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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.


Thailand's Culture & History


"Thailand incessantly boasts that they've never been colonized.  True enough.  They've just been 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 exports."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


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
.

Fourteen percent of Thailand's current population claims to have Chinese ethnicity.  The Chinese have been flocking to Thai girlsThailand 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 saying.

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 their own.     


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. 

 
Religion

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 domination.

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 in 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 1444.  Korean is a lot easier to learn, but it's still inadvisable for the average non-Korean to attempt writing a novel in it.



 

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  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