The landscape is marked with many mountain ranges and rivers. In northern Thailand, there are the Yom, Ping, Wang, and Nan Rivers as well as the highest mountain in the country, Doi Inthanon.
In the northern Thailand region live about 12 million people. Chiang Mai has about 150,000 residents and, after Bangkok, is Thailand’s second largest city as well as being the largest and most culturally important city in northern Thailand. As in all the other regions of Thailand, Thai is the official language. In the hotels and tourist attractions, however, people do speak English at the very least.
Thailand shares a border with Myanmar (Birmany), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The 514,000-square-kilometer country is made of a piece of land stretching from the North to the middle of Thailand and in the South, of the Malaysian peninsula with approximately 2,600 kilometers of coastline. Bangkok, the capital city, lies in the fertile central plain.
Made of three small rivers - Ping, Yom and Nan- the “king river” Chao Phraya waters this lush and fertile region before flowing into the Gulf of Thailand, in the South of Bangkok.
The Malaysian peninsula boasts endless and pristine sandy beaches scattered with numerous fishermen’s villages which are circled with rice fields, hevea forests and fruit orchards. The heart of the peninsula hosts the Khao Sok National Park and its unspoiled jungle-like rainforest. On the Western Coast, in the Phang Nga region – north of Phuket -, the picturesque and majestic limestone cliffs seem to soar from the sea. A great many mountainous islands lie here, criss-crossed by caves and grottos. There, travellers will discover beautiful lagoons only accessible by boat.
The eastern coast borders with the Gulf of Thailand and the western coast with the Andaman Sea which is known to be one of the most appealing diving area in the world : colourful coral reef and hundreds of big and smaller marine creatures live here. These fantastic waters host the impressive but harmless whale sharks, turtles, manta rays, dolphins, manatees as well as a great number of tropical fish species. The Gulf of Thailand also features a diving area.
The first settlers may have arrived in Thailand 5000 years before the Christian era. According to most of the historians, the first groups of people came from Southern China between the 6th and 7th centuries. They mingled with the locals without having to fight to conquer the country.
From the 1st century AD, more and more Indian merchants and sailors came to the Malaysian Peninsula, bringing with them their religion and art. Coming from Ceylon, the present Sri Lanka, Buddhism progressively supplanted Hinduism. Birmanese and Khmer people have also left their marks. They played an important role in the battles to conquer the King River Chao Phraya fertile valley. In 1238, Thai people crushed the Khmers and made of their camp a city they named Sukkothai, which means “dawn of bliss”.
Sukkothai is considered as the cradle of present Thailand. The first sovereign, King Ramkhamhaeng, created a country based on a Mongolian order pattern which encouraged Singhalese inspired Buddhism and cultural mix between Thai and Khmer people. At this time, King Ramkhamhaeng also established the Thai alphabet that is still in use today.
Around 1350, King U Thong established the Ayutthaya kingdom and waged war on Sukkothai. As Sukkothai was more interested in religion and sciences than war things, King U Thong easily and almost peacefully conquered the kingdom.
From 1509 on, the Thais started to forge close relationships with European countries.
After numerous wars between Ayutthaya and Burma, the Burmese finally attacked the capital city Ayutthaya and conquered it in 1767. The Thai kingdom was then reunited and Bangkok was chosen to be the new capital city.
Siam, the ancient Thailand, was the only Southeast Asian state to avoid Western colonial rule. The country also succeeded to establish a free and modern concept of monarchy. In 1871, the genuflexion in front of the king was abolished and slavery was forbidden in 1905. Then, in 1921, equality between men and women was enacted by law.
In 1932, the Siamese coup d’état changed the absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, leading to a significant change of the king’s status whose political powers were considerably reduced. Seven years later, Siam officially became Thailand which means “The Country of Free People”. Apart from a short period of time (from 1945 to 1949, Siam prevailed over Thailand), the kingdom still bears the name which was chosen in 1939.
The agricultural sector still represents half of the country’s economy. Rice, manioc, sugar cane, coconuts and soya beans are the main crops ; heveas are also grown for rubber manufacturing. The service industries sector is constantly growing, partly thanks to the tourism sector.
People and language
Most of the 65 millions of inhabitants, i.e 80 per cent, are ethnically Thai. Particularly in Southern Thailand, many people have Chinese ancestors who came here as traders. They have considerably influenced the architecture, the spiritual beliefs, the customs and also –last but not least- the cooking.
Malaysia proximity is also palpable in Thailand, particularly in the South where over 90 per cent of the inhabitants are Muslims although a mere 5 per cent of the global population is Muslim. This group of people speaks Thai as well as Yawi, the Malaysian dialect. Ethnic minorities comprise of the Chao Le and the Sakai. The Chao Le, also named the sea nomads, may have arrived from the Indian archipelago in the first millenium AD and settled around Phuket. Short and dark-skinned, the Sakai may have lived in Southern Thailand long before the Thais. Nowadays, most of them live in the provinces of Satun, Yala and Narathiwat.
Most of the inhabitants speak Thai but English is also widely spoken and understood thanks to tourism. The main religion is Buddhism.
GMT +7 (Thailand is 12 hours ahead of Canada EST)
Thai people appreciate proper and clean clothes. They show therefore little respect – even if they never express their disapproval- for people wearing bathing suits or light clothing when not at the beach. Topless and nudism are strictlty forbidden. When visiting a holy place, visitors must take off their shoes as well as their hats or whatever covers their head. Low-cut and short tops, miniskirts as well as shorts are forbidden in temples and royal palaces. For safety reasons, visitors should wear suitable shoes and cover their legs, shoulders and arms (down to the elbow).
The Baht (1 baht = 100 satang) is the Thai currency. 1 CAD = 31,6 baht and 1 euro = 50 baht. An unlimited amount of bahts can be brought into the country. When leaving Thailand though, one must be careful no to take more than 10,000 baht in the neighbouring countries and 50,000 baht in other countries. Most of the credit cards are accepted in hotels. It is also possible to withdraw money and pay with EC-cards – although the charges are quite expensive.
As rainfalls shower different regions at different times of the year, one can go to Thailand all year round. Thanks to the Thai-Birmanese Tenasserim range, rain comes at different times on the Western and Eastern coasts of the Malay peninsula. Bangkok is an idyllic place to visit all year round – apart from April and May when it is very hot. From November to April, Southwestern Thailand (for instance Phuket and Khao Lak) offers sun and pleasant temperatures (around 30°C). Koh Samui and Southeastern Thailand are pleasant places all year round, although short and strong rainfalls shower these regions in November and December. But it is always warm since the sun is never far away. In Hua Hin, beaches are partly flooded in August and September. Bathing is then restricted to swimming pools.
No vaccination is required to go to Thailand. It is however good to see a doctor before leaving since prophylaxis against malaria (in specific regions and at specific times of the year) as well as vaccination against hepatitis are strongly recommended.
Sites worth seeing
Thailand is full of fascinating places : there are for example 25,000 temples and monasteries scattered all over the country – and some of them welcome visitors. Nature also offers numerous breathtaking places such as grottos, waterfalls and beautiful lagoons. Here is a small selection of sites worth seeing in Bangkok, Koh Samui and Phuket :
- Wat Phra Kaeo, the “Emerald Buddha Temple”
- The Great Palace : once house of the king, it is nowadays used only for official ceremonies
- Lak-Muang-Shrine of the “protector god” of Bangkok
- The National Museum : one of the most beautiful art collection in Southeastern Asia
- Wat Pho Temple featuring the biggest Buddha statue in Thailand
- Wat Arun, the “dawn temple”
- Big Buddha Statue in the North of the island (Samui emblem)
- Khao Thai Kwai, the highest mountain of Samui covered with unspoiled nature and a small rainforest
- The two waterfalls of Hin Lat and Na Muang
- Phuket town with its lanes and alleyways designed in Sino-Portuguese architecture (mix between Western and Eastern influences)
- Bang Niew and Put Jaw : Chinese temples in Phuket Town
- Khao Phra Taeo National Park in northern Samui : the last tropical rainforest in the island
- Gibbon Research Center : nature reserve for half domesticated gibbons.
- Wat Phra Tong : mysterious Buddha statue buried up to the shoulders ; despite numerous efforts, it could never be retrieved.
- Marine Biological Research Centre & Aquarium at Cape Panwa
- Laem Phromthep, the “Cape of Gods”