Thailand: The Land of Smiles
Located in the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, Thailand borders four other Southeast Asian countries; Burma/Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. It also has coastlines along the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. Many Thais will describe the shape of Thailand as the profile of an elephant. They believe that the elephant is facing neighboring Burma/Myanmar with its long trunk extending down the Malaysian peninsula. The country is slightly larger than the state of California. It consists of a central plain, a northeastern plateau, northern mountains and southern jungles, coastlines and islands. Thailand consists of 76 provinces with Bangkok as the capital city of the country. Bangkok lies along the banks of the Chaopraya River and the Gulf of Thailand.
It is commonly believed that the word “thai” in Thailand comes from the word for “free” in the Thai language, but it is actually the name of an indigenous minority tribe, the Tai, that have lived in the area for centuries. The modern Thais are the descendents of this group as well as a number of tribes that migrated down from the southern region of what is now China. Just as the people are a blend of many groups, Thai culture is a blend of many other cultures, creating a unique society that is 100-percent Thai. Indian, Khmer (Cambodian), Chinese and Burmese cultures have all contributed to aspects of Thai culture.
Traditionally, Thai culture places high value on the respect of elders and those considered “superior.”This influences everything from language to greetings. The Thai language has different levels of politeness that can be used depending on to whom the speaker is addressing. The traditional Thai greeting, the “wai”, changes depending on who is being greeted and their status.
The highest part of the body is the head, both literally and spiritually. Thais are generally very respectful of the symbolic value of the head as the highest part of the body and do not touch each others’ heads unless they are close friends or relatives. Adults may also touch the head of a child, but even this is usually done in a respectful way. Subsequently, the feet are the lowest part of the body and should not be used to touch, point to or move objects. Thais will generally be quite offended if touched on the head or touched by someone else’s feet.
Thai cooking is world-renowned for its taste. It is often said that every Thai woman is a five-star chef. In this day and age, this can even be applied to many Thai men. Thais believe the five flavors or spicy, salty, sweet, sour and bitter are all equally important and many Thai dishes try to combine most of these flavors. Common ingredients in Thai cooking are chilies, fish sauce and pastes, coconut milk, lime juice, galangal (close cousin of ginger) and lemongrass. Common dishes include; curries, sweet and sour soup, deep fried seafood and vegetables and noodle dishes. The Thai people love to eat and can often be seen snacking or dining at one of the many food stalls that line the streets of Thailand. Food in Thailand is clean, delicious and very inexpensive.
Thais are also the largest exporter of rice in the world. Nearly 50-percent of the population is employed in agriculture, producing the famous “hom mali” variety of rice that sold around the world. “Hom mali” means jasmine rice, a white fragrant flower often used in religious ceremonies in Thailand. While the rice does not smell like the jasmine flower, it certainly has a fresh distinct smell and a pure white color that does remind one of a fresh white jasmine flower.
Thailand has no Independence Day because Thailand has never been ruled by anyone other than the Thais. Although Thailand was never colonized, the country does know what it means to fight for freedom. Since its founding, Thailand has struggled with border issues concerning its neighbors Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Malaysia.
The first Thai city was founded in Sukothai around 1238 CE. Later cities were then founded in Chiang Mai, Ayuttaya and eventually, Bangkok. Throughout the colonization period of Southeast Asia, Thailand managed to stay uncolonized through several factors. Firstly, they were ruled through this period by a chain of adept rulers that were skilled negotiators with and between the foreign powers. Secondly, because of strife between the British and French powers, a buffer state was needed between the French controlled regions of Laos and Cambodia and the British controlled state of Burma/Myanmar.
For centuries, Thailand has been ruled by kings under an absolute monarchy. In 1939, Thais staged a bloodless coup that led to the switch from absolute monarch to a constitutional monarchy. Formerly, Thailand was called the Kingdom of Siam, but with the switch in government form the name of the country was changed to Thailand. Currently, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX of the Chakri Dynasty, guides the country. He celebrated 60 years on the throne in 2007, the longest reigning monarch in the world.
The Thai language is unique in Southeast Asia as it does not fall into any of the other main language groups, but is its own separate group, the Tai languages. But, much like its Khmer neighbors, the Thai language has been influenced over time by the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali. The writing system for Thai was first developed in 1292 and is based on the Khmer alphabet. Vowels may be written above, below, in front and after consonants. Thai is a tonal language, as are many Asian languages. The five tones are the mid-tone, high-tone, low-tone, falling tone and rising tone. Words are usually one syllable unless they have a Sanskrit or Pali origin. Words are made through a combination of high, middle and low class consonants and short and long vowels.
Politics in Thailand, as in most of Southeast Asia, is complicated. The most recent event with major significance was the coup of 19 September 2006. This coup by the military overthrew Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra. They cited gross corruption as the reason for the coup and declared martial law. Shinawatra was out of the country at the time, at the UN in New York. He has not been back in the country since the coup and only recently was his wife allowed back in the country. Shinawatra’s political party was outlawed following the coup, but a new party, consisting of many of the members of the disbanded party, was formed shortly after. This new party won in the recent elections, but the current government has been slow to allow them to assume power, presumably with the fear of corruption issues and the return of Shinawatra from self-imposed exile.
The majority (95-percent) of the population is Buddhist. The rest of the population is made up of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. The form of Buddhism practiced in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism. This branch of the religion is the oldest school of Buddhism practiced. Sri Lanka has been the home of Theravada Buddhism for much of history. Buddhism originally came from India as an offshoot of Hinduism. From there it travelled throughout Southeast Asia and China. Southeast Asia is now the home to the largest population of Theravada Buddhists. It is the predominant religion of Burma, Laos and Cambodia as well as Thailand.
Theravada Buddhists believe in walking the “middle path.” They have a strong focus on meditation and believe in karma and reincarnation. Thais are careful to do good, so as not to accumulate “bad” karma and be reincarnated as a lower life. Monks in Thailand live in communities at the temples. Temples are known as “wats.” From the wat each morning, lines of monks in orange robes can be seen leaving to collect alms in their bowls. Alms are a way for lay people to make merit and accumulate good karma. Alms can be anything given to the monks or wats with a giving nature, including money, clothes or food. These morning rounds are meant to collect alms in the form of food. The monks will use this donated food as their meals for the day. As a rule, monks must not eat after noon.
Animistic beliefs are also strong in Thailand, traditional beliefs that originated with the tribes that are the ancestors of the Thais. This includes a belief in spirits or “kwan” that inhabit the body. They leave and enter the body through the head, which is another reason the Thais have a strong respect for the head. Thais believe strongly in the spirits that inhabit the world around them and most houses will have at least one “spirit house” where daily offerings are made to the spirits that live there.
Holidays in Thailand are a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and royal holy days. For example, the King’s and his wife’s birthdays are celebrated as national holidays each year. These days are also celebrated as the national father’s and mother’s days.
Thais also celebrate a royal plowing ceremony, which has Hindu roots. This ceremony is the first plowing of the season and hopes to bring prosperity to the rice season for that year. It is lead by the King and Hindu priests, called Brahman.
Another popular holiday is Loy Gratong. Loy Gratong also comes from the Hindu religion. It is similar to the holiday of Diwali that is celebrated throughout India. Loy Gratong is known as the “festival of lights” in Thailand. It is celebrated by families taking small banana trunk and leaf floats, decorated with flowers, coins, incense and candles, to a nearby body of water. As the candle and incense are lit, Thais pour all their thanks to the water, their hopes for the year and their wishes for happiness onto the float. Then they let the float onto the water and watch is float away. Loy Gratong is a popular holiday for couples and they are usually seen adding their float to the water as one.
Many Buddhist holy days are also celebrated throughout the year. At the beginning of the rainy season, monks celebrate the Buddhist lent and are seen entering the wats. Many do not leave (as in unordaining) until after the end of the rainy season and Buddhist lent, nearly three months later.
Thais love a good party and are happy to celebrate not one, but three New Year’s each year. The first comes at the end of December and is celebrated with much of the rest of the world. Then at the end of February many Thais, especially those of Chinese descent, celebrated the Chinese New Year. Loud fireworks, dragon and lion dances, and parades celebrate the coming of the New Year. Every year is associated with one of the 12 animals of the zodiac. This year is the year of the mouse. The final New Year celebration in Thailand is 100-percent Thai. This is called Songkran and is celebrated in the first part of April. This is also the hottest time of the year in Thailand and Thais celebrated by applying powder to each others’ cheeks and dousing each other in water. These acts are meant as a blessing to the other person, but it is also a great way to cool off!
Thais are an easy-going and fun-loving people. A common phrase for them is “mai bpen lai” which has meaning meanings, but the most common is “don’t worry about it!” This is a good example of the Thai lifestyle. They are quick to forget about it and don’t like conflict or arguments. Like many other Asian cultures, Thais worry quite a lot about the concept of “face.” This means that they don’t like to lose face or make others lose face. Losing face can include such acts as embarrassment or shame brought on to you by others or through your own actions. Thais see conflict and arguments as a loss of face to both parties involved.
Age and position in society are important factors of respect for Thais. They will usually call everyone with “pii” of “nong” in front of their name. This simply means older or younger. This can also be used as a sign of respect. For example, an older person might also call a younger person “pii” if he or she holds a higher position in society. These are terms of respect for the Thai people. A “pii” will usually take care of a “nong” if need be. This includes everything from finding them a job to paying for the bill at dinner.
Thais are very family-orientated, but not in the way that most Westerners would understand. They think little of leaving children with their grandparents to live with them or allowing many generations of one family to live in the same house. Where Western families focus on the immediate family, Thais though focus on the large extended family. The “pii” and “nong” terms mentioned previously also have a sense of big brother/sister and younger brother/sister. This sense of family is included in most terms of address and don’t be surprised if every Thai you are introduced to is someone else’s brother, sister or cousin. Blood wise they might not be, but in the Thai mind they are still family. Spend much time with a Thai and one will find that they are quickly invited in as one of the family.
Kids in Thailand
Thai parents are very affectionate and doting. Children in Thailand are often spoiled by their parents, even if there is little money in the family. Wealthy children usually attend school at an international school, private school or well-known public school. Poorer children might attend a public school if they can afford it (there are fees associated with public schools) or they might attend a local temple school, which is the most affordable option for most parents. All school children in Thailand must purchase and wear a uniform. Depending on the school, children in Thailand might start school as young as three-years-old. Usually, they start around the age of four or five. There are three levels of schooling for children: anuban (ages 3-7), pratom (ages 6-13) and matayom (ages 12-17). The ages for these levels vary according to when the child started school.
Thais in general love badminton and children and adults of all ages can be seen playing badminton at schools and parks everywhere. A game called “tagraw” is also popular. This is played with a rattan ball and is a mix of basketball, volleyball and hacky sac. Football (soccer) fever has also taken over Thailand and games can often be seen on TV. Kids in Thailand are just like any other kid around the world. They love stories, books, sand boxes, playgrounds, feeding fish, games and even “paper, rock, scissors!”
Thailand has many mountain forests and jungles. Animals of all sorts and sizes live in these areas. Some of the most famous animals from Thailand are the tiger, monkey and elephant. While tigers can still be seen in the jungles, they are not near as plentiful at they used to be. Elephants and monkeys though are seen throughout the country. Elephants were traditionally used as labor animals to clear the forests. They were also used as animals of war – like a walking tank! The people that handle the elephants are called the “manhut.” This person is usually a man and the elephant trains with only person, but because elephants live such a long time they are often handed down from a father to a son. Nowadays, elephants can be seen on the streets where they are lead by their manhut looking for customers willing to pay to feed the elephant. This is entertaining to the Thais as well as a way to make merit. It is also a superstition that it is lucky to walk under the belly of an elephant.
Monkeys are also common in Thailand. They are found in the forests and jungles, but also in towns, temples and parks. They can be found almost anywhere. There are even some towns that they cause quite a problem because they have almost taken over! Lopburi in central Thailand is one such town. Temples are known for their willingness to take in almost any person or animal. This means monkeys in many cases. Many temples are simply overrun with monkeys and stray dogs.