Set within a lush, tropical landscape, Thailand is a theater of cultural and sensual contrasts for the visitor. The long, rich heritage and abundant natural resources of this proud Buddhist nation jostle for space within the dynamism of a country undergoing economic boom and bust. In turns zestful and tranquil, resplendent and subtle, Thailand is always compelling.
Thailand is located in a fertile monsoon belt midway between India and China, the two civilizations that have molded Southeast Asia. But the Thais have long delighted in their distinctive culture. For instance, though the Tai (rather than Thai) ethnic group probably originated in Southern China sometime in the first millennium AD, their tonal language is quite unlike any form of Chinese. Moreover, the elegant Thai script, though derived from that of ancient Southern India, is distinct.
Today, Thailand is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), though Thais still take pride in a long tradition of independence. Unlike all its immediate neighbors, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia, the country never fell to a European colonial power. More fundamentally, though, the Thai sense of identity is allied with Theravada Buddhism and the monarchy. Both have been dignified institutions since the Sukho thai period (13th–14th century), an era when the first real Thai kingdom flourished. Indeed, the colors of the modern Thai flag (thong trai rong) symbolize the nation (red), the three forces of Buddhism (white), and the monarchy (blue).
Today, the great majority of Thailand’s 63 million inhabitants regard themselves as Thai. Hill tribes are the most obvious ethnic minority groups, but it is the Chinese who form the largest (and most integrated) group.
The various peoples live relatively peaceably nowadays, though in 1939, in a wave of nationalism encouraged by Prime Minister Phibun Songkram, the country’s name was changed from Siam to Prathet Thai (Thailand), or “land of the Thai people.”
The country is divided into four main regions, and there are many subtle differences between the peoples and dialects of the Central Plains, North, Northeast, and South. Each region also has its own topographical identity. The North is an area of forested mountains, where hill-tribe minorities coexist with mainstream society. In the South, the narrow Kra Peninsula presents a 2,500-km (1,500-mile) coastline with a hilly interior of rainforests and rubber plantations. Malay-Muslim culture is a major influence here.
Between these two extremes are the Central Plains, the cradle of Thai civilization and a fertile, rice-growing region. Near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, the capital, Bangkok, sprawls ever farther each year. Its palatial splendor can still be discerned, but the city is among the world’s most congested and polluted, despite great efforts to clean the air and local rivers. Different again is Northeast Thailand (also widely known as Isan), the poorest part of the country occupying the Khorat Plateau, its eastern border with Laos defined by the Mekong River. In this semiarid region traditional farming communities, many of them Thai-Lao, eke out a subsistence living.
Rice and other agricultural crops were long the mainstays of the Thai econ omy, and farming is still highly respected. From the mid-1980s, however, a concerted export drive triggered an unprecedented economic boom. For several years, Thailand enjoyed double-digit growth and was known as one of Asia’s “tiger” economies. Economic growth came to an abrupt halt, however, in a chain of events that began in May 1997 with financial speculation against the Thai baht. Flotation of the baht in July pushed the economies of various Asian countries, including Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea, into crisis. While Thai politicians blamed everyone from bankers to city-dwellers, the people of Thailand immediately suffered, with large-scale redundancies, pay cuts, and repossessions.
Thailand has since recovered fully, and Bangkok’s skyline is seeing much construction work. Tourism is still the single largest foreign exchange earner. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) revived the “Amazing Thailand Year,” which was a great success in 1998. In 2006 Thailand recorded 13.8 million visitors, and though this figure dropped in 2008, 2013 saw a significant rise again. Bangkok and the beach resorts attract most of the visitors, followed by Chiang Mai and the North. Thailand’s deluxe hotels and luxurious spa resorts are some of the finest in the world.
Transport infrastructure remains a weak point, resulting in Bangkok’s notorious traffic chaos. Commerce and communications are concentrated in Bangkok, while the rest of the country remains largely rural.
Raw materials top the country’s list of imports, and the leading exports include garments, electrical goods, mechanical equipment, seafood products, rice, rubber, gems, and jewelry.
The environment has taken many blows in the last 50 years, and forest cover has declined from 70 percent of the land to less than 20 percent. Many animal species have lost their habitats and been hunted almost to extinction. However, conservation awareness is increasing, and measures are being taken to preserve what remains of the nation’s rich natural bounty.
Society and Politics
In spite of the pressures of change, Thai society is relatively stable. There is no caste system, but the social hierarchy, topped by the monarchy, is quite rigid. Social standing is dictated mainly by wealth and family connections. Women have less standing than men, despite playing a major role in the economy, mainly as laborers and white-collar workers. However, in 2011, Thailand elected its first female prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra. Three years later, she was charged with dereliction of duty and forced out of office. Elders are always accorded respect within families and in society.
Hierarchy permeates daily life in many ways. The traditional greeting, the wai, in which the hands are brought together near the chin, is always initiated by the inferior, and the height of the wai reflects the social gap between the parties. If the gap is extreme, inferiors may approach their superiors on their knees. Other rules of etiquette, such as never raising the voice, transcend class. Despite such rules for themselves, Thais are renowned for their tolerance of other cultures and friendliness to visitors. Offense is taken only if there is any perceived disrespect to the King or Buddhism.
There is no criticism of the King in Thailand’s press. Constitutional since 1932, the monarchy is revered almost as much as when kings were chakravatin, or “king of kings.” Kingship and religion are inextricably linked in Thailand. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), served as a monk in his youth and presides over some major religious ceremonies. He is the longest-reigning living monarch in the world, having ascended to the throne in 1946, and has won widespread respect for his devotion to Thai welfare and environmental projects.
The monkhood (sangha), some 250,000 strong, plays a crucial social role. Most teenage boys become novice monks for a while, which is seen as fortuitous for their families, especially their mothers, as well as a rite of passage. Some enter the monkhood properly later in life and may choose its austere precepts for life. Monks conduct numerous Buddhist rites, ranging from festivals to everyday blessings and other social events. In rural areas, they traditionally play an important role as teachers, a profession that in Thailand is perhaps held higher in regard than anywhere else in the world. In contrast, politicians are held in far less respect, and the Thai press openly criticizes the running of the country. The economic boom and bust of the 1980s and 1990s exerted considerable pressure on Thai society. The extended family remains important, but it has become an idealized concept espoused by conservative groups. As soon as they are old enough, many young people move away from their towns and villages to find work in the city, sending money back to their parents each month.
Thai Culture and Arts
Thailand’s classical arts have developed almost exclusively (and anonymously) in the service of Theravada Buddhism. Accordingly, the best showcase is the wat, where traditional architecture, typified by sweeping, multitiered roofs countless Buddha images and murals, and decorative arts, such as woodcarving, stucco, gilt, lacquer, colored glass mosaic, and mother of pearl inlay, are all used to striking effect.
The literary tradition of Thailand is confined mostly to classic tales, the most important of which is the Ramakien, an ancient moral epic with its origins in the Indian Ramayana. Such sagas provided the narrative content for the once-thriving performing arts, best preserved today in highly stylized classical dance-drama called khon and lakhon. Thailand’s most notable literary figure is the 19thcentury poet Sunthorn Phu
Thai cinema continues to go from strength to strength. In 2002, Sut Sanaeha (“Blissfully Yours”), the story of a romance between a Thai woman and an illegal Burmese immigrant, was selected for special consideration at the Cannes Film Festival, and the 2008 film Ploy was premiered there during Director’s Fortnight. The Bangkok International Film Festival was launched in 2002.
On the sports front, Thailand’s unique style of kick-boxing draws big crowds, while other traditional pastimes range from takraw, a game not unlike volleyball, but using the feet, to kite-flying. Numerous colorful festivals, many linked to both Buddhism and the changing seasons, are celebrated with exuberance. Whatever the activity, Thais believe that life should be sanuk – “fun.” Sanuk can be found in all things, from eating – something for which Thais have a passion – to simply going for a stroll with friends