POPULATION: Over 61 million
RELIGION: Buddhism; mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism; Islam
The forerunners of today's Thais gradually moved from what is now southern China into the area of the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins. They overcame Mon and Khmer peoples, and later intermingled with them. A Thai kingdom called Siam developed along the lower Chao Phraya River.
Thailand was never directly colonized by the Western colonial powers. It was left as a buffer zone between the British colonial holdings in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) and the French colonies in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam). A bloodless coup led by Western-educated Thai elites put an end to Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932. A constitutional monarchy was established, and early attempts at democracy were made. However, conflicts within the new government led to a successful military coup d'état (overthrow).
Since then, Thailand has alternated between periods of dictatorship and democracy. There were student uprisings in 1973 and 1976. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1992 tried to stem the power of the military.
King Phumipol Adulyadej, who became king in 1946 and was still on the throne in 1998, is greatly loved and revered. He has been influential in many political crises. (His name, Phumipol, is sometimes spelled Bhumipol when translated into English.)
Thailand is situated in the middle of mainland southeast Asia. The country covers approximately 198,455 square miles (514,000 square kilometers). Thailand has four major regions. The central floodplain is watered by the Chao Phraya River and its tributaries. The mountainous north has forest areas that are rapidly being destroyed. The dry northeast on the Khorat Plateau borders the Mekong River to the east. The long coastlines of the peninsula are bounded by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
The Thai population is over 61 million. Around 11 million people are living in Bangkok, the capital and the only major city.
Many dialects of the Thai language are spoken throughout the country. Malay is used in the extreme south. The Central Thai dialect, or Standard Thai, is the official language of the schools and of government and business affairs.
Thai is a tonal language, and its alphabet is derived from Mon and Khmer scripts. Last names were just introduced to Thailand in the early twentieth century. (Calling a person by his or her last name is still very unusual.)
Sawaddee is said when greeting someone, regardless of the time of day. Mai Pen Rai means "It's O.K., never mind." Women add the polite word kha and men the word khrab to phrases and sentences when speaking.
The Thais had a traditional creation myth before the arrival of the Buddhist religion. According to this myth, Than is the Spirit of the Sky who first created everything. Before this, there was nothing on Earth—no humans, animals, or plants—as well as no Sun or Moon. Than brought a bottle gourd (hollow fruit) to Earth, then pierced it until it opened. Five types of human beings came out, and all were brothers and sisters. Than instructed them in the ways of life and gave them tools to make a living.
According to legend, the original rice seed was five times the size of a person's fist. But because humans became more and more greedy, the rice seed became smaller and smaller.
Mae Phosop is the Spirit of Rice. The old still teach the young, "Don't leave rice in your dish; Mae Phosop will feel sad."
Si Thanonchai is a very popular local trickster hero. Many Thais identify with Si Thanonchai's wit and cunning.
More than 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist. However, Thai beliefs actually reflect a mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism (spirit worship). Some southern Thais are Muslim (followers of Islam). Thais of Chinese descent follow Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship.
Animism is common throughout Thailand. Spirits are believed to inhabit almost everything. It is believed that they can help or harm humans. Large, old trees are frequently tied with pieces of colorful cloth and worshiped by local people.
Songkran, the Thai New Year, is the longest official holiday of the year, lasting from April 13 to 15. Traditionally, people visited their home villages to pay their respects to family. Nowadays, the most popular Songkran custom is for people to enthusiastically throw water on each other. Some will add white clay or scent to the water for more lasting effect.
The Chinese New Year in mid-February is not an official holiday. However, for those of Chinese ancestry, it is a big festival. Some Chinese Thai employers give days off and bonuses to their Thai employees. It is a time for family members to reunite, gathering to worship their gods and their ancestors. Children collect gift money in red or pink envelopes.
Thailand's major holidays also include religious and official holidays, as well as the king's and queen's birthdays.
Thai individual rites, such as birth, ordination into the monkhood, or marriage, are associated with khwan, the "body spirit" or "life soul."
In the past, most young Thai men spent some period in the monkhood. Many Thai men continue this highly valued tradition. Today, ordination ceremonies involve lavish expenditures.
The head is regarded as the most revered part of the body. Ideally, one should keep one's head lower than the head of a superior, such as a teacher. Improper position or display of the feet is always considered impolite. Gesturing with the feet is terribly rude.
Greeting with kisses is virtually unknown. The most common greeting is the wai (made by putting the palms together at chest level and bowing). It is inappropriate for lovers to hug or kiss in public. However, holding hands or hugging by members of the same sex is acceptable and does not have sexual connotations.
Almost all Thais remove their shoes before entering houses and monasteries.
Being late because of a traffic jam is the most popular all-occasion excuse in Bangkok.
Running water, electricity, and health-care centers have been extended to most rural areas. Wood or thatch houses built on stilts are clustered together in villages or are spread out along the rivers and canals. People often sit under the houses during the heat of the day; there they do minor chores. Some farm animals are also kept there.
In the cities, expensive houses may coexist on the same street with slum dwellings. Most working people live in apartments and condominiums. Living conditions are poor for those in the slums of Bangkok.
Bangkok sometimes has brief periods of water cutoffs and power shortages. Uncollected garbage and sewage back-ups are major problems in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the second-largest city.
Nuclear families are the norm, both in villages and rural areas. Children are taught to respect and obey their elders. Elderly people in the family are usually gladly taken care of by the younger generations. As people's lives are getting more complicated, however, care for the elderly is becoming a problem.
Most young people do not move out of their parents' homes until they marry. Many even continue to live with their parents after marriage.
The most common traditional lower garment worn by women in the fields or at the markets is pha sin or pha thung. The name means "bag cloth." It is a tube of material that looks like a bottomless bag, about one yard (one meter) wide. The length is typically from the waist to the ankle, and one size fits all. Phakhaoma, a strip of cloth, usually with a checked design, that hangs to knee length is worn by men in villages. It is sometimes just loosely tied around the waist.
Western-style clothing is preferred by middle-and upper-class people. Jeans and T-shirts can be seen everywhere. Because of the hot and humid weather, many like to wear sandals. Shorts are not generally seen in public, except on young children and as part of boys' school uniforms.
Rice is usually the main course, with side dishes. Glutinous or sticky rice is mostly identified with the north and northeast. Sticky rice and coconut milk are also used in many tasty desserts. A spoon and fork are the most common utensils, but the fingers are usually preferred for eating sticky rice.
The category of yum (mixed hot and sour salads) often fills a page or more of a restaurant menu. Yumwunsen, for example, is a type of pasta salad. It is usually made with cooked minced pork and a choice of chicken, shrimp, squid, or all of these. The real taste of yum comes from adding fresh celery, mint, and basil leaves.
Education is free and required through the sixth grade. The government is considering extending the requirement to grade nine. The standards of schools vary and are much lower in rural areas. In Bangkok, good schools at all levels are highly competitive. Many high school students get extra tutoring to prepare for the entrance examinations for government universities. About 10 percent of examinees get accepted. The rest may go to private colleges and universities, or try again the following year. There are also a number of vocational schools around the country.
Serve warm with the Thai chili sauce as an accompaniment.
Adapted from "Great Chefs Go to Him to Be Dazzled." New York Times (April 29,1998): p. B12.
Masked drama, or khon, of the royal court tradition is the most exceptional of the Thai performing arts. Episodes from the Indian epic, the Ramayana ( Ramakien in Thai) are performed. The performance includes masks, dance, and musical accompaniment.
Folk dances vary from region to region. The shadow-puppet theater, nang talung, is a popular entertainment in the south.
There are many different types of Thai traditional music. The saw duang is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow that is entwined with its strings. The most important ensemble is pi phat, made up of melodic percussion instruments, Thai oboe, and drums. Thai khuang wong (gong circles) and ranat thum (xylophone-like instrument) are played by ensembles of musicians who sit on the floor. Khaen, a mouth organ made of bamboo tubes played in both Thailand and neighboring Laos, has a history going back more than 3,000 years.
The oldest and greatest epic of Thai literature is a poem of about 20,000 lines called Thao Hung Khun Cheung, telling the story of a legendary hero. It was probably written during the fifteenth century.
Approximately two-thirds of the Thai labor force work in agriculture. However, this is changing rapidly, as Thailand becomes industrialized. Thai farmers are still very poor and suffer from relatively low productivity and low prices for their crops. In some areas, ceremonies accompany agricultural activities, such as plowing of the fields.
The growing economy attracts people to city jobs, although labor is cheap. People with technical skills, such as engineers and computer specialists, are in high demand. Large numbers of people are also involved in the tourism business.
Poor children in urban areas may contribute to family income through various activities such as selling newspapers or small jasmine wreaths on the streets.
Thai kick-boxing is a very popular spectator sport and is regularly televised. Well-trained boxers can effectively and gracefully attack their opponents with their feet, knees, or elbows.
Many Thais enjoy playing badminton and soccer. Another popular game is called takraw: A woven rattan (palm stem) ball is kept in the air using parts of the body other than the hands. There are two main types of takraw: one like volleyball with a net, and one like basketball, with a suspended hoop.
Televised Thai soap operas and other programs are closely followed and enjoyed by Thais of all ages and occupations, from peasants to prime ministers. Popular Thai singers have a huge following among teenagers as well as adults.
Modern-style entertainment like movies, discos, nightclubs and karaoke bars, attracts the younger generation in the cities. Almost all Thai films are produced just for viewing in Thailand, and standards are low. Hollywood action films are always big hits.
Thai crafts include handwoven silk and cotton, woodcarvings, silverwork, basketry, and lacquerware. Chiang Mai is the center for crafts. Beautiful handwoven textiles and basketry can also be found in the northeast.
Raising turtledoves and other birds, especially for singing competitions, is a popular hobby in the south.
Thailand is confronting numerous social crises. The gap between the poor and the rich is very wide and increasing. Thailand is notorious for prostitution, especially child prostitutes, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Bangkok suffers from serious pollution and traffic congestion.
Keyes, Charles F. Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State . Boulder, Colo.: West-view Press, 1987.
Kulick, Elliott. Thailand's Turn: Profile of a New Dragon. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
LePoer, Barbara Leitch, ed. Thailand, A Country Study. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.
McNair, S. Thailand . Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.