As author Rudyard Kipling wrote in his poem The Ballad of East and West: “Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Unfortunately, Mr. Kipling didn’t get to live in the globalized world where people in the digital age meet and mingle as the twain connect and crisscross in all directions. But how did East first meet West in Thailand, and what have been the outcomes from these encounters?
Thais have always been fascinated by foreigners and all exotic things—whether they come from near or far. The word “wilas” was used to describe all things European before the word “farang” came about. Both words refer to foreign people and things from the West. Farang either originated from firangi in Hindi, or farangi in Persian, meaning the “Franks”, or Europeans. The term also spread into China as folangji, referring to the Portuguese and their breech-loading swivel guns. To most Thais the word farang is not derogatory or offensive, and is only a descriptive term that can be used for anything Western—from Caucasian persons, to European food, art, and architecture.
Over 500 years ago the Portuguese were the first farangs who arrived on the Siamese shores. They mainly came here to trade and to propagate Christianity. Hence the evidences of Portuguese churches, dating back to the Ayutthaya Period, are found along the waterways. They were also the first to be granted a piece of land on the Chao Phraya River’s bank to build an embassy in Bangkok. The Portuguese legacy not only appears in diplomatic ties and religious proliferations, but also in linguistic and culinary influences.
As Ayutthaya was a cosmopolitan city in its heyday, the Dutch, Danes, French, and British also came to trade and established diplomatic connections with Siam. Among these, the most celebrated events would be the exchange of diplomatic missions between Siam and France during the reigns of King Narai and King Louis XIV in the 1680s. Alexandre, Chevalier de Chaumont, was the first French ambassador who arrived at the King Narai’s palace in Lopburi in 1685, while Kosa Pan or Chao Phraya Kosathibodi was enthusiastically received at the Versailles in 1686. However, de Chaumont tried to convert the King to Catholicism without success.
Through the 19th century, Siam was much coveted by European colonial powers. How a little country like Siam survived and remained independent from the colonialism is unique. Despite the treaties made with Siam, both England and France pursued imperialist policies and encroached upon the territories. As a buffer between these empires, Siam had to relinquish parts of Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia to these two powers to protect its sovereignty. With the policy of maintaining national independence, our enlightened monarchs, King Monkut (Rama IV) and his successor King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), applied both diplomatic negotiation and modernization along Western lines.
Having studied with Anna Leonowens, the royal governess who made Siam famous in the fictionalized book Anna and the King of Siam (sourcebook for the musical The King and I), King Rama V got to know Europe and its royalty in person on his royal visits. He established relations and exchanged envoys between Siam and various European countries, especially with the Emperors of Russia and Germany. He brought not only Western ideas to Siam but also specialists in various branches of knowledge, such as lawyers, diplomats, economists, engineers, architects, artists, and craftsmen. Without these European architects and artists, many of the beautiful buildings, palaces, and villas around Thailand would not exist. Thanks to artists like Corrado Ferroci, a sculptor from Florence, who taught at the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Palace Affairs in 1923, we have Thai modern art. He was thus considered its “father” and received a Thai name, Silpa Bhirasri.
Nowadays farangs come to Thailand in droves. Some think that Thais have prejudices against them or preconceived notions, such as farangs are always likely to be rich. But I think the prejudices on both sides are due to cultural and social differences and misunderstandings. Many farangs are married to Thais, but have yet to learn fully about their spouse’s culture and language. Fluency in Thai language may be hard to achieve but many outsiders have mastered it, including Frère Hilaire, who taught at the Assumption College and wrote Thai textbooks and poems.
Although Thais take pride in our culture, we have a strange trait when we adapt foreign influences. We tend to keep certain bits that we like and discard the rest, whether it is the core value or just the superficial part. So nowadays we warmly adapt many farang things, such as working in multi-national companies, using English words sporadically, enjoying Western-style clothing, food, and music, and even celebrating Christmas—all without being farang. Cultures may clash, but when they become lifestyles they merge.