History, Culture and Climate
The Kingdom of Thailand is an independent country that lies in the heart of Southeast Asia.
It is bordered to the north by Laos and Burma, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and Burma. Its maritime boundaries include Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast and Indonesia and India in the Andaman Sea to the southwest. The capital and largest city of Thailand is Bangkok. It is also the country's center of political, commercial, industrial and cultural activities.
The region known as Thailand has been inhabited by humans since the Paleolithic period, about 10,000 years ago. Prior to the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 13th century, various states thrived there, such as the various Tai, Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms, as seen through the numerous archaeological sites and artifacts that are scattered throughout the Siamese landscape. Prior to the 12th century however, the first Thai or Siamese state is traditionally considered to be the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai, which was founded in 1238.
Following the decline and fall of the Khmer empire in the 13th - 14th century, the Buddhist Tai Kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lanna and Lan Chang were on the ascension. However, a century later, Sukhothai's power was overshadowed by the new kingdom of Ayutthaya, established in the mid-14th century in the lower Chao Phraya River, or Menam area. Ayutthaya's expansion centered along the Menam while the in the northern valley, Lanna Kingdom, and other small Tai city-states, ruled the area.
After the fall of the Ayutthaya in 1767 to the Burmese, King Taksin the Great moved the capital of Thailand to Thonburi for approximately 15 years. The current Rattanakosin era of Thai history began in 1782, following the establishment of Bangkok as capital of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I the Great. A quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand were slaves.
Thailand retained a tradition of trade with its neighboring states, from China to India, Persia and Arab lands. Ayutthaya became one of the most vibrant trade centers in Asia. European traders arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Portuguese, followed by the French, Dutch and English.
Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonized.
Two main reasons for this were that Thailand had a long succession of very able rulers in the 1800s, and that it was able to exploit the rivalry and tension between the French and the British. As a result, the country remained a buffer state between parts of Southeast Asia that were colonized by the two colonial powers. Despite this, Western influence led to many reforms in the 19th century and major concessions, most notably being the loss of a large territory on the east side of the Mekong to the French and the step-by-step absorption by Britain of the Shan (Thai Yai) States (now in Burma) and the Malay Peninsula. The losses initially included Penang and Tumasik and eventually culminated in the loss of four predominantly ethnic-Malay southern provinces, which later became Malaysia's four northern states, under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.
In 1932, a bloodless revolution carried out by a small group of military and civilian officials resulted in a transition of power, when King Prajadhipok was forced to grant the people of Siam their first constitution, thereby ending centuries of absolutist monarchy. During World War II, the Empire of Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. Japan invaded the country and engaged the Thai army for six to eight hours before Phibunsongkhram ordered an armistice. Shortly thereafter Japan was granted free passage, and on December 21, 1941, Thailand and Japan signed a military alliance with a secret protocol wherein Tokyo agreed to help Thailand regain territories lost to the British and French. Subsequently, Thailand undertook to 'assist' Japan in its war against the Allies, while at the same time maintaining an active anti-Japanese resistance movement known as the Seri Thai. After the war, Thailand emerged as an ally of the United States. As with many of the developing nations during the Cold War, Thailand then went through decades of political instability characterized by coups d'état as one military regime replaced another, but eventually progressed towards a stable prosperity and democracy in the 1980s.
In 1997, Thailand was hit by the Asian financial crisis, and the Thai baht for a short time peaked at 56 baht to the US dollar compared to about 25 baht to the dollar before 1997. Since then, the baht has regained most of its strength and as of May 2009 is valued at 35.17 baht to the US dollar.
The official calendar in Thailand is based on the Eastern version of the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (western) calendar. For example, the year AD 2009 is 2552 BE in Thailand.
Local Thailand time: GMT + 7 Greenwichmeantime.com
514,040 sq. km
65,444,000 (est 2006)
Thailand's climate is tropical, high both in temperature and humidity, and dominated by monsoons. April and May are the hottest months of the year, when even the locals are moved to complain about the heat. June sees the beginning of the South West Monsoon, and brings with it the rainy season, which continues intermittently until the end of October.
From November to the end of February the climate is much less trying with a cooling North East breeze and a reduction in the humidity level. This is also the main tourist season, and the best time to visit Thailand.
The north and north-east are generally cooler than Bangkok in winter, and hotter in summer. In the far north, around Mae Hong Son temperatures can occasionally drop as low as 2oC
Thai is one of the oldest languages in East and South-East Asia. It is a monosyllabic language which uses five tones (high, mid, low, rising, and falling tone) to alter the meaning of a single syllable. This makes it rather tricky to learn for most Westerners used to speaking non-tonal languages.
The Thai script, introduced by King Rham Khamhaeng in 1283, consists of 44 consonants and 48 vowels, and is of Sanskrit origin.
Population and People
Thailand is often called the "land of smiles", and rightly so because you will see more smiling people here than anywhere else in the world.
The country has a population of about 59 million, with some 6.7 million of these people living in the Bangkok area. Approximately 75% of the citizenry are ethnic Thais, 14% are Chinese, and the remaining 11% are mostly Indian, Malay, Karen, Khmer, or Mon. The literacy rate is high at about 94% and the average life expectancy is 66 for men and 72 for women.
Thai people are friendly and tolerant but there are a few Do's and Don'ts which you should observe. Avoid touching people on the head, and keep your feet on the ground where they belong. Stay calm, smile and enjoy the hospitality of your hosts.
The official language is Thai, but English is widely spoken in all major tourist locations. However if you are travelling around Thailand it is a good idea to buy a phrase book
Festivals and Holidays
New year’s day
In 1940, Thailand moved its New Year's Day from April 13th to January 1st. The old New Year is still a holiday called Songkran. Years are counted as the Buddhist era (B.E.) which started 543 years earlier than the Christian, era, therefore 2002 AD is the year 2545 BE.
Makha Bucha Day
Songkhran 13-15th April
End of February/beginning of March, depending on the moon. This commemorates the day when 1250 of Buddha's disciples gathered spontaneously to hear him preach. Buddhists visit Wats and make merit by such acts as releasing caged birds. In the evening the celebrations culminate in a candle lit procession around the main temple building.
This is the celebration of the old Thai New Year. Buddhists visit the temple for the ceremony of Rod Nam Dam Nua. They sprinkle water on the Buddha images, and on the hands of the
monks and novices at the temple, as an offering to express confidence that the supply of water will be adequate to cover the dry season.Songkhran is a time when the Thai family will try to be together, and many people will travel back to their home village.
This holiday has now become secularized, with exuberant merrymakers taking to the streets throwing water at each other, and you, by the cup full, the bucket full, or even with a hose. To add to the fun, talc is mixed with the water and may be daubed on your face. Take it all in good spirit, no one is exempt, not even the policemen. The cool water may even be a welcome relief as the festival coincides with the time when the sun is due overhead and the weather can be very hot.
About 95% of the Thai population are Buddhist, which is a religion based on the teachings of Buddha, "the enlightened".
Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, was born in 623 B.C. in Lumbini Nepal, and subjected himself to many years of severe austerities to arrive at a vision of the world which is the basis of Buddhism. Gautama Buddha spoke of four noble truths :
History, Culture and Climate
- "Existence is suffering" (The truth of suffering).
- "Suffering is caused by desire" (The truth of the cause of suffering).
- "Eliminate the cause of suffering and the suffering will cease to arise" (The truth of cessation of suffering).
- "The eight fold path (or middle way) is the way to eliminate desire" (The truth of the path).
The main theme of Buddhist belief is that of karma, the evaluation of all life's events and, after ones death, the rebirth of that karma in a new existence. In this way everyone has it in his own hands to determine his next life, for better or worse. The Thai proverb "do good and receive good, do evil and receive evil" sums up this concept well.
Buddhism is ever present in Thai life from the myriad Buddha images to the saffron-robed monks and many wat (temples) at which local people worship. As a visitor to Thailand you are welcome to visit the wat but please remember to dress respectfully, no shorts or vests. Remove your shoes before entering any temple building, and never touch the head of a Buddha image.
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Other Religions About 4% of the population, mainly living in the south of Thailand, are Muslim. The remaining 1% are Confucians, Taoists, Christians, and Hindus. Thai people are very tolerant of other faiths and treat all religions with respect.