An Overview of Thailand
The Kingdom of Thailand is an essentially Buddhist country; it is located in the heart of Southeast Asia, equidistant from China and India. Once known as Siam, Thailand is a crossroads of peoples, cultures and religions, the main one being Buddhism.
It currently has a population of 62 million, occupying an area close to that of France (513,115 square kilometres), and shares borders with Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the West and North, Laos and Cambodia in the North-East and Malaysia in the South.
Thailand is divided into 6 main regions: the North, mountainous, where the more temperate climate allows the cultivation of strawberries and peaches and where elephants are still used to work in the forests; the North-East, a vast plateau bordering the Mekong River, where a bronze civilization nearly 6,000 years old was born; the central plain, rice granary and orchard of Thailand; the East coast and its fine sandy beaches, the favourite place for seaside resorts; the West, where an appropriate relief welcomes the kingdom's hydroelectric installations: the southern peninsula, where tourism is gradually replacing traditional activities such as tin mining, rubber cultivation and fishing.
Thailand enjoys a tropical climate with 3 seasons: summer (March-May); the intermediate season, characterized by alternating tropical rains and sunshine (June-September) and the so-called "cool" season (October-February), where temperatures remain quite summery by European standards.
The average annual temperature is 28°C, with relatively small variations (in Bangkok: 30°C in April and 25°C in December).
Thailand is on time GMT +7 (6 hours ahead of Paris in winter and 5 hours in summer).
The discoveries of the prehistoric site of Ban Chiang (North-East) suggest that Thailand was the cradle of a bronze civilization dating back 5600 years.
The country was settled by successive waves of immigration (Mon, Khmer, Thai) from southern China and slowly invading the fertile plains. Khmer domination extended over part of the territory from the Kingdom of Angkor to the 16th and 17th centuries.
At the beginning of the 13th century, the Thais established themselves in the North, with the kingdoms of Lanna, Phayao and Sukhothaï, which means the Dawn of Happiness. It was in 1238 that two Thai leaders rebelled against the Khmer suzerainty and established themselves in this city, the first independent Thai kingdom.
With Sukhothaï, it is the beginning of the expansion of the Thais in the Chao Phraya river basin, the development of Theravada Buddhism which will become the dominant religion, the creation of the first Thai alphabet and the emergence of a strictly Thai artistic style which will be expressed in painting, sculpture, architecture, literature...
The decline of Sukhothai in the 14th century benefited Ayutthaya, located further south in the Chao Phraya Valley, which became the capital from 1350 to 1767 (the date of its annihilation by the Burmese).
During the 417 years of the reign of the 33 kings of Ayutthaya, Thai culture flourished and forged its personality, freeing itself from Khmer influences while blending with Arab, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and European cultures.
The destruction of Ayutthaya is a terrible shock for the Thais. But a few months later, King Taksin drove out the Burmese and set up a new capital in Thon Buri.
First ruler of the Chakri dynasty (now reigning), Rama I signed the birth of Bangkok, opposite Thon Buri, on the other side of the Chao Phraya.
Thanks to the foresight of Rama IV (Mongkut, 1851-1868) and his son Rama V (Chulalongkorn, 1868-1910), Siam escaped colonization and embarked on the path of modernization.
Since 1932, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy. The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, exercises, like his predecessors, his legislative power under the control of the National Assembly, his executive power under the control of a Government headed by the Prime Minister and his judicial power under the control of the Nation's legal system.
Throughout its long history, Thailand has been able to absorb its immigrants smoothly. Its original culture has been enriched by various talents thanks to the newcomers: writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians, architects...
The current population reflects the diversity of the different ethnic groups that make up the population: Thais, Mon, Khmers, Laotians, Chinese, Malay, Persians and Indians, mainly. As a result, it is difficult to refer to a particular physical type.
About 64% of the population still live in the countryside, which has enabled the maintenance of a particularly rich traditional culture, especially in terms of religious festivals and ceremonies.
More than 90% of Thais practice Theravada Buddhism, a religion that strongly influences their daily lives.
The appearance of Buddhism in Thailand dates back to the same century BC, in the city of Nakhon Pathom, which houses the largest Buddhist monument in the world. The propagators of this new religion were Indian monks, sent to Southeast Asia by Emperor Asoka (267-227 BC).
Buddhism is at the origin of the moral code and cohesion of Thai society. While spreading his spiritual qualities, he created an incomparable artistic momentum. Like the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, the most beautiful Buddhist monuments were inspired by faith.
The strength of Buddhism in Thailand is also sustained by a custom of sending almost all young people to study the Buddha's teaching in a monastery, at least once in their lives. This temporary ordination, which lasts from 5 days to 3 months, is generally carried out during the rainy season, a period when monks do not leave their monasteries. For this reason, it is called "the Rain Retreat".
The Buddhist temple traditionally plays an important role in the life of the Thais. In the countryside, it is also the village hotel (for pilgrims), the school, the dispensary, the place where news is learned and even the employment agency!
Thais have always practiced tolerance towards other beliefs. All minorities (Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs) enjoy freedom of worship in Thailand.
The Thai language, spoken or written, remains hermetic for most visitors. However, the use of English is widespread, particularly in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket in commercial activities. In hotels, shops, restaurants, banks, international offices or car rental services, English and a few other European languages are still the most widely used. Road signs, in Thai and English, are almost widespread.