Thailand Decoded

J. M. Cadet

Dr. Niels Mulder, whose second book of reminiscences this is, will be no stranger to anyone with an interest in Southeast Asian society. Following arrival in Thailand in the mid-Sixties, he busied himself learning the language, meeting whoever could provide information, reading whatever came to hand, popular and academic, and acquainting himself too with life on the ground. By the time he returned to Amsterdam, he’d gone through the same process in Indonesia, and with the study of Philippine society and Tagalog later also under his belt, ensured he was on course to becoming the social anthropological authority on Southeast Asia he’s now recognized as. His book on the Thai world-view, Everyday Life in Thailand (retitled Inside Thai Society), still in publication and reading as well today as when it first appeared, provides the best and most accessible academic introduction you’ll find to the elusive inhabitants of this country.

A field diary

But Mulder, retired from ‘the field’, now wishes to look back and learn how he practised what he refers to as ‘participant observation’. His first work of reminiscence, Doing Thailand, covered the period of his stay in the ’60s, mainly in Bangkok. It was difficult to publish here, presenting as it did a view of the underside of Thai society. Professional Stranger, on the other hand, concerns his third prolonged stay in the field, 1975 – 78, spent largely in Chiang Mai, “…during which” as he says in the work’s preface, “I grew more conscious and purposive on how to do research. My narrative is based on immediate field data and the reflections they triggered.” And what he reflected on was the research of his Chiang Mai period, of which Inside Thai Society was the outcome.

While you may have cavils as to what Mulder writes about in Stranger, you can hardly dispute that he does so extremely well. It’s true the text might occasionally have benefited from a non-Dutch editor, but there’s not a page in this latest work that isn’t alive with insights and observations that for all their heterogeneity are better organised and expressed than the majority of us can manage in our own tongues. And while his intention is to “retrieve how I learned to think about things Thai…” and provide also “… a chronicle of events during Thailand’s most violent decade,” he is not stinting with detail concerning his interaction with the people he met there – the scholars, political activists, literati, members of the commercial upper crust, shop-keepers, monks, workers… and the ‘little sisters’ (and on at least one occasion, a ‘little brother’) with whom his contacts were not primarily academic. Not to speak also of the colourful farang (Caucasian) residents that then as now the Northern capital abounded in.

A-historical point of view

It needs to be said though that acute as Mulder’s picture of the Thai worldview is, it lacks an historical dimension, coming as it does almost entirely from contemporary Thai sources. With other anthropologists, he notes the ease with which the Thai assimilate what comes to them, but fails to note that when you peel away the Western, Chinese, and Indian acquisitions, what these late-comers to the Southeast Asian mainland display is the extent to which they, as a dominant warrior minority, have been assimilated to the culture of the indigenous peoples they were outnumbered by. How else to account for the archaic beliefs and practices that the Thai, as the only national group in Southeast Asia unaffected by colonial disruption, have maintained better than anyone else in the region? How else to account in particular for the gender balance that male-dominant Confucian and Western visitors to the region have exclaimed over since first arriving here – by virtue of which, women are ascendant on account of their natural, that’s to say, biological, power while males wishing to assert and protect themselves are obliged to acquire power, mainly through initiation – as luang por, luang bu, nak-bun, phu-mi-bun, chow-ton-bun, maha-burut, asavin, phu-viset, reusi, dabot-tapasvin, chi-pha-khau, khru-ba-ajarn, phra, bodhisat, arahan, paccekabuddha, kasat, chakrapat and so on. Women do not need such titles, since in the archaic culture their natural power overbids and threatens the acquired power of the male, which requires protection from it.

It’s surprising then that while Mulder makes much of the Thai woman’s – particularly the mother’s – moral superiority, he fails to mention the danger all mature females pose to the male, a danger abundantly referred to in social practice and belief, as well as Thai folklore, literature and popular culture. As to the assimilative propensities of the archaic substructure in general, the remarkable Bu Se Ya Se ceremony - not mentioned by Mulder – performed annually in the forest outside Chiang Mai city to propitiate the dangerous cannibal spirits, provides testimony. Here the exotic religion of Buddhism meets and is subsumed to that of the region.

The experience

This indifference to the historical overview is all the more remarkable in that Mulder hardly led a cloistered life in Chiang Mai. On the contrary, if he’d ever worn the garment of self-abnegation and abstemiousness commonly affected by academics in the field – which must be in doubt, given the evidence – by the time of his stay in Chiang Mai he’d cast off its last shreds, and was cavorting abroad pretty well au naturel, as we shall see.

But work first. Stranger runs chronologically. Mulder looks back to the stirring events of the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1973, but by the time of his arrival in Chiang Mai, the yuk prachatipatai – the Democratic Era – is approaching its tragic end in a welter of confusion and violence. One of the few academics he admires, the Secretary General of the Socialist Party of Thailand, Dr. Boonsanong Panyodyana, is assassinated. Twenty-one leaders of the Farmer’s Federation of Thailand are also professionally eliminated. “It has become dangerous to be politically engaged on the Left: it is like signing one’s own death warrant", he notes as the violence rapidly approaches its Oct ’76 denouement. Fortunately, having no Leftist tendencies and so inclining to the observational rather than participatory aspect of his role, while a politically-active American colleague has to exit the country hurriedly, Mulder stays put, under the coup d’etat book-burning Thanin Kraivichien regime, completing his work here. That’s to say, under chapter sub-headings such as Thai Buddhism, ritual, education, paternalism, pragmatism, psychology, krehng-tyai, identity, saksit, dealing with power, status competition and the like, he shows how he reached the world-view Inside Thai Society presents us with.

But if our anthropologist does indeed burn the midnight oil, it isn’t only work he expends it on. No disembodied intellect, Mulder also lets us see him at play, as a result providing a vivid picture of Chiang Mai’s social, sporting, gastronomic and sexual opportunities in the troubled ’70s. You might perhaps feel he rather overdoes indulgence in the latter activities, particularly when, with his regular girl friend Malai in Bangkok, he tells us that in the space of some eight hours he treated himself to three commercial ‘little sisters’ and a massage. Not surprising, then – he was hardly secretive about these things – that Chiang Mai’s academic and polite society raised its eyebrows.

It causes him to complain rather petulantly at the end of his account about his lack of Thai friends. “I am a white monkey who…despite his high status will always be pigeonholed as a farang and acharya. With the Thai I am never allowed to be Niels as they and I play our parts and have to wear masks.” “Dr. Mulder,” you feel like saying at this point, “Niels, old boy, how is it that after all these years, you still haven’t learned that wearing a mask is de rigueur in these parts and that without one you’re more or less naked?”

All the same, Professional Stranger is an exceptionally informative and stimulating read, and White Lotus is to be commended for bringing it out. The rumour is another work of reminiscence is on the stocks and will be out shortly. Mulder, up on the side of his Philippine volcano, is now in his eighth decade. Can we hope then that this final (?) work will provide us with less about the anthropologist’s physical propensities, and more on the cultural and spiritual heritage that has carried him there? With the Pacific shining below and to the far horizon, and the field notes he’s collected so assiduously, he certainly won’t be lacking for inspiration.


J. M. Cadet
Independent author of The Ramakien, the Thai epic (2009)