After a few days immersed in the modern, moment-to-moment life of Bangkok, it became painfully apparent that we knew and understood almost nothing about the culture and history of this place. Everything beyond its immediate appearance — the visceral sensation of it all — was inaccessible, locked away by our ignorance, by the inscrutability of the Thai language, and by our walled-off, pampered position as tourists. We shared the same physical space as the locals, but we inhabited different worlds. Our primary interface was blunt and inarticulate commerce. I want. You give. I pay. Sawasdee khrap!
To rectify this, I made a couple of decisions. First, I wanted to learn and speak as much Thai as possible. It is a difficult thing to do, especially in such a short time, but language is a key that unlocks great riches. Instead of commerce, communication. Put enough effort into it and it can become communion.
Second, I wanted to learn more about Thailand's history. I had tasted the fruits and smelled the flowers; I wanted to explore the roots.
And so we went to The Museum of Siam.
As far back as the 6th Century BCE, documentary evidence refers to a Land of Gold, legendary Suvarnabhumi. Buddhists, Indian, Greek, and Chinese sources all refer to a place of great wealth located somewhere in Southeast Asia and physical evidence suggests that trade with Suvarnabhumi has been going on at least for the past 4,000 years.
Where was this Suvarnabhumi? Many cultures in Southeast Asia claim this fantastic land as their own. In all likelihood, it was not a specific country or city, but the entire resource rich area as a whole. Using linguistics, attempts have been made to narrow down and define the ethnicity of the Suvarnabhumi people. Five language groups have been identified within the region — Mon-Khmer, Malayo-Polynesian, Thai-Lao, Sino-Tibetan, and Hmong-Yao. This implies that Suvarnabhumi has been a great mixing pot in which culture, trade goods, and genetics have been shared and exchanged for thousands of years. Further proof of the reach of the trade routes passing through Suvarnabhumi is a Roman coin bearing the image of Emporer Antonius Pius (138-161 BC) that has been found in the southern province of Krabi.
Eventually, the city-states that coalesced out of Suvarnabhumi built a flourishing trade with China, Japan, India, Persia and Europe.
Even the development of Suvarnabhumi's Religious practices reveal a cross-cultural synthesis of native animistic traditions, Hinduism and Buddhism. According to the Musueum of Siam, this fusion “was almost seamless. While in retrospect, you can identify each stream, in practice, they formed a continuum.
Buddhism compromises with Animism when it gives the Earth Goddess a role in Buddha's enlightenment and when the monastic tradition forbids monks from cutting down trees lest they offend the spirits residing there.
Few Buddhists realize that when they worship the Buddha with flowers, lights, and incense, they are in fact performing a Hindu rite.
Buddhist temples, from ancient times until today, are decorated,with Hindu gods and Nagas, the old animistic symbols of water and fertility.
Thus, in Suvarnabhumi, Animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism fitted together so perfectly that now only scholars can distinguish them.
In other words, the threads of the Thai culture that we had been witnessing so viscerally — an unabashed embrace of trade and commerce, a people not only tolerant of other cultures but strengthened and enriched by them — have been part of the warp and weave of Thailand's tapestry for millennia. Modern day Thailand accepts and incorporates strangers with such ease and grace because they have been doing so for ages. This openness and kindheartedness is a true expression — not a dilution — of their culture.
Of course, this is just a rudimentary analysis based on a most superficial understanding. Four days in Bangkok does not an expert make. But as we moved through the museum's interactive and engaging displays, watching videos about ancient trade routes and cultural artifacts, all building upon the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, I felt the boundaries between Thai and tourist loosen and give. The ultra-modern indulgence of The Paragon Food Court did not seem to be the result of an ahistorical fracture, but a part of a compelling cultural flow. A window that was locked had been opened and a lovely, new vista appeared.
When we stepped out of the museum and into the humid copper haze of a Bangkok evening, I felt more at home — more welcomed and accepted — in this strange and inscrutable land. Not because I had earned it, but because the people of Thailand had granted it. This, despite my inability to say much more than Hello and Thank You; despite my fear of tap water and my tourist backpack. Thailand perceived me — and all of the other annoying farang — with compassion and jai dii. Namaste in action.
When you are given a gift like this, the only response is to place your palms together in front of your heart and bow with great humility. Khap kun khrap, Thailand; khap kun maa khrap!