Why is there a hawai chappal in this museum, I wonder. I consider if it’s a prank. Then I notice packets of instant noodles — nicknamed “poverty index” and “dorm boy’s bae” — and a “lucky bag” (a paper bag used in the 1960s). The curious artefacts in this gallery, an information panel confidently vouches, can’t be found anywhere in the world apart from Thailand. While the flip flops, balms and beverages in plastic bags might be all too familiar to Indians, there are indeed objects unique to the country. The “coffee ears”, a flimsy strap of plastic looped around an iced coffee cup which keeps your fingers from getting clammy, or the cylindrical ticket-vending contraption that bus conductors carry are a few instances that have never failed to fascinate during my first few days there.
These are also some of the many oddities that make Museum Siam in Bangkok a delight. Housed in the 19th-century neoclassical building, it is one of the youngest museums in Thailand. The “Decoding Thainess” permanent exhibition was founded in December 2017. In its 14 rooms, spread over two floors, you will rarely find dusty relics entombed in glass cases. Rather, it is a playground of sorts, where you dig through cabinets, take selfies with cut-outs, make jigsaw puzzles, follow laser displays and revel in multisensory simulations. There are few signs directing you and it’s up to you to explore the museum the way you want it.
I begin in a gallery lined with drawers. Among the endless trivia, I discover how the Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to formerly rich people selling their household goods, leading to the establishment of flea markets that are popular even today. There is information about trendy haircuts, the revival of Thai culture in public imagination in 1982 (the country witnessed political discord and a military coup in 1976) and the controversial “tuk-tuk dress” of Miss Thailand that won the “best national costume” award at Miss Universe 2015. But most interesting of all is the foreign origins of certain quintessentially Thai things. While the influence of Hindu mythology on Southeast Asian countries is well known — there is a statue of Kali in the museum — not as talked about are the Indian origins of a formal outfit for men known as the Raj pattern. It is a white jacket with five buttons and a Mandarin collar — like a Nehru jacket, albeit with full sleeves. King Rama V (or King Chulalongkorn, the fifth monarch of Siam, of the Chakri dynasty), designed it on a visit to India in 1872; it was first made by a tailor in Kolkata and soon became a fixture in weddings and official occasions in Thailand.
I drift from gallery to gallery, stopping only when I encounter unexpected commotion. Children are picking up plates and banging them on to tables, which light up with information about the food drawn on the plate. Here, I chance upon another unexpected tidbit: the pad thai, anointed as the national dish, is actually Chinese! In the ’30s and ’40s, nationalist leader Phibun reincarnated the Chinese stir-fried noodles as a Thai speciality. Ironically, he decried the expensive pork as a Chinese ingredient, resulting in a meatless stir-fry, to which dried shrimp was added later. Pork satay traces its origins to Arab grilled beef and is usually served with achar — a word that would be rather familiar to Hindi speakers. The desserts thong yip and foi thong made from egg yolk, derive from the Portuguese trouxas de ovos and fios de ovos, respectively. Marie Guimar, a Catholic Japanese lady, introduced these treats to Thailand in the 17th century.
In the Degrees of Thainess gallery, mannequins sport “Thai” costumes. Along with the distinctive attire of Phra Ram in Khon, a performance of the epic Ramakien (Thai version of the Ramayana), there is one of Lady Gaga in a scanty outfit and chada (traditional headdress) she wore for the 2012 Bangkok concert, and Ronald McDonald in a wai (namaste) pose.
The various galleries are fascinating exercises in storytelling; they tease out assumptions and fill in the gaps, without providing any definitive answers. But when you’re least expecting it, the narrative shifts gears — for soon after Gaga, I come across a poster with concentric circles representing the degrees of Thainess, which places the royal family at the core of nationhood, followed by royal descendants and commoners, with ethnic groups at the periphery. In subsequent galleries, the nebulous definition of Thainess is firmly discarded for fealty to the king. An exhibit fervently declares with a heart emoji: We love the king.
It, however, firmly veers into propaganda in the simulated classroom, which initially provides a fun setting to relive school. I sit on the bench, shuffle through desks and flip through textbooks. And, then, I espy an explainer: “Students were taught for the first time to stand up straight singing a song to salute the national flag at 8 am.” But even the heady patriotism of that line does not prepare me for what follows: “They were indoctrinated to be patriotic and submissive to the leader.”
While I can grasp the underpinning of the sentiment in light of Thailand’s turbulent politics, I find it hard to reconcile with many of the messages. Regardless, it gives me interesting insights into a country that I had been only exploring through its tourist attractions — and this was the most fun I’ve ever had in a museum.
Syed is a Delhi-based writer.
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