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Book Review: by Lang Reid
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
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?
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