Not Invented Here
The tuk-tuk, that noisy, three-wheeled, motorised rickshaw, so iconic of Thailand. But it’s not Thai – it’s Japanese. The original tuk-tuk was invented by Daihatsu. Some were imported into Thailand for use in Ayutthaya. Pretty soon the Thais were making their own copies. So the tuk-tuk isn’t really Thai, just affectionately adopted. In fact, there are many things that we think of as Thai, but really aren’t.
What about Thai food? Perhaps green curry? Sadly, not. The curry includes chillies, introduced into Thailand by the Portugese from South America, probably in the 17th century, and the aubergines in it are native to India, though probably spread throughout south east Asia in prehistory. Peppercorns (which were used to make food spicy before the introduction of chillies) also originated in India, but again, probably arrived in Thailand in prehistory.
Other ingredients which are recent arrivals include potatoes and peanuts and capsicums and cucumber. These are all from South America and were introduced during the Ayutthaya period. Oyster sauce (invented in China in the 1800s) is an even more recent addition to Thai cuisine.
Even the techniques of Thai cooking have also been heavily influenced by other countries. Stir-frying and deep fat frying were both introduced by the Chinese, whilst techniques for making cakes and sweetmeats such as “Golden Threads” (beaten duck egg drizzled into boiling syrup) came from the Portugese.
In short, there are very few Thai dishes eaten today which predate the Ayutthaya period.
The impenetrable Thai language, that must be Thai, right? Not really. There have been massive borrowings of vocabulary from Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer and (more recently) English. The pronunciation of the words may have changed to fit the Thai tongue, but the original spellings are fossilised in the written language.
What about Thailand’s festivals such as Loi Krathong (when banana leaf cups bearing a candle and other objects are symbolically lowered into water, marking the end of the year and a new beginning) and Songkran (when much water is splashed about)? Not Thai. They both come from Indian Brahman practice. The annual Royal Ploughing ceremony, where the King (or his representative) ploughs the Royal Field and plants rice to ensure a prosperous harvest is also Brahman in origin and, even today, is attended by Brahman priests. And in the area of religion, the Emerald Buddha (or Phraphutthamahamanirattanapatimakorn as it is more rightly called), which is the most highly revered Buddhist symbol in Thailand, isn’t even Thai. It was possibly made in Patna, India a little over two thousand years ago, and since then has done a grand tour of south east Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. It’s only been permanently in Thailand since 1779.
Thai dancing? Introduced into Thailand when Angkor Wat (Cambodia) was seized and the temple dancers brought to Thailand.
And finally, what of the Thai people? Surely they are Thai? Well, if we go back two millennia, the land was occupied by Mon (from modern day Burma) and Khmer (from modern day Cambodia) villages. The Tais originated in Yunnan province and didn’t make it to Thailand until around 960 CE. For centuries the three groups lived parallel lives, each in its own villages. However, over time, the groups mixed and interbred. Later (about 100 years ago) there was further, large scale migration from China but this time with the immigrants being mostly Teowchiu, with smaller numbers of Hakka and Hainanese. Today around 15% of the people of Thailand consider themselves Thai-Chinese.
So, when it comes “quintessentially Thai” things are not always what they seem.