Thais have a simple explanation for why Thailand is so unique: it the only nation in Southeast Asia to escape colonisation.
Despite its modernity – with hospitals, airports and public transport that beat many in the world’s richest nations – Thailand maintains ancient traditions of courtesy and tolerance. The warm welcome to foreigners has earned Thailand the nickname ‘Land of Smiles’.
Thais trace their origins to the arrival of the Tai people from southern China in the 10th century AD. The newcomers formed several fractious kingdoms that fell under the sway of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the 14th century.
Ayutthaya dominated Thai culture for four centuries, establishing Theravada Buddhism and codifying laws and customs. By 1700, the city of Ayutthaya is believed to have been the world’s largest city, with a million inhabitants.
Thailand’s political power then shifted south to Bangkok after Ayutthaya was levelled by invaders from Burma in 1767. By the end of the century the Burmese had been sent packing as the Kingdom revived, also seeing off the threat of colonialism through astute diplomacy.
In 1932 Thailand switched from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional democracy, although it spent many of the following decades under military dictatorship before rediscovering democratic values.
Thailand has a population of about 64 million. Only about one-third of Thais live in cities, with 10 million in Bangkok.
The landscape is extremely varied. The South has stunning tropical islands and the white sandy beaches of Phuket and Koh Samui. Northern Thailand offers the cooler mountains and pristine forests of destinations like Chiang Mai.
The Central Plains are given over to rice fields while the northeastern provinces of Isan are known for arid, less productive agricultural land.
Unlike all its neighbours, Thailand has modernised without the trauma of extensive civil conflicts. United over the Buddhist religion – to which almost all Thais belong – and reverence for King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thais feel a strong bond of shared identity and values.
In recent years, a tussle for political power has developed between Thailand’s urban elite and the people of poorer agricultural provinces. The supporters of both groups – colour-coded with yellow for city slickers and red for country folk – have staged mass rallies to push their case.
But both sides have shown a determination to avoid violence and to maintain Thailand’s national unity and peaceful traditions, of which Thais are justly proud.
Thailand has participated in Asia’s economic emergence with a rate of growth that has earned it the label of a ‘tiger economy’.
The start of 2010 began a new era for the Thai economy – traditionally dependent on exports to the West – as the Asean Free Trade Area came into effect. By cutting export tariffs in Southeast Asia, the agreement is set to diversify the traditional patterns of trade and manufacturing.
In particular, the blistering pace of China’s development is expected to underpin Thailand’s development over the coming decades.
But Thailand looks set to temper its development with concern for the environment. A landmark legal ruling over projects at the Map Ta Phut industrial estate in 2009 is seen as heralding a deeper consideration for green concerns.
Transport and infrastructure
Despite its exceptionally affordable cost of living, Thailand has some of Southeast Asia’s most advanced infrastructure.
A growing network of low-cost carriers provides cheap and convenient air links across the region. Residents of Bangkok zip around their city on air-conditioned skytrain and metro systems. Resorts are accessible through modern highways and airports.
Thailand is also known for its world-class healthcare facilities, which attract over a million medical tourists every year.
Siam vs Thailand?
Thailand was known as Siam up until 1939, when the country was renamed Thailand. Despite some debate, the country has since stuck with the new name, except for a brief revival of Siam between 1945 and 1948.
Siam is believed to derive from the Sanskrit word for ‘dark’ or ‘brown’. Thais translate Thailand as ‘Land of the free’.
Thailand in figures
|Political system:||Democracy and constitutional monarchy|
|Area:||513,120 square kilometres, making it the world’s 50th largest nation|
|Air links:||Bangkok is an important regional air hub with great links within the region and to Europe and North America. A mushrooming network of low-cost carriers also links Phuket with destinations such as Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore.|
|GDP:||$273 billion, or $4,116 per person – although in terms of purchasing power this is calculated at $547 billion, or a per-capita income of $8,239|
|Tourist arrivals:||14 million foreign visitors land in Thailand each year.|
|Climate:||Thailand has a tropical climate with average daily peaks up to 36°C in April and May. Showers are common in the rainy season from June and October, while November to February has the lowest temperatures and least humidity. The far north is noticeably cooler in winter, when temperatures can dip almost to freezing.|