Tiziano Terzani's book A Fortune-Teller Told Me may not be exclusively about Thailand, but the late Italian journalist offers a well-crafted portrait of the interlocking cultures of Asia. The book tells of the superstitions and rituals affecting all aspects of Southeast Asian culture in an autobiography detailing a year of overland travels in a bid to outdo a fortuneteller's premonition of his death.
Carol Hollinger's Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind is a personal history of time spent in the kingdom some 30 years ago, but the cultural insights are quite current.
For help in understanding what the heck is going on around you in Thailand, pick up Philip Cornwel-Smith's Very Thai; it's a bit obvious in parts but does make for colorful and fun entertainment (don't expect any deep intellectual insights). It will, however, explain some peculiar habits of the host country. Or there's the more practical Culture Shock! Thailand, by Robert and Nanthapa Cooper.
The hilariously funny 2004 book Bangkok Inside Out, by Daniel Ziv and Guy Sharrett, has now been banned in Thailand (due to its containing an image of a smiling, topless bar girl in the arms of a foreign man). That fact alone says a lot. If you do get hold of a copy overseas, you'll find a raw, no-holds-barred, tell-it-how-it-is book.
Phrase books and Thai-English dictionaries are sold everywhere; for a comprehensive study of Thai, pick up a copy of Thailand for Beginners, by Benjawan Becker.
Books on Buddhism and Thai Theravada traditions are endless: Look for works by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, founder of an international meditation center in the south of Thailand, and author of the Handbook for Mankind and The ABCs of Buddhism. Also look for writings by Jack Kornfield, an American who writes about meditation practices in such works as A Path with Heart. Phra Peter Parrapadipo's Phra Farang, literally "the foreign monk," tells the story of an Englishman who chose to go into the Buddhist monkhood; it makes for an unusual read.
These days, there are plenty of big glossy tomes covering all aspects of Thai design, old and new. Modern Thai Living, by Devahastin na Ayudhaya, is a great example of how modern interiors can combine rustic and contemporary elements. In the book, the author collaborates with Thai floral designer Sakul Intakul, who is celebrated in Bangkok for bringing a radical postmodernist approach to Thai floral arrangements. For a great insight into Thailand's northern Lanna history, pore over a copy of Ping Amranand and William Warren's exemplary Lanna Style, or the more academic guide to temple design in the north, the sumptuously illustrated Lanna, Thailand's Northern Kingdom, by photographer Michael Freeman.
Since 1974, when a debonair Roger Moore -- playing the irrepressible secret agent James Bond -- was seen speeding across a turquoise Phang Nga Bay in The Man with the Golden Gun, Thailand has attracted moviemakers. Alex Garland's novel The Beach (and the much maligned film of the same name, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio) tells the seedy story of young backpackers in search of the perfect hideaway. They swim to a remote island (the filmmakers shot at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Le), where they join a community of marijuana-stoked dropouts living in supposed bliss. Surprise, surprise, things go awry. Environmentalists might suggest that there are some pretty stark parallels in reality. After filming finished in 1998, locals accused the moviemakers and ensuing tourists of ruining the site. True enough, to this day, dozens of longtails oozing oil into the turquoise seas rock up on what is now called "The Beach," and heaps of litter are left in their wake. Is it a case of "art reflecting real life," or perhaps vice versa?
Thais love music, and the country has a long musical tradition dating back to at least the 7th century, especially in the rural hinterland. Most smart hotel lobbies are the stage for a Thai couple in gorgeous silks who play slow, rhythmic tunes on classical stringed instruments such as a saw sam sai (a vertically held, 3-string fiddle) or on a circular set of gongs called a khong wong. Country music is a more lively and raucous alternative; like in the U.S., it's become popularized in the last decade.
Jazz is increasingly popular among old and young as well. Thailand's king (who is an accomplished composer and musician) has been especially helpful in exposing Thais to jazz. Thailand has a number of homegrown pop stars who pump out Thai-language hits and have a huge teen following, too.
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