Thailand’s the 50th largest country in the world. With it’s rugged mountains in the north and famous tropical beaches in the south, it is a land of amazing beauty.
Thailand is separated into four distinct regions. Despite the overarching strength and unity of Thai culture, each region has its own unique cultural and geographic features.
Northern Thailand shares the border with Myanmar and Laos. This region is filled with mountains, thick forests and river valleys. Its culture is heavily influenced by Burmese culture.
Northeastern Thailand, also known as Isan. The capital city is Khon Kean and has 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 beautiful beaches, hotels, resorts & spas. With a tropical climate, this narrow land mass is home to a many fishing communities.
It is the region of Central Thailand that is predominant, though. This region is the seat of Thailand’s modern-day capital city Bangkok. Bangkok has long been the economic center of the country, producing the majority of Thailand’s rice. Central Thailand is also the area that has the greatest population density, and the greatest concentration of the ethnic Thai majority. It is the political, economic, and cultural center of Thailand.
Hinduism has made important contributions to Thai culture and those close links between Thailand and India can be seen in art, literature and many other Thai customs. Some temples, particularly in Chiang Mai, allow visitors to chat with monks in order to gain general knowledge about Buddhism or to study Buddhism more seriously.
The cultures of nearby neighbors have also played an important role in forming the traditions of Thailand, as have indigenous belief systems such as Animism.
Of Thailand’s nearly 70 million people, roughly two thirds are from Thai ethnic groups. Although the ethnic Thai people can be divided into dozens of different subgroups, their traditions, languages and cultures differ only slightly. This leads to a population with a strong sense of shared traditions and cultural identity.
The remaining third of the population is made up primarily of Chinese, as well as various minorities including Vietnamese, Khmer, Hmong, and Mein. Even among these diverse ethnic groups, the Thai language is widely spoken and understood and Thai script is often used in place of traditional writing styles.
Since the 1950’s, Thailand’s government has made efforts to preserve and strengthen the sense of national culture and national identity. During the 1980’s and 1990’s however, Thailand saw a resurgence in local culture and traditions.
Although there is still a strong national identity, local food, dances, music, celebrations and beliefs have begun to play a more important role in Thai life.
With about 95% of the country being Theraveda Buddhist the belief system, and values of Buddhism play a huge role in day-to-day life. Throughout the country the most important values that Thai people hold are respect, self-control and a non-confrontational attitude. Losing face by showing anger or by telling a lie is a source of great shame in Thailand.
In general, displays of emotion in public are viewed in a negative light. No matter how frustrated or upset a person might feel, he or she will always strive to maintain a positive and friendly attitude, a sense of humor, and a smile.
Respect for elders and for those in higher social positions is also important. Hierarchies of social status characterize nearly every interaction. Children are expected to respect their parents and teachers. The young must show deference to the elderly. Those with highly prestigious positions in society, such as doctors, important public figures, and monks are almost revered.
Family is central to Thai life. Although many newly-married couples will set up their own households, it is not uncommon for extended family to live with them. Often, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles will all live in the same household and help to raise children and provide for the family. Children are expected to show great respect for their parents, and they maintain close ties, even well into adulthood.
Although Thailand’s family life and society has been traditionally male-dominated, women are granted considerable respect. Recent laws and legislation have allowed women more freedom to move out of traditional roles and into professions such as politics, medicine, and business. Respect and equal rights for women has, in recent decades, become an important part of Thailand’s law and values.
In fact, there are many opportunities in Thailand to visit Buddhist temples to learn about or study Buddhism and perhaps to learn to meditate.
Meditation, one of the primary practices of Buddhism, is a means of self reflection in order to identify the causes of individual desire and ultimately alleviate ones suffering. Visitors can learn the fundamentals of this practice at a number of wats across the kingdom.
While Theravada Buddhism may technically be considered a philosophy rather than a religion (there is no ‘God’) Thai Buddhism is infused with many spiritual beliefs which are likely the result of lingering animist and Hindu beliefs from centuries earlier.
Most Thai homes and places of business feature a ‘spirit house’ just outside the building, where offerings are made to appease spirits that might otherwise inhabit their homes or workplaces.
Furthermore, Buddhist monks are often brought to new homes and businesses to ‘bless them’, and Thai people frequently light incense and make prayers to both Buddha images and a host of Hindu gods whose shrines are located throughout Bangkok and the countryside.
The next largest religion in Thailand, Islam, is practiced by only about 4% of the population; the majority of Thai Muslims live in the most southerly provinces near the Malaysian border.