Chopstick Cinema

Celeste Heiter's Adventures in Asian Food & Film

The History & Culture of Thailand


Thailand is located on the continent of Asia, on a large southeast peninsula, bordered by Cambodia and Laos to the east, Myanmar to the west, and Malaysia to the south. Its main landmass is a spacious inland region, descending southward into a narrow peninsula, which it shares with Myanmar and Malaysia. It is bordered by the Gulf of Thailand to the east, and the Andaman Sea to the west. With an elevation only a few feet above sea level, the heart of the country is flat and fertile, with irrigation from the Mekong, Nan, Yom, Ping and Wang Rivers.

The north is mountainous, with peaks rising to 8,500 ft (2,590 m), ranging south along the Myanmar border to the west. The northern region is heavily forested, mainly with teak trees. The east and northeast are defined by the Korat plateau and the Phetchabun Mountains. The climate there is dry, and livestock is the primary product. The narrow southern peninsula, which includes the island of Phuket, is mountainous and covered with tropical jungles.

Thailand has a monsoon climate, with 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 peninsula is typically hot and humid year-round.

Thailand is divided into 76 provinces called changwat,which are further divided into 5 groups of provinces. The name of the province is the same as that of the capital city, which is sometimes preceded with a Mueang to avoid confusion with the province. With the exception of Songkhla the capital is also the biggest city in the province. Bangkok Province is the most populous, and the largest province by area is Nakhon Ratchasima. Except for Bangkok, which has an elected governor, each province is administered by a governor appointed by the Ministry of the Interior. Major cities include Bangkok, the capital, Ayutthaya, the ancient capital, Chiang Mai in the north, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nakhon Sawan, and Songkhla.

The capital city of Bangkok is a major commercial, political and cultural center, as well as a hub for transportation, including most international airlines, a well developed system of railroads and inland waterways, an interational seaport, and a network of paved highways. Transportation is readily available to Chiang Mai, and the Korat plateau, as well as to the neighboring countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia.

Agriculture and Industry

Agriculture is the primary industry of Thailand, with rice being its most abundant crop. Thailand leads the world in the export of rice. Among Thailand's other agricultural products are corn, tapioca, sugarcane, rubber, jute, hemp, kapok and tobacco. Teak wood is also an important natural resource. Fishing, both marine and freshwater, is one of Thailand's most essential industries, The Thai people rely on seafood for much of their sustenance, and the export of deep-sea fish, as well as commercially farmed shrimp, is another important element of the Thai economy. Thailand is rich in minerals, with tin being the most abundant, as well as tungsten, lead and zinc, iron ore, gold, salt, lignite, petroleum, sand for asphalt and glass, and precious stones, especially sapphires and rubies.

Other major industries include the processing of agricultural products and natural resources, including rice milling, sugar refining, textile spinning and weaving, rubber refinery, tobacco processing, timber milling, steel milling, oil refinery, and tin smelting. Thailand has both auto and machine assembly plants, and in recent years, the electronics industry has become one of its fastest growing enterprises. Thailand also manufactures building materials, pharmaceuticals, glass, jewelry, and other consumer goods. And because of its natural beauty and tropical climate, Thailand is the destination of choice for millions of tourists each year.

The Thai People

Thailand's population is mostly homogeneous, with more than 85% sharing its culture and speaking one of several dialects of the Thai language. However, several other ethnic groups make up a significant segment of the population, including nearly 15% of Chinese origin, 2% Malay-speaking Muslims in the southern region, and smaller groups such as Khmer, Mon, Vietnamese, and the mountain-dwelling Hmong, Mein and Karen tribes. Although Thailand has several urban centers that make up more than 30% of its population, the majority of the Thai people live in the central, northeastern, and northern agricultural regions.


Theravada Buddhism is the state religion, which accounts for the religious practices of about 95% of the population. However, the Thai government allows religious freedom, including Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Spirit worship and animism are also widely practiced.


The constitution of Thailand specifies 12 years of government-funded education for its children. There are also five universities in Bangkok, one in Chiang Mai, and numerous technical colleges in various locations throughout the country.

Thai language

Thai is the official language of Thailand, spoken by about 25 million people. It is part of the Tai-Kadai language family that originated in southern China. It is a tonal language with a complex alphabet and many regional dialects. The Thai language also consists of several different levels, from informal street Thai, to polite Thai for social interaction, as well as a rhetorical form for public speaking, a sacred form for religious purposes and royal Thai spoken only by the nobility.

The Thai alphabet is derived from the Old Khmer script, which is a southern Brahmic script of the Indic family. There is no universal standard for transliterating Thai into English, and text books and dictionaries often follow different systems. And with the exception of compound words and words of foreign origin, most words in the Thai language are monosyllabic. English is also widely spoken in Thailand's cosmopolitan cities.


The visual arts in Thailand are deeply rooted in Buddhism, defined by a number of distinctive styles from different periods throughout history. And although Thailand's fine artists have developed contemporary styles, they often incorporate traditional elements into modern compositions.


Throughout the ages, Thai literature has been significantly influenced by India, with the most notable literary work being a Thai version of the Ramayana called the Ramakien, composed by King Rama I and Rama II. The poetry of Sunthorn Phu is also one of Thailand's most important classical literary works.


Thai dance is an important means of physical expression. This highly refined and stylized art is divided into three categorie: khon, lakhon and likay- khon, and features colorful costumes with ornate headdresses. Nang drama, a form of shadow play, is also performed in the southern region.


Thai music includes ancient classical and traditional folk forms, as well as contemporary pop music. Thai classical music arose during the Ayuthaya period, and early Thai ensembles called piphat were formed to accompany theater performances, and featured woodwind and percussion instruments. Stringed instruments were later added to form another type of orchestra called khruang sai, and melodic percussion instruments were added to form groups called mahori. The Thai scale includes seven equal notes, with instruments improvising around a primary melody

The two most popular styles of traditional Thai music are luk thung and mor lam. Luk thung is a form of Thai country 'blues' music, developed around the 1950's, and focusing on the daily travails of the rural working class. The most notable early pioneers in this musical genre were Ponsri Woranut and Suraphon Sombatjalern, and an all luk thung radio station, featuring the music of such stars as Pompuang Duanjan, was founded in 1997, and

Mor lam is a form of folk music originating in the northeastern Isan region, largely inhabited by the Lao people. It focuses on the hardships of the poor in rural communities and is characterized by fast, rhythmic lyrics accompanied by funk-style percussion. The lead singer is typically accompanied by a bamboo wind-instrument called a khaen.

Western music was introduced to Thailand beginning in the 1920's, including classical music, show tunes, tango, and especially jazz. A musical genre called pleng Thai sakorn, also evolved from Western classical music, and later into another romantic form called luk grung, popular among the upper class.

In the 1960's, pop and rock music was introduced to Thailand, and Thai musicians began developing their own genre of pop music called wong shadow, and string. Thailand even developed its own form of protest songs called pleng phua cheewit, which has has strong political influences.


The national sport of Thailand is a form of boxing called Muay Thai, the most popular spectator sport. Another sport called takraw is played with the feet and a light rattan ball, and soccer is also growing in popularity.


The most prevalent Thai custom is the wai, a bow of the head, accompanied by prayer-like gesture with the hands, used as a greeting, farewell or acknowledgment. Variations of the wai reflect the status of those giving and receiving the gesture. It is customary to remove shoes before entering a home or temple. Stepping on the threshold is also taboo. It is considered rude to touch someone else's head, and one's feet should always be pointed away from others, and should never be placed above the level of another person's head. And because the king's head is pictured on Thai currency, it is very rude to step a coin. Public displays of romantic affection between couples is also frowned upon.

Calendar and Holidays

The Thai calendar begins on January 1, with Wan Khun Pee Mai, New Year's Day, but also calculates some holidays and observances based on the lunar calendar. Other fixed holidays include Chakri Day on April 6, commemorating King Rama I, founder of the Chakri dynasty, April 13-April 15, celebrating Thai New Year Songkran, Labour Day on May 1, Coronation Day on May 5 to commemorate the coronation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1950, Mid Year Day on July 1, Mother's Day on August 12, which also commemorates birthday of Queen Sirkirit, Chulalongkorn Day on October 23 to commemorate King Rama V, Fathers Day on December 5, which also commemorates the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Constitution Day on December 10, to commemorate the change to constitutional monarchy in 1932, and New Year's Eve on December 31.

Other festivals include Thai children Day on the second Saturday in January; Teachers Day on January 16; Thai Army Day on January 25 when the Thai King Rama watches a military parade; Chinese New Year, based on the lunar calendar; Chakri day on April 6 to commemorate the Chakri dynasty; the Songkran festival from April 13-15, celebrating the ancient New Year's Day; Royal Ploughing on May 9, symbolizing the beginning of the sowing season when Brahmin priests bless seeds and make symbolic furrows using a plough pulled by buffaloes.

Lunar Holidays include Makha Bucha on the night of the full moon in February, commemorating the day that Buddha ordained 1250 followers and taught them the principles of Buddhism. At night, candlelit processions walk three times around the temple, once for Buddha, once for the Sangha Buddhist monk community, and once for the Dharma Buddhist teachings.

Vaisakh Bucha in May commemorates the birth, enlightenment, entry into the nirvana of Buddha. Asanha Puja, the day just before the Buddhist Lent day in July, commemorates the first sermon of Buddha to his five first disciples. And Khao Phansa Buddhist Lent day, the beginning of the Buddhist rain retreat which last three months, during which monks are not allowed to sleep outside their temple and there are no important feasts in Thailand, including weddings. Khao Phansa ends in October with a month-long ceremony called Thot Kathin, in which monks emerge from the temples,and people from all over Thailand gather to bring them offerings of robes and food.

Loi Krathong day is a religious event which happens every year on the first full moon of November. All Thai people buy or make a Krathong, floating wreaths of banana leaves, with flowers and a candle, which is set adrift on a nearby river as an offering to the spirit of the water to wash away their sins. According to an ancient proverb, when a boy and a girl float a krathong together, they will be lovers either in this life or the

History of Thailand

Thailand's earliest human inhabitants developed one of the oldest Bronze Age civilizations, dating back to 4000 B.C. at Ban Chiang, near Udon. Agriculture began with the cultivation of rice, followed soon thereafter by social and political organization. Human migrations from southern China to Southeast Asia occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries, when Malay, Mon, and Khmer civilizations inhabited the region before to the arrival of the Thai race. Formerly residing in Yunnan, China, by 650 A.D. they had established the independent kingdom of Nanchao, which was eventually conquered by Chinese at the end of the first milleneum. In 1253, the Mongols, led by Kublai Khan, forced the Thai people south where the Khmer Empire was already established in the Chao Phraya valley and on the Korat plateau.

The nation of Thailand was founded in the 13th century, when Thai chieftains overthrew Khmer overlords at Sukhothai in 1238 and established the Sukhothai kingdom, which lasted more than 100 years. King Rama Kamheng, whose 40-year reign began in 1275, developed the Thai alphabet, borrowed from the Khmers of Cambodia, which is still in use today. He also expanded Sukhothai territory southward to the Andaman Sea and into the Malay Peninsula. Under his rule, diplomatic relations were also established with India. After the death of Rama Kamheng, the kingdom of Sukhothai declined and conquered by Rama Tibodi, prince of Utong, who established a new capital at Ayutthaya the Chao Phraya River. King Ramathibodi I, the first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, is credited with the establishment of Theravada Buddhism, and the drafting of a legal code known as Dharmashastra, which remained in use until just before the turn of the 20th century.

During the 16th century, Ayutthaya established contact with Europe through Portuguese traders, however, its outside influences were mostly limited to bordering countries, as well as India and China. Around that same time, the kings of Ayutthaya joined forces and waged a series of wars against the kingdoms of Chiang Mai and Cambodia that lasted into the 19th century. During the 16th century, also marked the beginning of an ongoing conflict with Burma, in which the Burmese captured Ayutthaya 1568 and ruled Thailand until 1583, when King Naresuan finally drove out and captured the Burmese strongholds of Tanintharyi, Tavoy, and Mergui.

1767 marks the beginning of an era known as the Bangkok period. After more than 400 years of power, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was conquered by Burmese armies, and divided into six territories. Burmese General Taksin established a new capital at Thonburi declared himself king in 1769. He was succeeded by General Chakri 1782, who established the Chakri Dynasty and became known as Kiing Rama I. He founded a new capital at Bangkok, on the Chao Phraya River, across from the former capital of Thonburi.

In the early 19th century, Thailand, or Siam as it was known then, began diplomatic relations with Europe and the U.S., and due to the diplomacy practiced during the reigns of King Mongkut and his son King Chulalongkorn in the mid-19th century, Thailand remained the only country in Southeast Asia that did not fall under European colonial rule. The country's modern name, Thailand, or Prathet Thai, means 'free nation' and was officially declared on May 11, 1949.

The monarchy of Thailand was toppled by a peaceful coup d'?tat in 1932, led by Pibul Songgram and Pridi Phanomyang, two young men who had been educated in Europe according to western ideology. The first general elections were held in 1932, and the government of Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok abdicated the throne to his ten-year old nephew, Ananda Mahidol. Pibul Songgram became premier in 1938, and immediately established a program of expansion by renewing claims in Cambodia, Laos and Burma. The Japanese entered Thailand under the auspices of mediation, and in 1942 the government of Thailand, under Japanese influence, declared war on Great Britain and the United States. After the war Thailand was forced to return its territories to French and British control. Pridi Phanomyang became premier, and Pibul was jailed as a war criminal. King Ananda Mahidol died in 1946, ostensibly by accident while cleaning his gun. He was succeeded by Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest-reigning king of Thailand. Pibul overthrew the government headed by Pridi, who fled Thailand and later served as the leader of the Communist "Free Thai? movement in Beijing.

Under Pibul's restored regime, Thailand signed an economic aid agreement and received military grants from the United States. In return, Thailand sent troops to Korea in 1950. In 1957, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat let a military coup led against Pibul, and made General Thanom Kittikachorn became premier. The following year however, under the auspices of preventing Communist takeover, Sarit forced Thanom Kittikachorn out of office, declared martial law and suspended the constitution. King Bhumibol Adulyadej drafted an interim constitution, and appointed Sarit premier. Sarit served as premier for four years, until his death in 1963, and Thanom Kittikachorn was reinstated.

A new constitution was framed in 1968, and under the leadership of Sarit and Thanom, Thailand's economy flourished in the 1960's, largely due to exports and generous U.S. financial aid. Once again, Thailand supported the U.S. military action in Vietnam, providing auxiliary troops and acting as a strategic military base for U.S. forces. In 1967, Thailand became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The following decade saw a sharp decline in Thailand's economy and export trade, a threat to its security with the spread of Communism, and another coup by Premier Thanom Kittikachorn, which abolished the constitution and the parliament and imposed a military regime. In 1973, Thanom was forced out of office by violent demonstrations and was replaced by a civilian, Sanya Thammasak, who promised general elections and a new constitution. In May 1974, Sanya tendered his resignation due to the overwhelming state of affairs in Thailand, but he was later urged to form a new government. Within a month, he was sworn in as the head of a civilian cabinetm and a new constitution was ratified in October.

By 1976, the military had taken over the government of Thailand once again, a regime that would last for nearly two decades. In the interim, the nation suffered as a result of surrounding military conflice in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and Burma, as well as the migration of refugees. In 1992, opposition by a popular majority prompted King Bhumibol Adulyadej to appoint civilian as interim prime minister, and hold democratic elections, in which Chuan Leekpai became prime minister. In 1995, the constitution was reformed, lowering the voting age to 18, guaranteeing equal rights for women, and a reduction in the military-dominated senate. Since then, a series of scandals and collapses in the government of Thailand have resulted in the fall of Chuan Leekpai, followed by Banharn Silpa-archa, and Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. Chuan Leekpai was reinstated as prime minister, yet another constitution was approved in 1997.

Since that time, Thailand has experienced a series of downturns and upswings in its economy, with the devaluation of the Thai baht causing a severe recession, followed by the award of $17 billion in rescue funds from the International Monetary Fund. By the year 2000, Thailand's economy had stabilized, however, its government continues to struggle for popular support. Elections held in 2001 resulted in a victory for the Thai Rak Thai party, and the appointment of Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, whose office has already come under scrutiny for corruption, censorship of the media, and police brutality. The SARS epidemic left a large deficit in Thailand's tourist industry, and Islamic unrest poses a continual threat. Nevertheless, Thailand remains a viable nation, both politically and economically, and continues to maintain the rich cultural heritage and spirit that has sustained it for more than seven centuries.