If you live in or have visited Bangkok, you are probably under the illusion that Thailand is a modern society and you could be excused for thinking that. Sure, it’s modern in the way that shopping malls, underground and sky trains, large movie theatres and enormous supermarkets are modern. But, in thought and in action, the Thais are often actually not very modern at all and, in fact, are the products of a culture of superstition and folk beliefs.
Not that I’m knocking it. In fact, I love the superstitions, spirit worship and folk beliefs that Thais believe in. Buddhism is still the main religion of Thailand, yet most Thais actually believe in a mixture of Thai Buddhism, superstition and folk religions. Every day, just in my normal life, I experience an example of some of this superstition and folk magic, and work today was no exception.
I arrived at work at my normal time and busied myself with getting ready to teach my first class. A few minutes after my arrival, one of my students stuck his head in my door to ask, “Why aren’t you wearing a yellow shirt?”
Now, in Thailand, yellow shirts are worn in honor of the King (yellow is the color for the King), a man who is highly revered by all Thais. So, thinking I had missed an important day to honor the King I asked “Is it a day for the King?”
“No,” came the reply. “It’s to protect us from the Cambodians.”
If you haven’t live in Thailand before or have just moved here, that statement would probably seem a little odd. To me, on the other hand, because I’ve been here so long, it barely caused me to raise an eyebrow as I asked, “Why do we need protection from the Cambodians”, and then it all came out.
At the moment, there is an ongoing dispute between Thailand and Cambodia about the ownership of a temple on the Thai-Cambodian border. The Thais say it’s theirs (even though it’s on Cambodian land) and the Cambodians say it’s theirs. The dispute has been getting quite heated lately, especially since the temple was just granted World Heritage status.
Now, apparently, in the last couple of days, it’s gotten so bad the Thais have discovered that the Cambodians have created a curse against the Thais and sent it on its way to Thailand. So, somebody (probably a fortune teller or a monk, nobody really seemed to know who?) has told the Thai public that wearing a yellow shirt will protect them from the Cambodians.
In my office, full of graduates from the country’s top universities, at least one quarter of them were wearing yellow shirts or yellow ties. When I left the office and went outside at lunchtime, the number crept up to around 40%. Interesting that, in an area of Bangkok that is populated by highly educated and quite affluent people, a large percentage still believed in the superstition and weren’t taking any chances when it came to protecting their country from Cambodia.
The funny thing was, I actually wished somebody had told me earlier, as I would probably have worn a yellow shirt too!
Combine something like the yellow shirts against Cambodia with the Thais fascination with worshipping ancestors, getting ‘lucky cell phone numbers’ (people will actually pay a lot of money to get the right ‘lucky ‘ cell phone number), and having a spirit house (a little house for the spirit who lives in YOUR house) at the front of every house in Thailand and now you can see how serious the Thais are about this stuff.
Like I said though, it’s fun and definitely livens up the day. Nobody could tell me today though, whether we need protection from Cambodia tomorrow.
Either way though, I’ll probably wear a yellow shirt just to be on the safe side. After all, I now classify Thailand as my home. So, I might as well do my bit to protect it.