Category Archives: Magnifying Glass

The Last Orientals – The Thai Sakdina System

One of the pleasures of visiting Thailand is the sense of the old you get, the various protocols and traditions from an age gone by that Thailand still enigmatically clings onto in the shadow of the postmodern skyline. Seen by tourists the girls that stand at the doors to restaurants and shops simply paid to bow to customers as they enter are something old worldly, to a local they are nothing strange, simply basic politeness. Many visitors are left wondering how within a country where anyone can don a suit and stroll through Siam Paragon, how every Thai seems to innately know their place within an almost Victorian class system of deference and aloofness.

When a tourist puts his first tentative step on terra firma and for every moment henceforth unwittingly he is immersing himself in a translucent ether of Sakdina that he will probably never become aware. Sakdina harks back to the dawn of Thailand and in the 21st century has called on all its adaptability to survive. 21st century Sakdina can be seen as many things; the amount of privilege a person deserves, seeing an expensive car drive by with a police escort leading it rudely gesturing for ordinary drivers to get out the way, the deference shown by a servant to his master or students lowering their heads when they pass a teacher by in the corridor. Sakdina is the division of the society into commoners and higher castes and the realisation that a Tuk Tuk driver, even if he saved his pennies and passed that Degree at Ramkanghang Open University, he would never be accepted in a job vacancy of government officer simply because of his low birth. Sakdina’s origins lie deep in Thai history.

Origins of Sakdina

Medieval Thailand was a sparsely populated land, remote regions separated by dense rain forests, many isolated villages were only accessible by river. For the fledgling Ayutthaya Kingdom sprawling across the centre of this domain, maintaining control over remote possessions was a constant challenge, regional lords often enjoyed far too much autonomy in the eyes of a greedy capital.

It was in the reign of King Borommatrailokkanat (1448-1488) that a formalised system was introduced designed to force even the most far-flung regions into line. King Trailok passed a series of laws that have resonated down Thai history to today and are probably the most influential royal commands issued in Thai history. Trailok introduced a governmental system which nowadays is known as the Sakdina System, but at the time were laws of Civil, Military and Provincial Hierarchies. The system itself was based upon a cultural and social order that had been practiced in much of the country at local level for centuries, Trailok made three important changes to this system, he expanded it, standardised it and centralised it.

Thai society had long been divided into two classes, the nobles and the masses, the Sakdina System clearly defined the roles within society of these two groups, how they would interact with each other and amongst themselves creating a strict social order based on the quantified worth of each individual. Rigid castes were formalised within the ranks of both nobles and commoners excluding only Chinese and women of non-noble birth who were considered without worth.

Owner & slaves

When first introduced the Sakdina System was mainly a system of social interaction, the worth of an individual determined how he should responsibly behave and the respect he was due from others. In the Thai language where the usage of pronouns and bowing are so important, a system of ranks made a simple indicator when people met as to if they were higher or lower status and how low or high to bow and how to address the other person. The system not only established how much respect a person deserved but also how much social responsibly they were supposed to take. People of higher birth were expected to live by higher standards. The system also established the relationship between noble and commoner, even free commoner, was that of master and slave, all free males 18-80 were required to submit themselves for 6-8 months to their landlord each year, service could be either civil or military.

However, the problem with a system of privilege, even one started solely to promote cordiality, is abuse. Status could be used for personal gain and corruption and this quickly began to happen with Sakdina. Abuses such as, if a person of lower worth committed a crime upon a person of higher Sakdina they would receive a sterner sentence than whereas if the situation was reversed a person of high worth would receive a lower sentence for hurting a person of low worth. Higher-ranking nobles also used their Sakdina to gain audiences with the king.

Everyone person in the country of caste was assigned a numerical rank according to their worth. With the lower ranks of commoners, it tended to be job defined ranks, however in most cases it was rank that determined what job you were eligible to do. Extensive lists were created in Trailok’s time which meticulously number ranked every job in the country. The main benefit of the system for the Kings of Ayutthaya the number of any individual was modifiable by the monarch, this gave the monarch ability to reward loyalty and punish disloyally giving him a more powerful hold over his subjects.

Sakdina literally translates to Field (Na) Power (Sakdi) and is often referred to as Thai Feudalism. One part of Sakdina often over emphasized is the land rights associated with it. The ranking number each person of caste in the country received was often referred to as ‘Rai,’ which is a land measurement. It has been suggested that a person received Rai of land equal to his Sakdina rank. So a Government Officer with a Sakdina of 225 would not only have a social standing of 225 but also be granted 225 Rai of land by the king. Sakdina numerical ranks were, Crown Prince 100,000 Rai, members of the Royal Family up to 50,000 Rai, ranks of Nobles 400-10,000 Rai depending upon position in government, Government Officials 50-400 Rai depending upon position in the administration, Craftsmen 50 Rai, Commoners 25 Rai, Slaves 5 Rai.

While the distribution of land along these lines is by far the most famous aspect of Sakdina, it may not have happened at all but rather using the word Rai to describe Sakdina may simply have been symbolic. This argument is supported by the fact areas of land were given Sakdina values and these don’t seem to correspond the real size of the land. A district may have only 10,000 Rai of actual land but be given a Sakdina value of 30,000 Rai to distribute amongst the inhabitants, suggesting the Sakdina Rai rankings were purely symbolic. That there was no land distribution is almost certain from the 16th century onwards when Chinese merchants, monks and married women of non-noble birth were given Sakdina numbers, leaving only unmarried peasant girls and Chinese labourers as without Sakdina.

A sizable proportion of the population had the ignominious status of having no Na. At first women who were not of noble birth were considered of no worth along with the sizable Chinese immigrant population. When the laws changed allowing married common women Sakdina she received it based of two factors, her husband’s Rai and her status as wife, 1st wives would receive more Rai than the 2nd and 3rd wives and so on. The wife would also gain or lose Rai depending upon the fortunes of her husband, even noble women with Rai of their own when married received Rai from their husband. Marriage to a husband of higher Rai meant she increased her Rai, a noble woman could also lower her Rai by marrying a man of lower Rai. Sakdina was not an entirely inflexible system for men either; men of lower caste could also raise their Rai through marriage to a noble woman. Also a father blessed with a beautiful daughter could to try to marry her to someone of high Rai and receive an increase in his rank in return.

Sakdina in Modern Times

Unlike in the west, Thai Feudalism didn’t die but grew stronger as it aged. In the reign of King Chulalok (1782-1809) the system was codified as a legal system called The 3-Seal Code and officially used in legal disputes to determine how much weight a person’s testimony carried, the higher the Rai, the more believable the witness’s testimony was considered in court, so a person commoner accusing a noble would have little chance.

As Thailand fell under western influence and capitalised in the 20th century this new system brought many changes to challenge the established Sakdina harmony. Business traditionally low caste became of greater importance, an educated middle class emerged, and people were able to raise their worth in society and lose it. Sakdina was a system of social stability but capitalism could be a system of fluidity. However Capitalism didn’t prove incompatible with Sakdina which was able to make concessions and accept new castes onto its hierarchy and able accept the changing of fortunes. Sakdina was also able to change capitalism, Traditionally Sakdina determined a person’s role in society by its caste system by limiting ability of lower castes to higher office, by doing this Sakdina ensured most capitalist success came to mostly to the high castes already at the top.

Sakdina was legally abolished as late as the 1932 coup, but refused to go away. Even the Fascist Dictator Phiboon Songkran Thailand’s most powerful ruler had a shot at ending it, but failed, discovering almost 800 years of history, deference and effeteness doesn’t pass easily and especially not in Thailand. There’s a saying “understand Sakdina and you understand Thailand”.

In politics Sakdina sets the relationship between Thai government and the people, not in the western idea of a civil service, serving the public, but a higher caste considering the public slaves to be governed by them. Sakdina continues in the attitude the people at the top of society should not be criticised by those lower than them and creates a culture of passive acceptance of authority everywhere, no matter how unjust or corrupt.

Often for the tourist the most visible example of Sakdina is the sex industry. It often baffles foreigners how Thais can so easily see send generation after generation of their young girls into the industry but have little moral of even nationalistic qualms over it. This is ironically contrasted by the continual scandals of University girls entering prostitution, some to fund courses, but many such as the Chulalongkorn case, simply to fund clothes shopping in Siam Squares fashion boutiques. Sakdina again provides the explanation as peasant girls are of no worth in the system but middle class university students are not behaving as their Sakdina ranks demands.

Sakdina is probably still the most powerful influence on the Thai psyche today and its legacy never more prevalent than in the Thai political crisis of the present. Nothing more than PAD’s argument for the overthrow of two democratically elected governments illustrates present day Sakdina, PAD arguing that the people who voted for the overthrown regimes were uneducated peasants not capable of judging who to vote for. The PAD argument is simply the people who voted for the Democrats may have been fewer in number but by being educated middle class were of higher caste and Sakdina so their opinion should count more.

Your Wonderful Thailand

Asking expats why they chose Thailand, you’ll often get enthusiastic replies like “Oh, Thailand is such a wonderful place”; “everything is so cheap”; “people are friendly”; “I just love the Thai way of life”.

Once you take a closer look at these enthusiastic folks, however, many times you will find that the “thai” life they are so enthralled about, bears very little resemblance to how the majority of local Thais live. Which in itself is no problem, of course; heck, if I made 5-10 times the local wages, I would also sneak in some more “Farang magic” to spice up my all-Thai life over there. 😉

Stuck in the Farang bubble

What I don’t really get is when, instead of adding that Farang magic, people start substituting some aspects of Thai life with Farang equivalents. What do I mean by that? Consider this old farang guy over at ThailandQA, who summarily rejects all kinds of Thai food, proclaiming that only Farang food is worth eating. Some other expats are stuck in the Farang bubble, afraid to integrate, because that means leaving the old, safe environment behind.

Can you imagine living in Thailand for decades and not eating a single dish of Thai food? Or hiding out during Songkran with the rest of the candybutt Farang in the safety of air-con flats and malls, while the Thai population crowds the klongs and waterways, having “unsanitary” fun in the April heat? 😀

Wonderful Illusion

The “wonderful Thailand” such people talk about is in fact a tiny world of Westernized illusion squeezed into very narrow limits of persistent Farang habits that they are unable or unwilling to break out of. Their professed love for Thailand is only as deep as their wallet goes, because Farang lifestyle is expensive. Would they still be so enthusiastic about living in Thailand, if they were to switch lifestyles with an average Thai worker for a few months? Would they be able to find happiness here on a salary of 4000-6000Bt a month? Doubtful.

Integration = more happiness

No one can love it all. Surely everyone has their own limits to what Wonderful Thailand is about; what’s beyond likeable is personal. Basically, the more you integrate into Thai society, the wider this likeable range is, and the easier Thailand can make you happy.

For instance, I’m equally happy munching on sai ua kao nieow (northern sausage with sticky rice) sitting near the klong with a group of Thai friends who don’t speak English, as I am while chewing on a juicy steak at Sizzler with a Farang visitor.

The boundaries of your Wonderful Thailand
I know where the boundaries of my Wonderful Thailand lie. Politics, corruption, domestic abuse and sex-tourism are some of the few things beyond my boundaries of happy life in Thailand. What about yours? How wide is your range of things that make you happy in Thailand? How many of those could you retain, if you were to live the life of an average Thai worker?

Ten ways to know you’re in Isaan

Isaan without pink glasses

lao market

Isaan is a wonderful place. It’s like anything else in Thailand, the whole region has its unique charm. The lush greens of the tropical rice paddies and palm trees, the simple folk, their culture all bring about a certain rustic charm; no wonder that many of us tend to write about it with our pink glasses on!

But an Isaan life can be a wonderful and fun adventure even without the pink glasses on. So this morning I sat down and recollected some of my memorable experiences while I lived there. Below are ten points of the real hallmarks of Isaan life. Although some may sound like complaining, these are all treasured memories, and are expressed with light-hearted fun in mind. Enjoy! 🙂

You know you’re in Isaan when

-in the shop, thick layers of dust cover Coke and Fanta bottles, while Mekong and Beer Lao bottles are always new and shiny.

-the 6-pm national anthem is the signal to close up shops, go home and sleep.

-the first cry of the rooster is the signal to crowd the markets and blare morlam karaoke for the listening pleasure of the entire village.

-you can drive on a four-lane road without seeing any cars; in fact, in a half hour you’ll come across more cow-poop than cars!

-at a restaurant, you ask for a glass of drink, they give you a bottle (“geo”).

-the number of local women interested in marrying you is directly proportional to your age – but their age is inversely proportional to yours!

-upon hearing you speak Thai, people assume you must be married to a local gal.

-you see buffaloes and chicken roaming in-and-out of schoolyards.

-you compliment your host for the colorful patterns of the tablecloth, and then you see him using the same thing as a loincloth! And towel! And blanket! and just about everything else you can think of.

-the only thing removed from the chicken in the soup are the feathers.

This is just the top of the iceberg, there are many more; feel free to add yours below! And don’t forget: no complaints, just light-hearted fun! 🙂

’til next time,


Thai culture is killing Thais

It’s rare that stuff related to my job makes news, but that’s what happened just now. If you follow Thai news, you may be aware of the recent botulism outbreak in the northern province of Nan.

What the news tell you is that about 150 people got down with botulism last week, and that health officials traced the outbreak of this deadly disease to canned bamboo shoots consumed at a temple fair. They also say that botulism is such a rare disease that vaccines have to be imported from other countries, including the US and Canada.

It’s actually not the microbe that’s the problem, but the toxin it produces. Botox is a favored bioterrorist weapon, next to anthrax. But terrorists are not the ones responsible for this outbreak. Not even the microbe. The real culprit is Thai culture. To see why, let’s go beyond the news.

I dug up a CDC report of a botulism outbreak in 1998. It happened in Nan, many people got sick from eating canned bamboo shoots, and vaccines had to be imported from other countries. That was eight years ago.

The New Year Killer: a Tsunami of booze

A deadly New Year epidemic
Most people look forward to the new year with renewed hopes, promises and happiness. However, every year, thousands will start the year with a funeral. During the new year holidays, nearly 400 Thais died and more than 2000 injured in road accidents. That’s like entire villages wiped out in days. If this had been a biological disease, people would be all up in arms to get rid of it, at all costs. Just look at the bird flu panic.

However, when the culprit is a social disease that also happens to bring about billions of baht into the Thai economy, then the authorities’ response to the mass deaths is symbolic at best.

How long has alcohol been plaguing Thai society? alcohol-death piechart Since the early ages, countless people fell victim to it. Everyone already knows well ahead that there will be carnage on the roads; everyone knows when it will happen, and why. And yet, year by year, authorities only feed us some feeble response. This year, it was the following: “the government hopes to limit the number of deaths from road accidents during the corresponding period this year to 456.” (IHT Thai Day).

Excuse me? So, if less than five hundred people die, than they declare success? What kind of success is that? For every person who died, there is a grieving family, dozens of ruined lives for each. I’d like to see a government figure visit such a funeral and boast about their ‘success’.

It’s about time the Thai government stop acting as if death by drunkards is an unpreventable disaster like the tsunami; something that can be only anticipated, but not eradicated. This is not so. Unlike a natural disaster, alcohol deaths are completely preventable. A total ban on alcohol production, sale and consumption, combined with severe punishment of the lawbreakers is the only sure-fire way that could cure this persistent plague of Thai society.

Just think about it. The only beneficial use of alcohol is in science – and that alcohol is denatured (made unfit for human consumption). The rest has no useful purpose whatsoever, it’s just a burden on society. Getting rid of it would help Thai society more than some feeble aims and promises every time the carnage comes around.

Wasn’t me!
So, whose hands are stained by the victims’ blood? Stupid idiots who recklessly go ahead and get drunk, despite knowing what happens every year? The system that barely lifts a finger to curb and contain this social disease? Or alcohol producers themselves who also know exactly that their product kills hundreds every year, and yet promote it wherever they can?

A tsunami of booze
But of course they do, because during the rest of the year, they sold “only” 1,972.52 million liters of alcohol, the poor fellas! That volume alone would be enough to cause a tremendous tsunami of booze, but wait! You see, in December they can sell some additional 64.4 million liters of liquor and 166.2 million liters of beer. This extra income is clearly worth hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, right?

Thailand is among the top five nations when it comes to alcohol consumption. It’s long overdue to get off that list.

(Fact and pic source: IHT Thai Day)