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.
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.
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.
History of Thailand, Thai Culture part 1
Thai Culture part 2
Do's and Don'ts
Etiquette, Current Advisories & Health Risks part 1
Current Advisories & Health Risks part 2
National Public Holiday 2004