POPULATION: 65 million
RELIGION: Buddhism; mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism
The Thai in Thailand today are a Thai-speaking group who gradually moved from the north of ancient Southeast Asia or what is now southern China, into the area of the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins, overcoming Mon and Khmer peoples and mixing with them. The Thai are related culturally and linguistically to other Tai peoples such as the Shan in Burma and the Lao of North and northeast Thailand and Laos. Other Tai-speaking peoples are found in India and Vietnam, but the largest group is in southern China. A Thai kingdom called Siam developed along the lower Chao Phraya River.
Thailand was never directly colonized by Western imperialism. The British and French agreed to leave the country as a buffer zone between the British colonial holdings in Burma and the French colonies in Indochina. However, Thailand suffered many disadvantages from the extraterritorial treaties forced on it by European powers and the United States. A bloodless coup led by Western-educated Thai elites put an end to the absolute monarchy in 1932. A constitutional monarchy and an early attempt at democracy were established, but conflicts within the new government and charges of communism against some political figures who appeared to be "left" led to a successful military coup. Since then, the Thai political scene has oscillated between periods of dictatorship and democracy. Student uprisings in 1973 and 1976 and pro-democracy demonstrations in 1992 tried to halt the power of the military, who have not hesitated to fire on unarmed demonstrators. The right wing used accusations of Communism as an effective tool against their political opponents, especially students and journalists, during the 1960s and 70s, declaring them a threat to the national trilogy —nation, religion, and king. Democracy in Thailand is not yet stable, and the government, both politicians and the bureaucracy, is very corrupt. Although King Phumipol, the present king, is greatly loved and revered and has proved to be very influential in many political crises, the future is difficult to predict. In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, governments were civilian and democratically elected, but in September 2006, the military once again stepped into politics, carrying out a bloodless coup against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly. An interim prime minister was appointed a month later. By December 2007, the military junta had drafted a new constitution and held general elections, marking the beginning of the transition back to civilian rule. The People Power Party (PPP), seen as the reincarnation of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, was victorious. In January 2008, an elected parliament convened, and Samak Sundaravej was sworn in as prime minister. Thaksin Shinawatra returned from exile.
Thailand has a minority Muslim population, concentrated in its southern ethnic Malay provinces. A decades-old separatist struggle in the region —which abated in the 1980s —emerged again in 2004. The violence has mostly targeted members of Thailand's majority Buddhist population.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Situated in the middle of mainland Southeast Asia with a tropical monsoon climate, Thailand is approximately 514,000 sq km and shares boundaries with Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. There are three main seasons —the hot dry season, the rainy season, and a short, mild cool season. Thailand has four major regions, roughly divided by geographical and cultural characteristics: the central floodplain nurtured by the Chao Phraya River and its tributaries; the mountainous north whose largest forest areas are rapidly being destroyed; the dry northeast on the Khorat Plateau bordering the Mekong River to the east; and the long coastlines of the peninsula south bounded by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. The capital city of Bangkok, called Krungthep by the Thais and once called the "Venice of the East," is divided by the Chao Phraya River. Its location on a floodplain, together with the filling in of the numerous canals to make roads, brings annual flooding and the gradual sinking of the city. The south often suffers catastrophic floods and the northeast often receives insufficient rainfall, or if it does, its poor soils do not hold water. In general, Thailand is a land of abundance, producing and exporting various crops and many varieties of fruit. It suffers relatively few natural calamities.
The Thai population reached 65 million in 2007, with 0.66% annual growth. Around 11 million people are living in Bang-kok, the only metropolis. More than 85% of the population speak dialects of Thai, but the Central Thai dialect is the only official language. Life expectancy is 72.5 years.
Many dialects of Thai language are spoken all over the country, and Malay is used in the extreme south. However, because of the government's effort to suppress and marginalize minority ethnic identities, the Central Thai dialect, or Standard Thai, became the only official language taught in schools and used in all official affairs.
Thai is a tonal language and its alphabet is derived from Mon and Khmer scripts. The language has been influenced by Pali and Sanskrit from the Hindu-Buddhist civilization of India. Last names were just introduced to Thailand in the early 20th century, but calling a person by his or her last name is very unusual. Most Thais like to have elaborate names with Pali-Sanskrit roots and one-syllable nicknames, with or without meanings —for example, Suwanna (given name) Rattanasiri (last name) and Lek (nickname.)
"Sawaddee" is used for greeting regardless of time.
"Mai Pen Rai" means "it's O.K., never mind". Women add the polite word "Kha" and men the word "khrab" to phrases and sentences when speaking.
The Thais had an indigenous creation myth before the arrival of Buddhism. Than is the Spirit of the Sky, the greatest spirit, who first created everything. In the past, there was nothing on earth, no humans, animals, plants, sun, or moon. Than brought a bottle gourd to earth, then pierced it open with an iron. Five types of human beings came out and all were brothers and sisters. Than taught them the way of life and gave them tools to make a living.
Thai society is based on rice culture, so rice myths are very important to agricultural society and rituals. According to legend, the original rice seed was as huge as five times a man's fist. But because humans became more and more greedy, the rice seed became smaller and smaller. Mae Phosop is the Spirit of Rice. The old still teach the young, "Don't leave rice in your dish, Mae Phosop will feel sad."
Si Thanonchai is a very popular local trickster hero whose witty and cunning character many Thais identify with. The adventurous Si Thanonchai always cleverly survived life crises, engaged in deviltry without being caught, and teased and troubled others, including monks and kings, without being seriously punished. The popularity of the story reflects an expression of the suppressed feelings of common people under pressure from a moral and hierarchical society.
Approximately 95% of Thais are Buddhists, and regional people adhere to their own religious traditions of Theravada Buddhism. The mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism is the core of Thai beliefs, cosmology, and cultures. Hindu beliefs and animism are also seen in popular astrology and fortune-telling. Many southern Thais are Muslims. Most tribal people maintain animistic beliefs and some have con-verted to Christianity. Many Chinese Thais follow Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship.
Belief in spirit worship, or animism, is pervasive and intertwined with Buddhism. Spirits are believed to inhabit almost everything —houses, earth, all forms of life, etc. —and can help or harm humans. Large old trees are frequently tied with pieces of colorful cloth and worshipped by local people. Spirit houses are noticed everywhere: in houses, in neighborhood communities, and even in modern office buildings, shopping malls, and hotels.
Because Theravada Buddhism is a scripture-based religion and its teaching rests firmly on wisdom, not faith, it is very difficult for ordinary people to follow. Numerous cults have emerged, especially among the urban middle class, in the increasingly consumerist Thai society to meet the spiritual needs of the people. Some Buddhist sects and temples have become large, politically involved, and business-like organizations.
Most holidays are of a religious or royal nature. Songkran, the Thai New Year, derived from Hindu astrology, is the longest official holiday of the year, April 13 –15. Traditionally, great numbers of people visit their home villages to pay respects to their parents and elderly relatives. Nowadays, Songkran is mainly celebrated by throwing water on each other like crazy. Some will add white clay or scents to the water for more lasting effect. It is clearly the messiest holiday in Thailand.
The Chinese New Year in mid-February is not an official holiday, but it is a big festival among those who have Chinese ancestors, which includes much of Bangkok and some cities in the South. Some Chinese Thai employers give days off and bonuses to their Thai employees. It is a time for reunion of family members, who gather to worship gods and ancestors. It is also the happiest period for many children, who collect gift money in red or pink envelopes distributed by their elder relatives.
These two grand holidays close down much of Bangkok and empty the roads. Other major holidays are the King's and Queen's birthdays, religious and official holidays.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Thai individual rites, such as birth, ordination into the monk-hood, or marriage, are basically associated with khwan, the body spirit or life soul. In the past, most young Thai men spent some period in the monkhood. Although the numbers have declined, many Thai men continue this highly valued tradition. Ordination is more common in rural areas and of longer duration than in the cities. At present, ordination ceremonies are occasions for social display and involve lavish expenditures in rural areas as well as among more affluent urban people.
Being a monk means transcending ordinary life and gaining higher status than most people, including one's parents. Women are not allowed to be ordained, but they play a crucial role in supporting Buddhist communities. Becoming a monk is believed to gain great merit, to the person himself and to his parents, while becoming a nun is often viewed as a way to escape life's problems.
Although they are a relaxed and fun-loving people, the Thais are relatively concerned about manners. The head is regarded as the most revered part of the body. Improper position or display of the feet is always considered impolite. Gesturing with the feet is terribly rude. Ideally, one should keep one's head lower than that of a superior, such as a teacher. Seniority and authority still play an important role in most social relations.
Greeting with kisses is virtually unknown. The most common way of greeting for all, with regard to seniority and authority, is the wai (made by putting the palms together at chest level and bowing). Almost all Thais remove their shoes before entering houses and monasteries. It is inappropriate for lovers to hug or kiss in public. However, holding hands or hugging among the same sex does not have sexual connotation.
In general, the Thais are not very time-conscious for ordinary human affairs but, surprisingly, a minute can't be missed when it comes to supernatural affairs or an auspicious time for ceremonies. Being late because of a traffic jam is the most popular all-occasion excuse in Bangkok. The pace of life in rural areas and villages is usually much slower.
About 68.5% of the Thai population lives in rural areas, but people are being affected by rapid urbanization. Running water, electricity, and health centers have been extended to most rural areas. Wood or thatch houses built on stilts clustered together in villages or strung out along the rivers or canals are common scenes in the upper country. People often sit under the houses during the heat of the day doing small chores. Some farm animals are also kept there.
Consumerism makes many low-income people struggle to possess basic middle-class property such as televisions, stereos, VCRs, DVDs, etc., while it makes the middle class desire even more luxury in life. For example, changing a Toyota to a BMW would be highly desired. A number of Thai middle- and upper-class people have made a worldwide reputation for being shop-aholics.
Housing and land are increasingly expensive. More working people live in apartments and condominiums. Expensive houses may exist on the same street with slum dwellings. Dining out or buying ready-made food to go is more common than cooking among people living in towns, because of the convenience and affordability. Food hygiene varies from excellent in some restaurants to poor for street peddlers. Many slums in Bangkok have poor housing facilities and living conditions.
Millions of people in Bangkok sacrifice several hours every day in traffic and suffer from extremely high air and noise pollution. Leaving home for workplaces or schools before 5:00 am and getting home after 8:00 pm is routine for thousands of people. Waterways attract more people who want to avoid massive road traffic jams. Buses and ferries are always dangerously overcrowded, and rush hours extend almost throughout the day. Elevated train and highway projects to alleviate traffic congestion are under construction.
As an unplanned city, Bangkok sometimes has brief periods of water cutoffs and power shortages. Construction work and repairs of water and sewage systems, roads, or buildings are seen everywhere. Uncollected garbage and accumulated sewage are also major problems in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the second largest city.
In villages and rural areas, stem families can still be found, although nuclear families are the norm and urbanization and socio-economic change are breaking family bonds. Children are taught to respect and obey their elders, and elderly people in the family will usually be taken care of with gratitude by younger generations. As people's lives are getting more complicated, care for the elderly is becoming a problem.
Until getting married, most young people do not move out of the family, even if they are already working. Many continue to live with their parents after marriage. In the past, Thai men moved to their wife's household or settled in a new household near the wife's kinsmen and worked for their wife's family. The last daughter usually inherited her parents' property. Now that work and economics are the major concern, people do not necessarily follow the old norms. Having live-in maids for house chores and looking after young children was very common in middle-class households, but it is less and less common now that rural women can find alternative employment in factories.
Dogs and cats are normally kept outside the house and generally are not pampered pets.
The most common traditional lower garment worn by women in the fields or at the markets is pha sin or pha thung. Pha thung, literally "bag cloth," is a tube of material that looks like a bottomless bag, about one meter wide. The length is typically from the waist to the ankle. When worn, the extra width will be folded in front and the extra top will be tucked into a roll. One size fits all. Phakhaoma, a strip of cloth, usually in a checked design, is comfortably worn at knee length by men in villages, both at home and in public. Phakhaoma is a multipurpose favorite garment. It can be worn or just loosely tied around the waist or used as a towel, headwear, belt, sheet, etc.
Jeans, T-shirts, and shirts can be seen everywhere. Western boutique-style attire is preferred by middle- and upper-class people. Because of the hot and humid weather, most Thai wear sandals. Shorts are not generally seen in public, except on young children and as part of schoolboy uniforms.
For its great variety and tastiness, Thai cuisine is one of the best in the world —not to mention its delicious tropical fruits. Thai food is a delightful mix of native style and adaptations of Mon, Lao, Chinese, and Indian cooking. Regional foods have their own distinctive characteristics. Foreigners acquire a taste for the chilis and spices that are the salient characteristics of Thai cuisine. Authentic preparation and cooking of many dishes can be very complicated and time consuming.
Rice is usually the main course with side dishes. Glutinous or sticky rice is more identified with the north and northeast. Sticky rice and coconut milk are also used in many wonderful desserts. A spoon and fork are the most common utensils for general food, while the fingers are usually preferred for sticky rice. Chopsticks are also widely used when eating noodles and in Chinese restaurants. In urban areas in Thailand, one can always find something delicious and inexpensive to eat 24 hours a day. Three meals a day is the general idea, but the Thais love to eat whenever they feel like it and have perfected the art of snacking.
The category of Yum (mixed hot and sour salads) often fills a page or more in a restaurant's menu. Yumwunsen, vermicelli salad usually with cooked minced pork and a choice of chicken, shrimp, squid, or all, is very delicious. Mix boiled vermicelli with minced pork, chicken, shrimp, or squid together with sliced onion in a bowl already prepared with a sauce of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and fresh chilis. The real taste of Yum comes from the adding of fresh celery, mint, and basil leaves. Many other Yum follow the same rule and you can vary the ingredients with different meats or vegetables.
Buddhist temples, wat, in the past used to be the sole source of most knowledge, both secular and religious. When Western-style education was introduced in the early 20th century, temples rapidly began to lose their educational role. The literacy rate in Thailand is high, about 92.6%, mainly the result of the government's effort to educate people for social and economic development. Education is free and compulsory through the sixth grade, and the government is considering extending it to grade nine.
Choosing good schools at all levels is highly competitive in Bangkok since it is an established value to enter well-known schools. The standards of schools vary and are much lower in rural areas. Even to enter grade one, many private schools set up their own exams for children who are often prepared by their enthusiastic and pushy parents. Other than exams, the most notorious way to enter many famous private schools comes from donations or money under the table.
Many high school students in cities get extra tutoring to prepare for the extremely competitive entrance examination for government universities. About 10% of examinees get seats, and the rest may go to private colleges and universities or make another effort the next year. There are also a number of vocational schools around the country. But because entrance exams are the sole criterion for admission and few rural residents' education is sufficient to pass, an attempt is being made to consider high school performance and other criteria.
At some universities, there is a pervasive practice of upper-classmen taking male college freshmen to prostitutes. Hazing of freshmen has become a popular tradition and is sometimes brutal. Salaries for government civil servants are low, so many university lecturers devote themselves to more well-paid outside jobs and may teach as a hobby. Studying abroad, especially in America, is very popular, and sometimes a fashion among the middle and upper classes.
Masked drama, or khon of the royal court tradition, is the most exquisite, stylized, and spectacular of Thai performing arts. Only episodes from the Indian epic, the Ramayana, or Ramakien in Thai, are performed in the khon. The masks, dance, and musical accompaniment are considered sacred. However, some clowns and comic actions are added to attract the audience. The main masked characters are demons and monkeys, whereas principal human characters and celestial beings do not wear masks. Folk dances vary from region to region. Many folk performances involve dance, courting poetry, and witty improvised repartee. The shadow-puppet theater, nang talung, is a popular entertainment in the south.
There are many different types of Thai traditional music in the various regions. Originally, Thai music's main function was to accompany rituals, ceremonies, and performances. The most important ensemble is pi phat, made up of various melodic percussion instruments, Thai oboe, and drums. The gongs have long symbolized sacredness and power. Music is not allowed in Buddhist teaching but a traditional Thai funeral likes to have a boisterous pi phat ensemble to cheer the host and the guests. Khaen, a mouth-organ instrument made of tubes of bamboo has a history of more than 3,000 years. This wonderful instrument, which used to be played in the Thai court, later was belittled because of its Lao origins.
The oldest and greatest epic of Thai-Lao literature is a poem of about 20,000 lines called Thao Hung Khun Cheung, telling the story of a legendary hero whose deeds were told on both sides of the Mekong River. It was probably written during the 15th century. Thai folk literature is primarily based on oral tradition, so most early literature was written by monks and Thai court elites. Some Thai classics, modern novels, and short stories are also available in English translation.
Approximately 49% of the Thai labor force works in the agricultural sector, but this is changing rapidly. Thai society is in transition from an agricultural to an industrialized and service-oriented society. Because of Thai social structure and its cultural system, Thai women have always played an active role in the social, economic, and household spheres. Rice is the most important crop grown throughout the country, while rubber is extensively produced in the south. Thai farmers are still very poor and suffer from relatively low productivity and low prices. About 10% of the population lives in absolute poverty.
The growing economy, urbanization, and industrialization attract people to city jobs, although labor is cheap. Growing landlessness also pushes people to leave villages and crowd into Bangkok. People with technical skills like engineers and computer or technical specialists are in high demand, while social science and humanities graduates are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed unless they turn to business or service careers. As Thai tourism is booming, large numbers of local people are also involved in the tourist business and services. Bureaucratic occupations that used to be regarded as prestigious are increasingly turned down as the private sector offers much higher pay and a more promising future.
Poor children in urban areas may contribute to family income through various activities such as selling newspapers and small jasmine wreaths on the streets. Some survive by finding sanctuary in Buddhist temples, becoming temple boys who eat and sleep in temples and help with chores. Most middle-class youth, however, are not obliged to take up part-time jobs and are usually supported by their parents all the way through their education.
Thai kick-boxing is a very popular spectator sport and is regularly televised. Traditionally, Thai boxing is usually accompanied by a small Thai ensemble to stimulate the performance. A well-trained boxer can attack his opponent with his feet, knees, or elbows or a combination of them both effectively and gracefully.
Badminton and soccer are widely enjoyed even in the most densely populated areas. Another popular game is called takraw,in which a woven rattan ball is kept in the air by using different parts of the body except the hands. There are two broad types of takraw: one like volleyball with a net, and one like basketball with a suspended hoop.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Traditional entertainments are dying and popular culture is booming. Mohlam, folk singing in Lao, is perhaps the only surviving traditional art, with large numbers of northeastern and Lao fans coming through the commercial tape and music video companies. Televised Thai soap operas and other television programs are closely followed and enjoyed by most Thais of all ages and occupations, from peasants to prime ministers. Popular Thai singers have a huge following among teenagers and also adults. Most Thai movie stars and singers have exclusively local fame, but a few are known in other Asian countries.
Modern-style entertainment like movies, discos, nightclubs and karaoke bars attract the younger generation in the cities. Almost all Thai films are produced for domestic consumption and the standard is low. There are a few good films that capture some international interest. Hollywood action films always make a big hit and lots of money.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Exquisite Thai hand-woven silk and cotton, wood carvings, silverwork, basketry and lacquer ware are most well-known in the north, especially in Chiang Mai, the center for crafts. Beautiful hand-woven textiles and basketry can also be found in the northeast. Raising turtledoves and other birds especially for singing competitions, is a popular hobby in the south.
Thailand is a rapidly developing nation, with continuously high economic growth. But the costs are enormous and Thai-land is confronting numerous social crises. The increasing gap between the poor and the rich is very deep-rooted. Capitalist development and consumerism has led to the collapse of local communities, bringing about many related serious problems. Thailand is notorious for its sex industry and especially its child prostitutes, and has a high prevalence rate of HIV/ AIDS. Deforestation and environmental destruction continue to be major problems. Bangkok is one of Asia's most heavily-congested cities, and is plagued by high levels of pollution and traffic.
There are some 300,000 Buddhist monks in Thailand, but Thailand's Theravada tradition does not permit the full ordination of women. Thai women can take religious vows, shave their heads, and wear white, but they have a fairly servile position compared to monks. Women in rural areas have long maintained an important role in family, community, and work life. Thai women in Bangkok, like other Asian women in urban centers, are quite cosmopolitan. Many Thai women have found work in the growing service sector of the economy. As such, they are demanding new rights and opportunities.
Thailand has an ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality. There are significant numbers of gays, lesbians, and transgenders in Thailand. Thailand has three annual gay pride events in Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. In 1995, the world's first all-gay village, Flower Town, was built in the central mountain area. Cross-dressing and openly gay men are stars in most popular television shows. There are several Bangkok gay neighborhoods and more than 60 gay bars and sex establishments. It is not uncommon to see gay men walking arm in arm in the street. Newspapers carry commitment ceremonies alongside traditional nuptials. However Thai lesbians face far more resistance than their male counterparts. The Thai patriarchal structure has a much more casual attitude toward male sex, regarding experimentation as one way of releasing pent-up energy, while seeing women who do the same as a direct challenge to male control. However tolerant of homosexuality Bangkok seems, there is little public discussion about homosexuality, and the presence of many gay bars has as much to do with maintaining the profits of the tourist industry as with the social acceptance of homosexuals. As such, one expert termed Thailand's ambivalent attitude toward homosexuality as a "curious mixture of tolerance, ignorance, and evasion."
Costa, LeeRay M. Male Bodies, Women's Souls: Personal Narratives of Thailand's Transgendered Youth. New York: Haworth Press, 2007.
Keyes, Charles F. Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State. Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1987.
LePoer, Barbara Lietch, ed. Thailand: A Country Study. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1989.
McNair, Sylvia. Thailand: Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children Press, 1987.
Pangsapa, Piya. Textures of Struggle: The Emergence of Resistance among Garment Workers in Thailand. Ithaca: ILR Press/Cornell University Press, 2007.
—revised by J. Hobby
POPULATION: Over 61 million
1 • INTRODUCTION
The forerunners of today's Thais gradually moved from what is now southern China into the area of the Mekong and Chao Phraya river basins. They overcame Mon and Khmer peoples, and later intermingled with them. A Thai kingdom called Siam developed along the lower Chao Phraya River.
Thailand was never directly colonized by the Western colonial powers. It was left as a buffer zone between the British colonial holdings in Burma (modern-day Myanmar) and the French colonies in Indochina (Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam). A bloodless coup led by Western-educated Thai elites put an end to Thailand's absolute monarchy in 1932. A constitutional monarchy was established, and early attempts at democracy were made. However, conflicts within the new government led to a successful military coup d'état (overthrow).
Since then, Thailand has alternated between periods of dictatorship and democracy. There were student uprisings in 1973 and 1976. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1992 tried to stem the power of the military.
King Phumipol Adulyadej, who became king in 1946 and was still on the throne in 1998, is greatly loved and revered. He has been influential in many political crises. (His name, Phumipol, is sometimes spelled Bhumipol when translated into English.)
2 • LOCATION
Thailand is situated in the middle of mainland southeast Asia. The country covers approximately 198,455 square miles (514,000 square kilometers). Thailand has four major regions. The central floodplain is watered by the Chao Phraya River and its tributaries. The mountainous north has forest areas that are rapidly being destroyed. The dry northeast on the Khorat Plateau borders the Mekong River to the east. The long coastlines of the peninsula are bounded by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
The Thai population is over 61 million. Around 11 million people are living in Bangkok, the capital and the only major city.
3 • LANGUAGE
Many dialects of the Thai language are spoken throughout the country. Malay is used in the extreme south. The Central Thai dialect, or Standard Thai, is the official language of the schools and of government and business affairs.
Thai is a tonal language, and its alphabet is derived from Mon and Khmer scripts. Last names were just introduced to Thailand in the early twentieth century. (Calling a person by his or her last name is still very unusual.)
Sawaddee is said when greeting someone, regardless of the time of day. Mai Pen Rai means "It's O.K., never mind." Women add the polite word kha and men the word khrab to phrases and sentences when speaking.
4 • FOLKLORE
The Thais had a traditional creation myth before the arrival of the Buddhist religion. According to this myth, Than is the Spirit of the Sky who first created everything. Before this, there was nothing on Earth—no humans, animals, or plants—as well as no Sun or Moon. Than brought a bottle gourd (hollow fruit) to Earth, then pierced it until it opened. Five types of human beings came out, and all were brothers and sisters. Than instructed them in the ways of life and gave them tools to make a living.
According to legend, the original rice seed was five times the size of a person's fist. But because humans became more and more greedy, the rice seed became smaller and smaller.
Mae Phosop is the Spirit of Rice. The old still teach the young, "Don't leave rice in your dish; Mae Phosop will feel sad."
Si Thanonchai is a very popular local trickster hero. Many Thais identify with Si Thanonchai's wit and cunning.
5 • RELIGION
More than 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist. However, Thai beliefs actually reflect a mix of Theravada Buddhism, Hinduism, and animism (spirit worship). Some southern Thais are Muslim (followers of Islam). Thais of Chinese descent follow Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship.
Animism is common throughout Thailand. Spirits are believed to inhabit almost everything. It is believed that they can help or harm humans. Large, old trees are frequently tied with pieces of colorful cloth and worshiped by local people.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Songkran, the Thai New Year, is the longest official holiday of the year, lasting from April 13 to 15. Traditionally, people visited their home villages to pay their respects to family. Nowadays, the most popular Songkran custom is for people to enthusiastically throw water on each other. Some will add white clay or scent to the water for more lasting effect.
The Chinese New Year in mid-February is not an official holiday. However, for those of Chinese ancestry, it is a big festival. Some Chinese Thai employers give days off and bonuses to their Thai employees. It is a time for family members to reunite, gathering to worship their gods and their ancestors. Children collect gift money in red or pink envelopes.
Thailand's major holidays also include religious and official holidays, as well as the king's and queen's birthdays.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Thai individual rites, such as birth, ordination into the monkhood, or marriage, are associated with khwan, the "body spirit" or "life soul."
In the past, most young Thai men spent some period in the monkhood. Many Thai men continue this highly valued tradition. Today, ordination ceremonies involve lavish expenditures.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
The head is regarded as the most revered part of the body. Ideally, one should keep one's head lower than the head of a superior, such as a teacher. Improper position or display of the feet is always considered impolite. Gesturing with the feet is terribly rude.
Greeting with kisses is virtually unknown. The most common greeting is the wai (made by putting the palms together at chest level and bowing). It is inappropriate for lovers to hug or kiss in public. However, holding hands or hugging by members of the same sex is acceptable and does not have sexual connotations.
Almost all Thais remove their shoes before entering houses and monasteries.
Being late because of a traffic jam is the most popular all-occasion excuse in Bangkok.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Running water, electricity, and health-care centers have been extended to most rural areas. Wood or thatch houses built on stilts are clustered together in villages or are spread out along the rivers and canals. People often sit under the houses during the heat of the day; there they do minor chores. Some farm animals are also kept there.
In the cities, expensive houses may coexist on the same street with slum dwellings. Most working people live in apartments and condominiums. Living conditions are poor for those in the slums of Bangkok.
Bangkok sometimes has brief periods of water cutoffs and power shortages. Uncollected garbage and sewage back-ups are major problems in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the second-largest city.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Nuclear families are the norm, both in villages and rural areas. Children are taught to respect and obey their elders. Elderly people in the family are usually gladly taken care of by the younger generations. As people's lives are getting more complicated, however, care for the elderly is becoming a problem.
Most young people do not move out of their parents' homes until they marry. Many even continue to live with their parents after marriage.
11 • CLOTHING
The most common traditional lower garment worn by women in the fields or at the markets is pha sin or pha thung. The name means "bag cloth." It is a tube of material that looks like a bottomless bag, about one yard (one meter) wide. The length is typically from the waist to the ankle, and one size fits all. Phakhaoma, a strip of cloth, usually with a checked design, that hangs to knee length is worn by men in villages. It is sometimes just loosely tied around the waist.
Western-style clothing is preferred by middle-and upper-class people. Jeans and T-shirts can be seen everywhere. Because of the hot and humid weather, many like to wear sandals. Shorts are not generally seen in public, except on young children and as part of boys' school uniforms.
12 • FOOD
Rice is usually the main course, with side dishes. Glutinous or sticky rice is mostly identified with the north and northeast. Sticky rice and coconut milk are also used in many tasty desserts. A spoon and fork are the most common utensils, but the fingers are usually preferred for eating sticky rice.
The category of yum (mixed hot and sour salads) often fills a page or more of a restaurant menu. Yumwunsen, for example, is a type of pasta salad. It is usually made with cooked minced pork and a choice of chicken, shrimp, squid, or all of these. The real taste of yum comes from adding fresh celery, mint, and basil leaves.
13 • EDUCATION
Education is free and required through the sixth grade. The government is considering extending the requirement to grade nine. The standards of schools vary and are much lower in rural areas. In Bangkok, good schools at all levels are highly competitive. Many high school students get extra tutoring to prepare for the entrance examinations for government universities. About 10 percent of examinees get accepted. The rest may go to private colleges and universities, or try again the following year. There are also a number of vocational schools around the country.
Thai Chili Sauce
- ½ cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 or 2 hot Thai peppers, seeded and chopped (wear rubber gloves to prepare the peppers)
- Combine rice vinegar and chopped peppers. Season with a pinch of salt and set aside at room temperature. Serve with Thai noodles.
- 7 ounces uncooked wide rice noodles
- 6 Tablespoons soy sauce (low-sodium preferred)
- 2 Tablespoons sweet soy sauce
- ¼ cup canned chicken broth
- 2 Tablespoons sugar
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 3 Tablespoons oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 cups chopped broccoli
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauces, chicken stock, sugar, and pepper.
- Put the rice noodles in a large mixing bowl and cover with water. Set them aside to soak for about 30 minutes. Drain the noodles in a colander.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet (or electric wok). Add the garlic and cook until the garlic is light brown.
- Add the chopped broccoli to the skillet, and cook for about 1 minute.
- Add the noodles and soy sauce mixture and stir well to mix.
- Push the noodles and vegetables to one side of the skillet. Pour in the beaten eggs. Wait about 30 seconds before beginning to scramble them.
- When the eggs are scrambled, stir everything together.
Serve warm with the Thai chili sauce as an accompaniment.
Adapted from "Great Chefs Go to Him to Be Dazzled." New York Times (April 29,1998): p. B12.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Masked drama, or khon, of the royal court tradition is the most exceptional of the Thai performing arts. Episodes from the Indian epic, the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) are performed. The performance includes masks, dance, and musical accompaniment.
Folk dances vary from region to region. The shadow-puppet theater, nang talung, is a popular entertainment in the south.
There are many different types of Thai traditional music. The saw duang is a two-stringed instrument played with a bow that is entwined with its strings. The most important ensemble is pi phat, made up of melodic percussion instruments, Thai oboe, and drums. Thai khuang wong (gong circles) and ranat thum (xylophone-like instrument) are played by ensembles of musicians who sit on the floor. Khaen, a mouth organ made of bamboo tubes played in both Thailand and neighboring Laos, has a history going back more than 3,000 years.
The oldest and greatest epic of Thai literature is a poem of about 20,000 lines called Thao Hung Khun Cheung, telling the story of a legendary hero. It was probably written during the fifteenth century.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
Approximately two-thirds of the Thai labor force work in agriculture. However, this is changing rapidly, as Thailand becomes industrialized. Thai farmers are still very poor and suffer from relatively low productivity and low prices for their crops. In some areas, ceremonies accompany agricultural activities, such as plowing of the fields.
The growing economy attracts people to city jobs, although labor is cheap. People with technical skills, such as engineers and computer specialists, are in high demand. Large numbers of people are also involved in the tourism business.
Poor children in urban areas may contribute to family income through various activities such as selling newspapers or small jasmine wreaths on the streets.
16 • SPORTS
Thai kick-boxing is a very popular spectator sport and is regularly televised. Well-trained boxers can effectively and gracefully attack their opponents with their feet, knees, or elbows.
Many Thais enjoy playing badminton and soccer. Another popular game is called takraw: A woven rattan (palm stem) ball is kept in the air using parts of the body other than the hands. There are two main types of takraw: one like volleyball with a net, and one like basketball, with a suspended hoop.
17 • RECREATION
Televised Thai soap operas and other programs are closely followed and enjoyed by Thais of all ages and occupations, from peasants to prime ministers. Popular Thai singers have a huge following among teenagers as well as adults.
Modern-style entertainment like movies, discos, nightclubs and karaoke bars, attracts the younger generation in the cities. Almost all Thai films are produced just for viewing in Thailand, and standards are low. Hollywood action films are always big hits.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Thai crafts include handwoven silk and cotton, woodcarvings, silverwork, basketry, and lacquerware. Chiang Mai is the center for crafts. Beautiful handwoven textiles and basketry can also be found in the northeast.
Raising turtledoves and other birds, especially for singing competitions, is a popular hobby in the south.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Thailand is confronting numerous social crises. The gap between the poor and the rich is very wide and increasing. Thailand is notorious for prostitution, especially child prostitutes, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Bangkok suffers from serious pollution and traffic congestion.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Keyes, Charles F. Thailand: Buddhist Kingdom as Modern Nation-State. Boulder, Colo.: West-view Press, 1987.
Kulick, Elliott. Thailand's Turn: Profile of a New Dragon. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.
LePoer, Barbara Leitch, ed. Thailand, A Country Study. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989.
McNair, S. Thailand. Chicago: Children's Press, 1987.
Embassy of Thailand, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.thaiembdc.org/, 1998.
Interknowledge Corp. [Online] Available http://www.interknowledge.com/thailand/, 1998.
World Travel Guide. Thailand. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/th/gen.html, 1998.
Thai / tī/ • adj. of or relating to Thailand, its people, or their language. • n. (pl. same or Thais ) 1. a native or national of Thailand. ∎ a member of the largest ethnic group in Thailand. ∎ a person of Thai descent. 2. the Tai language that is the official language of Thailand.