The Kingdom of Thailand lies in Southeast Asia, with Laos and Cambodia to its east, the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia to its south, and the Andaman Sea and Myanmar to its west. The country's official name was Siam until 24 June 1939. It was again called Siam between 1945 and May 11, 1949, when it was once again changed by official proclamation. The word Thai means "freedom" in the Thai language and is also the name of the majority ethnic group.
Due to its geographical location, Thai culture has always been greatly influenced by China and India. However, different indigenous cultures have also existed in Thailand since the Baan Chiang culture.
The first Siamese/Thai state is traditionally considered to be the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai founded in 1238, following the decline and fall of the Khmer Empire in the 13th - 15th century.
A century later, Sukhothai's power was overshadowed by the larger Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, established in the mid-14th century. After Ayutthaya sacked Angkor itself in 1431, much of the Khmer court and its Hindu customs were brought to Ayuthaya, and Khmer customs and rituals were adopted into the courtly culture of Siam.
After Ayuthaya fell in 1767, Thonburi was the capital of Thailand for a brief period under King Taksin the Great, until a coup d'etat in 1782. The current (Ratthanakosin) era of Thai history began in 1782 following the establishment of Bangkok as capital of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I the Great.
European powers began traveling to Thailand in the 16th century. Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonized by a European power. The two main reasons for this is that Thailand had a long succession of very able rulers in the 1800s and that it was able to utilise the rivalry and tension between the French and the British. As a result, the country remained as a buffer state between parts of Southeast Asia that were colonised by the two colonial powers. Despite this, Western influence led to many reforms in the 19th century and major concessions to British trading interests. This included the loss of the three southern provinces, which later became Malaysia's three northern states.
In 1932, a bloodless revolution resulted in a new constitutional monarchy. During the war, Thailand was allied with Japan. Yet after the war, it became an ally of the United States. Thailand then went through a series of coups d'état, but eventually progressed towards democracy in the 1980s.
In 1997, Thailand was hit with the Asian financial crisis and the Thai baht was soon worth 56 baht to the U.S. Dollar compared to about 25 baht to the dollar before 1997. Since then the baht has regained some strength and currently trades around 36-39 baht to the dollar.
The official calendar in Thailand is based on Eastern version of the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (western) calendar. For example, the year 2007 CE is called 2550 BE in Thailand.
People celebrating the 60th anniversary of the accession of King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 17 constitutions and charters. Throughout this time, the form of government has ranged from military dictatorship to electoral democracy, but all governments have acknowledged a hereditary monarch as the head of state.
The current head of state is King Bhumibol Adulyadej. He is currently advised by a Privy Council. Both the King and the President of the Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda command great respect among the Thai people.
1997 to 2006
The 1997 Constitution was the first constitution to be drafted by popularly-elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly, and, was popularly called the "People's Constitution".
The 1997 Constitution created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-seat House of Representatives (sapha phuthaen ratsadon) and a 200-seat Senate (wuthisapha). For the first time in Thai history, both houses were directly elected. Many human rights are explicitly acknowledged, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments. The House was elected by the first-past-the-post system, where only one candidate with a simple majority could be elected in one constituency. The Senate was elected based on the province system, where one province can return more than one Senator depending on its population size. Members of House of Representatives served four-year terms, while Senators served six-year terms.
The court system (saan) included a constitutional court with jurisdiction over the constitutionality of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, and political matters.
The January 2001 general election, the first elections under the 1997 Constitution, were called the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history. The subsequent government was the first in Thai history to complete a 4 year term. The 2005 election had the highest voter turnout in Thai history and was noted for a marked reduction in vote-buying compared to previous elections. A military junta overthrew the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006.
Thailand remains an active member of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Thailand is divided into 76 provinces ( changwat), which are gathered into 5 groups of provinces by location. There are also 2 special governed districts: the capital Bangkok (Krung Thep Maha Nakhon in Thai) and Pattaya, of which Bangkok is also at a provincial level, while Pattaya is part of Chon Buri Province. Some Thai people still count Bangkok as a province, making Thailand a 76-province country.
Each province is divided into smaller districts. As of 2000 there are 796 districts (amphoe), 81 minor districts (king amphoe) and the 50 districts of Bangkok (khet). Some parts of the provinces bordering Bangkok are also referred to as Greater Bangkok (pari monthon). These provinces include Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani, Samut Prakan, Nakhon Pathom, Samut Sakhon. The name of each province's capital city (mueang) is the same as that of the province: for example, the capital of Chiang Mai province (changwat Chiang Mai) is Mueang Chiang Mai.
At 514,000 km² (198,000 sq mi), Thailand is the world's 49th-largest country. It is comparable in size to Spain, and somewhat larger than the US state of California.
Thailand is home to several distinct geographic regions, partly corresponding to the provincial groups. The north of the country is mountainous, with the highest point being Doi Inthanon at 2,576 metres (8,451 ft). The northeast consists of the Khorat Plateau, bordered to the east by the Mekong river. The centre of the country is dominated by the predominantly flat Chao Phraya river valley, which runs into the Gulf of Thailand. The south consists of the narrow Kra Isthmus that widens into the Malay Peninsula.
The local climate is tropical and characterised by monsoons. There is a rainy, warm, and cloudy southwest monsoon from mid-May to September, as well as a dry, cool northeast monsoon from November to mid-March. The southern isthmus is always hot and humid. Major cities beside the capital Bangkok include Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Chiang Mai, Surat Thani, Phuket and Hat Yai (Songkhla Province).
After enjoying the world's highest growth rate from 1985 to 1995 - averaging almost 9% annually - increased pressure on Thailand's currency, the baht, in 1997 led to a crisis that uncovered financial sector weaknesses and forced the government to float the currency. Long pegged at 25 to the US dollar, the baht reached its lowest point of 56 to the US dollar in January 1998 and the economy contracted by 10.2% that same year. The collapse prompted a wider Asian financial crisis.
Thailand entered a recovery stage in 1998, expanding 4.2% and grew 4.4% in 2000, largely due to strong exports - which increased about 20% in 2000. Growth was dampened by a softening of the global economy in 2001, but picked up in the subsequent years due to strong growth in China and the various domestic stimulation programs of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, popularly known as Thaksinomics. Growth in 2003 and 2004 was over 6% annually.
Thailand exports over $105 billion worth of products annually. Major exports include rice, textiles and footwear, fishery products, rubber, jewelry, automobiles, computers and electrical appliances. Thailand is the world’s no.1 exporter of rice, exporting 6.5 million tons of milled rice annually. Rice is the most important crop in the country. Thailand has the highest percent of arable land, 27.25%, of any nation in the Greater Mekong Subregion. About 55% of the available land area is used for rice production.
Substantial industries include electric appliances, components, computer parts and automobiles, while tourism contributes about 5% of the Thai economy's GDP. Long stay foreign residents also contribute heavily to GDP.
The main natural resources of Thailand are tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum, timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite, fluorite, and arable land.
Thailand's population is dominated by various Tai-speaking peoples. Among these, the most numerous are the Central Thai, the Northeastern Thai or Isan or Lao, the Northern Thai, and the Southern Thai. The Central Thai have long dominated the nation politically, economically, and culturally, even though they make up only about one-third of Thailand's population and are slightly outnumbered by the Northeastern Thai. Due to education system and the forging of a national identity, many people are now able to speak Central Thai as well as their own local dialects.
The largest group of non-Tai people are the Chinese who have historically played a disproportionately significant role in the economy. Most have integrated completely into mainstream Thai society, and do not live in Bangkok's Chinatown on Yaowarat Road. Other ethnic groups include Malays in the south, Mon, Khmer and various hill tribes. After the end of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese refugees settled in Thailand, mainly in the northeastern regions.
According to the last census (2000) 95% of Thais are Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Muslims are the second largest religious group in Thailand at 4.6%. Some provinces and towns south of Chumphon have dominant Muslim populations, including many ethnic Thai.[verification needed] Often Muslims live in separate communities from non-Muslims. The southern tip of Thailand are mostly ethnic Malays and they are mostly concentrated in the south, where they form a strong majority in four provinces. Christians, mainly Catholics, represent 0.75% of the population. A tiny but influential community of Sikhs and some Hindus also live in the country's cities.
The Thai language is Thailand's national language, written in its own alphabet, but many ethnic and regional dialects exist as well as areas where people speak predominantly Isan or Mon-Khmer languages. Although English is widely taught in schools, proficiency is low.
Theravada Buddhism is central to modern Thai identity and belief. In practice, Thai Buddhism has evolved over time to include many regional beliefs originating from animism as well as ancestor worship. In areas in the southernmost parts of Thailand, Islam is prevalent. Several different ethnic groups, many of which are marginalized, populate Thailand. Some of these groups overlap into Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia and have maintained a distinctly traditional way-of-life despite strong Thai cultural influence. Ethnic Chinese also form a significant part of Thai society, particularly in and around Bangkok. Their successful integration into Thai society has allowed for this group to hold positions of economic and political power, the most noteworthy of these being the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who held power from 2001 until September 19, 2006 when he was ousted by a military coup d'état.
Like most Asian cultures, respect towards ancestors is an essential part of Thai spiritual practice. Thais have a strong sense of hospitality and generosity, but also a strong sense of social hierarchy. Seniority is an important concept in Thai culture. Thais will bow to the feet of their parents or grandparents to honor them. In addition, the elders always rule in family decisions or ceremonies.
Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is the national sport in Thailand and its native martial art. It achieved popularity all over the world in the 1990s. Although similar martial arts styles exist in other southeast Asian countries, few enjoy the recognition that Muay Thai has received with its full-contact rules allowing strikes including elbows, throws and knees. Association football, however, has possibly overtaken Muay Thai's position as most widely viewed and liked sport in contemporary Thai society and it is not uncommon to see Thais cheering their favourite English Premier League teams on television and walking round in replica kits. Another widely enjoyed pastime, and once a competitive sport, is kite flying.
The standard greeting in Thailand is a prayer-like gesture called the wai (see namaste). Taboos include touching someone's head or pointing with the feet, as the head is considered the most sacred and the foot the dirtiest part of the body. Stepping over someone, or over food, is considered insulting. However, Thai culture as in many other Asian cultures, is succumbing to the influence of westernization and some of the traditional taboos are slowly fading away with time.
Books and other documents are the most revered of secular objects - therefore one should not slide a book across a table or place it on the floor.
Thai cuisine blends five fundamental tastes: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. Some common ingredients used in Thai cuisine include garlic, chillies, lime juice, lemon grass, and fish sauce. The staple food in Thailand is rice, particularly jasmine variety rice (also known as Hom Mali rice) which is included in almost every meal. Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice and Thais domestically consume over 100 kg of milled rice per person per year. Over 5000 varieties of rice from Thailand are preserved in the rice gene bank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines. The King of Thailand is the official patron of IRRI.
Thai culture has been greatly shaped in recent years by its vibrant and free press. There are numerous English, Thai and Chinese papers in circulation and Thailand is the largest newspaper market in South East Asia with an estimated circulation of at least 13 million copies daily in 2003.
Buddhism in Thailand is largely of the Theravada school. Nearly 95% of Thailand's population is Buddhist of the Theravada school, though Buddhism in this country has become integrated with folk beliefs such as ancestor worship as well as Chinese religions from the large Thai-Chinese population. Buddhist temples in Thailand are characterized by tall golden stupas, and the Buddhist architecture of Thailand is similar to that in other Southeast Asian countries, particularly Cambodia and Laos, with which Thailand shares cultural and historical heritage.
Three major forces have influenced the development of Buddhism in Thailand. The most visible influence is that of the Theravada school of Buddhism, imported from Sri Lanka. While there are significant local and regional variations, the Theravada school provides most of the major themes of Thai Buddhism. By tradition, Pali is the language of religion in Thailand. Scriptures are recorded in Pali, using either the modern Thai script or the older Khom and Tham scripts. Pali is also used in religious liturgy, despite the fact that most Thais understand very little of this ancient language. The Pali Tipitaka is the primary religious text of Thailand, though many local texts have been composed in order to summarise the vast number of teachings found in the Tipitaka. The monastic code (Patimokkha) followed by Thai monks is taken from the Pali Theravada- something that has provided a point of controversy during recent attempts to resurrect the bhikkhuni lineage in Thailand.
The second major influence on Thai Buddhism were Hindu beliefs received from Cambodia, particularly during the Sukhothai period. Vedic Hinduism played a strong role in the early Thai institution of kingship, just as it did in Cambodia, and exerted influence in the creation of laws and order for Thai society as well as Thai religion. Certain rituals practiced in modern Thailand, either by monks or by Hindu ritual specialists, are either explicitly identified as Hindu in origin, or are easily seen to be derived from Hindu practices. While the visibility of Hinduism in Thai society has been diminished substantially during the Chakri dynasty, Hindu influences- particularly shrines to the god Brahma- continue to be seen in and around Buddhist institutions and ceremonies.
A Buddhist Monk chants evening prayers inside a monastery located near the town of Kantharalak, Thailand (January 2005). Photo by Peter RimarFolk religion- attempts to propitiate and attract the favor of local spirits known as phi forms the third major influence on Thai Buddhism. While Western observers (as well as urbane and Western educated Thais) have often drawn a clear line between Thai Buddhism and folk religious practices, this distinction is rarely observed in more rural locales. Spiritual power derived from the observance of Buddhist precepts and rituals is employed in attempting to appease local nature spirits. Many restrictions observed by rural Buddhist monks are derived not from the orthodox Vinaya, but from taboos derived from the practice of folk magic. Astrology, numerology, and the creation of talismans and charms also play a prominent role in Buddhism as practiced by the average Thai- topics that are, if not proscribed, at least marginalized in Buddhist texts.
Additional, more minor influences can be observed stemming from contact with Mahayana Buddhism. Early Buddhism in Thailand is thought to have been derived from an unknown Mahayana tradition. While Mahayana Buddhism was gradually eclipsed in Thailand, certain features of Thai Buddhism- such as the appearance of the bodhisattva Lokesvara in some Thai religious architecture, and the belief that the king of Thailand is a bodhisattva himself- reveal the influence of Mahayana concepts. The only other bodhisattva prominent in Thai religion is Maitreya; Thais sometimes pray to be reborn during the time of Maitreya, or dedicate merit from worship activities to that end.
In modern times, additional Mahayana influence has stemmed from the presence of Chinese immigrants in Thai society. While some Chinese have 'converted' to Thai-style Theravada Buddhism, many others maintain their own separate temples in the East Asian Mahayana tradition. The growing popularity of the goddess Kuan Yin in Thailand (a form of Avalokitesvara) may be attributed to the Chinese Mahayanist presence in Thailand.
Ordination and clergy:
Buddhist Monk is receiving food from villagersLike in most other Theravada nations, Buddhism in Thailand is represented primarily by the presence of Buddhist monks, who serve as officiants on ceremonial occasions, as well as being responsible for preserving and conveying the teachings of the Buddha.
Up until the latter half of the 20th century, most monks in Thailand began their careers by serving as dek wat (literally 'temple kid'). Dek wat are traditionally no younger than eight, and do minor housework around the temple. The primary reason for becoming a dek wat is to gain a basic education, particularly in basic reading and writing and the memorization of the scriptures chanted on ritual occasions. Prior to the creation of state-run primary schools in Thailand, village temples served as the primary form of education for most Thai boys. Service in a temple as a dek wat was a necessary prerequisite for attaining any higher education, and was the only learning available to most Thai peasants. Since the creation of a government-run educational apparatus in Thailand, the number of children living as dek wat has declined significantly. However, many government-run schools continue to operate on the premise of the local village temple.
After serving (typically for four years or more) as a dek wat, a future monk typically ordains as a novice (samana in Pali, or nain in Thai). Novices live according to the Ten Precepts, as do monks, but are not formally required to follow the full range of monastic rules found in the Pattimokha (Buddhist monastic code). There are a few other significant differences between novices and monks. Novices often are in closer contact with their families, spending more time in the homes of their parents than monks. Novices do not participate in the recitation of the monastic code (and the confessions of violations) that take place on the uposatha days. Novices technically do not eat with the monks in their temple, but this typically only amounts to a gap in seating, rather than the separation observed between monks and the laity.
Child monks in Thailand:
Young men typically do not live as a novice for longer than one or two years. At the age of 20, they become eligible to receive upasampada, the higher ordination that establishes them as a full bhikkhu. A novice is technically sponsored by his parents in his ordination, but in practice in rural villages the entire village participates by providing the robes, begging bowl, and other requisites that will be required by the monk in his monastic life.
Temporary ordination is the norm among Thai Buddhists. Most young men traditionally ordain for the term of a single rainy season (known in Pali as vassa, and in Thai as phansa). Those who remain monks beyond their first vassa typically remain monks for between one and three years, officiating at religious ceremonies in surrounding villages and possibly receiving further education in reading and writing (possibly including the Kham or Tham scripts traditionally used in recording religious texts). After this period of one to three years, most young monks return to lay life, going on to marry and begin a family. Young men in Thailand who have undergone ordination are seen as being more suitable partners for marriage; unordained men are euphemistically called 'raw', while those who have been ordained are said to be 'cooked'. A period as a monk is a prerequisite for many positions of leadership within the village hierarchy. Most village elders or headmen were once monks, as were most traditional doctors, spirit priests, and some astrologists and fortune tellers.
Monks who do not return to lay life typically specialize in either scholarship or meditation. Those who specialize in scholarship typically travel to regional education centers to begin further instruction in the Pali language and the scriptures, and may then continue on to the major monastic universities located in Bangkok. The route of scholarship is also taken by monks who desire to rise in the ecclesiastic hierarchy, as promotions within the government-run system is contingent on passing examinations in Pali and Buddhist philosophy.
Monks who specialize in meditation typically seek out a known master in the meditation tradition, under whom they will study for a period of years. 'Meditation monks' are particularly revered in Thai society as possessing great virtue and as potential sources of supernatural powers. Ironically, monks of the Thai Forest Tradition often find themselves struggling to find time and privacy to meditate in the face of enthusiastic supporters seeking their blessings and attention.
Position of women:
Unlike in Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka, the female Theravada bhikkhuni lineage was never established in Thailand. As a result, there is a wide-spread perception among Thais that women are not meant to play an active role in monastic life; instead, they are expected to live as lay followers, making merit in the hopes of being born in a different role in their next life. As a result, lay women primarily participate in religious life either as lay participants in collective merit-making rituals, or by doing domestic work around temples. A small number of women choose to become Mae Ji, non-ordained religious specialists who permanently observe either the eight or ten precepts. Mae Ji do not generally receive the level of support given to ordained monks, and their position in Thai society is the subject of some discussion.
Recently, there have been efforts to attempt to introduce a bhikkhuni lineage in Sri Lanka as a step towards improving the position of women in Thai Buddhism. Unlike similar efforts in Sri Lanka, these efforts have been extremely controversial in Thailand. Women attempting to ordain have been accused of attempting to impersonate monks (a civil offense in Thailand), and their actions have been denounced by many members of the ecclesiastic hierarchy. Most objections to the reintroduction of a female monastic role hinge on the fact that the monastic rules require that both five ordained monks and five ordained bhikkhunis be present for any new bhikkhuni ordination. Without such a quorum, critics say that it is not possible to ordain any new Theravada bhikkhuni. The Thai hierarchy refuses to recognize ordinations in the Taiwanese tradition (the only currently existing bhikkhuni ordination lineage) as valid Theravada ordinations, citing differences in philosophical teachings, and (more critically) monastic discipline.
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