When Prangthong Jitcharoenkul returned to Bangkok after a three-year course in India, she found Thais were often curious about her experience. But their questions routinely betrayed an ignorance and disdain of her one-time home.
"They’d ask me – are there public toilets in India yet? Are Indians very smelly? Do they all excrete outside?” said Prangthong, also known as PJ, a nickname first coined by her classmates at the University of Mysore in Karnataka.
And so, a journey that began as an attempt to improve her English in India has grown into a quest to challenge this widespread anti-Indian sentiment. The journalist's weapon of choice is a soon-to-be-published book through which she hopes to change the way Thais look at India.
Casual racism is commonplace in Thailand and the national obsession with pale skin – perhaps surpassed only by India – can at times indicate deep-rooted discrimination against people with a darker complexion.
A Thai teaching resource using a picture of a black man to illustrate the word ugly, next to a fair-skinned man billed handsome, stirred an online debate last year. In February, a filmmaker house-hunting in Bangkok found that Indians weren’t welcome in at least one flat, a phenomenon that’s also been reported in other parts of Southeast Asia. And last month, a notice telling Cambodian, Laos and Myanmar nationals to use a separate toilet from the ones Thais were using was being shared on Twitter.
A tourist-friendly nation where racist stereotypes abound
It appears a paradox to outsiders in what is usually an exceptionally friendly nation. But an ultra-nationalist education system which teaches Thais that they are superior to their neighbours means negative stereotypes abound.
“We have a habit of looking down on other nationals,” the 24-year-old Prangthong said, over a lunch of mutton biryani and sweet lassi at one of Bangkok’s oldest Indian restaurants.
The word used by Thais for different types of foreigners have racist undertones, she added, such as khaek for South Asians and jaeck for the Chinese. There’s even a well-known Thai saying that if you’re ever stuck with a snake and an Indian, first kill the Indian.
Fed up with the backlash against her former home, Prangthong decided it was time to rephrase the conversation.
Through her book, she explores alternative views of the nation by interviewing 10 fellow Thais who've experienced life in India. They include a Thai theatre star who achieves her longstanding dream of acting in Bollywood and the activist whose work with Muslim children in the Thai deep south was inspired by the religious pluralism he found in India.
The ties that bind
All these connections are steeped in a centuries-old relationship – Thailand and India have shared a rich religious, cultural and linguistic history ever since early maritime traders from India brought Hinduism and Buddhism to Southeast Asia.
Nestled in between the towering hotels and malls of downtown Bangkok are shrines dedicated to Brahma, Indra and Ganesh – Hindu gods that are just as revered by Thailand’s Buddhist-majority whose faith has long melded Hindu and animist beliefs.
The clasped-hand greeting of namaste in India is mirrored by the wai in Thailand. Thai and Indian names often share a common Sanskrit root. And important Thai festivals such as Loy Krathong and Songkran are strikingly similar to India’s Diwali and Holi.
Thailand also has a sizeable and successful Indian-origin community – around 2,00,000 strong, according to the Embassy of India in Bangkok – with high-end lifestyle magazines such Masala, a local publication, targeting affluent Thai-Indians.
Yet, few Thais appear aware of these longstanding links, which unsurprisingly don’t play a part in the social construction of Thai-ness, a concept now tightly controlled by the ruling military regime.
Through her Thai-language book, Prangthong hopes to quash misconceptions of India. But she’s quick to add that it’s not an attempt to whitewash her experience, which was full of its own challenges and adjustments.
Prejudices on the other side
“There are things that India could learn from Thailand too,” said Prangthong, a reporter with the kingdom’s oldest English-language newspaper, where she specialises in foreign affairs.
Treating women with more respect would top her list. “I was always treated well at my university,” she said, but remembers two incidences of men harassing her outside campus. “They followed me and tried speaking to me in Kannada. I heard the word 'sex' both times before they went away.”
Prangthong escaped unscathed, but the encounters revealed an uncomfortable truth about sexual violence against women in India, a subject Thais she met back home were especially curious about. “Why India, did you want to get raped? That was an actual question,” she said, explaining that the book, in part, aims to reflect another, more chivalrous side of Indian men.
A subject she does not explore is the pervasive racism within India. “I didn’t experience it,” she said. After a pause, she added, “Or, at least, I didn’t notice it.” Instead she talks of her close friendships with Indians and of even being lauded by classmates in awe of her skin. “They asked me for advice on face cream and body lotions. Once they even asked a teacher for permission to touch my hair,” she said with a grin.
Some minority students haven’t been so lucky. India has recorded violent attacks against African students and expats in recent years. The murder of a Congolese national in New Delhi on May 20, the assault on a Nigerian student in Hyderabad on May 25, and attacks on seven people from various African countries in Delhi on May 26 have triggered nationwide discussions on racism in Indian society.
Discrimination on the grounds of skin colour is also rampant among Indians themselves, as is caste-based prejudice.
Back in Bangkok’s Little India, a small neighbourhood known for the cut-price textiles sold by Indian traders, plump rolls of colourful cloth jut out of a warren of shops.
Walking past an Indian street vendor frying samosas, Prangthong said she hopes her book will open minds about India in Thailand.
“We have an ancient cultural link,” she said. "But the people are still far from each other."
The writer's Twitter handle is @PreetiJha.