메인메뉴 바로가기본문으로 바로가기

Thailand, a Country of Golden Culture and Heritage

Thailand, a Country of Golden Culture and Heritage
Professor Kim Hong-koo
Busan University of Foreign Studies
For this issue of our newsletter, we interviewed Professor Kim Hong-koo, former president of both the Korean Association of Southeast Asian Studies and the Korean Association of Thai Studies. Professor Kim currently serves as an advisor for the Korean National Assembly’s Korea-ASEAN Forum, on the Presidential Committee on the New Southern Policy, and as president of the Korean-Thai Society. Through this interview, we hope to offer our readers a background into the history and culture of Thailand and provide them with an opportunity to think about the Korean Wave in Thailand and the Thai Wave in Korea.

Thailand has never been under foreign rule and has maintained a constitutional monarchy through several kingdoms. To our knowledge, the Thai monarchy also differs from other constitutional monarchies in its powerful political and social influence. What is the reason for this?
In Thailand, the system of absolute monarchy that had lasted for around 700 years since the Sukhothai Kingdom collapsed in 1932 as a result of the Siamese Revolution. However, the Thai people have an enduring respect for the King and the royal family, who spearheaded the success of the country's modernization and overcame threats of colonization from Western foreign powers.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who passed away in 2016, built the foundation of Thailand's current constitutional monarchy. He took the throne in 1946 at the age of 19, but completed his education at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland before returning to Thailand for his official coronation in 1950. After a long career as a successful constitutional monarch, he was granted the title of "the Great" in 1987 in celebration of his 60th birthday, a rare honor and an accomplishment of which he was especially proud. And in 1988, he became the longest reigning king in Thailand's history.
During his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol's charisma led him to become the most influential figure in Thai society. He demonstrated his qualities as the true king of a Buddhist country by making good on the belief that a king should act and rule according to Buddhist principles for the benefit and happiness of the people. This belief is reflected in the Royal Development Projects (a series of rural development projects), which cemented the image of Bhumibol as a "king who is like a father, providing us with a good life." In recognition of his work, he was granted a special award from the United Nations. King Bhumibol Adulyadej the Great's charisma as a leader and ability to prove his qualities as a true king through his political and social projects won respect for him and for the royal family. Following his passing in 2016, his son Maha Vajiralongkorn, or Rama X, succeeded to the throne.
Nearly 95% of the population of Thailand identifies as Buddhist and there are over 30,000 Buddhist temples located across the country, showing how strong the influence of Buddhism is. What are the characteristics of Thai Buddhism?
Buddhism in Thailand, which is part of the Theravada school, places an emphasis on the nirvana of monks, in contrast to Mahayana Buddhism which focuses on the pursuit of leading ordinary people to liberation. According to the doctrines of Theravada Buddhism, humans live in the cycle of samsara where the suffering of pain, anger, sickness, and death continues. The cause of this suffering is an obsession with pleasure or possession. As long as a person fails to let go of this obsession, they remain a captive of samsara and suffer by repeating birth and death. To escape from these chains of suffering, one must reach nirvana by following the Noble Eightfold Path, and only Buddhist monks are entitled to reach nirvana.
The doctrines of The ravada Buddhism also emphasize complete elimination of dependence on supernatural powers or a god and call for practitioners to find enlightenment on their own based on their practice and understanding of the Buddhist view of the world. It’s a rationalist approach that eliminates reliance on occultism, and is also idiocentric as it emphasizes the enlightenment of the individual.
To find enlightenment, the Buddhist monks of Thailand organized a nationwide Buddhist priesthood. The priesthood has several characteristics. First, only adult men can join as monks; minors are given the 10 precepts and called samanen (or simply nen), while women are forbidden altogether from being ordained. Second, a person who joins the priesthood is prohibited from conducting secular acts such as cultivating land. Thus, a monk cannot be economically independent and relies on the laity for the necessities of life.
Thailand has a number of Buddhism-related traditional ceremonies and cultural events. Can you introduce some of them?
The Songkran Festival is a celebration of the Thai New Year held for three days from April 13-15. "Songkran" means "changing of the sun." Until 1940 when the January 1st observance of New Year's Day was introduced, Songkran was the only New Year celebrated by the Thai people. It's also known as the festival of water as there's a Songkran tradition where participants sprinkle water on one another in blessing. They also bless elderly people by wetting their hands with water, bathe statues of the Buddha, and put a white limestone-based clay on their faces. This white substance is meant to expel misfortune. In the past, the Thai people used this substance to keep their faces cool. There's also a practice of bringing sand to a Buddhist temple, which has the meaning of praying for good fortune. The Thai people believe that leaving a temple with sand smeared on their feet is not meritorious, so this is a gesture of returning the sand to its proper place.
Loi Krathong takes place on the evening of the full moon of the 12th month of the traditional Thai lunar calendar. "Krathong" means "basket." These baskets were originally made using banana leaves and tree bark to hold food, areca nuts, flowers, candles, incense sticks, and coins. These days, most Krathong baskets are made from synthetic materials and decorated with colored paper. "Loi" means "to float on water." Loi Krathong is thus a festival for floating krathong filled with lit candles and incense sticks on a river or canal as a way to make wishes. There are a number of views on the origin of this event: the first is that the festival was created to apologize to the goddess of water for using and soiling the water of rivers and canals. The second is that the festival offers flowers, candles, and incense sticks to glorify the footsteps of the Buddha on the sandy beach of the Narmada River. A third possible origin is that the festival celebrates the beautiful season when the river and canal are overflowing with water under the moonlight. There is also an idea that the event originated from Brahmanism and the worship of Vishnu by sending the krathong to the "Ocean of Milk" where the deity lives.
In Thailand, numerous golden temples and cultural heritage sites are well preserved, serving as a reminder of the country's glorious past. Which historical sites would you recommend to readers of the ASEAN Culture House newsletter as places that best represent Thailand?
Wat Phra Kaew, located inside the grounds of the Grand Palace, is known to protect the royal family. It's one of Bangkok's most representative sites and is also regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. Wat Phra Kaew is also known as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, a famous statue of the sitting Buddha enshrined in the temple's main building. This statue is made of green jade, which is most revered in Thailand, and measures approximately 66 cm in height and 48.3 cm in width. A ceremony is held three times a year where the king personally changes the statue's attire. So in Thailand, this statue of the Buddha is considered a protector of the king.
The walls surrounding the temple are adorned with 178 murals depicting India's Ramayana epic in the Thai style of painting. The murals were created during the rule of Rama Ⅰ and have been restored many times in projects that continue to this day. Surrounding Wat Phra Kaew are other notable buildings and structures including Phra Mondop, a library also built during the rule of Rama I; Prasat Phra Dhepbidorn, a Thai-Khmer-style building with an impressive corn-shaped tower; and a model of Cambodia's Angkor Wat built by Rama IV to show Khmer architecture to his subject.
You wrote a book entitled The Joy of Thai Culture which covers various subjects to help readers improve their understanding of Thailand. Please give us a brief introduction of this book.
There haven’t been many introductory books on Thailand. With the necessity of such a book in mind, I published Introduction to Thai Studies in 1999 and then a supplemental edition, Understanding Thailand in One Book, in 2006.
While writing The Joy of Thai Culture in 2016,I tried to introduce various topics that would be helpful to understanding Thailand easily and in as much detail as possible. My goal was to write a book that could be used as an encyclopedia for people interested in Thailand by covering all areas: natural environment, history, society, education, religion, art, and sports, as well as an overview of the country’s clothing, food, residences, ethnic groups, languages, culture, politics, economy, and the Korean Wave in Thailand.
In addition, I wrote the names of places and people phonetically in Korean with the corresponding Thai letters next to them.
Recently, Thai cities like Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Chiang Rai, and Ko Samui are popular among Koreans as overseas travel destinations. In addition, parts of Thai culture such as food and massage are no longer unfamiliar to us. It seems that Korea and Thailand have become much closer than in the past. What efforts do you think will be necessary for the two countries to build a greater relationship?
Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, has become a universal phenomenon in Thai society. Its scope is expanding from movies, TV shows, and popular music to include fashion, food, gaming, animation, and Korean products. At the same time, a growing number of TV shows in Korea are introducing Thai people, food, and customs, and we can encounter Thai people quite frequently in everyday life. These are the signs of the so-called Thai Wave.
The people who led this phenomenon in Korea are migrant workers and immigrants, including those who came to Korea through marriage. It was around the beginning of the 2000s when the Thai Wave first emerged. It’s led to Korean citizens’ interest in the popular culture, tourism, food, massage, and movies of Thailand, as well as to studying in the country.
The Korean Wave and the Thai Wave have an inseparable relationship. If you think about it, the main reason for the increase in the migrant workers, immigrants, and Thai tourists coming to work, live in, or visit Korea could be said to be due to the positive perception of the Thai people who experienced the Korean Wave. Above all, for the Korean Wave to last in Thailand, we need to make efforts for cultural exchange between our countries. This can begin with our interest in the Thai Wave that’s spreading in Korea. If we show a greater level of interest in Thailand's popular culture, which is not yet highly influential in Korea, the Thai people’s level of interest in Korean popular culture will also increase.
As an expert on Thailand, please share your plans for the future. Do you have any projects or goals planned in relation to Thailand?
As standing president of the Korean-Thai Society(founded in November 2018), I’m working with the board to expand cooperation between our two countries in the private, government, and academic sectors, such as through private exchange and sharing of advice to promote the development of diplomacy and trade policies. We will strive to increase the level of Korean understanding of Thailand by supporting studies, academic seminars, and the development of experts in Korea, and will establish an environment to promote close cooperation between our countries through a network of domestic and international experts.