Thailand, until 1953 generally called Siam, went modern just before my first visit there, later in that year. Marshal Pibul Songkhram, the ruling autocrat, ordered the nation to cease to look to the past, and to take the future in a firm embrace. A commission sent to the US to investigate western culture returned with its findings. Its members believed that it was rooted in whisky drinking, dancing in public and the strip-tease, and urged the introduction of these customs into Siam. It was at first stipulated that the strip-tease should be performed under religious auspices in the precincts of a temple–although this provision soon went by the board.
Hat Yai, a provincial town in the south within a few miles of the Malaysian frontier, was chosen for an experiment in instant modernization, and I went there to see what was happening. There was a tendency in Siam for the words ‘modern’ and ‘American’ to be used interchangeably, so when the order went out for Hat Yai to be brought up to date, most Thais accepted that it was to be Americanized. Little surprise was aroused when the model chosen for the new Hat Yai was Dodge City of the 1860s as revealed by the movies.
In due course the experts arrived with photographs of the capital of the wild frontier in its heyday, and within weeks the comfortable muddle of Hat Yai was no more. Its shacks reeling on their stilts were pulled down, the ducks and buffaloes chased out of the ditches, and the spirit houses (after proper apologies to the spirits) shoved out of sight. It became illegal to fly kites within the limits of the town, or to stage contests between fighting fish.