The history of Thailand revolves largely around the migration of what is today the Thai people from various regions. Largely the movement is thought to have come from parts of China and Vietnam (and some from even as far as northern India) and prior to this, fossils found across the region suggest small groups of indigenous people may have inhabited the land. Aside from this little is known about the region prior to the 13th century though, similar to other places in Southeast Asia, the country was heavily influenced by the culture and religions of India, starting with the Kingdom of Funan around the first century until the Khmer Empire. The centuries proceeding this were dominated by the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238-1448), and its rival, the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767). Over time, the Ayutthaya grew more powerful, subjecting the Sukhothai and dominating most of southern and central Thailand. After a Burmese invasion which held the country for two years, the region was regained by a Thai leader, Taksin, who (after going mad) was replaced by Rama I who founded the Chakri Dynasty which continues to rule the country today under a constitutional monarchy. Despite patterns in the region, the country is the only one in the region to have never experienced European colonial rule. The beloved king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, had reigned since 1946 and was the world’s longest-serving head of state. Between 2011 and 2014 the country had a female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra and since 1973, power has moved from military to civilian hands repeatedly.
Thailand is a deeply spiritual country, with 95% of the population belonging to the Theravada branch of Buddhism. Visitors will see gold-spired Buddhist stupas scattered all across the country and the country is home to the world’s largest gold Buddha. Muslims make up close to 5% of the population and are found in the southern parts of the country. Because of this many traditions and beliefs stem directly from Buddhism across the country. Hinduism also plays a role and can be seen particularly in art and literature. This religious influence heavily affects the value systems of Thai people and the most important values held are respect, self-control, and a non-confrontational attitude. Overly emotional public displays are not common, however, what is found often is a positive and friendly attitude, a sense of humor, and a smile. In accordance with this, a concept that is very important in Thai culture is sanuk, which is a wide-reaching idea that embodies the playfulness and sense of humor central to life in Thailand.
There is an elegance that runs through the country’s cultural life probably best embodied by Thai traditional dance, the outfits of which are enough to keep you mesmerised for hours. Thai cuisine, along with its fragrance and flavours are popular all around the world, and you can easily find some incredibly delicious dishes to try in the country of origin. Some firm favourites are Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup), Som Tum (spicy green papaya salad), Tom Kha Kai (chicken in coconut soup), Gaeng Daeng (red curry), Pad Thai (Thai style fried noodles), Khao Pad (fried rice), Pad Krapow Moo Saap (fried basil and pork), Gaeng Keow Wan Kai (green chicken curry), Yam Nua (spicy beef salad), Kai Med Ma Muang (chicken with cashew nuts). Traditionally Thai food is eaten with the hands in large and festive feasts where all gather together. The aromatic cuisine is thus matched by the warm spirit of sharing food together (perhaps one reason why the country has the largest restaurant in the world).
Despite the overarching strength and unity of Thai culture, you can see that each region has its own unique cultural and geographic features. Northern Thailand shares its border with Myanmar and Laos. This region is mountainous and filled with thick forests and river valleys and its culture is heavily influenced by Burmese culture; carrying strong influences from the historical Lanna kingdom. Northeastern Thailand, also known as Isan, is largely isolated from the rest of Thailand by a large mountain range. A Lao-speaking majority, as well as a primarily agricultural society, characterize this culturally distinct region. Southern Thailand, located on the Malay peninsula, is home to many of Thailand’s pristine beaches and resorts whose narrow landmass is home to many fishing communities. Central Thailand is the hub of the country in every sense of the word, politically, economically and culturally. It is the most populous and dominated by the ethnic Thai traditions. Wherever you are in the country, if you’re looking to fit in, simply remember to always take your shoes off, not point and keep your cool.