THAILAND IN BRIEF
Thailand is a Southeast Asian, predominantly Buddhist kingdom almost equidistant between India and China. For centuries known by outsiders as Siam, Thailand has been something of a Southeast Asian migratory, cultural and religious cross-roads. With an area of some 510,000 square kilometers and a population of some 67 million, Thailand is approximately the same size as France.
Thailand shares borders with Myanmar to the west and north, Laos to the north-east, Kampuchea to the west, and Malaysia to the south. Geographically speaking, Thailand is divided into six major regions: the mountainous north where elephants work forests and winter temperatures are sufficiently cool to permit cultivation of temperate fruits such as strawberries and peaches; the sprawling north-east plateau, largely bordered by the Mekong River, where the world’s oldest Bronze Age civilization flourished some 5,000 years ago; the central plain, one of the world’s most fertile rice and fruit-growing areas; the eastern coastal plain, where fine sandy beaches support the growth of summer resorts; western mountains and valleys, suitable for the development of hydro-electric power: and the peninsular south where arresting scenic beauty complements economically vital tin mining, robber cultivation and fishing.
The population of Thailand comprises of roughly 67 million citizens, the majority of whom are ethically Thai, though people of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mon, Khmer, and Laos origin are also represented to varying degrees. Approximately 10 million citizens live in the capital city, Bangkok, through this number varies seasonally and is otherwise difficult to accurately count.
Thailand enjoys a tropical climate with 3 distinct seasons – summer from March through May, rainy with plenty of sunshine from June to September and cool from October through February. The average annual temperature is 28C (83F), ranging, in Bangkok, for example, from 30C in April to 25C in December.
Time in Thailand is 7 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT+ 7).
Archaeological discoveries around the north- east hamlet of Ban Chiang suggest that the world’s oldest Bronze Age civilization was flourishing in Thailand some 5,600 years ago. Successive waves of immigrants, including Mons, Khmers and Thais, gradually entered the land mass now known as Thailand, most slowly travelling along fertile river valleys from southern China. By the 11th and 12th centuries, Khmers ruled much of the area from Angkor. By the early 1200s, Thais had established small northern city states in Lanna, Phayao and Sukhothai. In 1238, two Thai chieftains rebelled against Khmer suzerainty and established the first truly independent Thai kingdom in Sukhothai (literally, ‘Dawn of Happiness’).
Sukhothai saw the Thais’ gradual expansion throughout the entire Chao Phraya River basin, the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the paramount Thai religion, the creation of the Thai alphabet and the first expression of nascent Thai art forms, including painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. Sukhothai declined during the 1300s and eventually became a vassal state of Ayutthaya, a dynamic young kingdom further south in the Chao Phraya River valley. Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya remained the Thai capital until 1767 when it was destroyed by Burmese invaders
During Ayutthaya’s 417 years as the capital, under the rule of 33 kings, the Thais brought their distinctive culture to full fruition, totally rid their lands of Khmer presence and fostered contact with Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and European powers. Ayutthaya‘s destruction was as severe a blow to the Thais as the loss of Paris or London would have been to the French or English.
However, a Thai revival occurred within a few months and the Burmese were expelled by King Taksin who later made Thon Buri his capital. In 1782, the first king of the present Chakri dynasty, Rama I, established his new capital on the site of a riverside hamlet called Bangkok(Village of Wild Plums). Two Chakri monarchs, Mongkut (Rama IV) who reigned between 1851 and 1868, and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) saved Thailand from western colonization through adroit diplomacy and selective modernization
Ayutthaya‘s destruction was as severe a blow to the Thais as the loss of Paris or London would have been to the French or English. However, a Thai revival occurred within a few months and the Burmese were expelled by King Taksin who later made Thon Buri his capital. In 1782, the first king of the present Chakri dynasty, Rama I, established his new capital on the site of a riverside hamlet called Bangkok(Village of Wild Plums). Two Chakri monarchs, Mongkut (Rama IV) who reigned between 1851 and 1868, and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910) saved Thailand from western colonisation through adroit diplomacy and selective modernisation.
Today, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Since 1932, Thai kings including the present monarch, H.M. King Bhumipol Adulyadej have exercised their legislative powers through a national assembly, their executive powers through a cabinet headed by a prime minister, and their judicial powers through the law courts.
Throughout her long history, Thailand has gently absorbed immigrants. Many were skilled as writers, painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians and architects, and helped enrich indigenous culture. People inhabiting Thailand today share rich ethnic diversity mainly Thai, Mon, Khmer, Laotian, Chinese, Malay, Persian and Indian stock – – with the result that there is no typically Thai physiognomy or physique.
There are petite Thais, statuesque Thais, round-faced Thais, dark-skinned Thais and light-skinned Thais. Some 80% of all Thais are connected in some way with agriculture which, in varying degrees, influences and is influenced by the religious ceremonies and festivals that help make Thailand such a distinctive country.
Religion in Thailand is varied. There is no official state religion in the Thai constitution, which guarantees religious freedom for all Thai citizens, though the king is required by law to be Theravada Buddhist. The main religions practiced in Thailand is Buddhism. According to the latest (year 2000) official religious demographics figures, 94.6% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition.
However, the religious picture of the country is more complex. Of the large Thai Chinese population, most of those who follow Buddhism have been integrated into the dominant Theravada tradition, with only a negligible minority having retained Chinese Buddhism. Many other Thai Chinese have retained the practice of the Chinese traditional religion, including Taoism and other Chinese religions, but despite being practiced freely, these religions have no official recognition, and their followers are counted as Theravada Buddhists in demographic figures.
Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6%. Thailand’s southernmost provinces – Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and part ofSongkhla and Chumphon have dominant Muslim populations, consisting of both ethnic Thai and Malay. The southern tip of Thailand is mostly ethnicMalays. Christians, mainly Catholics, represent 0.7% of the population. A small but influential community of Sikhs in Thailand and some Hindus also live in the country’s cities, and are heavily engaged in retail commerce.
There is also a small Jewish community in Thailand, dating back to the 17th century. Since 2001, Muslim activists, generally described by the Thai government as terrorists or separatists, have rallied against the central government because of alleged
corruption and ethnic bias on the part of officials. Thailand’s Department of Religion, currently under the Ministry of Culture, is formally responsible for the registration of religious groups in Thailand which hold properties through legally established foundations. It has oversight, along with the Immigration Police, over the work permits of missionaries who are “expatriate religious workers” of all religions.