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 kilometres and a population of some 57 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 civilisation 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.
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 civilisation 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 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.
Theravada Buddhism is the professed religion of more than 90% of all Thais, and casts strong influences on daily life. Buddhism first appeared in Thailand during the 3rd Century B.C. at Nakhon Pathom, site of the world's tallest Buddhist monument, after the Indian Buddhist Emperor Asoka (267-227 B.C.) despatched missionaries to Southeast Asia to propagate the newly established faith. Besides moulding morality, providing social cohesion and offering spiritual succour, Buddhism provided incomparable artistic impetus.
In common with medieval European cathedrals, Thailand's innumerable multiroofed temples inspired major artistic creation. Another reason for Buddhism's strength is that there are few Thai Buddhist families in which at least one male member has not studied the Buddha's teachings in a monastery. It has long been a custom for Buddhist males over twenty, once in their lifetimes, to be ordained for a period ranging from s days to a months.
This usually occurs daring the annual Rains Retreat, a a-month period during the Rains Season when all monks forego travel and stay inside their monasteries.
Besides sustaining monastic communities, Thai temples have traditionally served other purposes – – as the village hostelry, village news, employment and information agency, a school, hospital, dispensary and community centre – – to give them vital roles in Thai society. The Thais have always subscribed to the ideal of religious freedom. Thus sizeable minorities of Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Sikhs freely pursue their respective faiths.
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.