Understand[edit]

Garlanded statue, Wat Rajanadda, Bangkok

Thailand is the country in Southeast Asia most visited by tourists, and for good reason. You can find almost anything here: thick jungle as green as can be, crystal blue waters that feel more like a warm bath than a swim in the ocean, and food that can curl your nose hairs while tap dancing across your taste buds. Exotic, yet safe; cheap, yet equipped with every modern amenity you need, there is something for every interest and every price bracket, from beach front backpacker bungalows to some of the best luxury hotels in the world. And despite the heavy flow of tourism, Thailand retains its quintessential identity, with a culture and history all its own and a carefree people famed for their smiles and their fun-seeking sanuk lifestyle. Many travellers come to Thailand and extend their stay well beyond their original plans and others never find a reason to leave. Whatever your cup of tea is, they know how to make it in Thailand.

This is not to say that Thailand doesn't have its downsides, including the considerable growing pains of an economy where an agricultural labourer is lucky to earn 100 baht per day while the nouveaux riches cruise past in their BMWs. Bangkok, the capital, is notorious for its traffic jams and rampant development has wrecked much of once-beautiful Pattaya and Phuket. In heavily touristed areas, some lowlifes, both Thai and farang, have made scamming tourists into an art form.

Finally, despite being relatively economically developed, Thailand still suffers from problems that afflict most Southeast Asian countries, such as new towns and neighbourhoods built haphazardly and with no concern for architectural beauty, the lack of accessibility and pedestrian-friendliness in large cities, and often, presence of trash and litter in both cities and rural areas.

History[edit]

The earliest identifiable Thai kingdom was founded in Sukhothai in 1238, reaching its zenith under King Ramkhamhaeng in the 14th century before falling under the control of the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which ruled most of present-day Thailand and much of today's Laos and Cambodia as well, eventually also absorbing the northern kingdom of Lanna. Ayutthaya was sacked in 1767 by the Burmese, but King Taksin regrouped and founded a new capital at Thonburi. His successor, General Chakri, moved across the river to Bangkok and became King Rama I, the founding father of the Chakri dynasty that still rules in a constitutional monarchy.

Known as Siam until 1939, Thailand is Southeast Asia's oldest independent country and the only one never to have been colonised by a foreign power, and the country's inhabitants are fiercely proud of that fact. A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy. During World War II, while Japan conquered the rest of Southeast Asia (see Pacific War), only Thailand was not conquered by the Japanese due to smart political moves. Allied with Japan during World War II, Thailand became a US ally following the conflict. Thailand was a base of US air operations during the Vietnam War. There was a communist insurgency, with little success, that only ended in 1983. After a string of military dictatorships and quickly toppled civilian prime ministers, Thailand stabilized into a fair approximation of a democracy and the economy boomed through tourism and industry.

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami to hit Thailand's western coast, causing tremendous damage and killing thousands of people, especially at the seaside resorts.

In September 2006, a swift and bloodless military coup overthrew populist tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's democratically-elected but widely criticized government, exposing a fault line between the urban elite that has ruled Thailand traditionally and the rural masses that supported Thaksin. Thaksin went into exile and a series of unstable governments followed, with the successors of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and the royalist-conservative People's Alliance for Democracy duking it out both behind the scenes and, occasionally, out in the streets, culminating in Bangkok's airports being seized and shut down for a week in Nov 2008.

A new party led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won the 2011 elections, but while like Thaksin, she maintained popularity in the Central Thai countryside, the North and Isaan, Muslims in the South, powerful people in the Thai military and the Bangkok establishment never accepted the legitimacy of her government, and on May 7, 2014, Thailand's Constitutional Court ordered her and her cabinet to step down. On May 22, 2014, the Thai army staged a bloodless coup, declared a nationwide curfew, and went about arresting members of Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party. The curfew was lifted on June 13, 2014, but the basic elements that have led to the conflict are still unresolved.

After the death in late 2016 of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), the world's longest-reigning monarch and a deeply loved and respected figure of near-mythic proportions, his son King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun (Rama X) acceded to the throne. There have been no national parliamentary elections since the military coup and effectively the same government remains in power.

Thailand has grown into the main economic centre of the region, and today attracts many migrant workers from its much poorer neighbours Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.

Politics[edit]

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy, with the king as head of state. The Thai parliament is bicameral, consisting of a senate, of which about half are directly elected with each province electing one member, and the other half being appointed by a committee, as well as a lower house which is directly elected by the people. The prime minister is the head of government, and is usually the leader of the party with the most seats in the lower house.

In practice, the king's role is largely ceremonial, with the prime minister holding the most authority in government. However, the king and the royal family are still protected by strict lèse majesté laws, which stipulate long jail terms for anybody convicted of insulting the king or any other members of the royal family.

Climate[edit]

Beach on Ko Tao

Thailand is largely tropical. It's hot and humid all year around with temperatures in the 28-35°C range (82-95°F), a degree of relief provided only in the mountains in the far north of Thailand. The careful observer will, however, note three seasons:

  • Cool: From Nov to the end of Feb, it doesn't rain much and temperatures are at their lowest, although you will barely notice the difference in the south and will only need to pack a sweater if hiking in the northern mountains, where temperatures can fall as low as 5°C. This is the most popular time to visit and, especially around Christmas and New Year's or at Chinese New Year a few weeks later, finding flights and accommodation can be expensive and difficult.
  • Hot: From Mar-Jun, Thailand swelters in temperatures as high as 40°C (104°F) and heat indices in the 50-60°C range (122-140°F). Pleasant enough when sitting on the beach with a drink in hand, but not the best time of year to go temple-tramping in Bangkok.
  • Rainy: From Jul-Oct, although it only really gets underway in Sep, tropical monsoons hit most of the country. This doesn't mean it rains non-stop, but when it does it pours and flooding is not uncommon.

There are local variations to these general patterns. In particular, the southeast coast of Thailand (including Ko Samui) has the rains reversed, with the peak season being May-Oct and the rainy off-season in Nov-Feb.

People[edit]

Thailand's people are largely ethnically Thai, although there are significant minorities of Chinese and assimilated Thai-Chinese throughout the country, Malays in the south near the Malaysian border, Isaan near the Lao border, and hill tribes such as the Karen and the Hmong in the north of the country. Bangkok has a noticeable minority of indigenous Indians. The overwhelmingly dominant religion (95%) is Theravada Buddhism, although Confucianism, Islam, Christianity and animist faiths also jostle for position.

Culture[edit]

Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Mainland Thai culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. However, unlike the Buddhist countries of East Asia, Thailand's Buddhists follow the Theravada school, which is arguably closer to its Indian roots and places a heavier emphasis on monasticism. Thai temples known as wats, resplendent with gold and easily identifiable with their ornate, multicolored, pointy roofs are ubiquitous. Becoming an orange-robed monk for a short period, typically the three-month rainy season, is a common rite of passage for young Thai boys and men. That being said, there are also prominent Mahayana Buddhist temples, most of which were built in Chinese architectural styles to serve the ethnic Chinese community.

One pre-Buddhist tradition that still survives is the spirit house (ศาลพระภูมิ saan phraphuum), usually found at the corner of any house or business, which houses spirits so they don't enter the house and cause trouble. The grander the building, the larger the spirit house, and buildings placed in particularly unlucky spots may have very large ones. Perhaps the most famous spirit house in Thailand is the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, which protects the Erawan Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt Erawan), built in 1956 on a former execution ground, and is now one of the busiest and most popular shrines in the city. It and several other popular shrines pay homage to Hindu deities.

Some traditional arts popular in Thailand include traditional Thai dancing and music, based on religious rituals and court entertainment. There is vibrant popular music scene with morlam and lukthung not at all overshadowed by Western style pop. Famously brutal Thai boxing (muay Thai), derived from the military training of Thai warriors, is undoubtedly the country's best known indigenous sport.

In addition to the mainland Thai culture, there are many other cultures in Thailand including those of the "hill tribes" in the northern mountainous regions of Thailand (e.g., Hmong, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Akha), the southern Muslims, and indigenous island peoples of the Andaman Sea. The ethnic Chinese population has been largely assimmilated into Thai culture, though vestiges of their Chinese heritage can still be found in Bangkok's Chinatown. The Chinese have, however, left a huge impact on Thailand's culinary scene, and many dishes of Chinese origin, such as noodles, roast pork and steamed buns, have been widely adopted and are now seen as an integral part of Thai cuisine.

Calendar[edit]

In addition to the Gregorian calendar, Thailand also uses the Thai solar calendar, the Thai version of the Buddhist calendar, which is 543 years ahead of the common era calendar. Thus, Thai year 2560 corresponds to the Western year 2017. Thai dates in English are often written as B.E., short for "Buddhist Era".

Some Thai holidays are based on the Thai lunar calendar, so their dates change every year.

Holidays[edit]

Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Ayutthaya

Thailand has many holidays, mostly related to Buddhism and the monarchy. Nobody celebrates all of them, except for banks, which seem to be closed a lot.

  • Chinese New Year (ตรุษจีน). The Chinese New Year for 2017 is on 28 January and marks the start of the Year of the Rooster. It is also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year and celebrations can last for about 15 days. Chinese Thais, who are numerous in Bangkok, celebrate by cleaning their houses and offering food to their ancestors. This is mainly a time of abundant feasting. Visit Bangkok's Chinatown or Yaowarat to fully embrace the festivity.
  • Makha Bucha (มาฆบูชา). Falls on the full moon of the third lunar month, which usually falls in February or March, and commemorates the spontaneous gathering of 1,250 people before the Buddha, which led to their ordination and subsequent enlightenment. At temples in Bangkok and throughout Thailand, Buddhists carry candles and walk around the main shrine three times in a clockwise direction.
  • Songkran (สงกรานต์). Undoubtedly the most fun holiday, is the celebration of the Thai New Year, sometime in April (officially 13-15 Apr, but the date varies in some locations). What started off as polite ritual to wash away the sins of the prior year has evolved into the world's largest water fight, which lasts for three full days. Water pistols and Super Soakers are advised and are on sale everywhere. The best places to participate are Chiang Mai, the Khao San Road area in Bangkok, and holiday resorts like Pattaya, Ko Samui and Phuket. You will get very wet, this is not a spectator sport. The water-throwing has been getting more and more unpleasant as people have started splashing iced water onto each other. It is advisable to wear dark clothing, as light colours may become transparent when wet.
  • Coronation Day. 5 May, commemorates the crowning of the current king in 1950 (although his reign actually began on 9 Jun 1946 - making him not only the longest-serving monarch in Thai history, but also the world's longest-serving current head of state).
  • Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง). Falls on the first full moon day in the twelfth month of the lunar calendar, usually in November, when people head to rivers, lakes and even hotel swimming pools to float flower and candle-laden banana leaves (or, these days, Styrofoam) floats called krathong (กระทง). The krathong is meant as an offering to thank the river goddess who gives life to the people. Thais also believe that this is a good time to float away your bad luck and many will place a few strands of hair or finger nail clippings in the krathong. According to tradition, if you make a wish when you set down your krathong and it floats out of sight before the candle burns out, your wish will come true. Some provinces have their own version of Loy Krathong, such as Sukhothai where a spectacular show takes place. To the north, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai have their own unique tradition of launching kom or hot-air lanterns. This sight can be breath-taking as the sky is suddenly filled with lights, rivalling the full moon.
  • King's Birthday (Father's Day). 28 July, the King's birthday is the country's National Day and also celebrated as Father's Day, when Thais pay respect to and show their love for his majesty the king. Buildings and homes are decorated with the King's flag (yellow with his insignia in the middle) and his portrait. Government buildings, as well as commercial buildings, are decorated with lights. In Old Bangkok (Rattanakosin) in particular, around the royal palace, you will see lavish light displays on trees, buildings, and the roads. The Queen's Birthday (12 Aug) is Mother's Day, and is celebrated similarly if with a little less pomp.