The word “khaek” in Thai can cover large and diverse groups of individuals. They can be people from Southern Asia such as Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans, or the Malays in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. The term can even refer to those from as far away as the Middle East and North Africa, whether they are Persians or Arabs. Most Thais have preconceived notions about kheak being tricky and untrustworthy. According to an old saying, when you see a khaek and a snake, the question is which one should you hit first. In reality however, this generalization does not represent Thailand’s true sentiments towards khaek. Admittedly some bad apples gave them bad a reputation, but Thai culture and society in general owes a great deal to the cultures from the Indian subcontinent and beyond.
The origins of much of Thai culture comes from the khaek. Buddhism, the kingdom’s primary religion, started in northern India. The teachings and prayers that the Thai monks use came from Sri Lanka as exemplified by the Lankawong sect. Most Thais also carry Hindu beliefs, which is why some sociologists call us Sino-Hindus or Chinese-Hindus. Although Hinduism may not be our official religion, it has been ingrained into our belief system and our arts. In fact, Hindu beliefs and symbolism are seen in most Thai religious art and architecture.
Most Thais do not mind going to pray and ask for favours at Hindu temples and shrines. Every year outside the colourful South-Indian style Sri Maha Mariamman Temple on Silom Road, also known as the Maha Uma Devi Temple, there is a grand procession in which many locals join. Meanwhile the Brahma Shrine (or Erawan Shrine), located on one corner of the Ratchathewi intersection, is flocked to daily by both Thais and tourists asking for all kinds of successes—whether it be for their businesses, education, or love lives. Some Bangkokians respectfully dub this crossroads the “Intersection of Deities”, as it is lined with shrines of Hindu gods and goddesses, from Vishnu to Indra, Ganesha, and many more. Many Thais, especially those in the fields of the arts, often have a statue of Ganesha to worship because they believe that he is both the deity of knowledge and fine arts, as well as the remover of obstacles. In short, Thailand’s faiths have blended Buddhism and Hinduism, with Brahmanism, some Animism, and even Confucianism thrown in.
In addition, the Thai language has borrowed a lot from both Pali and Sanskrit. Hence, all the official vocabulary and our full names sound more Indian (even though our look may be more Chinese). Our mannerisms, such as the “wai” gesture, as well as much of our etiquette, food, fashion, and literature have all been influenced via India. It’s hard to imagine Thai food without curries and spices, and our silk weaving techniques and traditional dress styles mainly come from Indian influences. Without Ramayana or Ramakien, we Thais would probably have to rewrite our entire literary and artistic legacy because Khon, the masked dance drama, mural paintings, and other related fields, are intrinsically connected to this epic poem.
Among the Indians in Thailand the Sikhs are a very prominent sect., and Sikh men are easily identified by their turbans. Originally from Punjab, the Sikhs from the Namdhari sect have settled in Thailand since King Rama V’s reign. Some live in the Phahurat district, or Bangkok’s “Little India”, where many trade in fabrics and textiles—a business cliché that Thais often associate with Indians.
In days gone by, many residents of Indian origin could be seen selling dried nuts and beans. They were recognizable because of the small tables they carried on their heads, and when called they would stop and place the table down to mix and match the nuts. Nowadays this is a rare sight, mainly because counting money has taken over from counting beans in much of the now exceedingly affluent Thai-Indian community. Years ago, when areas such as Nana (named after an Islam family) and Asoke (along Sukhumvit Road) were just rice fields, canals, and swamps, many Indians chose to settled there. As landowners, their property values have increased immensely over time, and as their businesses flourish, so do their lifestyles.
Most Indians have integrated well in Thai society and many speak Thai fluently, even the older generations. However, there are always some differences that stem from stereotyping, misunderstanding, and misperception. Although the stereotyped kheak’s traits are being brash, greedy, and deceitful, many Thai-Indians have succeeded in all sorts of professions. Among the artists who have represented Thailand at the Venice Biennale, Navin Rawanchaikul from Chiang Mai showed his works in 2011. As the word khaek also means “guests”, Thais should welcome and treat these guests wholeheartedly because the Indian community calls Thailand their home as well.