Thailand General info
Locate in Southeast Asia, making it a natural gateway to Indochina, Myanmar and Southern China. Thailand’s shape and geography divide into four natural regions : the mountains and forests of the North; the vast rice fields of the Central Plains; the semi-arid farm lands of the Northeast plateau; and the tropical islands and long coastline of the peninsula South.
The country comprises 76 provinces that are further divided into districts, sub-districts and villages. Bangkok is the capital city and centre of political, commercial, industrial and cultural activities. It is also the seat of Thailand’s revered Royal Family, with His Majesty the King recognized as Head of State, Head of the Armed Forces, Upholder of the Buddhist religion and upholder of all religions.
Thailand embraces a rich diversity of cultures and traditions. With its proud history, tropical climate and renowned hospitality, the Kingdom is a never-ending source of fascination and pleasure for international visitors.
The kingdom of Thailand lies in the heart of Southeast Neighboring countries:
Myanmar – west and north
Lao P.D.R. – north and northeast
Cambodia – southeast and
Malaysia – south
Thailand can best be described as tropical and humid for the majority of the country during most of the year. The area of Thailand north of Bangkok has a climate determined by three seasons whilst the southern peninsular region of Thailand has only two.
In northern Thailand the seasons are clearly defined. Between November and May the weather is mostly dry, however this is broken up into the periods November to February and March to May. The later of these two periods has the higher relative temperatures as although the northeast monsoon does not directly affect the northern area of Thailand, it does cause cooling breezes from November to February. The other northern season is from May to November and is dominated by the southwest monsoon, during which time rainfall in the north is at its heaviest.
The southern region of Thailand really has only two seasons — the wet and the dry. These seasons do not run at the same time on both the east and west side of the peninsular. On the west coast the southwest monsoon brings rain and often heavy storms from April through to October, whilst on the east coast the most rain falls between September and December.
Overall the southern parts of Thailand get by far the most rain with around 2,400 millimeters every year, compared with the central and northern regions of Thailand, both of which get around 1,400 millimeters.
The vast majority (roughly 80%) of Thailand’s nearly 65 million citizens are ethnically Thai. The remainder consists primarily of peoples of Chinese, Indian, Malay, Mon, Khmer, Burmese, and Lao decent. Of the 7 million citizens who live in the capital city, Bangkok, there is a greater diversity of ethnicities, including a large number of expatriate residents from across the globe. Other geographic distinctions of the population include a Muslim majority in the south near the Malaysian border, and hill tribe ethnic groups, such as the Hmong and Karen, who live in the northern mountains.
Spoken and written Thai remain largely incomprehensible to the casual visitor. However, English is widely understood, particularly in Bangkok where it is almost the major commercial language. English and other European languages are spoken in most hotels, shops and restaurants, in major tourist destinations, and Thai-English road and street signs are found nation-wide.
Thailand is one of the most strongly Buddhist countries in the world. The national religion is Theravada Buddhism, a branch of Hinayna Buddhism, practiced by more than 90 % of all Thais.
The remainder of the population adheres to lslam, Christianity, Hinduism and other faiths all of which are allowed full freedom of expression. Buddhism continues to cast strong influence on daily life. Senior monks are highly revered. Thus, in towns and villages, the temple (wat) is the heart of social and religious life. Meditation, one of the most popular aspects of Buddhism, is practiced regularly by numerous Thai as a means of promoting inner peace and happiness. Visitors can also learn the fundamentals of this practice at several places in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country.
Throughout its 800-year history, Thailand can boast the distinction of being the only country in Southeast Asia never to have been colonized. Its history is divided into five major periods.
Nanchao Period (650-1250 A.D.)
The Thai people founded their kingdom in the southern part of China, which is Yunnan, Kwangsi and Canton today. A great number of people migrated south as far as the Chao Phraya Basin and settled down over the Central Plain under the sovereignty of the Khmer Empire, whose culture they probably accepted. The Thai people founded their independent state of Sukhothai around 1238 A.D., which marks the beginning of the Sukhothai Perio.
Sukhothai Period (1238-1378 A.D.)
Thais began to emerge as a dominant force in the region in the13th century, gradually asserting independence from existing Khmer and Mon kingdoms. Called by its rulers “the dawn of happiness”, this is often considered the golden era of Thai history, an ideal Thai state in a land of plenty governed by paternal and benevolent kings, the most famous of whom was King Ramkhamhaeng the Great. However in 1350, the mightier state of Ayutthaya exerted its influence over Sukhothai.
Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767)
The Ayutthaya kings adopted Khmer cultural influences from the very beginning. No longer the paternal and accessible rulers that the kings of Sukhothai had been, Ayutthaya’s sovereigns were absolute monarchs and assumed the title devaraja (god-king). The early part of this period saw Ayutthaya extend its sovereignty over neighboring Thai principalities and come into conflict with its neighbours, During the 17th century, Siam started diplomatic and commercial relations with western countries. In 1767, a Burmese invasion succeeded in capturing Ayutthaya. Despite their overwhelming victory, the Burmese did not retain control of Siam for long. A young general named Phya Taksin and his followers broke through the Burmese and escaped to Chantaburi. Seven months after the fall of Ayutthaya, he and his forces sailed back to the capital and expelled the Burmese occupation garrison.
Thon Buri Period (1767-1772)
General Taksin, as he is popularly known, decided to transfer the capital from Ayutthaya to a site nearer to the sea which would facilitate foreign trade, ensure the procurement of arms, and make defense and withdrawal easier in case of a renewed Burmese attack. He established his new capital at Thon Buri on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River. The rule of Taksin was not an easy one. The lack of central authority since the fall of Ayutthaya led to the rapid disintegration of the kingdom, and Taksin’s reign was spent reuniting the provinces.
Rattanakosin Period (1782 – the Present)
After Taksin’s death, General Chakri became the first king of the Chakri Dynasty, Rama I, ruling from 1782 to 1809. His first action as king was to transfer the royal capital across the river from Thon Buri to Bangkok and build the Grand Palace. Rama II (1809-1824) continued the restoration begun by his predecessor. King Nang Klao, Rama III (1824-1851) reopened relations with Western nations and developed trade with China. King Mongkut, Rama IV, (1851-1868) of “The King and I” concluded treaties with European countries, avoided colonialisation and established modern Thailand. He made many social and economic reforms during his reign.
King Chulalongkorn, Rama V (1869-1910) continued his father’s tradition of reform, abolishing slavery and improving the public welfare and administrative system. Compulsory education and other educational reforms were introduced by King Vajiravudh, Rama VI (1910-1925). During the reign of King Prajadhipok, (1925-1935), Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The king abdicated in 1933 and was succeeded by his nephew, King Ananda Mahidol (1935-1946). The country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand with the advent of a democratic government in 1939. Our present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty.
Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” for a reason: The people will usually forgive simple infractions of Thai etiquette anyway.
Don’t point your feet: Pointing your feet at someone, raising your feet higher than someone’s head, or simply putting your feet onto a desk or chair is considered extremely rude in Thailand. On that same note, avoid pointing your feet at Buddha statues as well. To follow strict Thailand etiquette, you should not cross your legs when sitting on the ground.
Don’t touch someone’s head: While the feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest parts of the body, the head is considered the most sacred. Never touch someone’s head or hair; this includes playfully ruffling a child’s hair. Avoid stepping over people who are sitting or sleeping on the ground.
Don’t point: Pointing at someone is considered rude in many cultures, but particularly so in Thailand. If you must indicate someone, do so by lifting your chin in their direction. When motioning for someone to come over, wave your hand with fingers straight and palm down. Pointing as inanimate objects and animals is usually acceptable.
Don’t lose your cool: Shouting, blowing your top, or displaying strong emotions is frowned upon in Thailand, where the rules of saving face apply. Keep your cool even when your bus breaks down; otherwise, innocent bystanders who witness your rage will actually become embarrassed for you.
Don’t disrespect the King: The King of Thailand is the world’s oldest monarch and the Thai people love him dearly. Never disrespect the king or images of the king, this includes currency. Openly disrespecting the king can mean imprisonment with an option for the death penalty!
Remove your shoes: As in many Asian cultures, removing your shoes before your enter a temple or someone’s home is essential. Some businesses, restaurants, and shops also ask that you remove your shoes. If unsure, just look to see if there is a pile of shoes at the entrance, or check to see if the staff are wearing shoes.
Return a Wai: The Wai is Thailand’s prayer-like gesture with the hands together in front and head slightly bowed. To not return a wai is considered impolite; only the king and monks do not have to return wais. Never attempt a wai while holding something. Read more about how to say hello in Thai.
Use your right hand: The left hand is considered dirty, as it is sometimes used for ‘functions’ in the squat toilet. Always use your right hand to pass objects and when paying. Touch your left hand to your right forearm if you wish to show extra respect.
Eat with a spoon: The proper way to delicious Thai food is with the spoon in your right hand and fork in your left. Use the fork to rake food onto your spoon; the fork never goes into the mouth. Chopsticks are usually only used for noodle dishes and treats such as spring rolls. See how to use chopsticks.
Show respect to monks: You will encounter many monks in places such as Chiang Mai; treat them with respect. When greeting a monk, monks receive a higher wai than ordinary people; monks do not have to return your gesture. Women should never touch a monk, brush a monk’s robes, or hand something to a monk. Monks should be allowed to eat first at ceremonies and gatherings. Read more about etiquette for visiting Buddhist temples.
Smile: The Thai smile is famous, essential to Thailand etiquette, and Thais show it whenever they can. Always return someone’s smile. Smiles are used during negotiation, in apology, to relax whenever something goes not as planned, and just in everyday life.
Violent crimes against tourists are so rare in Thailand that they make international news. Most crimes are petty such as pick-pocketing, credit card fraud and bag snatching. Even these do not pose a serious problem with a vast majority of the visitors. When possible, secure your valuables in the hotel safe. Remember to record your traveler cheque’s numbers and credit card information, just in case.
Pickpockets are not common but they do exist. Take the usual precautions with wallets, purses, and day packs. Do not “flash your cash”, be discreet when opening your wallet/purse to pay for something. You can learn a lot by watching Thai people, they are often very discreet when reaching for their cash, almost to the point of being secretive. Splitting up your money can be a good idea. Carry a small amount of instant access cash in your preferred receptacle, and carry the balance (along with your credit cards), in a more secure place (money belt, hidden pocket, in your shoes, etc).
It is required by Thai law that Thai citizens AND all visitors MUST carry proper identification at all times. This must be presented upon demand by a Police Officer or other legitimate Government Official.
Where Are You?: Always be aware of your surroundings, and be mindful of how you would describe your exact location in an emergency situation. Make a note of the Thai Tourist Police generic phone number which is 1155 and add it to your cell phone speed dial list. The Thai Tourist Police is a special arm of the National Royal Thai Police and specifically trained to deal with common situations involving a non-resident tourist. Many speak basic and passable English.
Some drug problems have been reported on trains and buses but guide books tend to overplay these rare occurrences. It is, however, prudent to refuse candy and drinks from strangers and caution is advised when approached by over-friendly touts. A good general rule of the thumb is to consider why a complete stranger suddenly approaches you and starts a probing conversation then they are probably not just being inquisitive and are after information on you so they can use this to “press the buttons” that get you spending.
Solo women travelers should avoid beaches at night and take general precautions to ensure that they are not left exposed to attack.
If you are confronted with any situation where trustworthy assistance is not close at hand, just dial 1155.