Saranukrom watthanatham thai phak tai [The Encyclopedia of Thai Culture: The South]. Bangkok, Thanakhan Thai Phanit Munnithi Saranukrom Watthanatham Thai, 1999. 18 volumes, 8613 pp. In Thai language.

In the National Library of Australia while reading up on religion, banditry, and the environment in Thailand’s mid-south, I stumbled across the Encyclopedia of Thai Culture: The South (ETCS). There are four such encyclopedias, one each for the south, north, northeast, and the central region. Compilation of the ETCS, directed by the veteran scholar Suthiwong Phongphaibun of the Institute of Southern Thai Studies in Songkhla, began in 1981; the first edition came out in 1986. The newer edition with vastly improved production values is nearly double the size of the first, the result of additional information and revision.

At the end of each volume is a list of contributors, including university academics, instructors at the Rajabhat colleges, and district and sub-district school teachers. Local knowledge, drawn from southerners who are thoroughly familiar with their surroundings, is a special feature of the encyclopedia. The Thai Commercial Bank Foundation for the Encyclopedia of Thai Culture sponsored publication; Princess Sirindhorn Adulyadej heads the foundation’s advisory committee.

Encyclopedias do not present new knowledge but consolidate and reproduce existing knowledge. Still, the overall effect can be greater than the sum of the parts. In this case, the effect is to display a regional culture distinct from the rest of the country because of geography and ancient commercial links to India and China, and to the Malay world. Srivijaya, the maritime confederacy of Malay port polities based on Sumatra that once controlled the Straits of Malacca, is considered by Thai art historians to have reached to Suratthani where it influenced Buddhist sculpture and architecture. In the deep south the Patani sultanate belonged to the Malay-Muslim and Austronesian worlds rather than to the Theravada and Sinic-Siamese worlds.

Culture is understood broadly and covers archaeology and natural history as well as more predictable topics such as customs, religion, food, material culture and the visual and performing arts. The ETCS is particularly strong on flora and fauna and the peninsula’s topography. Limestone hills, with cave complexes that gave refuge to bandits as well as monks, dot the landscape. The formidable mountain range along the spine of the mid-south with its steep slopes and plunging ravines is known locally as ‘the mountain of folded clothes’.

Staying close to the research interests that first led me to the ECTS, I offer the following samples of what it contains.

thalesap songkhla, by Thetsako and others, vol. 7, 3057-65, is a network of shallow lakes, varying in depth from 1.5 to 2.5 meters, which stretch a hundred kilometers north from Songkhla. About 7,500 families in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Phatthalung, and Songkhla earn their livelihood directly from the lakes and the surrounding basin. Salinity increases as the lakes drain into the sea at Songkhla harbour, resulting in an immense biodiversity as the flora and fauna have adapted to constantly changing environments. The ETCS devotes 56 pages in stunning colour to the fish species in the lakes. At the northern end the remains of swamp forest (pa phru) are preserved as wetlands for waterfowl. Scientists fear that continuing sedimentation is causing the Songkhla lakes to eutrify, depriving the fish and crustaceans of oxygen.

The lakes and the Satingpra Peninsula share an odd history. In the late nineteenth century it was possible to travel by water unimpeded from Songkhla to Pak Panang in Nakhon Si Thammarat. John Crawfurd’s map of 1828 shows a large island identified as Pulo Tantalem off the east coast. Phattalung town appears not landlocked as today, but as a small port up the estuary of a wide bay that formed part of the Gulf of Siam. Through the years the bay silted up and gradually formed the Songkhla lakes. The Satingpra Peninsula, that ‘strange coastal feature’, as one geographer put it, is still known today in the mid-south as Big Island (ko yai), bearing witness to its ancient history as a separate land mass.

nak leng, by Suthiwong Phongphaibun, vol. 4, 3673-75, meaning local toughs who are brave, loyal to friends and supporters, and display a certain Thai machismo, are not unique to the south. In recent years nak leng have received much attention from political scientists studying godfathers (jao phor) and provincial politicians in many parts of Thailand. The term can also refer to the coterie of men who gamble seriously on cock fights, bull fights, kickboxing and cards. The few references in the Three Seals Law Code associate nak leng with gambling dens and, inevitably, with disputes over gambling debts. In ETCS we find a four-part typology, which draws out the hedonistic and hooligan qualities of this social type that became prominent in frontier areas in the second half of the nineteenth century. Suthiwong’s fourth type stresses the magnanimity, dignity, and capacity for building alliances that elevated nak leng to be village and circle headmen where the writ of government was weak.

chon wua, by Wichian na Nakhon, vol. 4, 1870-95, bull fighting, is said to have originated in the south and spread to other parts of the country. The bull fights rotate through the districts on weekends in connection with local festivals, and the nak leng owners and patrons gamble on the outcome. Because of the high stakes and need to maintain public order, the sport has come under heavy government regulation. Before the fights, the bulls receive magic rites (saiyasat) to empower them to win. It’s bull against bull, no matador. The illustrations in ETCS show the bull’s moves to gore and otherwise wear down its opponent. Much of the information on pedigrees and desirable characteristics in the purpose-bred bulls comes from a manual published in 1934 that originated in Nakhon Si Thammarat, one of the hubs of the sport.

krit or keris, by Suthiwong Phongphaibun, vol. 1, 112-39, is a dagger, defined here as a personal weapon found in southern Thailand and throughout the Malay world and Java where it is a symbol of hierarchy and sovereignty. The ETCS illustrates eight types developed by G. C. Woolley in 1947 according to the styles of the hilts. One type is common in Pattani, another in Songkhla (illustration). Imbued with supernatural powers, the keris can fly through the air, leap out of its sheath and attack someone, extinguish fires, and determine auspicious times for travel. After capturing a bandit in Narathiwat in 1938, the much decorated policeman from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Khun Phantharakratchadet (1898-2006), who was something of a nak leng in his early years, received a keris from the sultan of Kelantan. A famous photograph shows Khun Phan posing with a keris thrust in his waistband and a sword across his lap – his regalia, signs of his sway over southern bandits.

khaek, by Chaliaw Ruangdet, vol. 2, 872, meaning visitor, guest, foreigner, stranger, is also an old word found in the pre-modern law code referring to people from India, Persia, Turkey, and the Arabian Peninsula. An etymology from the Ayutthaya period combines khaek and Moor as khaek mua. There is some debate as to whether the meaning of foreigner / visitor entrenches prejudices against Malay Muslims and Muslims more generally.

The main entry is rua khaek, a type of Malay boat that plied the coasts bringing textiles, copper pots, sandalwood oil, and date plums from the Malay ports in exchange for Siamese rice and other goods. During the Ayutthaya-Thonburi period, the boats were commandeered as warships, as were vessels in the possession of all commoners within reach. The omission of khaek as a single word was at first surprising, but then in the ETC: The Central Region (1999), volume 2, pp. 2747-70, I found extensive entries for khaek, excerpts from khaek songs and a list of khaek communities at Ayutthaya such as Chams, Malays and Makassarese from Celebes. Although many people in southern Thailand would be called khaek, the term is not uniquely southern, and so does not receive special attention in ETCS.

To end on a culinary note, sator (parkia speciosa hassk), by Pornsak Phromkeo, vol. 16, 7879-83, is a member of the pea family that grows as a tree up to two meters high and after flowering yields a vegetable in long ribbon-like pods. Another variety grows along the southeastern coast in Chanthaburi, Rayong, and Trat. The pods contain strong tasting beans, which look like lima beans and which southerners put in curries and stir fry dishes to enhance flavor. The beans, which can be pickled, are believed to lower blood sugar and prevent diabetes. Southerners traveling to Bangkok stock up on sator to take to friends and relations hungry for this favourite food.

Although the ETCS attests to its popularity among non-southerners, sator is definitely an acquired taste. Many people find the beans bitter, and their reputation for causing flatulence and smelly urine does not endear them to some folks. In keeping with its somewhat chauvinistic mission, the ETCS does not disclose this information about sator and bodily odors, but it does say that people from other regions refer to southerners as ‘that sator crowd’.

Reviewed by Craig J. Reynolds

Published originally on New Mandala, 8 July 2009