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Book Review

Book Review: by Lang Reid

Thailand Condensed

Thailand Condensed promises 2000 years of history and culture. This Marshall Cavendish publication was printed in 2008 (ISBN 978-981-261-5) and is the work of Ellen London, an accomplished American research librarian. I found it in my local Bookazine at B. 425.
Despite its rather slim size, it refers to much in Thai history, beginning with a chronology and a map and includes ancient history and then moves forward through the various eras up till 2006 and the Thaksin Shinawatra years. Other main chapters cover traditions, religion, people and languages, literature, proverbs and folklore, performing arts, arts and architecture, handicrafts, Thai calendar, international relations, Thai personages, bibliography and an index.
Much in the history and culture of Thailand revolves around linguistics, with the bulk of the ‘Thai’ population stemming from the ‘Tai’ speakers which are thought to have migrated to Thailand over 1000 years ago. Development of the ‘muang’ system of government is explained, showing itself still viable in the village lifestyles of today. Ellen London does give a little of the ancient history as well, with evidence of hunter-gatherers over 500,000 years ago.
The early eras are succinctly covered, though author London has glossed over the war years a little, in my opinion. The political coverage and in-fighting is described up to the Samak government (and much has happened since then!). The Chakri Dynasty, which is a center point of the recent history of Siam/Thailand is also examined.
No treatise on Thailand can be produced without a reference to Buddhism, the principal religion of this country. London writes, “The tenets and principles of the Buddhist religion are entwined with Thai culture, tradition and politics. Some commentators have attributed Thailand’s political independence and strength to the Buddhist beliefs of its leaders and people.” That could be debated, but this review is not the forum for it!
The other religions, practiced by the remaining 10 percent of the population are mentioned, including Islam, Sikhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Animism and Taoism, and examples of how the religions have made their mark in Thai society.
I found the section on proverbs and folklore very interesting and it was worthy of note that “ram mai di - thot pi thot klong” (when you don’t dance well, you blame it on the flute and drum) has its direct equivalent in English (a bad workman blames his tools).
In the extensive section on Thai handicrafts, the true origin of the OTOP concept is given. It was not a Thai promotion.
Thai history and culture is a fascinating subject, and Ellen London has managed to cover it favorably, but without getting too deeply involved. At 170 pages for 2000 years she has done well. She herself in the preface states, “Thailand Condensed … is not intended to be an in-depth comprehensive academic publication, but an easily readable text presenting the reader with a broad spectrum of interesting facts and information about the country.” Unfortunately, there are no illustrations to go with the editorial content, and the book cries out for them. Photographs, line drawings, anything. A shame, as with illustrations this book would be a resource classic. Perhaps next time?