Ethnographically speaking, the Indochinese peninsula is one of the most interesting regions in the world. For thousands of years until quite recent times, waves of incomers from the plains of Central Asia have spread southwards over the peninsula. All these varied races and cultures have left traces of their passing, giving Thailand its considerable ethnic diversity. The primitive peoples who lived by food-gathering or tilled the ground with a hoe or a plough rose by stages to achieve a high level of civilization and organize themselves in states.
The Thai peoples
This term is taken to include, in addition to the Thais themselves, the Lao of Thailand, Laos and Tongking and the Shan of Burma, who are all of Mongoloid stock and speak related languages. They originally came from Yunnan, and there are still groups of Thais in southern China.
The Lao occupy the plains and valleys of northern Thailand, while the Thais – who over the centuries have gained a copious admixture of Malay and Chinese blood – live mainly in the Menam plain and in the northern part of South Thailand.
The life of the Thais, like that of the Lao, is closely bound up with the rivers. The highest densities of population are in the valleys, and the rivers have always played an important part in communications and in the movements of incoming groups.
Some 74% of the population are peasants, mainly engaged in irrigated rice-growing. The typical Thai farm consists of the dwelling house, an animal stall and a rice-store. The houses, built of bamboo or teak, are raised above the ground on piles. The walls are often of wattle, which blows in the wind; the roof’s are carefully constructed of large leaves. The furniture is of the simplest, and may be completely non-existent, for the Thai peasant seems content with a very modest standard of comfort.
In provincial towns, and frequently also in the capital, the Chinese-style family house is the rule. On the ground floor is a large room which may serve as a warehouse, a store-room or a workshop according to circumstances, and from here a staircase leads up to the living quarters above.
The Thai peasant is an early riser. Every day he goes out to the fields in the early morning, accompanied in the busy season by every available member of the family. Only the older people and sometimes the girls remain at home to attend to the house and keep the fire alight. Water buffaloes draw the plough and the harrow over the flooded fields. The young plants are put in by hand and the crop is harvested with a sickle – a backbreaking task which the peasants perform without a murmur, as they and their ancestors have done for thousands of years.
The peasants are attached to their own small holdings of land: only when it is absolutely necessary, as for the harvest, do they join in a cooperative effort. A peasant holding is essentially self-sufficient, with its own stock (mainly pigs and poultry), its garden and its orchard. Silk is woven, in sufficient quantity to meet the village’s needs; there will be a number of carpenters, who are also architects and building contractors; and there will be potters and basket makers to supply local requirements. Work in the fields is punctuated by days of rest, feast-days and festivals. The Thais are passionately interested in all that surrounds them; they like to stroll about at leisure to see what is going on, and are conscious of belonging to a larger community.
A considerable part of people’s income goes to the temples and the orders of monks, for it is important to acquire merit for a future life. But the Thai is also a born gambler. Many a game of nam tao is fought out on the pavement, and card games, money games, Thai boxing, animal fights and lotteries are organized anywhere and everywhere. The State itself makes a very substantial income from the national lottery. Win or lose, the results are accepted with good humor: the game itself is the main thing. And this attitude is sometimes also reflected in political life, in Thailand as elsewhere in South-East Asia.
Another national characteristic is an unshakable attachment to personal freedom; and in consequence of this individualistic attitude clubs, societies and organizations play little part in Thai life. There are no castes or strict segregation of classes, and there are no wider family or “clan” loyalties. The close family connection may extend to no more than five or six people, and a family will not maintain any regular contact with more distant relatives. Children take an active part in family life until they marry and found their own home. This pattern is reflected in the restricted range of surnames (introduced by royal decree in 1916).
A striking feature of the Thai is his cheerfulness. He never misses an occasion for a joke (sanuk), and always sees the funny side of things: he can even find cause for laughter in situations where a westerner would feel irritation or impatience. Thai women, who are renowned for their beauty, enjoy great freedom, and in social terms are the equals of men.
When a baby is a few months old it is given a name and registered at the district registry office, after which it is a member of the local community. Children are required to attend school from 7 to 17. Thereafter, until he gets married (usually about the age of 20), a young man can enter a monastery as a novice and perfect his knowledge of Buddhism, thus acquiring an envied and respected position for the rest of his life. During this novitiate he is helped by his family. Some families have one or two sons employed in a wat as servants (luksit). Either way, the family acquires merit. At the age of 18 the young man becomes eligible for military service, but only a few are in fact called up.
Young people generally choose their own marriage partners. Although there are no official Buddhist wedding ceremonies, a formal wedding celebration is an opportunity for displaying or acquiring social prestige. Frequently the young couple receive presents from the parents to start a new household; land, cattle, or a small house. Monogamy is the rule: only occasionally do rich peasants or men of high position have more than one wife. Very often the wife earns as well, and manages the family finances. At the age of about 60 the old people retire from active life.
Funerals play an important part in family life. The ceremonies, in which the entire village takes part, last three days. The cost of the ceremony and all the incidentals of a cremation are very high. Accordingly, money presents from relatives or neighbors are much appreciated. As there is no prescribed mourning color, black and white are both worn.
There are virtually no class distinctions: the most sought after goal of religious merit and status is open to all. The highest respect in the village is accorded to the monks. Next comes the elected headman, and then the lay committee which manages the temple’s finances. The teacher and the abbot are usually the real leaders of the community.
In the district capitals the district and provincial officials form a class by themselves. They conduct official business and represent the authority of the state. Their homes and clubs are closed to the ordinary man.
Bangkok has a highly developed class system; 1. The aristocracy, the descendants of the royal house and the old nobility. 2. The elite, consisting of leading politicians, senior officials and leading businessmen. 3. The upper middle class, consisting of merchants, small businessmen and officials 4. The lower middle class, artisans and skilled workers. 5. The lower classes. unskilled workers, servants, street-hawkers, and so on. At the head of the hierarchy is the King. However, the classes are not rigidly sealed off from one another, and the rigidity of the system is tempered by a considerable up and down movement.
The aristocracy are highly educated. Though closely connected with Thai traditional art and culture, they usually have a keen interest in western culture. They have considerable political, but little economic power. It is the elite who as a rule enjoy both wealth and power.
The Yumbri, the smallest and strangest of the tribes, live in the forest-covered hills of northern Thailand. They are a people of most peaceable disposition, still living by food gathering, moving about in tiny groups and never staying in the same place for more than a few days. Their material equipment is of the most rudimentary kind. They spend the night in nest like shelters made of palm leaves: hence, probably, their Thai name of Phi Thong Luan (“Spirits of the Yellow Leaves”). At night they light camp-fires to ward off wild animals.
The Semang are first mentioned in a description of the tribe by King Chulalongkorn. They are dark skinned people of short stature who formerly occupied a much wider area, as is shown by the traces they have left in South-East Asia. Having been displaced by more aggressive tribes, this hill tribe is now represented only by small isolated groups living in the most remote areas between Trang and Patalung and still leading the same primitive existence. They have developed a symbiosis with their Malay neighbors, coming down to the villages to barter the dammar resin or rattan cane they collect in exchange for rice. The government is taking steps to preserve this tribe from extinction.
The Moken live on the coast and on the numerous islands off the west coast of the Malay peninsula. Their cultural and technological level is the same as that of the Semang. They live on boats – often merely tree-trunks split by lightning and hollowed out – with wave – breakers along the sides and an easily removable roof of pandanus leaves. During the typhoon season they build temporary huts on piles or on dry land. Although they depend mainly on the sea for their subsistence they still have very primitive fishing techniques, using only three-pronged harpoons or merely arrows. Like all the primitive tribes, the Moken are very shy, leaping into their boats and disappearing at the approach of strangers. Some groups interact with Malay or Chinese collectors of birds’ nests, pearl-fishers or tin-washers.
The Lawa formerly occupied the whole of northern Thailand; now only remnants are to be found, living in small groups between the Ping and the Salween. There has been a good deal of intermingling with the Lao. The Lawa of the Bo Luang plateau cultivate rice, and in the dry season take to iron-working. Unlike the Wa of Yunnan and the Shan states of Burma, who are still warlike peoples with a reputation as head-hunters, they are of peaceable disposition. They are supposed to be Buddhists, but superstitious practices are still rife, and in many villages an ox is sacrificed every year to appease the village’s guardian spirit. They have notably high moral standards, and speak a language related to Khmer. Their villages are to be found on the Bo Luang plateau, near Umpei, south-west of Chiang Mai and north-east of Wieng Papao.
The Tin, who speak a dialect belonging to the Mon Khmer family, live round Nakhon Nan and grow tea. The tea-leaves are dried and sold as mieng which is used by the hill peoples as a kind of chewing-gum. The Tin are animists.
The Khamuk, live in the province of Nan; they are noted for their skill as woodcutters, and also make excellent mahouts. According to their own legends they once occupied the Luang Prabang region, and are supposed to have had their own system of writing. In terms of cultural development they have become largely assimilated to the Lao. They belong to the same linguistic group as the Tin and the Lawa, and like them are animists.
The So live to the east of Udon, between Nong Han and the Mekong having been moved here by the Thais some 150 years ago from their original home in Laos. They are very dark skinned, and probably have a strong infusion of Melanesian blood. Their way of life is similar to that of the Lao. The practice of Buddhism has not completely displaced their animist beliefs.
Like the other peoples mentioned above, the Kui speak a dialect of South Asian origin. They live on the Khorat plateau, on the borders of Cambodia, and still till the ground with a hoe. They have a rather untidy and neglected appearance. Physically, they show signs of Vedda blood, with a rather negroid appearance.
The Chong, who are closely related to the Kui, live in the provinces of Chanthaburi and Trad and subsist by food-collecting and growing cardamom. They are of negroid type, resembling the pigmies of Africa.
The Sack live in the province of Nakhon Pathom, in villages built on the levees along the rivers. Like the Lao they are farmers and stock-rearer. Their girls are noted for their beauty.
The Khao Brao, who originally came from southern Laos, live in the Mekong valley, round Khemmarat, Chanuman, Monthon and Ubon. Their villages are built on higher ground or in the forests.
The Chao Bon, now living south of Nakhon Ratchasima and on the river Sak, in the province of Chaiyaphum, seem to have been of some importance in earlier times, preceding the Khmers and the Thais in the region. They live in pile dwellings and cultivate rice. Only a few have preserved their original language, which contains many Mon and Khmer words and expressions. The women are often very beautiful, a fact which no doubt promoted their fusion with the Thai peoples.
The majority of the Karens live west of the Salween in the Southern Shan states. The Red Karens live to the north and west of Mae Hong Son, the White Karens south of a line from Mae Hong Son to Chiang Mai. The Red Karens are small and dark skinned, while the White Karens are usually of medium height with a whitish skin, and often with aquiline noses. They are related to the Tibeto-Burmese tribes. They are an adaptable people who use the plough or the hoe. Their lack of any social hierarchy and their religious beliefs suggest that they have only recently moved out of the stage of rudimentary agriculture.
The Meo live in the southern Chinese provinces of Kiangsi, Kweichow and Yunnan as well as in northern Thailand. Their traditions still recall their original home on the high plateau of Siberia and Mongolia, from which, like so many other Asiatic peoples, they moved south, always keeping to highland regions. Their physical constitution is such that they cannot live below about 1500 m: if they descend into the valleys they soon succumb to tropical diseases or malaria. In the past they were a redoubtable warrior people, well organised for war, who long resisted the rising power of China and are often praised for their courage in Chinese chronicles. The Meo grow hill rice, maize and millet, and are also stock-farmers, selling their animals (mainly pigs) in the market. The pride of every household is its horse. The houses are built on the ground, usually scattered about in the forest. When the soil is exhausted the whole tribe abandon their dwellings and set out in quest of new land. The Meo are divided into many sub-groups with different dialects. The women of the White Meo wear a very attractive costume, consisting of a knee-length white or grey pleated skirt slightly open in front, a long apron and a blouse crossed over the breast and tied at the back; their headdress is a wide turban, intricately wound.
The Yao are in physical appearance and culture very similar to the Meo, but speak a very different language. Originally coming from China, Tongking and Laos, they are now found in the Thai province of Nan. They are of medium height, with a very dark skin and distinctly Mongoloid features. The Yao, like the Meo, do usually not intermarry with the Thais.
Like the Meo, the Lisu are a semi-nomadic tribe moving to new land every four to six years. They come from the mountainous regions of southern China, and their main home is in the mountain valleys of Yunnan, where they grow rice in irrigated fields. Their way of life show strong Chinese influence: they eat with chopsticks, and the men wear Chinese style jackets. The Lisu are relatively advanced and indeed prosperous, as is demonstrated by their well organised villages and the picturesque costume worn by the women, richly adorned with silver. Within Thailand they are found in the Fang area, above the Lahu villages. This friendly and hospitable tribe has very interesting folk traditions, particularly its dances and folk-songs.
The Akha are another tribe of Tibetan origin, speaking a language of the Tibeto-Burmese family. They are farmers, using the hoe, and stock-rearer. They once formed an independent Kingdom, which succumbed to Chinese attacks. They entered Thailand a century ago and now live round Doi Suthep, at Phra and Chiang Tung. The women wear an astonishing headdress, intricately constructed of necklaces, shells, fruit and dyed monkey-skins.
The Lahu or Museo were also driven out of their original home by the Chinese. They are among the most recent arrivals in Thailand, speaking a language of Tibeto-Burmese origin. Some of them have been driven down into the malaria-ridden valleys by more warlike tribes, and their decline has also been hastened by the use of opium, to which they are strongly addicted. Their moral standards are lax. They show great hostility to strangers, and frequently quarrel among themselves.
The most advanced peoples of Thailand live in the plains and great valleys which have provided favorable conditions for cultural development. The Mons and Khmers, who formerly occupied the whole territory of Thailand, are now represented only by small groups. The Mons in particularly were almost completely absorbed by the invading Thais. The Khmers are still numerous in the southern part of the Khorat plateau, but the bulk of this people have moved on to Cambodia. Isolated groups of Mons living north and south of Bangkok moved up the Menarn valley to Uthai Thani, Ban Pong, Ratburi and the Ping valley. These were the last incomers from Burma. They profess Buddhism but perform sacrifices to appease spirits and observe various taboos.
The Malays are the largest foreign ethnic group in the Thai part of the Malay peninsula. They live by rice-growing and fishing. In religion they have remained faithful to Islam.
The Chinese are the most recent and the largest non-Thai element in the population, although there were some Chinese in the country – traders from southern China who had established themselves in the coastal towns – long before the foundation of the first Thai Kingdom. In southern Thailand they worked the tin mines. The Chinese played a prominent role in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya as merchants. The relations between the two peoples were often good.
In the second half of the 19th century Chinese immigration was encouraged by King Mongkut, who hoped that their energy and commercial skills would further his efforts to bring Thailand to a level of development comparable with Europe. The Chinese soon made themselves indispensable, particularly in the towns, as industrialists and industrial workers. At first there were many marriages between Thais and Chinese, but about the beginning of this century the Chinese began to bring in wives from China, and their large families were sent to Chinese schools. This put a brake on the process of assimilation between the two people. There are now Chinese quarters in all the towns, and the shopping streets in the Chinese quarter of Bangkok are one of the city’s tourist attractions.