result provinces have been closing their gates, not allowing the water to spread out. The result is a massive unstoppable deluge that has been heading south towards Bangkok without losing much power. And Bangkok is also still attempting to keep its gates closed, swamping its suburbs under 1-3 metres of water.
Over recent weeks I have been glued to social media following news of flooding in Thailand, watching in amazement as people I know and places I’ve traveled a hundred times are flooded out. In many ways, I wish I could be there with the Thai people and my missionary friends in the midst of this crisis.
In lieu of a first hand account, I wanted to pass on a well-written summary of the flood situation from a missionary friend in Thailand, together with the story of his family’s evacuation from their home and prayer points.Read his story and pray....
“Bangkok's 12 million residents are now being warned of flood water up to 5 feet in their area which could take as long as one month or more to recede. Supermarkets are trying desperately to keep shelves stocked as people rush to buy drinking water and food. Thailand is now facing a crisis situation. It is very sad, and very serious.
Still on furlough in the U.S., I've been tracking from a distance the news about flooding in Thailand. Flooding is not uncommon there but this year it is uncommonly bad. It is reported that this is the "worst ever seen" and some people are calling it the hundred year flood (Watch Video of Bangkok Flooding in 1942)
The latest figures report that over 820,000 families (2.6 million people) are affected, 244 have been killed, huge areas of farmland damaged, and over 180 key roads cut off. The main highway going north out of Bangkok is cut off in Ayuthaya, just 1.5 hours north of the capital. Trains fair no better.
Lots of people whom we know have been affected by this, having to evacuate their homes to higher ground. Personally, we are hoping that our household possessions will still be usable when we return to Thailand in a few months time. They are stored in two locations, in Lopburi and Ayuthaya (perhaps the hardest hit province). I'd rather not lose all my books, and I know that my 5 year old son has been looking forward to being reunited with the toys that are in storage back in Thailand. Of course, our household goods are a trivial matter compared to people lives, and their livelihoods.
I recently got an email from a young man who is teaching English in Korea and planning to move to Thailand to teach there. My name had been given to him as someone to ask for advice. For others who may be thinking about a similar route, here’s some thoughts based on my experience and observations from living and working in Thailand:My BackgroundI am now a missionary but I previously taught at a Thai government college in a large city for 1.5 years, besides lots of informal English teaching. I have run seminars for Thai teachers of English and taught elementary school kids in Thai public schools as well. With that said, here’s what you need to know about:
There are few things more frustrating to students than busy work. Plowing through assignment after assignment, the distinct feeling that all of one’s hard work is pointless gnaws away at the soul, inoculating students to the possibility of actual learning.As a foreign English teacher in Thailand, I discovered that many Thai people have developed a mental block that prevented them from truly learning English. This block had developed over the course of many years as they were run through an “English as a Foreign Language” curriculum that really amounted to busy work. But they suffered not just a day or two of busy work when the real teacher was out sick. This was years of busy work. And now many were convinced that they simply couldn’t learn a foreign language. “I studied English for ten years, and I still can’t say anything more than ‘Hello’” is a common refrain.
Statistics don't tell the whole story but can be helpful to get a general idea of what is going on. Missionary Dwight Martin collects data on the Thai church and recently released the data on Thai church growth in 2009. Here is an excerpt from his report, along with some links for more information:
"At the end of 2009 there are 339,048 Christians, which is 0.54% of the total population. Even though this is a very small percentage, the good news is that the percentage of growth is seven times faster than the biological growth rate of the country. The number of churches continues to grow as well. There were 170 new churches started last year (2009). The need is still great in Thailand. Over 47% of the sub-districts in Thailand have no Christian presence at all. This means there are 21,814,049 (about 1/3 of the population) people who have very little opportunity to hear the Gospel Message. Please pray that God's word will penetrate this whole nation.
Living in a foreign culture, it is easy to be critical of the things that are not as "good" as they are “back home”. But missionaries are incarnational witness of the Gospel and need to focus on the good and noble and praiseworthy aspects of their host culture, not only for the sake of keeping their sanity but also for the sake of honoring God and the people they have come to serve. The Bible says, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1Thessalonians 5:18 ESV). So in the spirit of giving thanks, I’d like to give (in no particular order) ten reasons why living in Thailand is great.
As red shirt protesters swarm into Bangkok, blocking roads and surrounding military headquarters, I have been fascinated to watch the developments unfold on Twitter. An assortment of foreign journalists, local expats, and Thai people on the ground are constantly tweeting (i.e. sending updates via Twitter) about the latest movements of the red shirt protesters. While the up-to-the-minute updates are mostly reports of where the red shirts are now, you also get a fair amount of commentary from foreigners and Thai alike on how they feel about what's going on. Here's a screen shot of the Twitter feed on the topic of #redshirts:
One of the more colorful aspects of living in Thailand is geckos. On our walls. On our ceiling. On our table. Scurrying across the floors. Converging upon the porch light in hopes of getting some yummy bugs for dinner. However, geckos seem to have an uncanny ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, meeting some rather horrible deaths. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have opened up a door or window only to see a dried up, quite flat, gecko skeleton fall out of the space between the window/door and the frame. Apparently when I had been closing up the house at some point, a poor little gecko didn’t move in time before getting caught in between a closing window/door and the frame. Normally, geckos are extremely quick but unlike flies, they don’t have those compound eyes to anticipate what’s coming from behind them. So, they get squished. Regularly. In anyone were to do some research, I wouldn’t be surprised to find “squished in door frame” to be one of the top causes of gecko death.
The idea that “Jesus died for sinners” is a very hard one to swallow for Thai Buddhists because the idea of substitutionary atonement is absent from their religion. The Buddha taught that you are alone in the universe and that you must someday pay for your bad karma. No one can pay off your bad karma debt. You’re gonna get it eventually - either in this life or some successive life. Everything bad that happens to a person in their life is the result of some bad karma from their past. From this point of view, as you might imagine, Jesus dying on the cross looks a lot more like Jesus getting his just due for some bad karma in a previous life rather than the selfless sacrifice of the sinless Son of God.
One of the wonderful things about living in Thailand is the fruit. Thai fruit is everywhere and is usually very delicious. This is especially true in our current house where we have three mango trees, two jackfruit trees, and several banana and papaya trees. This past week we invited over our new short term worker, Brent, and showed him how to pick mangos from the trees in our backyard. He had a great time doing it and even lashed together a new mango picking pole from two bamboo pole brooms that are usually used for cleaning cobwebs off of the ceiling. Our previous mango pole broke after termites ate the center out of it.
This morning I got up early and walked down to the main temple in Phra Phutta Baht to see the annual Flower Offering Merit Making Festival (ประเพณีตักบาตรดอกไม้) and take some pictures. The two parallel roads leading up to the temple were filled with people waiting to put flowers and dry food goods offerings into the bowls of 3,000 monks who were assembled for the occasion. See below for some photos followed by a bit of commentary.
I am convinced that I no matter how long I live in Thailand, I will continue to run into strange new creatures that I have never seen before. The other day when I was bringing groceries into the kitchen, I saw on the floor what looked like a scorpion. However, on closer inspection, it didn't have the telling scorpion-tale but rather a long needle tail. I got down on the floor to take some pictures, hoping it was not too dangerous. Eventually I scooped it up in a dustpan and threw it out the front door, not wanting to upset nature lovers who were saddened by my blog about killing the snake that got into our house. Today, I learned from a fellow missionary that my scorpion wanna-be is actually a vinegar bug. It has a better sounding name in Spanish, but my friend could not recall what the name was. Apparently, the long needle on the rear of the bug shoots out a smelly vinegar type spray when the bug is upset or scared. Fortunately, getting scooped into the dustbin was not disturbing enough to get shot with vinegar.
When I was in Thailand (1999-2002), I encountered numerous foreign guys looking for Thai wives or Thai women dreaming of finding foreign husbands. Granted that some of these Thai/foreign couples have wonderful and happy marriages, it was my observation that the majority of these marriage fell far short of what a marriage could and should be. First of all, the foreign guy usally speaks little to no Thai and the Thai women has little to no English. How can you know that you want to marry someone if you can hardly talk with them on a deep level? The answer is that you have low expectations for what you want out of marriage. As you can see from the article below (from "The Nation", one of Bangkok's English language newspapers), many Thai women see foreign husbands as an opportunity for financial security, greater social status. And the foreign guys are often seeking out a beautiful submissive Asian woman to cook, clean, and take care of their other "physical needs" (if you know what I mean).
On the plus side, foreign guys have a greater reputation for marital fidelity and not abusing their wives to their wives than do Thai men. This is a generalization, I know. I have known many Thai men who by all outward appearances love their wives very much, been faithful, and treatly them wonderfully. However, many Thai women have had the exact opposite experience and seek out foreign husbands in hopes of avoiding the abuse and heartache of their previous relationship(s).
This Monday, Dec 4th, we'll be flying to Thailand and arriving at the newly constructed Bangkok airport, which opened in September 2006. The construction of it was plagued by a series of accidents and the Thai authorities decided to bring in a bunch of Buddhist monks to chant over it for good luck. The following excerpt from the Bangkok Post (Sept 24, 2006) tells of the bizarre event that happened during the chanting ceremony and gives some insight into the spiritual realities that shape the lives of Thai people.
“Last Saturday there was a large ceremony held at the new BangkokInternationalAirport which is due to open this week. Ninety-nine Buddhist Monks chanted on masse to improve the luck ofthe new airport. Half way through the rite, a man appeared quivering and began to speak in a commanding voice claiming to be the guardian spirit of the airport land. He ordered that a proper spirit house be built at the airport to allow for its smooth operation. The man, who was unidentified, later passed out and woke up to find the spirit had left him” (Bangkok Post article, 24th September, 2006)
The spirit world is very real to Thai people. Please pray that they would understand the true nature of the principalities and powers of this dark world and would come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.