When travellers land at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, they don’t just arrive in the “Land of Smiles,” they also arrive in the “Land of Gold,” a reference derived from Laem Tong, the ancient name for the Southeast Asian peninsula. Thailand is also called the “Land of Saffron Robes” but if I have to associate a colour with the country, it has to be gold. Why are Thais so obsessed with this precious shiny metal and the bling bling made from it? The answer is that gold is not only a historically practical portable – and visible – form of wealth, it is also engrained in our subconscious as being highly auspicious.
Besides tong or tong khum, the common words for gold, there are many other Thai phrases for it. Hence the names of provinces such as Supanburi and Kanchanaburi (both mean the city of gold), Ang Tong (golden bowl), and Prachuab Khiri Khan (the mountainous border of gold). We love living in “cities of gold.” They simply sound prosperous. Conversely, I think that the abundance of gold referred to is in fact the paddy fields at harvest time, filled as they are with golden ears of ripened rice. The facades of numerous palaces and temples around
Thailand are dappled in gold. Roof finials are gilded or mirrored with pieces of golden yellow glass or gold mosaics. When Europeans visited Ayutthaya in its hay day, they were in awe of the former capital’s roof lines and were quick to record its splendour. Many priceless treasures comprising gold jewellery and precious objects were buried under the city’s pagodas as donations to the temples. Unfortunately, the treasures of Ayutthaya were looted by the Burmese (and also by us Thais). Many believe that Ayutthaya’s gold was melted down and taken by the Burmese to gild the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. However, there is no historical proof of this. The gilding of this grand stupa was started in the 15th century by Queen Shin Sawbu who donated her weight in gold (88 lbs) beaten out into gold leaf. Her son-in-law, Dhammazedi, upped the ante by offering four times of his own weight and that of his wife!
Gold is also found extensively in Thais arts and crafts, whether it is in lacquerware, nielloware or golden-threaded textiles. Typically, most Bangkokians go to one of the gold shops in Chinatown to buy gold jewellery or gold bars as adornment and investment. But those in the know prefer refined, old-style jewellery created by goldsmiths specialising in the antique craftsmanship of Sukhothai, Petchburi, and Chiang Mai. During the economic boom in the mid-1990s Niti Wattuya, a contemporary Thai artist, painted a series of “Golden Rivers” allegorising the value of an unpolluted and pristine environment, which is far more worthy than any materialistic possession.
In temple halls, most Buddha images and statues are gilded. This is because of the local age-old tradition in which supplicants apply gold leaf to images and statues as a way of making merit and earning good Karma. We even have a phrase that describes a person with a heart of gold as someone who “applies gold leaf on the back of a Buddha image”, meaning their good deeds go unnoticed.
The glitter of gold also appears at auspicious ceremonies such as weddings and housewarmings. As part of a dowry, gold is presented to the bride’s parents. Symbolically, the groom is marrying someone as prized as gold. Gleaming yellow egg yolk-based Thai desserts such as Tong Ake (the first in gold), Tong Yip (Midas touch), Tong Yord (successful courtship), and Foy Tong (speech of gold) are also served on special occasions because of their propitious names and meanings.
Thai idioms and expressions are speckled with gold. When time is of the essence, we say “time is like silver and gold.” If someone is verbose, we say “speech is silver, but silence is gold”, in a similar vein to the English proverbial saying “silence is golden.” When we see someone who is wealthy but scruffily dressed, we equate them to “gold covered in rags.”
At weddings, an old-fashioned phrase has it that the bride and groom’s families are “becoming the same piece of gold” meaning their fortunes are intertwined. But as much as Thais are fixated by gold, it would never do to refer to a Thai woman as “dok tong” (golden flower). It may sound pretty but her reaction will not be. If you want to know the meaning, ask a Thai friend privately.