With sixteen million foreigners flying into the country each year, Thailand is Asia’s primary travel destination and offers a host of places to visit. Yet despite this vast influx of visitors, Thailand’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged – a country that adroitly avoided colonization has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage. Though the high-rises and neon lights occupy the foreground of the tourist picture, the typical Thai community is still the farming village, and you need not venture far to encounter a more traditional scene of fishing communities, rubber plantations and Buddhist temples.
Thailand is bordered to the west by Myanmar and the Indian Ocean, to the south and east by Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand, to the east by Cambodia, and to the north and east by Laos. Central Thailand is dominated by the Chao Phraya River.
The weather in Thailand is generally very hot, particularly between March and May. The monsoon season runs from June to October, when the climate is still hot and humid with torrential rains. The best time for travelling is November to February (cool season), although the southern islands are best from June to September.
History in Brief
Thailand’s social history can be traced back to the Neolithic period, but the country we know and love came into effect with the establishment of an alliance between three kingdoms – Lan Na, Sukhothai, and Phayao in the 13th century. The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the emergence of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which continued until it fell to the Burmese, initially in 1569, then again in 1760, before finally succumbing in 1767.
Thailand’s current Chakri Dynasty began in 1782 when Phraya Chakri ascended the throne as King Ramathibodi, Rama I. The new dynasty moved the country’s capital city to Bangkok where it remains to this day. King Mongkut, Rama IV, instigated trade and diplomatic relations with European countries in the mid-19th century, as well as educational reforms.
During the reign of King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, Thailand changed from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy following a coup d’état in 1932. The country’s name was officially changed in 1939 from Siam to Prathet Thai, or Thailand, meaning ‘land of the free’, a phrase used to express pride in the fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonised by a European state.
The Thai military government sided with the Japanese in WWII and allowed US forces to use Thai territory during the Vietnam War. Democracy developed slowly in Thailand and after a quarter of a century of military rule, civilian government was restored in 1973 following student riots in Bangkok, but this was to last only three years before the military again took control.
The country continues to move between civilian and military administration – the latest coup in May 2014 resulted in new elections with an end to martial law declared on 1 April 2015, prompting one commentator to note that in the 83 years since absolute monarchy ended in 1932, uniformed or ex-military men have led the nation for 55 years.
Current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, is the world’s longest serving head of state and Thailand’s longest reigning monarch, having ascended the throne in 1946.
Thai is the official language. English is widely spoken, especially in establishments catering for tourists.
The vast majority adheres to Buddhism (Theravada form), 5% are Muslim and there are Christian and Hindu minorities.
A unit of Thai currency is known as a "Baht." You may sometimes see it written as a "Bath," but either way it is pronounced to rhyme with "lot." The Thai Baht can be divided into 100 satang, but single satang coins are no longer in circulation. The only coins smaller than a Baht are the 25 and 50 satang brass coins.
Besides the 25 and 50 satang coins, Thai currency also comes in one, two, five and ten Baht coins. The coins are minted in different sizes with the two Baht being larger than the one Baht, the five Baht larger than the two Baht and so on. The one, two and five Baht coins are silver in color, while the ten Baht coin has a brass center with silver on the outer edge.
Thai Baht are also available as banknotes. Each denomination varies in size and color. As with the Thai coins, Thai banknotes increase in size as the denomination increases. The 20 Baht bill is green, the 50 Baht bill is blue, the 100 Baht bill is an orange/red color, the 500 Baht bill is purple and the largest bill is the 1000 Baht white one.
Visas for Thailand are not required by all nationals, for touristic stays of up to 30 days if entering via an international airport. If entering by land, you will usually be granted a stay of 15 days (apart from nationals of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the USA, who will be granted a 30-day stay). All visitors must hold valid passports, sufficient funds and confirmed airline tickets to leave Thailand within the time allowed by their entry stamp. Exceptions to the visa requirements are:
1. Nationals of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Romania who may apply for visas on arrival for stays of up to 15 days.
2. Nationals of Croatia, who must apply for a visa in advance from the embassy.
Nationals of Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK are also eligible to apply for an ACMECS visa, which is a 90-day joint visa allowing entry to Thailand and Cambodia. It's only really worth obtaining this visa if you're planning on spending more than 30 days in Thailand however.