Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. There has also been no period of self-induced national amnesia, no cultural revolution, no sweeping away of yesterday for the sake of tomorrow. Instead, Thai culture, imbued with Buddhist tolerance, has evolved in layers, each one an incremental negotiation between the needs of the present and the traditions of the past. Exiting Bangkok airport you float along the most modern of these layers. Large elevated concrete motorways writhe over and under each other like giant earthworms petrified for my automotive convenience. Two sets of toll-booths, two newly constructed mosques and tens of the largest billboards I have every seen punctuate my progress towards the tangerine smog-haze that is Bangkok in late afternoon.
As you get closer to the city center, the taxi leaves the modern elevated highway and you drop down to street level. Mopeds are everywhere, traffic lights are merely suggestions and signs offer gems, silks, hotels, massages, import-export and all the paraphernalia of a working trading city. However, unlike Singapore, where large monolithic modern buildings replaced the native housing stock, in Bangkok the skyline is generally three to four stories high. The houses are the traditional combination of shop on the bottom floor and home overhead. There are skyscrapers interspersed here and there but the majority is concentrated in the business district. As a consequence, and despite the common description of Bangkok as vast urban sprawl, to me Bangkok feels very human, neighborly and welcoming.
It’s Monday and I can’t help but notice that about one out of every three people I see in the street is wearing yellow. I half-dismiss the observation until I enter a bookstore and the shopkeeper is also wearing a yellow t-shirt. She explains that last year, in order to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the coronation of King Rama IX, the government sold yellow t-shirts and gave the money generated from the sale to the King and his many charities. Almost everyone in Thailand bought a t-shirt. On September 19, a bloodless military coup, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, replaced the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In light of these events, she told me that the people have recently taken to wearing these yellow t-shirts every Monday (the day of the week on which the King was born) to communicate their support of the King. Thus the celebratory garb of last year has this year become a political statement.
But beneath the present there is yet another layer. The Thai names for each day of the week come from those of the Gods in ancient Indian astrology. Each one of these Gods is associated with a particular color. In the past, divine astrologers would refer to this color scheme and pick the most auspicious colors for battle tunics for any given day. Two centuries ago the Thai poet Sunthorn Phu wrote the Sawasdi Raksa, a guide to princely conduct and behavioral rectitude that is still taught in Thai schools today. In it he referred to the ancient Indian tradition and recommended colors for each day of the week, Sunday was red, Monday yellow, Tuesday pink, Wednesday green, Thursday orange, Friday blue, and on Saturday – violet. The practice of wearing particular colors on a given day was subsequently adopted by the royal court, then the wealthy merchant class, and finally the people.
This uninterrupted layering of Thai culture has thus created a rich semiotic palette through which meaning can be communicated but also obfuscated. How should General Boonyaratglin interpret these yellow t-shirts every Monday? Are they merely a quirky manifestation of an old tradition or a very personal message directed to him in response to events barely six months old?