General Information About Thailand

History of Thailand
The first true Thai kingdom was established in AD 1238, though the country had been settled since 3,600 BC. The ensuing two centuries are known as the Sukhothai period, a kind of Golden Age when Thais made great contributions to writing and Theravada Buddhism and generally expanded their empire. The empire eventually fell into decline, and though it was occasionally dominated for periods by its Southeast Asian neighbours, Thailand (or Siam, as it was called then) was the only country in the region not colonised by Europeans. Perhaps because it was never a colony, the ruins of Sukhothai and other ancient Thai kingdoms are exceptionally well preserved today. The remains of these great cities date from vastly different time periods, so there are distinct differences between them, and it's possible to visit them all without being bored.


Modern Thai history begins with the revolution of 1932, which shifted power from the king to a coalition of military and elected officials. In 1939, the country changed its name from Siam to Thailand. Despite its loss of power, the monarchy continues to exert enormous influence on Thai people. The current king, Rama IX, is the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history and is beloved by nearly everyone. Royal birthdays are treated as national holidays, and pictures of the king and queen can be found in most homes and many public places. The near-unanimous approval of the monarchy has lent stability to Thailand not found in some other Southeast Asian countries. That stability has helped Thailand become one of the leading countries in the region.

:: Thai Culture
Buddhism

Thailand is a Theravada Buddhist nation, and they take their Buddhism seriously. Its ideas permeate the whole way of life, producing a non-confrontational and largely non-violent culture. The religion has assimilated elements of others: many temples have murals depicting the Hindu Ramayana, and "Rama" is one of the names of every king. There are also animist elements: outside most buildings you will see a "spirit house" built to accommodate the nature spirits displaced by the building. Some spirits still stay inside the house: you should not put your feet on the threshold, as one of them lives under it.

Cultural differences
There are many aspects of Thai life where it's easy to make major blunders, however innocently. Fortunately you will be forgiven for most things as an ignorant foreigner. Because of the non-confrontational style of social interaction, you may not even discover your error. But if things do go wrong, smile. The smile is used as a social gesture of apology (and for many other things) where it would take thousands of words in a Western culture.
Royalty
The royal family are regarded with a degree of respect that may seem strange to a cynical Westerner. You will see their pictures everywhere. Don't forget that the King's picture is on every banknote and coin, so they too must be handled with care. In some public places, the national anthem is played twice a day. Should you hear it, do as the Thai do: stop whatever you're doing and stand to attention.

Thai Buddhist temples are called wat s. The compound is a major meeting-place for both religious and secular occasions. The principal building is the bot , the ordination hall, not normally open to the public. You can distinguish it from the other buildings because it is surrounded by eight sema or boundary stones, at each corner and the centre of each side, which mark the extents of the consecrated ground. The sema may be simple tombstone-like objects, or decorated more or less elaborately, and possibly enclosed in their own mini-shrines. There may be one or more viharn s, which are the lay people's assembly halls (some strict-meditation wat s may not have one at all.)

The viharn usually contains the principal Buddha image. There is also a chedi , that or stupa , a tower symbolising the Buddha's teaching, which contains some kind of relic. Its base represents the cloth in which he was clothed, the dome is a begging-bowl and the spire is a teaching stick. All Buddha images, however tacky some of them may seem, must be treated with respect. You cannot export them without a special licence.

Monks
Monks are easily recognised by their saffron robes. Whatever their age (8-80+) they should be treated with respect, but don't be afraid to talk to them. Women need to remember that monks are forbidden any contact with the opposite sex: if a monk wants to sit down on a bus, be prepared to give up your seat so that he doesn't have to sit next to you. If a woman needs to give something to a monk, either she should ask a man to do it, or the monk will hold out a corner of his robe, and she will put the object on it.
Status
Thai culture is permeated by considerations of relative status: age, wealth, professional qualifications and social position are all weighed. As a foreigner who is rich enough to fly to Thailand, you are automatically regarded as of high status, unless you forfeit it by doing something really stupid. In every social interaction, the participants are assessing their relative position. This means that casual conversation sometimes seems intrusive to a reserved English visitor: it is socially acceptable to ask about marital status, how much you earn, and such things. On the other hand, it is equally acceptable to reply indirectly: "enough to live on" is a sufficient reply to "how much do you earn?" for example: