Decoding Thainess the Thai way
Long-time expats and even Thais find it hard to explain what Thainess or “Kwam Pen Thai” means. The answer is not easy, which may itself explain why Museum Siam is using all two floors of its 19th–century European-style home to an exhibition dubbed, aptly,“Decoding Thainess”.
The exhibition takes visitors on a journey through all things presumably Thai -from everyday items like student uniforms, instant noodles and lottery tickets to the more conceptual Thai identity of the national anthem.
“So many answers surround us. Take a close look and you will see,” says a sign at a beginning of the tour. Visitors are encouraged to decode the Thainess by themselves and take the answers home to ponder.
All you have to do is to take a leisurely stroll through the rooms, walking at your own pace. There’s no order in any of the rooms and in most cases, there’s no need to read any of the texts as the exhibits are rich enough in themselves for you to feel and absorb what’s on display and form your own idea about the Thai identity. However, headsets providing Thai, English, German, Chinese or Japanese commentary are available. This is recommended for non-Thai speakers looking for a more in-depth and informative tour.
In one of the rooms, you meet a mannequin which is placed in the center. She wears a camouflage-pattern Thai costume, unusual for a Thai outfit –with the pointy traditional Thai headdress (Chada). You may recall a similar, though not identical, a headdress that was recently in the spotlight when the Thai member of South Korean pop idols Blackpink, Lalisa “Lisa” Manobal, wore it in her music video.
But while Lisa is a champagne surprise, back in 2012, Lady Gaga was not. Her pairing of the Chada with her “dress” did not strike the right chord with Thai people. The thing about Thai Chada and the belief behind the traditional Thai accessory is the concepts of this room. Explore further and you’ll enjoy a video titled “Is This Thai?” in which three speakers – a senior woman, a young man and a young woman – openly discuss Thainess.
“What exactly is Thainess in your opinion?” the young woman asks. The older woman confidently replies that Thailand is a Buddhist country so we practice Buddhism, going to a temple so on. To her, anything related to Buddhism is considered authentic Thainess. The young man disagrees. “So, how about colorful fabric tied around the tree?” he asks, as the screen shifts to a big tree with colorful cloths around it and other “Thai” items such as the tuk-tuk and Nanyang brand blue-and-white slippers. “To me, Thainess can be something contemporary too,” he notes.
Some rooms are based on similar metaphorical concepts and this works well to provoke your sense of logic. As for Buddhism, visitors can get better ideas from a display of Sukhothai-era style Buddha images in another room. The room is filled with drawers packed with culture and historical background and visitors can explore the topics/exhibits that interest them. If you want to know why the Sukhothai Buddha is considered Thai, you will find an explanation as follows:
“Buddhist teaching and Buddha statues were brought to Siam from India and Sri Lanka. But gradually, they were adapted to suit the Thai culture, thereby adopting a Thai style which is as exquisite as the original style. This walking Buddha of the Sukhothai Era is marvelous and unique, and immediately recognizable as Thai.”
Where “Decoding Thainess” works well is by trying to communicate with visitors and encouraging them to think for themselves. Information is provided when needed with facts and figures but for the most part, you can form your own ideas on the Thai identity. A number of rooms including the drawer room invite visitors to interact with the displays.
Young people also have some fun especially in a dressing room where they can try on the costumes typical of several eras. Donning the apparel and posing against a suitable backdrop is a hit with the youngsters, some of whom spend ages choosing the best shots to post on social media.
Some displays shout out loudly to catch the attention, and many others are very satirical. Along the way, you can reflect on Thainess. Is it the tuk-tuk, slippers, instant noodles, a Buddha statue, a spirit house, Sak Yan, Pad Thai or student uniforms? You can feel how nationalism permeates the life of Thai people driven by politics, and how the monarchy during the reign of King Rama IV played a role in creating a sense of Thainess, before it was further developed during the reign of King Rama VI.
You might end your tour at one of the exhibition’s highlights –interactive puzzle modules to introduce you to the three pillars of Thai society. Each block displays icons that nudge you to form ideas about the socially or politically constructed Thainess. The choreographed, hydraulic modules, lighting and sound are great.
With the thought-provoking and straightforward displays, each visitor can form their own opinion about Thainess that revolves around the three pillars of Thai society – nation, religion and monarchy – and see how through time the concepts have evolved and expanded to the ways we witness today.
And the exhibition is not just for foreigners: “Decoding Thainess” is eye-opening and a fun-filled experience even for a Thai like this writer.
Musuem Siam (MRT Sanam Chai)
Open Tuesday to Sunday, from 10am to 6pm daily (last admission is around 4pm).
Admission fee is 100 baht per adult, 200 baht per foreign visitor and 50 baht per student.
By Veena Thoopkrajae