Thailand has a rich history and culture. The Thais were formed from the Tai peoples. The Thai alphabet
goes back over 700 years. The national religion is Buddhism. To this day the vegetarian festival
is quite popular, mostly in Phuket.
Culture & History
"Thailand incessantly boasts
that they've never been colonized. True enough. They've
culturally invaded. For nearly all of its history, the
country has been a net importer, not exporter, of culture. Outside the
Kingdom, when someone hears mention of Thailand, they can only think of
women and a bowl of tom yam soup, Thailand's two biggest cultural
Well, the statement above isn't 100% true. The
energy drink Red Bull originated in Thailand, but the stuff
that became world famous was a formula tinkered with
and manufactured by a factory in Austria.
Thais may be loath to admit it, but being in the center of Southeast
Asia, their culture is a melting pot of others. Cambodia,
Malaysia, and Myanmar have all played a part, but China and India
have had the biggest influence.
percent of Thailand's current population claims to have Chinese
ethnicity. The Chinese have been flocking to Thailand for
centuries. By 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional
monarchy, the country was already 12% Chinese. The first Chinese
coming over were single men in search of wealth. By necessity,
they married local Thai women. Beginning in the twentieth century,
when Chinese women began coming over, too, Chinese were able to keep
things in the family, so to speak.
The Thai look, if there is one, reflects the varied cultures which have
influenced the country. With the sizeable Chinese influence,
there are Thais who could be mistaken for Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans.
I know this for a fact because when my (Korean) girlfriend and I visit a
local restaurant or store, the local staff immediately begin speaking to
her in Thai until they realize she doesn't understand a word they're
While some Thais could be mistaken for Northeast Asians and vice versa,
if you stood the stereotypical looking Thai next to the stereotypical
looking Korean or Japanese, you would not think they looked the same.
The stereotypical Thai would have bigger eyes, larger lips, and darker
skin -- more like a North Indian shade, although in Isaan, some of the
people are very brown indeed. The Thais' darker skin and
fascination with lighter skinned Asian cultures (Korea and Japan) has
not gone unnoticed by cosmetic manufacturers who've introduced lines of
skin whitening that would've made the late Michael Jackson feel
vindicated for his own skin work. The darker skin pigments in
Thais would have entered the Thai gene pool via Malays or Indians long
ago. There is subculture of Indians in Thailand today, but it's a
small one and consists of Indians and Burmese Indians who have only been
in the country for less than three generations and propagate mostly with
Everyone does it and doesn't ask wai. Wai -- the Thai salute.
Thailand owes a lot to the Indians
besides their darker skins. The omnipresent hello and
goodbye, called the wai, could be seen as coming from the Indian
gesture of namaste. The Thais insist the Indians
ripped namaste off from their wai. Considering that
the historical flow of culture has been from India to
Thailand, not the other way around, if a meaningless and
expensive United Nations task force were set up to decide
the issue at a cost of millions of dollars, the committee
would probably side with India unless the Thais offered
ample bribes. The Indians have influenced Thai
architecture and food.
Thailand's national epic is the Ramakien, a version of
the Indian Ramayana. Buddhism, the Thai national religion,
came from India. The Hindu Brahmans in Thailand,
numbering just a few thousand families, continue to perform
or direct most royal and official ceremonies.
The Chinese have been trying to make a comeback in the
influence department in modern times. One of their
influence home runs is the vegetarian festival which they
craftily brought into Thailand in 1825 and is celebrated
nationwide, but mostly in Phuket, ever since.
A traveling Chinese opera company came to present-day Phuket
to perform for Chinese miners working there. The
entire opera company became sick for unknown reasons and
went on a vegetarian and alcohol-free diet to honor two of
their emperor gods. The sickness disappeared.
Rigorous inquiry, if performed to modern standards, could
have found the cause to be a bug, a bad batch of spring
rolls, or just too much boozing, but the troupe gave full
recovery credit to the vegetarian diet and its accompanying
rituals, like fire walking and bathing in hot oil.
Freshly roasted sesame is preferred for bathing -- if you're
going to burn yourself, you might as well smell nice while
doing it. You can imagine that the
vegetarian-loving Indians are peeved they didn't come up
with the idea first.
Theravada Buddhism is the name
of the prayer game in Thailand and most of Southeast Asia.
95% of the population subscribes to it. The Thais love
to boast, like many Kentucky Fried Chicken connoisseurs,
that they stick with the original recipe. Theravada
Buddhism is the Buddhist philosophy closest to early
Buddhism. The later version, the Extra Crispy Buddhism recipe
as it were, is Mahayana. Japan and Korea -- and to a
lesser extent, a more economically muscular China -- are
proving that Buddhism, Mahayana style, can enlighten one
right down the road to riches. Mahayana Buddhists
outnumber Theravada Buddhists worldwide. If Buddhism
weren't such a nonviolent philosophy, the two sects would've
gone to war with each other already for world Buddhist
Less than 5% of Thailand is Muslim and these Allah-lovers live predominantly in
the south. Christians don't even number 1% of the
population. Jesus professed before he was
crucified that he didn't like spicy food. Fish,
loaves, and wafers were his favorites. As a result,
spicy food-loving Thais have steered clear of crosses and
churches. You have to give those stubborn American
missionaries credit for trying. They started
showing up in Thailand in the nineteenth century to save souls. The missionaries would've been better
off saving themselves the trouble of coming.
Christianity never took off. In an era that
pre-dated air conditioning, few Thais wished to buy into the
belief of burning in hell after death when the tropical heat
already had them burning enough in life.
History In A Nutshell
The Thai peoples' ancestors are the Tai people. No, it's not a spelling
shift. Thai refers to the people of Thailand, whereas Tai signifies a
group of Southeast Asians who speak what are known linguistically as Tai
languages. These number around 80m people and consist of groups in
Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, China, and Vietnam. Northern Vietnam was the
original home of the Tai peoples before they settled the Indochina and
southwestern China a thousand years ago, and to this day, hilltribes in Vietnam
speak an ancient version of Thai.
By the time the Tai people got to Thailand, Indian culture
had already spread throughout the area. Thailand's culture developed from
this Indian foundation mixed with the Tai, and later, with the cultures of the
other peoples in the area.
To make a long story short, Thai city states evolved out of the Khmer Empire.
Sukhothai was the first in 1238. It peaked early. Less than one
hundred and thirty years later it was showing some serious decline. The
Ayuthaya kingdom moved center stage. Another prominent Thai state
was Lanna, with Chiang Mai at the center.
Language and Alphabet
The Thai language is extremely simple and easy to learn ... if
you're born in Thailand, have Thai parents, and are spoken to only in Thai.
If you're not born in Thailand, your parents aren't Thai, and you're spoken to
in any other language besides Thai, Thai is extremely difficult to learn.
English has twenty-six letters in its alphabet, including the vowels. Thai
has forty-four consonants and fifteen vowel symbols that combine into at least
twenty-eight vowel forms. There are also four tone marks. To
make it ever more complicated, the Thai alphabet isn't linguistically called an
alphabet but an abugida. Hey, you learn something new every day. In
an abugida, all letters are consonants. Vowels are expressed as additional
notation, written above, below, to the left, or to the right of the consonant
symbols they affect. Is it complicated? Not if you're born in
Thailand, have Thai parents, and are spoken to only in Thai. Otherwise,
you bet it is! Think twice before trying to pen your next novel in Thai.
Written Korean and written Thai have something in common. Not
linguistically, but in the fact that both alphabets were the brainchildren
of kings. King Ramkhamhaeng the Great fiddled around with some Khmer
scripts to come up with Thai in 1283. King Sejong the Great -- great, they
say, because of his skills in the sack -- devised the Korean script of Hangul in
Korean is a lot easier to learn, but it's still inadvisable for the average
non-Korean to attempt writing a novel in it.
Thailand has a history and culture that goes back to the time of the Tai peoples
moving from Vietnam and China to Thailand. The Thai alphabet came later, in 1238. The
religion of Thailand is Theravada Buddhism and one of their most famous Buddhist festivals
is the annual vegetarian festival