Thailand is just over 500,000 sq kilometers. This is roughly the size of Spain or half the size of British Columbia. It is bordered by five countries; Laos on the north, Cambodia on the East, Burma on the West, and Malaysia on the south. Thailand has an amazing 3219km of coastline that is home to some of the most pristine beaches in the world. The Gulf of Thailand is just south of Bangkok and borders on the east side of the country. The Andaman Sea borders the west side of the country and boasts many world famous beach resorts and dive sites.
Geography of Thailand
Northern Thailand is comprised mostly of mountain ranges with a large plateau in the north east called the Khorat Plateau. Much of the north is covered in lush tropical monsoon forests protected by the government under a full logging ban (valuable teak was heavily logged up until recent years). Doi Inthanon, in the northwest is the highest point in Thailand with an elevation of 2,595 meters. Chang Mai (Thailand ‘s second largest city) is the core of the north and is just south of the region dubbed ‘The Golden Triangle’ – one of the world’s greatest producers of opium.
Central Thailand is basically the flood plains of the Chao Phraya River (draining an area of approximately 160,000 sq km). It is the country’s most fertile region as well as the country’s most densely populated area. Thailand’s capital city Bangkok (City of Angels in Thai) is in the dead center of the region. This area is also a major producer of rice.
Southern Thailand occupies the north half of the Thai-Malay Peninsula. Running through the middle of the peninsula are several mountain chains with the highest elevation in Nakhon Si Thammarat. The western coast has steeper coasts while river plains dominate the east. The west coast is littered with limestone hills and cliffs that form many islands such as the famous James Bond and Phi Phi Islands (setting of the movie ‘The Beach’). This region is considered by many to be absolutely breathtaking
Most of the country has three seasons (although most Thais identify just two, wet and dry). The cool season is from November to February with an average temperature of 26 degrees in Bangkok. The hot season is from March to May with temperatures averaging 29 degrees in Bangkok. The rainy season is from June to October and temperatures average 27 degrees in Bangkok during the wet season. The rainy season is not necessarily the worst time to visit Thailand, the downpours are torrential, but usually do not last very long (just long enough to get a Thai massage). The sun returns within a few hours and the air is cooler and cleaner.
Bring your appetite! Thai cuisine serves up some of the tastiest and most diverse dishes on the planet. Frequently, dishes are accompanied by rice. Rice has been a staple food of the Thais since time began. Thailand has long been known as the ‘Rice Bowl of Asia’. There are over 50 different types of rice available in Thailand. Common with many Asian countries, the Thais have a very communal approach to eating. Many smaller dishes are placed in the middle of the table and everybody shares (everybody has their own plate of rice of course). Eating is a very social activity. It is not uncommon for Thai people to sit around chatting for lengthy periods of time even after everyone is finished eating. The fork and the spoon are the utensils of choice. Chopsticks are used, but usually with a spoon while eating soup. Flavors in Thai food differ greatly, as does the degree of spice. Some dishes can be too hot (spicy) for western tastes. Fresh herbs and spices blend together to create colorful and delicious meals. Prawn topped salads and coconut infused soups make excellent side dishes. Fresh fish, lobster, crab, and anything else palatable from the ocean is widely sold in markets and restaurants. Exotic tropical fruits like mangosteen and rambutan can be bought fresh from vendors in the streets. If you ever feel the need for familiar western food, nourishment is never far away. Within the last ten years or so, Thais have taken quite a liking to western tastes. There are countless eateries throughout the country cooking up everything from pizza to steaks. Also, for those interested in learning to prepare Thai cuisine, there are many excellent cooking schools throughout the country.
It is difficult to determine the type of culture which existed in the region prior to the Christian Era, but archeological excavations in northern Thailand indicate there were people living in the area as far back as 4000 years ago. The history begins with the migration of the Thais from their ancestral home in southern China around 10th century A.D. Prior to the migration, Mon, Khmer, and Malay kingdoms ruled the area. The Thais began establishing their own states starting with the Sukhothai and then Ayutthaya kingdoms. Constant threat from the Khmers, Burmese, and Vietnamese prevented the Thais from expanding their kingdom for quite some time. Around the mid 12th century Thai chieftains gained independence from the Khmer at Sukhothai; enter the Sukhothai era. The Thai alphabet was established during this time under rule of King Ramkhamhaeng. After his death in 1365, Sukhothai fell into decline and the Ayutthaya kingdom emerged, to reign until the 1700s. During the 14th and 15th centuries the Thai kings of Ayutthaya became very powerful and expanded their kingdom eastward, taking Angkor from the Khmers. This period is most notable for the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism and the crystallization of many facets of what is considered traditional Thai customs. During the 1750s and 1760s, the Burmese launched several attacks on the city and in 1767 finally conquered it. The royal family fled the city and the Ayutthaya royal line was abolished. Shortly after the fall of Ayutthaya, General Taksin reunited the kingdom and formed a new capital in Thonburi. Taksin allegedly went insane, was unseated, executed, and was succeeded in 1792 by General Chakri (King Rama I) who founded the new capital at Bangkok (right across the Chao Phraya River from Thonburi). In the 1790s, the Burmese were finally defeated and driven out of Siam. In the early 19th and early 20th centuries, European powers threatened the Thais without success. Siam survived as the only Southeast Asian state to avoid colonial rule (which the Thais are very proud). This is reflected in the country’s modern name (changed from Siam in 1939) Prathet Thai or Thai-Land. Prathet means nation and thai means free… Free Nation.
Of course this is just a glimpse into this amazing country’s past. If you are further interested, there are many resources available online.
Weights and Measures
Thailand adopted the metric system in 1923. However, Thai's still use the old system as well. Thailand’s currency is the baht which consists of 100 satang. Although the satang is still in use, most rarely carry it on their person unless received as change. In 1997, increase in foreign investment and borrowing, appreciation of the US dollar, and speculation in the currency market led to overvaluation of the baht. In July of that year, Thailand floated the baht which led to massive devaluation from which it is still recovering. Although detrimental to the country this devaluation helped to improve trade with the US, Japan, the EU, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
In 1940, Thailand changed its official New Year’s from April 13th to January 1st. The old New Year’s (Songkran) is still a holiday and is one of the largest and most prominent festivals of the year. For a long time, Thai's used a solar calendar to count years, but a lunar calendar is in use today to set dates of religious holidays. While Thailand switches to a new year the same day as most countries, the years are still counted as Buddhist Era (B.E.) as opposed to Anno Domini (A.D.). The Buddhist Era started 543 years earlier than that of the Christian Era. Therefore, 2000 A.D. is equivalent to 2543 B.E.
Thailand is set in the GMT + 7 time zone. 14 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.
In 2006, Thailand’s population was an estimated 64,631,595 with a growth rate of 1.4% per year. Thailand’s population is dominated by ethnic Thai and Lao, the latter concentrated in the northeastern Isan region. Up to 14% of Thai’s are of Chinese descent while Malay speaking Muslims comprise of about 2.5% and are predominantly situated in the south close to the Malaysian border. Other groups include the Khmer and the Mon. Smaller mountain-dwelling tribes such as the Hmong, Mein, and Karen number about 800,000 and residein northern Thailand (commonly referred to as Thai hill tribes). A significant number of foreigners from Asia, Europe, and the Americas also call Thailand home. Officials also allege that there are several hundred thousand illegal immigrants within Thailand’s borders. Thailand’s population is greater than that of any countries it shares a border with, but has one of the lowest population growth rates as well as one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the region. Over 31% of Thailand’s population lives in the Bangkok urban area. The majority of the rest of the population lives in rural areas.
Language and Religion
Thailand’s official national language is Thai, written in its own alphabet. There are also many ethnic and regional dialects, as well as areas where locals speak Isan or Khmer. English is widely taught in schools, but is generally only used in the business and tourism industries. Mandarin and Vietnamese are also spoken among isolated groups. Literacy in Thailand is an estimated 93%, and schooling is mandatory for 12 years. Theravada Buddhism (orthodox Buddhism adhering to the ideal of self purification in order to attain nirvana) is the official religion of Thailand and according to the last census, 94.6% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims make up the second religious group in Thailand at 4.6%. Christians represent .75% of the population, and there are smaller minorities of Sikhs and Hindus.
The Siamese coup d’état of 1932 transformed the Government of Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments intermixed with brief periods of democracy. In 1992 the last military ruler, Suchinda Kraprayoon, gave up power when confronted with massive political protests (supported by the King). This fully functioning democracy lasted only until late 2006 when a bloodless coup removed a controversial government led by the billionaire Thaksin. The country was breifly run under military supervision until 2007 where an election was held and democracy was attempted once again.