You might have heard the phase “ทัวร์ลง” (pronounced as tour lohng in Thai), a relatively new Thai slang that means getting backlash online. The phase literally means hordes of tourists getting off a bus at your doorstep.
Earlier this week, the Thai media concluded that hordes of angry Thai netizens descended upon the Facebook profile of British Ambassador to Cambodia Dominic Williams after he posted a photo of an array of Khmer desserts, but the same photo was construed by some Thais as definitely not Cambodian but Thai desserts.
Williams was accused by these Thai cultural supremacists as being blatantly ignorant. Some even suggested the envoy deliberately tried to appropriate intangible Thai cultural heritage and claimed it to be Cambodian or saw rift between Thailand and her neighbor, Cambodia.
“Hey! I don’t care who you are, but I want you to know if you have no knowledge about food and desserts of Southeast Asia, please learn before you post anything on Facebook…,” a user commented Monday night below Williams’ controversial post.
“I had always thought that one requires a certain level of knowledge to represent one’s country in a diplomatic capacity…,” commented another Facebook user in English.
“I think you should already learn some history about ASEAN … BTW, I’m quite disappointed with the standard of a well-known developed country to have a [person] with limited basic knowledge as their ambassador,” wrote another “tour bus passenger” in English. The person also made a horrible remark about Thai-Cambodian past relations that is unfit to be published here.
“Sir, all are Thai desserts that Cambodia tries hard to copy from Thailand…,” wrote another user.
An online tour bus passenger, or troll, simply branded Williams a “lying ambassador.”
These vitriols are but a few examples of the angry and rude messages which landed on Williams’ comment section.
For hours, the “tour buses” from Thailand kept descending to Phnom Penh where Willians is working. By Tuesday, the British Ambassador’s Facebook account was temporarily deactivated. As of publishing time Sunday, the Ambassador’s Facebook account is still nowhere to be found.
Without going into the details to judge whether some of the desserts which appeared in the British Ambassador’s slightly blurry Facebook photo were indeed Thai desserts or not, it is worth asking why these Thais are culturally jingoistic.
(BTW, the disputed desserts include what looks like luk chup (ลูกชุบ) which derived from Portuguese marzipan, thong yib (ทองหยิบ) an egg yolk-based dessert with a very strong Portuguese influence, chor muang (ช่อม่วง) or stuffed flower-shaped dumpling which is a savoury snack, and khao neow sangkaya (ข้าวเหนียวสังขยา) or sticky rice with creamy custard topping. The custard also exists in Cambodia.)
It appears that these Thai cultural supremacists think of Thai culture as something exclusive, unique, superlative, and with a clear border demarcating what is Thai and what is not – like when we look at modern cartography. It does not occur to them that culture is fluid, transborder, and can be shared.
We enrich our culture by adopting, adapting, and fusing. Imagine Thai culture without foreign influence and elements. How will traditional Thai architecture or language be without the influence from our ancient Khmer neighbor?
If thinking about this is too bitter for some Thais, just think about Japanese and Korean ramen and how they have developed and evolved from Chinese egg noodles – or the adoption of Chinese characters by these two cultures thus making their language and literature richer. In many respects, the Japanese and Korean ramen are both Chinese and no longer Chinese. Or think about the Japanese curry rice (kare raisu, カレーライス), which is today one of Japan’s most popular dishes, and it owes its tastiness to foreign origin.
The fact is, culture is fluid, not static and a dialogue between what is local and foreign.
Culture is basically borderless and ever changing. We learn and adapt from our neighbors and vice versa, it is a normal process, like people having a conversation. This long predates any notion of nationalism, not to mention ultranationalism.
Thais will certainly be left culturally and linguistically impoverished without adopting and adapting foreign elements – we will become a shadow of what we are today and almost unrecognizable, culturally speaking. So let me say to these Thais: please be open minded and do not assume that what is Thai must only be Thai or originally Thai.
What is more, the learning and cooptation process is ever ongoing. How would we otherwise describe what happened to Ambassador Williams in an acerbic way without the phrase tour lohng wherein the word “tour” came from English. Etymologically speaking, the word “tour” is not even originally English but comes from Old French and could be traced further back to Latin and Greek roots.