Thailand has a tropical, monsoonal climate. The heart of the country, the fertile and thickly populated central plain, is dotted with numerous rice paddies, entirely flat and rarely more than a few feet above sea level. It is watered by the Chao Phraya and lesser rivers and is elaborately veined by a system of canals (called klongs) for irrigation and drainage. Bangkok and Ayutthaya, the old capital, are in that basin.
The north is mountainous, with peaks rising to c.8,500 ft (2,590 m); mountains stretch south along the boundary with Myanmar on the west. Forests in the north yield teak, although overcutting has decreased Thailand's forest reserves severely. Although the population in the north is relatively sparse, rice is intensively cultivated in the river valleys, and one of the country's major cities, Chiang Mai, is in that area.
Most of NE and E Thailand is occupied by the Korat (Khorat) plateau, which is cut off from the rest of the country by highlands and the Phetchabun Mts. It is a hilly, dry, and generally poor region, where livestock raising is dominant. Chief towns are Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), Udon Thani, and Ubon Ratchathani.
Peninsular Thailand in the south (which includes Phuket and other offshore islands) is largely mountainous and covered with jungles. It is the principal source of the rubber and tin that make Thailand a major world producer of both. Chief towns of the peninsula are Hat Yai and Songkhla, the second largest port of the country.
While 75% of the people are ethnically Thai, the country has a large Chinese minority, accounting for almost 15% of the population. Local trade is chiefly in the hands of the Chinese, and as a consequence there has been substantial tension between Thais and Chinese. Other sizable minorities include the Muslim Malays, concentrated in the southern peninsula; the hill tribes of the north; the Khmers, or Cambodians, who are found in the southeast and on the Cambodian border; and the Vietnamese, who live along the Mekong River. While the ethnic minorities generally speak their own languages, Thai (linguistically related to Chinese) is the official tongue; English predominates among the Western languages. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion; some 95% of the people are Buddhists, while about 5% are Muslims.
Agriculture employs almost 50% of the population but makes up only 10% of the gross domestic product. Rice is by far the leading commercial crop, followed by rubber, corn, sugarcane, coconuts, and soybeans. Thailand's teak, once a major export, is still a valuable commodity. Marine and freshwater fisheries are important; fish provide most of the protein in the diet, and some of the deep-sea catches (mackerel, shark, shrimp, crab) are exported. Thailand is also a major exporter of farmed shrimp. Tin and tungsten are the most valuable minerals and major export items. Lead, zinc, and antimony are also mined for export. Iron ore, gold, precious and semiprecious stones (especially saphires and rubies), salt, lignite, petroleum, natural gas, asphaltic sand, and glass sand are exploited on a smaller scale.
Thailand has substantial hydroelectric potential, which is being developed; projects have been constructed on the Ping, Mekong, Phong, and Songkhram rivers. Industry is growing and is focused chiefly on the processing of agricultural products; rice milling is by far the most important, followed by sugar refining, textile spinning and weaving, and the processing of rubber, tobacco, and forest products. The manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment, including computers and integrated circuits, became important in the late 20th cent., causing a substantial rise in the per capita gross domestic product. Lumbering is concentrated in the north. Other industries include steel production, oil refining, tin smelting, and vehicle and machine assembly. Small factories, many of which are in the Bangkok area, manufacture jewelry, furniture, plastics, glass, and pharmaceuticals. Tourism is the leading source of foreign exchange, and handicraft production has a ready market in the tourist trade. Thailand is also a major transshipment point for illicit heroin and has become a drug-money-laundering center. The main exports are textiles and footwear, fishery products, rice, rubber, jewelry, automobiles, computers, and electrical appliances. The chief imports are capital and consumer goods, raw materials, and fuels. The main trading partners are Japan, the United States, China, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Bangkok is a key point on round-the-world air routes. It is the political, commercial, cultural, and transportation center of the country, with the only port that can accommodate oceangoing vessels. Thailand's railroads originate in Bangkok and extend to Chiang Mai, the Korat plateau, and to Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia; a corresponding network of paved highways has been constructed. Thailand's inland waterways—a complex, interconnected system of rivers, streams, and canals—have been important arteries since ancient times; barges and boats still carry well over half the cargo moved in the central plain.
Thailand is governed under an interim constitution, established after the 2006 coup, its 17th since 1932. The king is the head of state. The interim prime minister and 250-member unicameral national assembly are appointed by the Council of National Security. A new constitution, approved in Aug., 2007, provides for a bicameral national legislature. The Senate will have 150 members, 76 of whom are to be popularly elected; the rest will be chosen by a panel of judges and the heads of independent national oversight bodies. The 480-member House of Representatives will have 400 members elected from constituencies; the rest will be elected on a proportional basis. The prime minister, who will be the head of government, cannot serve more than eight consecutive years in the post.
Like other countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand in prehistoric times was peopled through successive migrations from central Asia into territory already inhabited by the Negrito peoples. Although a few Thai groups (ethnically related to the Shan of Myanmar and the Lao of Laos) migrated to the northern hill country of Thailand, the main body of Thais remained in Yunnan, China, where by A.D. 650 they had organized the independent kingdom of Nanchao. By 1000, however, the Chinese had overrun Nanchao and made it a tributary state. With the destruction of the kingdom of Nanchao by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1253, the slow infiltration of Thailand from the north turned into a mass migration. By that time the Khmer Empire was well established in the Chao Phraya valley and on the Korat plateau.
The Thais captured the Khmer town of Sukhothai, in N central Thailand, and a new Thai nation, with its capital at Sukhothai, soon developed. During this period (c.1260-1350), King Rama Kamheng, whose 40-year reign began c.1275, borrowed from the Khmers of Cambodia the alphabet that the Thais still use. He extended Sukhothai power southward to the sea and down the Malay Peninsula, and contact was made with India. After the death of Rama Kamheng, Sukhothai declined and was absorbed by Rama Tibodi, prince of Utong, who established (c.1350) a new capital at Ayutthaya. The kings of Ayutthaya consolidated their power in S Siam and the Malay Peninsula, then launched a long series of indecisive wars against the Lao state of Chiang Mai and against Cambodia, which did not end until the 19th cent. The 16th cent. saw the beginnings of warfare with the Burmese; in 1568 the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and dominated the country until c.1583, when King Naresuan (1555-1605) drove them from Siam. He captured Tanintharyi and Tavoy in S Myanmar and the major port of Mergui.Contacts with Europe
Siam's relations with the West commenced after 1511, when Portuguese traders and missionaries began to arrive. Adroit diplomacy, developed during this time, enabled Siam to remain independent of European colonization, the only country in Southeast Asia able to do so. In the early 17th cent. the Dutch and British broke Portugal's monopoly. Siam became, so far as Europe was concerned, the most consequential kingdom in Southeast Asia, and the brilliance of its court under King Narai (reigned 1657-88) was proverbial. The French, aided by the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who had risen to power at the Siamese court, launched a bid for dominance in Siam that provoked an antiforeign coup (1688). Phaulkon was executed, and Siam was closed to most foreigners for over a century.The Building of a Modern State
In 1767 the Burmese, after several attempts, finally destroyed Ayutthaya. Gen. Phya Tak, or Taksin, however, quickly rallied the Thai forces, and within a decade he drove (c.1777) the Burmese from the country and established his capital at Thon Buri. His successor, General Chakkri (reigned 1782-1809), later known as Rama I, moved the capital from Thon Buri across the river to Bangkok and founded the Chakkri dynasty, thereafter the ruling house of Siam. In the 19th cent. the authority of Bangkok was at last established over N Siam, and relations with the West were resumed; Siam signed commercial treaties with Great Britain (1826) and the United States (1833). The independence of the kingdom was threatened, however, when Great Britain extended its sway to Malaya and Burma, and France carved out an empire in Indochina.
By opening their posts to European trade, by bringing in Western advisers, by strengthening the central administration as against the hereditary provincial chieftains, and by playing off British against French interests, the Siamese managed to stay free. Even so, the establishment of Siam's boundaries meant the surrender of its claims to Laos (1893) and parts of Cambodia (1907) and of its suzerainty over Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu (1909), on the Malay Peninsula. The Pattani sultanate (now Thailand's three southern provinces), however, was annexed in 1902. The Westernization of Siam took place under an absolute monarchy and was chiefly the work of Mongkut (reigned 1851-68), or Rama IV, and his son Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868-1910), or Rama V. Siam became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, when a bloodless coup forced Prajadhipok (reigned 1925-35), Rama VII, to grant a constitution.Pibul and Pridi
The two young leaders of the coup, Pibul Songgram and Pridi Phanomyang, both educated in Europe and influenced by Western ideas, came to dominate Thai politics in the ensuing years. In 1934 the first general elections were held; a year later Prajadhipok abdicated, and a council of regency chose Ananda (reigned 1935-46) as Rama VIII. Pibul Songgram, a militarist, became premier in 1938. He changed the country's name to Thailand and instituted a program of expansion. Taking advantage of the initial French defeat (1940) in World War II, he renewed Thai claims in Cambodia and Laos. Japanese "mediation" resulted (1941) in territorial concessions to Thailand. In Dec., 1941, Pibul, despite the objections of Pridi Phanomyang, permitted the Japanese to enter Thailand, and in 1942 the government, under Japanese pressure, declared war on Great Britain and the United States.
With the help of the United States, Pridi formed a militant anti-Japanese underground. In 1943, Japan "granted" to Thailand territory in N Malaya and in the Shan states of Myanmar, but after the war Thailand was forced to return these territories and those acquired in 1941 to French and British control. Pridi Phanomyang became premier in the postwar government, while Pibul was briefly jailed as a war criminal. Pridi restored the name Siam as a repudiation of Pibul's policies. Inflation, corruption in government, and the mysterious death (1946) of King Ananda all contributed to the overthrow (1947) of Pridi's government by Pibul. Pridi fled the country and in 1954 appeared in Beijing as the professed leader of the Communist "Free Thai" movement, allegedly representing numerous Thais still in Yunnan, China.
Under Pibul's military dictatorship, the name Thailand was again adopted. Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, was crowned king in 1950 after a four-year regency. Thailand signed (1950) a technical and economic aid agreement with the United States and sent troops in support of the United Nations action in Korea. Thailand has received huge military grants from the United States and was the seat (1954-77) of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The country, apprehensive over its proximity to China, remained consistently pro-Western in international outlook.Modern Thailand
In 1957 a military coup led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat overthrew Pibul Songgram and made Gen. Thanom Kittikachorn premier. In 1958, however, with the stated purpose of combating Communism, Sarit deposed his own premier, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law. King Bhumibol Adulyadej proclaimed an interim constitution in 1959 and named Sarit premier. When Sarit died in 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn was returned to power. A new constitution was finally promulgated in 1968. Under Sarit and Thanom the country's economy in the 1960s continued to boom, spurred by a favorable export market and considerable U.S. aid. Thailand strongly supported the U.S. policy in South Vietnam, providing bases for U.S. troops and airfields for strikes against the North Vietnamese; thousands of Thai troops were sent in support of South Vietnam. The nation's foreign policy was closely geared to the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and its economy became increasingly dependent upon U.S. military spending and subsidies. Thailand became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.
Economic reversals came in 1970 when the international demand for rice dropped substantially (due in part to improved farming techniques in other countries) and the prices of tin and rubber fell; for the first time since 1933, Thailand suffered a trade deficit. In addition, the security of the country appeared threatened by the spread of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos and by growing insurgencies, chiefly Communist led, in three separate areas within Thailand itself: in the south, where Malaysian Communists used Thailand as a staging base for operations in Malaysia and Thai Malay separatists mounted an insurgency that continued into the 1980s; in the north, where Communists trained in North Vietnam were believed to be organizing the hill peoples; and, most significantly, in the economically backward northeastern provinces, where a discontented minority had been active since the mid-1950s.
The increasing economic and security problems prompted a coup in Nov., 1971, by Premier Thanom Kittikachorn and three military aides, in which they abolished the constitution and the parliament and imposed military rule. Guerrilla raids against both Thai government forces and U.S. air bases continued. Economic conditions improved throughout 1972 as large numbers of U.S. military personnel were transferred from South Vietnam to bases in Thailand; by June of that year there were more U.S. forces in Thailand than in South Vietnam.
In Oct., 1973, the military regime of Thanom was toppled after a week of student demonstrations and violence in Bangkok. King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed Sanya Thammasak as Thanom's successor, giving Thailand its first civilian premier in twenty years. The new premier promised to complete a constitution and to hold general elections. In May, 1974, citing the heavy burden of the office and the sharp criticism directed against the government, Sanya resigned, but he was soon persuaded to form a new government. In June he was sworn in as the head of a revamped, all-civilian cabinet. A new constitution was promulgated in Oct., 1974. Over the next few years the civilian government made little headway in establishing its authority. In 1976, the military took control of the government once again. After that, the military held power almost continuously until the early 1990s.
From the late 1970s, Thailand's political concerns were dominated by pressures resulting from warfare in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and serious unrest in Myanmar (Burma); Thailand also experienced a massive influx of refugees from these countries. From 1975 onward, Thailand was a way station for Hmong refugees immigrating to the United States under its resettlement program. The Khmer Rouge used Thailand as a staging area after they were driven out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, and internal fighting within the Cambodian government in 1997 sent a new flow of refugees into Thailand.
In 1992 there were signs of popular opposition to continued military rule and, after antigovernment demonstrators were killed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed a civilian as interim prime minister. In the Sept., 1992, elections, parties opposed to the military won a majority, and Chuan Leekpai became prime minister of a coalition government. In Jan., 1995, parliament approved a package of constitutional reforms that lowered the voting age to 18, guaranteed equal rights for women, and reduced membership in the military-dominated senate. New elections were held in July, 1995, after Chuan's government fell because of a land-reform scandal; the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party won a slight plurality, and Banharn Silpa-archa became prime minister, heading a seven-party coalition. His government collapsed in Dec., 1996, and he was succeeded by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. However, Chavalit resigned under pressure in Nov., 1997, and Chuan Leekpai once again became prime minister. A new constitution was approved in Sept., 1997.
Despite its unsteady political climate, Thailand appeared to have one of the strongest economies in SE Asia. However, following years of speculation in the real estate market and growing corruption in government, its currency plummeted in July, 1997, setting off a crisis in Asian financial markets and plunging the country into a deep recession. The International Monetary Fund pledged to provide Thailand with a $17 billion rescue package, and by 2000 the economy was experiencing a recovery, but the economic pain led in a loss of support for the government. Elections in Jan., 2001, resulted in a victory for the Thai Rak Thai party (Thais Love Thais; TRT) and its allies, the Chart Thai and Khwam Wang Mai (New Aspiration) parties. Thaksin Shinawatra of the TRT became prime minister, but an anticorruption commission accused him of concealing his assets, raising the possibility that he would be banned from politics for five years. Thailand's high court, however, cleared him in a close decision in August. The new government has privatized a number of state-owned companies, but it also has been marked by investigations into and disclosures of significant corruption.
In 2004 there were attacks by Muslim separatists in Thailand's three southern provinces. Muslims, who are in the majority in the provinces, complained of discrimination in education and employment. The conflict was exacerbated by the sometimes excessive response of the Thai police and military. In Dec., 2004, areas of S Thailand along the Indian Ocean were devastated by a tsunami; an estimated 8,000 people, some of them foreign tourists, died. The government's response to the disaster and the nation's generally improved economic conditions resulted in strong support for the TRT and the prime minister in the Feb., 2005, parliamentary elections, and the governing coalition increased its majority in the lower house. Continuing attacks by Muslim separatists in the south led the prime minister to assume emergency powers in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, a former ally of the prime minister, began publicly criticizing Thaksin for corruption and poor government performance, first on his television program and, after being forced off the air in Aug., 2005, at public rallies. Thaksin responded with libel suits, and there were attacks on Sondhi's offices. In Dec., 2005, the king, in a rare criticism of the government, rebuked Thaksin for suing Sondhi, and the prime minister subsequently withdrew his lawsuits.
A controversial stock sale (Jan., 2006) by Thaksin's children, who sold a nearly 50% stake in the family communications business to a Singapore-government-owned company and legally avoided taxes on the deal, gave new life to anti-government protests. In February the prime minister called a snap election, but the opposition boycotted the April vote. The TRT won a majority of the seats, but 10% of the constituencies failed to elect a representative (all seats must be filled for a government to be formed) and there was a sizable number of abstentions. Thaksin announced he would step aside and "rest," but he did not resign as prime minister as demanded by the opposition. A second ballot in late April still failed to fill all the seats, leading the king to call on the courts to resolve the problem. In May the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid.
Thaksin resumed his post later in the month, and a new election was tentatively scheduled for October. Meanwhile the late April election of the senate, intended to be independent but dominated by Thaksin supporters, was marred by vote-buying. In June Thaksin said he would support the proposals by a national commission for the three southern provinces; it recommended establishing a regional administrative body to oversee the provinces, using of Malay as a local "working" government language, and avoiding military responses in favor of resolving the problems that had produced the unrest. In mid-June there was a coordinated string of some 40 bombings in the south.
In mid-September the Thai election commission postponed the October parliamentary elections, but shortly thereafter, with Thaksin abroad, the military overthrew him. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the head of the army and close to the king, led the coup. He was named head of the Council of National Security, which under the interim constitution became Thailand's most powerful body. A retired general, Surayud Chulanont, was appointed prime minister in October, and a hand-picked unicameral legislature was also appointed. The same month the new government agreed to talks with Muslim rebels in S Thailand, and then revived a former government agency for the region; the dissolution of the agency had contributed to the current unrest in the south. The policy changes did not, however, reduce rebel attacks, which continued into subsequent years and increased in frequency and brutality.
Meanwhile, in Mar., 2007, Thaksin's wife and others were charged with evading taxes in a 1997 share transfer, and the following month his children were order by a Thai anticorruption committee to pay $616 million in taxes and fines as a result of their 2006 sales of stock in the family telecommunications firm. The government moved in June to seize $1.5 billion in assets belonging to Thaksin and his wife, and also ordered him to return to face corruption charges; he remained in exile. The previous month a court had ordered the TRT party disbanded for breaking the electoral laws in 2006; Thaksin was barred from politics for five years. Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of Thaksin and his wife on corruption charges.
In Aug., 2007, Thai voters approved a new constitution in a referendum, which was subsequently endosed by the king. Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukbhasuk succeeded Sonthi as national security council leader in Oct., 2007. In the parliamentary elections in December, the People Power party (PPP), led by an ally of Thaksin and drawing on Thaksin's rural support, won a plurality of the seats; the vote was seen as a repudiation of the coup. Thaksin's wife returned to Thailand from exile in Jan., 2008. In February the PPP formed a six-party coalition government, with PPP leader Samak Sundaravej as prime minister and many former Thaksin aides in key posts; later that month Thaksin returned to Thailand. In July, one party left the governing coalition because of the PPP's focus on constitutional reform. The opposition began mounting increasing confrontational protests against the government in mid-2008; beginning in August they occupied the grounds of the prime minister's office.
Thai government support for naming the Preah Vihear (Khao Pra Vihar) temple a UNESCO World Heritage site stoked antigovernment demonstrations and led to tensions with Cambodia in July, 2008. Awarded to Cambodia in 1962, the temple is claimed by both nations. The nationalistic outpouring in Thailand, in which opposition groups asserted the government action had undermined Thailand's claim on the temple, led both nations to reinforce their troops along the border near the temple, creating concern about an outbreak of border fighting. In Aug., 2008, both nations agreed to reduce greatly their forces near the temple, but tensions increased the following month and there was a brief clash in October and later in Apr., 2009. Also in Aug., 2008, Thaksin and his wife fled Thailand for Great Britain after she was convicted of tax fraud; he had been charged with abuse of power and other crimes and was convicted in absentia of corruption in Oct., 2008.
In September, days of antigovernment protest in Bangkok sparked clashes between anti- and progovernment demonstrators; clashes also occurred in October and November. Prime Minister Samak was dismissed from office in September by the Constitutional Court; it ruled that Samak's hosting of a television cooking show violated Thailand's conflict of interest law. He was succeeded by Somchai Wongsawat, a former judge and Thaksin's brother-in-law. In late November antigovernment protesters also began a blockade of Bangkok's airports, with damaging consequences for Thailand's tourist industry and agricultural exports. Early the following month the Constitutional Court ruled that the PPP and two smaller coalition parties had engaged in vote buying in the last election; Somchai was barred from politics and the three parties dissolved. Antigovernment activists subsequently ended their protests and blockades. The opposition Democrat party succeeded in forming a governing coalition later in December; party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister.
Thaksin supporters subsequently mounted demonstrations against the new government. In late March the protests in Bangkok became significant, and in mid-April protestors forced the cancellation of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit; demonstrations were also reported in northern and northeastern provinces. Abhisit declared a state of emergency (which lasted two weeks), and used the military to suppress the protests in the capital. In Nov., 2009, Cambodia's naming of Thaksin as a government adviser strained relations between the two nations again.
See Sir John Bowring, The Kingdom and People of Siam (2 vol., 1857; repr. 1972); K. P. Landon, The Chinese in Thailand (1941, repr. 1973); J. Nakahara and R. A. Witton, Development and Conflict in Thailand (1971); R. Syamananda, A History of Thailand (1971); D. K. Wyatt, Thailand, A Short History (1984); C. F. Keyes, Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation State (1987); S. Bundongkarn, The Military in Thai Politics, 1981-1986 (1988).
Inlet of the South China Sea. Mostly bordering Thailand, though Cambodia and Vietnam form its southeastern shore, it is 300–350 mi (500–560 km) wide and 450 mi (725 km) long. Thailand's main harbours lie along its shores, its waters are important fishing grounds, and beaches along its coast are popular tourist attractions.
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Learn more about Thailand with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Inlet of the South China Sea. Mostly bordering Thailand, though Cambodia and Vietnam form its southeastern shore, it is 300–350 mi (500–560 km) wide and 450 mi (725 km) long. Thailand's main harbours lie along its shores, its waters are important fishing grounds, and beaches along its coast are popular tourist attractions.
Learn more about Thailand, Gulf of with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The Kingdom of Thailand (ราชอาณาจักรไทย , râːtɕʰa-ʔaːnaːtɕɑ̀k-tʰɑj) is an independent country which lies in the heart of Southeast Asia. The country is bordered to the north by Laos and Burma, 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 Burma. By the maritime boundary, the country is bordered to the southeast by Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand, to the southwest by Indonesia and India in the Andaman Sea.
The capital and largest city of Thailand is Bangkok. It is also the country's centre of political, commercial, industrial and cultural activities. Bangkok is known in Thai as "Krung Thep Mahanakorn," or, more colloquially, "Krung Thep."
Thailand is considered to be the world's 50th largest country in terms of total area, with a surface area of approximately 513,000 km² (198,000 sq mi), and the world's 20th largest country in terms of population with approximately 63 million people. The population consists 80% of Thais, 10% of Chinese, and 3% of Malay. The rest are minorities such as Mons, Khmers, and various hill tribes. The country's official spoken and written language is Thai.
Thailand is one of the most strongly Buddhist countries in the world. The national religion is Theravada Buddhism which is practiced by more than 95% of all Thais (2002). The cultures and traditions in Thailand are significantly influenced by those of India, China, Cambodia, as well as various countries in Southeast Asia. As a result, seniority plays an important role in the country's cultures. Respect for the elders is essential to Thai's spiritual practices as well as daily lifestyles. Thais are also well-known for their friendliness and hospitality, leading to the country's so called reputation as the "Land of Smiles."
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or King Rama IX, the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, as the present king. The King has reigned for more than half a century, making him the longest reigning Thai monarch. His Majesty the King is recognised as the Head of State, the Head of the Armed Forces, the Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and the Upholder of all religions. Due to the government of the Monarch, Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized or taken over by a European power.
The word Thai (ไทย) is not, as commonly believed, derived from the word Tai (ไท) meaning "free" in the Thai language; it is, however, the name of an ethnic group from the central plains (the Thai people). A famous Thai scholar argued that Tai (ไท) simply means "people" or "human being" since his investigation shows that in some rural areas the word "Tai" was used instead of the usual Thai word "khon" (คน) for people. However that may be, the locals seem to have also accepted the alternative meaning and will verbally state that it means "Land of the free."
Ratcha Anachak Thai (ราชอาณาจักรไทย) means "Kingdom of Thailand" or "Kingdom of Thai." Etymologically, its components are: -Ratcha- (from Sanskrit raja, meaning "king, royal, realm,") ; -ana- (from Pāli āṇā, "authority, command, power," itself from Sanskrit ājñā, same meaning) -chak (from Sanskrit cakra or cakraṃ meaning "wheel", a symbol of power and rule).
The region known today as Thailand has been inhabited by humans since the paleolithic period (about 10,000 years ago). Prior to 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, various Buddhist Tai Kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lanna and Lan Chang were on the ascendancy. However, a century later, Sukhothai's power was overshadowed by the new kingdom of Ayutthaya, established in the mid-14th century.
After Ayutthaya fell in 1767 to the Burmese, Thonburi was the capital of Thailand for a brief period under King Taksin the Great. 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.
Siam retains an immemorial tradition of trade with its neighboring states and the cultures of the Indian ocean and the South China sea. European trade and influence arrived to Thailand in the 16th century, beginning with the Portuguese. Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation never to have been colonised. Two main reasons for this were that Thailand had a long succession of very able rulers in the 1800s and that it was able to exploit the rivalry and tension between the French and the British. As a result, the country remained as a buffer state between parts of Southeast Asia that were colonized by the two colonial powers. Despite this, Western influence led to many reforms in the 19th century and major concessions, most notably being the loss of large territory on the east side of the Mekong to the French and the step by step absorption by Britain of the Shan (Thai Yai) States (now in Burma) and the Malay Peninsula. The loss initially included Penang and Tumasik and eventually culminated in the loss of three predominantly ethnic-Malay southern provinces, which later became Malaysia's three northern states, under the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909.
In 1932, a bloodless revolution resulted in a new constitutional monarchy. During World War II, Thailand became an ally of Japan while at the same time maintaining an active anti-Japanese resistance movement known as the Seri Thai. 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 transgression characterised by coups d'état as one military regime replaced another, but eventually progressed towards a stable prosperity and democracy in the 1980s.
In 1997, Thailand was hit with the Asian financial crisis and the Thai baht for a short time peaked at 56 baht to the US dollar compared to about 25 baht to the dollar before 1997. Since then, the baht has regained most of its strength and as of 23 May 2007, is valued at 32 baht to the US dollar.
The official calendar in Thailand is based on Eastern version of the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (western) calendar. For example, the year AD 2008 is called 2551 BE in Thailand.
The Northern states of the Malay Sultanate presented an annual gift to the Thai King in the form of a golden flower, who looked on this as a form of tribute. 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, Pelis, and Kelantan to the British. Kedah provinces and Patani were given to Thailand.
The Malay Peninsula provinces were infiltrated by the Japanese in the Second World War in 1942 and also by the Malayan Communist Party (CPM) from 1948 to 1998 decided to sign for peace with the Malaysian and Thai Governments after the CPM lost its support from Vietnam and China after the Cultural Revolution.
Recent insurgent uprisings are a continuation of separatist fighting which started after World War II with Sukarno's support for the PULO and has intensified with US President Bush's initiation of the War on Terror. Since the uprisings, most victims have been Buddhist and Muslim bystanders.
The 1997 Constitution created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-seat House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร, sapha phutan ratsadon) and a 200-seat Senate (วุฒิสภา, wuthisapha). For the first time in Thai history, both houses were directly elected. Many human rights are explicitly acknowledged, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments. The House was elected by the first-past-the-post system, where only one candidate with a simple majority could be elected in one constituency. The Senate was elected based on the province system, where one province can return more than one Senator depending on its population size. Members of the House of Representatives served four-year terms, while Senators served six-year terms.
The court system (ศาล, saan) included a constitutional court with jurisdiction over the constitutionality of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, and political matters.
The January 2001 general election, the first election under the 1997 Constitution, was called the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history. The subsequent government was the first in Thai history to complete a 4-year term. The 2005 election had the highest voter turnout in Thai history and was noted for a marked reduction in vote-buying compared to previous elections.
In early 2006, significant pressure from corruption allegations led Thaksin Shinawatra to call for a snap election. The opposition boycotted the elections and Thaksin was re-elected. Pressure continued to build, leading to a military coup on 19 September 2006.
Martial law was partially revoked in January 2007.
The ban on political activities was lifted in July 2007, following the 30 May dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai party. The new constitution has been approved by a referendum on 19 August, which led to a return to democratic elections on 23 December 2007.
Thailand remains an active member of the regional Association of South-East Asian Nations.
Thailand enjoys a high level of literacy, and education is provided by a well organized school system of kindergartens, primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools, numerous vocational colleges, and universities. The private sector of education is well developed and significantly contributes to the overall provision of education which the government would not be able to meet through the public establishments. Education is compulsory up to and including Grade 9, and the government provides free education through to Grade 12.
Thailand has never been colonized, and therefore its educational system does not draw off of European models to a great extent. Education in a modern sense is relatively recent and, according to some sources, still needs to overcome some major cultural hurdles in order to ensure further development and improvement to its standards, which in some respects have fallen to the lowest levels in southeast Asia.
The establishment of reliable and coherent curricula for its primary and secondary schools is subject to such rapid changes that schools and their teachers are not always sure what they are supposed to be teaching, and authors and publishers of textbooks are unable to write and print new editions quickly enough to keep up with the volatile situation. The issue concerning university entrance has therefore also been in constant upheaval for a number of years. Nevertheless, education has seen its greatest progress in the years since 2001, most of the present generation of pupils and students are computer literate, and knowledge of English is on the increase at least in quantity if not in quality.
Thailand is divided into 75 provinces (จังหวัด, 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 76th province.
Each province is divided into districts and the districts are further divided into sub-districts (tambons). As of 2006 there are 877 districts (อำเภอ, amphoe) and the 50 districts of Bangkok (เขต, khet). Some parts of the provinces bordering Bangkok are also referred to as Greater Bangkok (ปริมณฑล, pari monthon). These provinces include Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Pathom and Samut Sakhon. The name of each province's capital city (เมือง, 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 75 provinces are as follows:
NOTE: In italics , that province represents the Greater Bangkok sub-region; in italics , that province represents the West sub-region.
At 514,000 km² (198,000 sq mi) , Thailand is the world's 50th largest country in land mass, whilst it is the world's 20th largest country in terms of population. It is comparable in population to countries such as France and United Kingdom, and is similar in land size to France and California in the US; it is just over twice the size of the entire United Kingdom, and 1.4 times the size of Germany.
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 above sea level (8,415 ft). The northeast, Isan, (see special section on this region) 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.
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. Major cities beside the capital Bangkok include Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Surat Thani, Phuket and Hat Yai.
Thailand is an emerging economy. After enjoying the world's highest growth rate from 1985 to 1996 - averaging 9.4% annually - increased pressure on Thailand's currency, the baht, in 1997, the year in which the economy contracted by 1.9% led to a crisis that uncovered financial sector weaknesses and forced the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh administration to float the currency, however, Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was forced to resign after his cabinet came under fire for its slow response to the crisis. The Baht was pegged at 25 to the US dollar from 1978 to 1997, however, the baht reached its lowest point of 56 to the US dollar in January 1998 and the economy contracted by 10.8% that year. This collapse prompted the Asian financial crisis.
Thailand's economy started to recover in 1999, expanding 4.2% and 4.4% in 2000, largely due to strong exports. Growth (2.2%) was dampened by the softening of the global economy in 2001, but picked up in the subsequent years due to strong growth in Asia, a relatively weak baht encouraging exports and increasing domestic spending as a result of several mega projects and incentives of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, known as Thaksinomics. Growth in 2002, 2003 and 2004 was 5-7% annually. Growth in 2005, 2006 and 2007 hovered around 4-5% Due both to the weakening of the US dollar and an increasingly strong Thai currency, by March 2008, the dollar was hovering around the 33 baht mark.
Thailand exports an increasing value of over $105 billion worth of goods and services annually. Major exports include rice, textiles and footwear, fishery products, rubber, jewelry, automobiles, computers and electrical appliances. Thailand is the world’s no.1 exporter of rice, exporting more than 6.5 million tons of milled rice annually. Rice is the most important crop in the country. Thailand has the highest percent of arable land, 27.25%, of any nation in the Greater Mekong Subregion. About 55% of the available land area is used for rice production.
Substantial industries include electric appliances, components, computer parts and automobiles, while tourism contributes about 5% to Thailand's GDP.
Thailand uses the metric system but traditional units of measurement and imperial measure (feet, inches) are still much in use, particularly for agriculture and building materials. Years are numbered as B.E. (Buddhist Era) in education, the civil service, government, and on contracts and newspaper datelines; in banking, however, and increasingly in industry and commerce, standard Western year (Christian or Common Era) counting prevails.
Thailand is also host to several other minority languages, the largest of which is the Lao dialect of Isan spoken in the northeastern provinces. Although sometimes considered a Thai dialect, it is a Lao dialect, and the region in where it is traditionally spoken was historically part of the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In the far south, Yawi, a dialect of Malay, is the primary language of the Malay Muslims. Chinese dialects are also spoken by the large Chinese population, Teochew being the dialect best represented.
Numerous tribal languages are also spoken, including those belonging to the Mon-Khmer family, such as Mon, Khmer, Viet, Mlabri; Austronesian family, such as Cham, Moken, and Orang Asli, Sino-Tibetan family such as Hmong, Lawa, Akhan, and Karen; and other Tai-Kadai languages such as Nyaw, Phu Thai, and Saek.
English is a mandatory school subject, but the number of fluent speakers remains very low, especially outside the cities.
The culture of Thailand incorporates a great deal of influence from India, China, Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Thailand's main theology Theravada Buddhism is central to modern Thai identity and belief. In practice, Thai Buddhism has evolved over time to include many regional beliefs originating from Hinduism, animism as well as ancestor worship. In areas in the southernmost parts of Thailand, Islam is prevalent. Several different ethnic groups, many of which are marginalized, populate Thailand. Some of these groups overlap into Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia and have maintained a distinctly traditional way of life despite strong Thai cultural influence. 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 most noteworthy of these being the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who held power from 2001 until 19 September 2006 when he was ousted by a military coup d'état.
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.
The traditional Thai greeting, the wai, is generally offered first by the youngest 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 "Sawat-dii khrap" for male speakers, and "Sawat-dii 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.
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.
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. Stepping over someone, or over food, is considered insulting. However, Thai culture as in many other Asian cultures, is succumbing to the influence of globalization with some of the traditional taboos slowly fading away with time.
Books and other documents are the most revered of secular objects. One should not slide a book across a table or place it on the floor.
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.
Thai society has been influenced in recent years by its widely-available multi-language press and media. There are numerous English, Thai and Chinese newspapers in circulation; most Thai popular magazines use English headlines as a chic glamor factor. Most large businesses in Bangkok operate in English as well as other languages. Thailand is the largest newspaper market in South East 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 northeast Thailand themselves hosted 116 newspapers in addition to radio, TV and cable.
|Heritage Foundation||Indices of Economic Freedom||50 out of 157|
|Reporters Without Borders||Worldwide Press Freedom Index||134 out of 169|
|Transparency International||Corruption Perceptions Index||84 out of 179|
|United Nations Development Programme||Human Development Index||78 out of 177|