Friday, August 19, 2011

Some interesting tidbits about Thailand and its cultural development

Some interesting tidbits about Thailand and its cultural development:

Thai boxing (Muay Thai) began to develop before Thais came to Thailand. Perhaps 2000 years ago, T’ai tribes, harassed and attacked by Han Chinese and others in areas of southern China they then inhabited, responded by developing a strongly militant attitude, with a military code called the Chupasaht. It called on all able bodied men to be prepared to come to the aid of their leaders with swords, spears, axes, bows and, when those weren’t available, various parts of the human body to be used as weapons (muay boran: Muay Thai is a modern integration of traditional regional muays, including Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, Muay Tarsao, Muay Jearng and other forms of “ancient boxing”). Warriors developed sophisticated skills, specializing in combining deployment of sabers, clubs, swords and lances with use of elbows, knees, feet, fists and heads. With these skills, they were able to survive. Migrations from southern China to Southeast Asia may have occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries; while that remains unclear, that many moved away from China isn’t; some stayed and became the Zhuang, the largest (12 million) ethnic minority of modern China. Those who left became Shan, Thai, Laotians and Vietnamese.
Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, is also its oldest. But there’re no records, and little evidence, of when Muay Thai originated. It’s certainly been around longer than the nation! Its importance to Thailand’s identity no other nation can even imitate. Unique among other kinds of fighting disciplines in its approach to close quarters fighting, it’s been the country’s most popular spectator sport for hundreds of years. Fighters use a greater variety of body parts more effectively than in any other martial art (Thai boxing is aggressive, most martial arts are defensive). For the sport, bare-fisted fighters wore lengths of hemp rope around their hands and forearms. For warfare, special skills were taught among those of noble status, then down to high-ranking military individuals and on to foot-soldiers. Since Buddhism became the religion of T’ais, Muay Thai has been taught by Buddhist monks, and a bond between Buddhism and Muay Thai developed. Before Thai boxing matches begin, each Muay Thai artist performs a pre-match ritual, with sacred cotton bands worn around arm and over the head. Each contender solemnly says a prayer then performs a sacred dance routine to commemorate his master who teaches and trains him for the fight.

Elephants have been used in war for thousands of years, but their history in Southeast Asia is as murkily unclear as is that of the local martial arts of boxing. T’ais leaving the area of modern China for parts south didn’t have elephants, which weren’t yet available to them. But they did have horses, bulls, and water-buffalo, which not only provided some military utility, but paved the way for elephant utilization. A war elephant can trample men under foot, batter down obstacles, and strike terror into the hearts of soldiers and horses. Its main purpose is to terrify the enemy while smashing through its ranks. Horses won’t charge into a bristling wall of sharp points, but even a phalanx-style formation won’t halt an elephant’s charge. Also, horses fear the smell of elephants. The presence of elephants on a battlefield can render cavalry useless.
The war elephant, used in India as far back as the 3rd millennium BCE (at any rate, soapstone carvings depicting elephants with cloth on their backs indicates use by humans), was familiar to Persians of the 4th century BCE. Their presence in Hannibal’s army of 218 BCE, despite the extreme difficulties they presented, demonstrates their perceived utility (mostly in willingness to charge both men and horses, and from the panic that it inspired in horses). Hannibal's personal elephant (named Surus, meaning “Syrian”), his only Asian one, was the only one to survived and reach Italy. African elephants have much larger ears, used to dissipate body heat – which wouldn’t have been helpful in the Alps.
The powerful Angkor Empire came to regional dominance in the 9th century CE, utilizing war elephants. Mangrai of Lanna (ruled 1259-1318) defeated invading Mongols in 1296 and 1301, most likely more from insufficiency of invading troops and, overextended, undefended and thin supply lines than from utilization of lots of war elephants, despite that closely neighboring Lan Xang – northern Laos – was supposedly the Land of a Million Elephants (surely an exaggeration). He later made some counter-raids into China, then sent elephants and other gifts to the court of Timür Khan. Sino-Thai relations stabilized. Bas-relief murals at Angkor Wat show Ayuddhayan T’ais (or Siamese) attacking with war elephants; when Angkor collapsed, both Burmese and Siamese had adopted widespread use of war elephants, and in the 1548 Burmese invasion into Siamese territory, war elephants were used to fight each other. But as some elite fighters had matchlocks or muskets, introduced to the rival kingdoms by the Portuguese a bit earlier, this was clearly closer to the end of the war elephant’s great utility than to its beginning. They were still used a couple centuries later, but by the time of the Chakri kings, had become primarily ceremonial, while diplomatic cleverness had become much more important than fighting techniques.

The baht, once called the tical (from Portuguese or Malay), was worth about a US nickel ($.05, or 5¢ – a baht was a tical and a tical was a nickel, from 1956 to 1978 (sometimes closer to 4¢, but still real money in the local sense, although not nearly of as much value as it'd been a century earlier). Before 1860, Thailand didn’t have coins, but rather bars of metal, thicker in the middle, bent round to form a complete circle on which identifying marks were stamped: "bullet" coinage (some of which did look like bullets, a bit flattened). Prior to the introduction of decimalization at the turn of the 20th century currency units included (from largest to smallest) the hap, chang, tamleung, baht, mayon, salung, feuang, sik, sio, att, solot and bia (the last 5 being very small units). Many Siamese cities in the 19th century used porcelain Chinese gaming counters (poker chips) for small change; were an issuing casino lost its license or otherwise had to go out of business, its owners would have to send a crier thru the local streets banging a gong and announcing that anyone with chits had 3 days to redeem them. In 1851, the Thai government issued ⅛, ¼, ⅜, ½ and 1 tical notes, then 3, 4, 6 and 10tamlung notes in 1853. After 1857, 20 and 40 tical notes were issued, which stated their values in Straits dollars and Indian rupees. In 1892, notes for 1, 5, 10, 40, 80, 100, 400 and 800 ticals were called baht in the Thai text. In 1897, the decimal system, with one baht = 100 satang, was introduced. Until 1902, the tical was silver, and valued accordingly; 15 grams of silver was a baht. Coins of the old units were issued until 1910, then in 1925, notes were issued with the denomination “baht” used in the English text (denominated at 1, 5, 10, 20, 100 and 1000 baht). After WWII, the B1000 notes disappeared until the 1990s. The pre-decimalization saleung (25 satang, ¼ baht) is still called that, but only used in certain places (gas stations and 7-11 shops, mostly, but also for paying electric bills). Twenty years ago I tried to buy a box of matches with 4 saleung coins; the seller, sitting on the sidewalk, told me beggars wouldn’t take those. By the late 20th century the baht had become one of Asia's most important currencies, mysteriously stable and strong.

With the invention of the automobile in the late 19th century began a huge rubber boom; in 1895, Henry Ridley, head of Singapore's botanical garden, persuaded two coffee growers to plant two acres of Hevea brasiliensis trees. Twelve years later Ceylon and Malaya had over 120,000 acres of rubber, grown at only a fraction of the cost of collecting wild rubber in Brazil. Soon rubber trees were planted in Phuket as well, the first in 1903. Many large and profitable plantations were established, covering more than a third of the island and creating a wave of immigration to fill the needs of this labor intensive industry. As automobile and aircraft industries demand huge amounts of rubber, things were good until WWII; afterwards the rubber industry spiraled through a series of boom and bust cycles. Synthetics were introduced, but they haven’t made for good condoms, so, since HIV, the market for natural rubber is back. Since 1991, Thailand has been the leader in world production, and the largest exporter of natural rubber. Now the rubber tree also provides most of the wood for furniture made in Thailand (beware – much is insufficiently cured, and moulds quite easily, especially in humid weather).
Thailand is also the world’s largest producer and exporter of pineapple, accounting for over 40% of all pineapple exports (over 2 million tons per year). Hawaii produces only 10% of the world's pineapple crops; its pineapples are much sweeter, and softer. Even canned, Thai pineapple is crunchier – I remember with fond nostalgia the “no-name brand” canned Thai pineapple – so much better than the more expensive (and exploitative) Dole brand product!
Pineapple isn’t indigenous, nor as important commercially as rice or rubber, or even sugar cane, cassava, cotton, maize, kenaf (a jute substitute used for fiber, from Africa) and other more recently introduced crops (coffee is a significant new one, as is the potato). Mungbeans, soybean, oranges and tangerines, tobacco and peppers are also important Thai crops, but the Thai pineapple has achieved special recognition.
Thai cuisine uses a variety of sauces, such as fish, soy, chili, and oyster. Other ingredients include lime and lemon juices, tamarind juice, coconut milk, garlic, lemon grass, galangal, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts, shrimp, cayenne and black peppers. Important also are the tomato, which, like cassava, tobacco, pepper (like the tomato, a member of the nightshade family, from the Americas), maize and sugar from sugar beets (sugar cane is from the East Indies, perhaps New Guinea, but decomposes rapidly) – all imports over the last half millennia (we don’t know quite when… there’s even some speculation that a Chinese fleet brought back many of these things in the early 1400s – carbon testing should be done on residue in unearthed old tobacco pipes!). Rice, on the other hand, is truly indigenous: pottery shards bearing the imprint of both grains and husks of Oryza sativa were discovered at Non Nok Tha in the Korat, rice plant remains from 10,000 BCE were discovered in Spirit Cave, MaeHongSon (on the Thailand-Myanmar border), suggests that agriculture may be older than previously thought. Some Korean archaeologists claim to have discovered the world's oldest domesticated rice at 15,000 year old; others claim rice cultivation originated in China about 12,000 years ago, and it’s possible that it was cultivated on now undersea areas of the Sunda Shelf even earlier, but the ever-popular Thai fragrant kao hom mali jasmine rice is certainly purely Thai.

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