Books and Films to Uncover the Real Thailand

By Clarcie Howell, Regional Director

Over the last 20 years or so ARCC staff has spent countless hours in Thailand.

ARCC’s goal on our international summer volunteer programs is to take our students off the beaten path to places seldom seen by just the average tourist. Over the last 20 years or so ARCC staff has spent countless hours trying to uncover the real Thailand. We’ve tried new foods, only to watch locals eat unrecognizable dishes from the same food cart; rode motorbikes over the hills of Mae Hong San near the border of Myanmar, stopping to fill the bike with tourist-priced gas sold out of a whiskey bottle; negotiated for Tseung Taew’s to the farthest reaches of the city, only to have our Thai language tones criticized by a woman who spoke English, as she served up another pork dish with rice (cow moo, dang?).

Thailand proudly advertises that it is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by westerners. It is a country very much it’s own – a history untouched by other civilizations, yet one of the most popular tourist destinations for westerners looking to travel somewhere “exotic.”

The same Thailand we have searched for in traditional dishes and on the back of a motorbike, others have searched for as well. We’ve been running community service and adventure programs for teens in Thailand every summer since 2004, and in 2012 started sending Gap Year groups to Thailand each fall and spring. Over these years, we believe we’ve found and been able to see the real Thailand. We glimpse it in the sleepy afternoons in a hammock at our homestay on a rice farm. We get a feel for it as we discuss real environmental issues with a farmer, who only wants to keep elephants from trampling his crop, but understands there are fewer and fewer elephants each year.

As we’ve operated our summer and gap year programs in Thailand, we’ve kept tabs on the books and films that help to describe this hidden culture — one that is fundamentally Eastern, and all the rage for Western travelers. The following list is culled from our own grapplings with this country, which remains uniquely Thai in the face of rapid tourism and modernization:

Books to Read Before you Travel to Thailand

Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap:

Witty, yet brutally realistic stories from the perspective of a boy growing in up in Thailand, this collection of short stories deals with the dichotomies of Thailand: a country caught between tradition and tourism, familial obligation and being cool, getting out and staying put. The collection includes stories of laughter and of pain, but overall relates to the darker realities of a local in a tourist’s world.

Anna and the King of Siam, by Margaret Landon:

Based on a semi-true story, this novel follows the popular tale of a British widow who travels with her son to Thailand (Siam) in the 1860s to tutor King Mongkut, his concubines, and his many children. This novel was also the inspiration for the 1951 Rogers and Hammerstein musical production, The King and I (adapted for film in 1956).

Letters from Thailand, by Botan:

Historically, Thailand has deep roots in China. China’s influence is seen in Thailand’s food, its religion, architecture, and ethnicity. But Thailand is not China. Customs vary, values don’t align, and Thai food and technology are both hot hot hot. In this novel, the main character faces these realities as a Chinese immigrant in Thailand after World War II. Told in letters back home to his family in China, a story of struggle and adaptation unfold.

The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej, by Paul M. Handley:

Thailand’s longest-ruling, and arguably most beloved, king passed away in 2016, sending the country into a year-long period of mourning. In the wake of this national grief, Handley exposes the qualities that made King Bhumibol Adulyadej so popular with his people. Working from Bhumibol’s childhood, through his extensive reign, Handley covers the king’s affinity for art and jazz, his ability to have great influence even in a time in which the Thai monarchy was stripped of official power, and his efforts in developing a better country for all of its patrons.

Films to Watch Before you Travel to Thailand:

Anna and the King, 1999

This film takes a critical look at Western vs. Eastern cultural ideals. Anna (Jodie Foster) comes to Thailand to teach the King’s 58 children. At first, taking him to be civilized, Anna soon realizes that she is the one seen as uncivilized in the culture where she is a guest. Anna and the King help viewers to understand their own preconceived notions of culture, in a film that matches the uncomfortable tension typically seen in colonialism.

The Impossible, 2012

Based on the true story of a tourist family caught in Thailand’s horrific Tsunami in 2004, this tear-jerker stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as mother and father trying to reunite after a roar of black water separates their family. The film is harrowing and suspenseful, but it’s also full of beautiful cinematography and features the gorgeous Andaman Coast of Thailand.

ARCC Programs has offered summer travel programs for teens for over 35 years. With travel programs for teens on six continents, there is something for everyone. Find a summer program on our website or request a catalog today.