Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam is a country located at the center of Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, 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 the southern extremity of 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 country is a Kingdom, with most recorded reigns in the world; a constitutional monarchy with King Rama IX, the ninth King of the House of Chakri, who has reigned since 1946, making King Rama IX the world’s longest-serving current head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history. The King is officially titled Head of State, the Head of the Armed Forces, an Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and the Defender of all Faiths.
Thailand is the world’s 50th largest country in terms of total area (slightly smaller than Yemen and slightly larger than Spain), with a surface area of approximately 513,000 km2 (198,000 sq mi), and the 21st most-populous country, with approximately 64 million people. The largest city is Bangkok, the capital, which is also the country’s center of political, commercial, industrial and cultural activities. About 75% of the population is ethnically Thai, 14% is of Chinese origin, and 3% is ethnically Malay, the rest belong to minority groups including Mons, Khmers and various hill tribes. The country’s official language is Thai. The primary religion is Buddhism, which is practiced by around 95% of all Thais.
Thailand experienced rapid economic growth between 1985 and 1995 and is a newly industrialized country with tourism, due to well-known tourist destinations such as Ayutthaya, Pattaya, Bangkok, Phuket, Krabi, Chiang Mai, and Ko Samui, and exports contributing significantly to the economy. There are approximately 2.2 million legal and illegal migrants in Thailand. Thailand has also attracted a number of expatriates from developed countries.
The country’s official name was Siam until June 23, 1939,when it was changed to Thailand. It was then renamed Siam from 1945 to May 11, 1949, after which it was again renamed Thailand. The Thai people use the phrase “land of the free” to express pride in the fact that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonized by a European power. While the Thai people will often refer to their country using the polite form Prathet Thai, they most commonly use the more colloquial word Mueang Thai or simply Thai; the word mueang meaning nation but most commonly used to refer to a city or town. Ratcha Anachak Thai means “Kingdom of Thailand” or “Kingdom of Thai”.
The region known as Thailand has been inhabited by humans at least since the Paleolithic period, about 40,000 years ago. Similar to other regions in Southeast Asia, it was heavily influenced by the culture and religions of India, starting with the kingdom of Funan around the 1st century CE.
After 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 Xang (now Laos) were on the ascension. However, a century later, the power of Sukhothai 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 in the northern valley the Lanna Kingdom and other small Tai city-states ruled the area. In 1431, the Khmer abandoned Angkor after the Ayutthaya forces invaded the city. 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 trading centers in Asia. European traders arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Portuguese, followed by the French, Dutch and English.
After the fall of 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. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, “A quarter to a third of the population of some areas of Thailand and Burma were slaves in the 17th through the 19th centuries.”
Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonized. This has been ascribed to the long succession of able rulers in the past four centuries who exploited the rivalry and tension between French Indochina and the British Empire. As a result, the country remained a buffer state between parts of Southeast Asia that were colonized by the two colonizing powers, Great Britain and France. Western influence nevertheless 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 Malay Peninsula.
The losses initially included Penang 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 the Khana Ratsadon 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 absolute 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 Plaek Pibulsonggram 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. Approximately 200,000 Asian laborers and 60,000 Allied POWs worked on the Thailand–Burma Death Railway. 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 characterised by coups d’état as one military regime replaced another, but eventually progressed towards a stable prosperity and democracy in the 1980s.
The Southern region
Thailand controlled the Malay Peninsula as far as Malacca in the 1400s and held much of the peninsula for the next few centuries, including Tumasek (Singapore) some of the Andaman Islands and a colony on Java, but eventually failed when the British used force to guarantee their suzerainty over the sultanate.
All the states of the Malay Sultanate presented annual gifts to the Thai king in the form of a golden flower, which understood the gesture to be tribute and an acknowledgement of vassalage. The British intervened in the Malay State and with the Anglo-Siamese Treaty tried to build a railway from the south to Bangkok. Thailand relinquished sovereignty over what are now the northern Malay provinces of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu to the British. Satun and Pattani provinces were given to Thailand. The Malay peninsula provinces were infiltrated by the Japanese during World War II, and by the Malayan Communist Party (CPM) from 1942 to 2008, when they decided to sue for peace with the Malaysian and Thai governments after the CPM lost its support from Vietnam and China subsequent to the Cultural Revolution.
Thailand is divided into 76 provinces (changwat), which are gathered into 5 groups of provinces by location. There are also 2 special governed districts: the capital Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakhon) and Pattaya, of which Bangkok is at provincial level and thus often counted as a province.
Each province is divided into districts and the districts are further divided into sub-districts (tambons). As of 2006 there are 877 districts (amphoe) and the 50 districts of Bangkok (khet). Some parts of the provinces bordering Bangkok are also referred to as Greater Bangkok (pari monthon). These provinces include Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Pathom and Samut Sakhon. The name of each province’s capital city (mueang) is the same as that of the province. For example, the capital of Chiang Mai province (Changwat Chiang Mai) is Mueang Chiang Mai or Chiang Mai.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces is the name of the military of the Kingdom of Thailand. It consists of the following branches:
- Royal Thai Army
- Royal Thai Navy
- Royal Thai Air Force
- Other Paramilitary Forces
Today the Royal Thai Armed Forces comprises about 1,025,640 personnel. The Head of the Thai Armed Forces is His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), however this position is only nominal. The Armed Forces is managed by the Ministry of Defence of Thailand, which is headed by the Minister of Defence and commanded by the Royal Thai Armed Forces Headquarters, which in turn is headed by the Chief of Defence Forces of Thailand.
According to the Constitution of the Kingdom, serving in the Armed Forces is a duty of all Thai citizens. However only males over the age of 21, who have not gone through reserve training of the Army Reserve Force Students are given the option of whether they want to volunteer for the armed forces, or pick the random draft. The candidates are subjected to varying lengths of training from 6 months to 2 years of fulltime service depending on their education, whether they have partially completed the reserve training course, and whether they volunteered prior to the drafting date (usually April 1 every year).
Candidates with a recognized bachelor’s degree will be subjected to 1 year of full-time service if they picked the random draft, or 6 months if they volunteer at their respective district office (Sasadee).
Likewise, the training length is also reduced for those who have partially completed the 3-year reserve training course (Ror Dor). A person who completed 1 year out of 3 will only have to serve full-time for 1 year. Those completed 2 years of reserve training will only have to do 6 months of full-time training. While those who complete 3 years or more of reserve training will be exempted.
The Royal Thai Armed Forces Day is celebrated on January 18 to commemorate the victory of King Naresuan the Great in battle against the Crown Prince of Burma in 1593.
Totaling 513,120 square kilometres (198,120 sq mi), Thailand is the world’s 50th largest country in land mass, while it is the world’s 20th largest country in terms of population. It is comparable in population to countries such as France and the United Kingdom, and is similar in land size to France and California in the United States. The local climate is tropical and characterized by monsoons. There is a rainy, warm, and cloudy southwest monsoon from mid-May to September, as well as a dry, cool northeast monsoon from November to mid-March. The southern isthmus is always hot and humid.
Thailand is home to several distinct geographic regions, partly corresponding to the provincial groups. The north of the country is mountainous, with the highest point being Doi Inthanon at 2,565 metres (8,415 ft) above sea level. The northeast, Isan, consists of the Khorat Plateau, bordered to the east by the Mekong River. The centre of the country is dominated by the predominantly flat Chao Phraya river valley, which runs into the Gulf of Thailand. The south consists of the narrow Kra Isthmus that widens into the Malay Peninsula. Politically, there are six geographical regions which differ from the others in population, basic resources, natural features, and level of social and economic development. The diversity of the regions is the most pronounced attribute of Thailand’s physical setting.
The Chao Phraya and the Mekong River are the sustainable resource of rural Thailand. Industrial scale production of crops use both rivers and their tributaries. The Gulf of Thailand covers 320,000 square kilometres (124,000 sq mi) and is fed by the Chao Phraya, Mae Klong, Bang Pakong and Tapi Rivers. It contributes to the tourism sector owing to its clear shallow waters along the coasts in the Southern Region and the Kra Isthmus. The Gulf of Thailand is also an industrial center of Thailand with the kingdom’s main port in Sattahip along with being the entry gates for Bangkok’s Inland Seaport. The Andaman Sea is regarded as Thailand’s most precious natural resource as it hosts the most popular and luxurious resorts in Asia. Phuket, Krabi, Ranong, Phang Nga and Trang and their lush islands all lay along the coasts of the Andaman Sea and despite the 2004 Tsunami, they continue to be and ever more so, the playground of the rich and elite of Asia and the world.
Plans have resurfaced of a logistical connection of the two bodies of water which would be coined the Thai Canal, analogous to the Suez and the Panama Canal. Such an idea has been greeted with positive accounts by Thai politicians as it would cut fees charged by the Ports of Singapore, improve ties with China and India, lower shipping times and increase ship safety owing to pirate fears in the Strait of Melaka and, support the Thai government’s policy of being the logistical hub for Southeast Asia. The ports would improve economic conditions in the south of Thailand, which relies heavily on tourism income, and it would also change the structure of the Thai economy moving it closer to a services center of Asia. The canal would be a major engineering project and has expected costs of 20–30 billion dollars.
Thailand has a prevalence of Buddhism that ranks among the highest in the world. The national religion is Theravada Buddhism. According to the last census (2000) 94.6% of the total population are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6%. Thailand’s southernmost provinces – Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and part of Songkhla Chumphon have dominant Muslim populations, consisting of both ethnic Thai and Malay. The southern tip of Thailand is mostly ethnically Malay, and most Malays are Sunni Muslims. Christians represent 0.7% of the population. A tiny but influential community of Sikhs in Thailand and some Hindus also live in the country’s cities, and are heavily engaged in retail commerce. There is also a small Jewish community in Thailand, dating back to the 17th century.
Thai culture has been shaped by many influences, including Indian, Lao, Burmese, Cambodian, and Chinese.
Its traditions incorporate a great deal of influence from India, China, Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Thailand’s national religion Theravada Buddhism is important to modern Thai identity. Thai Buddhism has evolved over time to include many regional beliefs originating from Hinduism, animism as well as ancestor worship. 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 2011 is 2554 BE in Thailand.
Several different ethnic groups, many of which are marginalized, populate Thailand. Some of these groups overlap into Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia and have mediated change between their traditional local culture, national Thai and global cultural influences. Overseas Chinese also form a significant part of Thai society, particularly in and around Bangkok. Their successful integration into Thai society has allowed for this group to hold positions of economic and political power.
The traditional Thai greeting, the wai, is generally offered first by the younger of the two people meeting, with their hands pressed together, fingertips pointing upwards as the head is bowed to touch their face to the hands, usually coinciding with the spoken word “Sawasdee khrap” for male speakers, and “Sawasdee ka” for females. The elder then is to respond afterwards in the same way. Social status and position, such as in government, will also have an influence on who performs the wai first. For example, although one may be considerably older than a provincial governor, when meeting it is usually the visitor who pays respect first. When children leave to go to school, they are taught to wai to their parents to represent their respect for them. They do the same when they come back. The wai is a sign of respect and reverence for another, similar to the namaste greeting of India and Nepal.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is the national sport in Thailand and its native martial art call “Muay”. In the past “Muay” was taught to royal soldiers for combat on battlefield if unarmed. After they retired from the army, these soldiers often became Buddhist monks and stayed at the temples. Most of the Thai people’s lives are closely tied to Buddhism and temples; they often send their sons to be educated with the monks. “Muay” is also one of the subjects taught in the temples. Muay Thai achieved popularity all over the world in the 1990s. Although similar martial arts styles exist in other Southeast Asian countries, few enjoy the recognition that Muay Thai has received with its full-contact rules allowing strikes including elbows, throws and knees.
Association football, however, has possibly overtaken Muay Thai’s position as most widely viewed and liked sport in contemporary Thai society and it is not uncommon to see Thais cheering their favourite English Premier League teams on television and walking around in replica kits. Another widely enjoyed pastime, and once a competitive sport, is kite flying.
Thai cuisine blends five fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Some common ingredients used in Thai cuisine include garlic, chillies, lime juice, lemon grass, and fish sauce. The staple food in Thailand is rice, particularly jasmine variety rice (also known as Hom Mali rice) which is included in almost every meal. Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice, and Thais domestically consume over 100 kg of milled rice per person per year. Over 5000 varieties of rice from Thailand are preserved in the rice gene bank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines. The king of Thailand is the official patron of IRRI.
Like most Asian cultures, respect towards ancestors is an essential part of Thai spiritual practice. Thais have a strong sense of hospitality and generosity, but also a strong sense of social hierarchy. Seniority is an important concept in Thai culture. Elders have by tradition ruled in family decisions or ceremonies. Older siblings have duties to younger ones.
Taboos in Thailand include touching someone’s head or pointing with the feet, as the head is considered the most sacred and the foot the dirtiest part of the body. Thai society has been influenced in recent years by its widely available multi-language press and media. There are some English and numerous Thai and Chinese newspapers in circulation; most Thai popular magazines use English headlines as a chic glamor factor. Many large businesses in Bangkok operate in English as well as other languages.
Thailand is the largest newspaper market in Southeast Asia with an estimated circulation of at least 13 million copies daily in 2003. Even upcountry, out of Bangkok, media flourishes. For example, according to Thailand’s Public Relations Department Media Directory 2003–2004, the nineteen provinces of Isan, Thailand’s northeastern region, hosted 116 newspapers along with radio, TV and cable.